Lauren Groff is a contemporary American writer based in Florida. Her new book, the National Book Award nominated Matrix, is set in 12th century England, focuses on the life of the historical figure Marie de France who was exiled from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court to become a prioress in an abbey. If you’re at all familiar with Groff’s body of work, this leap—from contemporary stories to a novel with medieval focus—will not surprise you in the least. Critical and commercial success has not left her complacent.
While Groff’s first three books were critically acclaimed and successful, her 2015 novel Fates and Furies became an enormous best seller and National Book Award finalist going so far as to make President Obama’s list of favorite books of the year. It’s a bold novel, drawing on mythology—speaking generally, but also of writers and marriage and the realm of Southern Gothic. Her following collection of short stories, Florida, is a tribute to her longtime residence and was also finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a complicated collection of interconnected and wholly independent stories that reflects the state’s larger than life presence which is both entirely fabulist and unquestionably grounded in its vulnerable environmental condition. It’s my personal favorite of her work because it’s dazzling in it its unpredictability. From one story to the next, the reader is spellbound by characters subject to inexplicable matters of the heart and the unswerving fate of climate change in a place that sometimes feels like the end of the earth.
Groff’s books do not blend together in one’s memory. Groff takes new stylistic and emotional leaps with each project. Hers is a mind that’s far too electric and keen to sit still, always searching for new perspectives and vantage points to forge connections or identity and attempt to answer tangled questions. After Florida, Groff embarked upon a new project, grounded in the past. Rather than see this work as a historical novel, Groff insists that it is, like all her books, a contemporary novel. Examined through the lens of the present, Groff riddles out questions of power, gender, desire, and control that remain as relevant now as they were in the hushed hallways of a British monastery untouched by electricity. Illumination then as in now comes from visions and courage. I spoke with Lauren Groff for Observer by telephone from our respective homes this August.
Observer: There always seems to be an element of alchemy involved when a conversation or idea can completely reshuffle your plans. Pre-Covid, you attended a lecture given by Dr. Katie Bugyis on medieval nuns’ liturgical notes at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study while participating in a fellowship. How did it upend the writing plans you had intended to concentrate on during that time?
Lauren Groff: When I was at Radcliffe, one of the first lectures that my co fellows and I attended—by Katie Bugyis—just sort of blew my mind. That’s when everything else sort of fell to the wayside. In early winter of 2019, I was working on another book, which I really, really like, but Matrix came to the front [after this talk] and I couldn’t see or think of anything but it for a very long time. So I did a lot of research. And then I read it and finished the first draft right before the pandemic struck and then edited everything within the pandemic. And it was very strange. I thought it was very strange. I always want to go into a feminist utopia, but I really I learned that women taking care of each other is all I wanted.
How did it affect you to shelf that book or were you open to beginning another book while you were there? What were your intentions for the fellowship?
I was probably three drafts into a completed manuscript of this other book. And I have not given up on it, but I saw suddenly, when I was sitting in the audience, I saw a matrix speaking to it in a very profound way, but as the precursor to this other book. They’re definitely not related in terms of character plot, even style, or language or anything. They’re very different. The second one is very Elizabethan, and 1609 is female Robinson Crusoe.
But what they’re both talking about is sort of the religious roots of the way that we are interacting with the environment, the disastrous ways that we have learned as a Western society to domineer the environment as opposed to being stewards of it. And so I was really, really interested in sort of the interaction of or the Venn diagram of women, God, and visions of nature, sort of leading into this idea of how we have come to where we are at the moment. I see it as three incredibly separate books that do not have to be read together, but they’re also floating in the same sort of plane and atmosphere. Matrix had to come out first.
That makes sense. Mysterious forces permeate Matrix and I’m curious to see you explore these powerful influences over time in this trilogy. Throughout reading Matrix, I recognized a structure surfacing which positioned agents of control and power against forces of chaos and mystery within both the Catholic church and the monarchy. Although Eleanor of Aquitaine exiles Marie de France to a monastery, it’s through the slippery and mutable power of religion that Marie rises over time to challenge the queen’s dominating presence. Could you speak about your examination of religion and power?
The religion of the Catholic Church [in Europe] about 1000 years ago, is very, very different from the Protestants who came over into the new world in 1609. I’m looking at religion, from my secular vision, as a really interested non-participant (or former participant). I’m examining these frames of reference and the frames of hierarchy and structure. All of which has changed so radically between those 400 years, and then it’s changed again over the five hundred years between 1609 and now. I saw these books leapfrogging across time with each narrative standing alone which is again why Matrix had to come first.
