Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Lauren D. Wood’s nonfiction piece, What’s So Great About Expectations?
John: The structure here is striking and effective, a book report loaded with subtext in the footnotes. What made you decide on telling this story this way? Did you start with this idea, or did it evolve as you wrote?
Lauren: It definitely evolved. The first draft was a straightforward essay about reading Great Expectations to my daughter, but I knew it was lacking some punch. I was also struggling with how to summarize the story for those unfamiliar with it. I realized I needed something like a mini-book report, and then it hit me to flip it around, lead with that, and let the rest fall into the footnotes. Then I realized it worked, because there’s this larger story about money and opportunities and expectations that plays out over and over that Dickens tapped into, and it feels sometimes like we’re just in the footnotes of that larger story.
In an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world, what kind of expectations should we have? Would it be better to have fewer expectations, or no expectations at all?
We can’t escape them entirely, but I would like fewer. Expectations can constrain us. They certainly did in Dickensian times, when people were expected to live according to the rules for their class. And although we’re less rigid today, a lot of those conditions exist in the United States. Kids with fewer resources and tougher circumstances aren’t expected to achieve as much as other kids. And now, especially during this COVID era, we’re holding up these expectations for kids to keep achieving at the same rate as before. For some kids, it’s not a huge burden. I have friends whose kids are thriving in this virtual environment, but that’s not the case for my family right now. So it would be nice to relax the expectations a little and let us live our lives a bit, but our educational system, at least in the United States, isn’t designed that way. Everyone is scared of falling behind everyone else, so we all keep charging ahead.
What role does art play in our current circumstances, where people do feel overburdened and overwhelmed?
It’s very liberating to me. I was stressing out about my daughter’s academics, and at a certain point, I just said you know what? Let’s focus on one fun part of learning—the art of storytelling. A good story or piece of art can transport us out of our circumstances, or shed a new light on our lives. Interestingly, I started reading this book to my kids outside too, and the other neighborhood kids would come over and congregate to listen to the story. I had to make sure they were at least six feet apart and all that, but they all stopped their games and wanted to listen. It was shocking to me. But I think art has this pull. Or maybe everyone is just bored these days, but there was something to it that really drew everyone in.
What did your daughter think of [spoiler alert] Pip and Estella’s reunion at the end of the book?
She was glad at first, until she remembered Estella had been mean, and then she said she hoped she had changed to be better.
What kind of Covid face mask do you think Miss Havisham would wear? How about Estella?
Oh, I can see Miss Havisham in a completely useless lace or crochet mask that does nothing to stop the spread of germs but looks perfectly Victorian. Estella would have something practical and fashionable, maybe a black mask, nothing too cute, something anti-romantic.