CAMDEN - For her fifth book, the director of the master of fine arts program at Rutgers University's Camden campus drew on her own experience: The South Jersey academic wrote about a South Jersey academic.
Lauren Grodstein's new novel, The Explanation for Everything, chronicles the fallout when an evolutionary biologist and widower, having settled into a middling life at a middling college, has his antireligious views shaken up by a Christian student's faith.
"This book is very, very immediately connected to my work here, my life here," said Grodstein, 38, of Moorestown. "I find the South Jersey landscape both sort of beautiful and weirdly unexploited in fiction.
"And then the relationship between a professor and her students is so primary to me, it would be hard not to write about it."
Not that the novel is biographical. Grodstein is a tenured English and creative writing professor at Rutgers-Camden. Married and mother of 5-year-old Nathaniel, she keeps in constant motion, unlike her narrator.
"To tell you the truth, I'm just exhausted a lot," Grodstein said last month at Rutgers-Camden a week after a book tour stop in Brooklyn and days before heading off to Florida for the Miami Book Fair. "I grew up around people who just worked really hard. I feel like I have such a luxury in my life because my schedule's so flexible that not filling it up with lots of stuff to do seems weird, or lazy, or unpleasant."
At the same time, juggling multiple roles has been a challenge - "there is no balance" - but Grodstein said the roles continually influence one another.
Explanation's narrator, Andy Waites, teaches at the fictional Exton Reed, "eleven hundred students and 42 acres of crumbling quad hidden in the ass end of New Jersey." A man of science whose wife was killed in a drunken-driving accident, Waites is known for teaching a class colloquially called "There is No God" and conducts low-level research on genetic predisposition toward alcoholism in mice.
When he agrees to work with an undergraduate researching intelligent design, he finds himself drawn toward her and her beliefs.
The book's premise came from a student Grodstein taught several years ago "who was a devout believer."
"I just found that so interesting and kind of totally frustrating as a kind of liberal atheist that I am . . . I was really frustrated, and I really wanted to change her mind," Grodstein said.
After a while, Grodstein said, she realized her job was to teach writing, not biology.
The student "won the debate not by changing my mind but by not letting me change hers. And the book really stemmed from that, and that primary kind of student-professor relationship," Grodstein said.
For the novel, Grodstein also draws on the death of her grandmother, who was killed instantly when hit by a car, and her memories of growing up with Korean Americans in New York City.
She also shares an Ivy League background with her narrator, who receives his doctorate from Princeton University. Grodstein earned her bachelor's degree from Columbia University in 1997 and her master's degree in fine arts from Columbia in 2001 before joining Rutgers-Camden in 2005.
For other aspects of the story - what do scientists actually do cooped up in those labs? - she spent time in Rutgers-Camden's animal lab learning about a researcher's "day-to-day existence."
"She asked me things like how much a mouse weighed, like if you picked it up, related to something. I told her it was about five or six nickels," said Steven Moffett, a computational biology graduate student who advised the author.
Before publishing, Grodstein had Moffett review her manuscript for accuracy.
Moffett, who writes as a hobby and was accepted into the creative writing program before choosing to pursue biology, said working with Grodstein inspired him to make writing a habit.
"I thought that once every few nights [authors] would have some sort of torrid writing affair and then they would crank out something, and it would be a form of tortured genius," Moffett said.
"But Lauren was more forthcoming about how unglamorous and relatively unromantic it is," he said.
Grodstein often wakes at 5 or 5:30 a.m. to dedicate time to write. Though she has been successful as a writer - her previous novel was on the New York Times bestseller list - Grodstein said she doesn't see herself giving up teaching anytime soon.
"I happen to love to teach and have loved it since I was in grad school and I was teaching composition," she said.
And the day job offers peace of mind, she said: "Being a professor has allowed me to take the risks of writing with the safety net of job security under my feet . . . some writers really need to feel free and don't want to have to balance their writing against the obligations of a job. For me, almost paradoxically, having a job lets me feel free to write."
The interplay of her academic and writer lives is so important, Grodstein said, laughing, that even daydreams of giving it all up and moving away - "to some cowshed in Spain or something" - involve bringing a few students along.
"It would be very hard for me to write without teaching because teaching gives me a way to work through what I do, the complexities of it, to be around other smart, talented people, to be part of a writing community, which I think is essential," she said.
"And then I wouldn't feel comfortable teaching without writing because . . . I have to practice that which I try to teach. So I couldn't do one without the other. I wouldn't want to do one without the other."
Editor's note: This story was changed to correct Lauren Grodstein's home. She lives in Moorestown, not Haddonfield.