As a lapsed Catholic, I once spent a lot of time thinking about the relative power of nuns within the Catholic church and their various spheres of influence outside the practice of religion—in the fields of education, public health, social justice. I saw religious orders as an avenue for women to assume power through unconventional means or alternative channels. So I found Marie de France interesting as somewhat of a contemporary figure in a way because she’s someone who is thrust into participating in religion but didn’t enter the church because of her faith. I was curious to see her explore the idea of faith, how devotion differs from faith, yet also how the two exist together.
And a vocation is different from faith and love. I do think sometimes history, because it’s all supposition based on texts, and arguments, really tends to flatten itself. There’s not a whole lot of room in the historical record for people who, I guess, were quiet dissenters, as Marie was. She was a quiet dissenter from the superstructure she was born into, which is a position that I think probably existed more often than we give it credit for existing. But there’s a part of me that knew that I was writing a contemporary novel because I’m writing out of the 21st century and I wanted a sort of resonance to happen over time. I wanted today, and the eleventh century to be sort of speaking [with one another] so really, just in terms of brutal craft and my own understanding of the story, I had to have an outsider to the larger historical structures who would stand outside of the standard religion that she was supposed to be within in order to see it a little bit differently than everyone else around her.
What you’re saying about the flattening effect of history made me think about the way that we might someday look back at this period in a similar fashion.
Well, we have more texts to draw on, right? I mean, we have a lot more open verbal dissension. And I think if the people who were writing at the time tended to be people in the church or of the church in a certain way, and so their livelihoods were dependent on sort of promulgating the same stories. And so there wasn’t a whole lot of room, even at the time for alternate narratives, I think, which is normal, right? It’s fine. Women didn’t really tend to be able to write, or write interesting things the way that Marie de France actually wrote. She was sort of an anomaly in a lot of ways. So, you know, all of this to say, who knows what people in the past were actually thinking? I mean, I would like to offer them the weirdness that we have today, the strange thought patterns, the wild imagination and the profound humor that I think that is just in the world at large. I think that’s a human trait, not just the trait of the 21st century.
I was wondering if you read Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments because, through scant public records and documents, she imagines a rich world for women otherwise forgotten to history.
It’s so funny. I have it in my office right now. Yeah, I’ve been meaning to, but I just have not read it yet.
Hartman’s work is so powerful because she recovers the stories and voices of Black women in post reconstruction, pre-mid twentieth century civil rights movement America. After reading it and thinking about the narratives Hartman constructed from primary texts, I see her generous act of recovery everywhere in terms of animating silences or gaps and rethinking fiction versus history, as recuperative genres that help us learn from the past in a more dynamic fashion.
That’s beautiful. It’s like a hologram. Fiction is the hologram.
It also gives a different sort of patina to this idea of historical fiction, which I think, in some ways, is a genre that’s often looked down upon. What is your relationship to historical fiction?
Henry James hated historical fiction. He made an absolutely scathing remark about it, I think, in a letter to a friend, perhaps Sarah Orne Jewett? But he says it’s all bunk from the beginning to the end. And this is absolutely the prejudice or bias that I’ve grown up with and I’ve probably internalized myself, even though I’m drawn to narratives from the past.
But, at a certain point, though, I had a really hard time writing about the wild confusion of the past four years and it was so emotionally fraught. I was unable to see anything clearly in the contemporary world. Or if I did see it, clearly, I was minimizing the profound impact of things that I think are going to only come clear in ten years or twenty years.
It’s extremely strange and I know this is counterintuitive, but I was uncomfortable with writing about political ideas in the contemporary world, because I hadn’t felt as though I had fully digested them or fully understood them enough to do justice to them. And it’s not that I felt as though going back to the past would be entirely illuminating, but I was able to get distance from a hawk like view and even though things were still cloaked in the darkness of my ignorance, what I could see, I could see clearly.
So when I thought about writing these books, I didn’t want to write historical fiction. In fact, I think, after I wrote Arcadia (Groff’s third book and second novel), I did a book tour and I very pretentiously pronounced that I would never write historical fiction ever again. [laughs] I just feel like we’re given the stories we’re given. And sometimes you have to write them completely out to know whether or not they were worth being written. When the other book that’s going to come out (which was interrupted by Matrix) came into my brain, I really just wanted to write a female Robinson Crusoe, but I thought, ‘Oh, god, no, I can’t write an historical novel. I’d taken a stance against it.’ But I think it is an interesting way to examine the roots of where we are now. And now that I’m thinking of it like that, I’m much more comfortable with historical fiction. I don’t care about the whole snobbery around it, but I think writers can do whatever the heck they want and should without paying attention to sort of the really conservative voices of the past keeping us in our own lanes.