The Visions of Lauren Groff
Three years after the release of her novel Fates and Furies—a literary bisection of marriage and privilege that was praised variously by President Barack Obama and Amazon (yes, Amazon) as the best book of 2015—Lauren Groff was sitting in a lecture theater at Harvard University, thinking about medieval nuns. She wasn’t in the market for a new book. She usually has a dozen or so different concepts in different stages of fruition orbiting within the solar system of her mind. But something about the lecture, by the academic Katie Bugyis on the 12th-century poet Marie de France, caught her imagination, and suddenly she saw the scope of an idea laying itself out before her, striking and luminous in its framework. Sitting in the audience, Groff could feel the energy reverberating between the past and the present, “almost like a tuning fork,” she told me later. And she got up, and she started to work.
The temptation with writers who see the world clearly is to attribute some kind of supernatural sight to them when their real gift is rigorous attentiveness to humanity. When Groff detailed the origins of Matrix, her new novel, I joked that it sounded like she’d had a vision. “It was a very 21st-century vision,” she said dryly. “It was just sitting there. There were no, like, humanoid forms in the sky.” Still, throughout Groff’s career, her novels have been a good few beats ahead of the most pressing issues of the moment. Pandemics recur in her stories, as do natural landscapes ravaged by climate change, as do women who are quietly incandescent with rage. Her 2012 novel, Arcadia, about a boy who grows up in a hippie commune in upstate New York, jumps forward in its final section to 2019, when a new virus that first appears in Indonesia shuts down the planet and kills close to a million people. In the same dystopian future, coastlines are battered by storms, ice caps have melted, and formerly balmy places are unlivable. Arcadia, Groff said, was her darkest nightmare, projected onto the page. Even she didn’t expect it would so fully come true.
The idea behind Matrix—the life story of a radical 12th-century nun—stemmed from Groff’s desire for a respite. In the two years after Fates and Furies came out, she found herself unable to write. The attention she was receiving was too discombobulating. She read instead—she reads 300 books a year, 25 every month, logged in a Google spreadsheet with notes like “Pretty rotten” and “Absolutely fucking towering Greek as fuck”—and she processed her feelings about all the acclaim and whether or not she deserved it. During the same period, the 2016 election happened. And Groff, who’s chafed since childhood at the kind of noxious masculinity that suffocates every other living thing in its presence, began longing to establish what she describes as a kind of “feminist separatist utopia,” an island of women, freed from the moral burden of bearing and co-existing with so many loud and angry men.
Matrix is another masterpiece from a writer whom few at this point can best. Groff spins the life of Marie de France—the author of a series of narrative romantic poems, and a figure about whom historians know very little—into a transfixing rumination on creativity, power, and endurance. At the beginning of the novel, in Groff’s imagining, Marie is a clumsy, overly tall half sister to the king, born to a 13-year-old maiden who was raped by the king’s father. An embarrassment to the crown, with her ungainly physical presence making for a too-visible testimony to historical indiscretions, she is dispatched by Eleanor of Aquitaine to be the prioress of an abbey in bleakest, dampest England. When Marie arrives in 1158, at the age of 17, the stinking, frigid nunnery is ridden with poverty and disease. The nuns are starving, their “skulls skinned of flesh in the dark dortoir.” Marie comes close to letting herself die, but her will—to create, to love, to overcome adversity—is too strong. She harnesses everything she has, and the abbey begins not only to heal but also to reform itself as a new paradigm for community and survival.
The writer Heidi Schreck, who’s adapting Matrix for television, told me how powerfully Groff’s story grabbed her when she first read it, how she felt like it found her at a moment when she needed it. “Coming in the middle of the pandemic, there was something about watching the abbey transform from a place that had been decimated by sickness … by marshaling the talents of all those women,” she said. “There was something in it for me that was deeply pleasurable about watching life return.” She felt like the novel pointed toward a new way of being, a new kind of government, even a new conception of God for a planet in desperate need of salvation.
A current of prediction and intuition runs through almost everything Groff has written. A character in one of her earliest stories, “Lucky Chow Fun,” describes herself as a wannabe Cassandra, “wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophecies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them come tragically true in the end.” In Fates and Furies, a Greek chorus interjects in key moments with pithy, omniscient commentary about the characters. Her writing calls on the past, present, and future to summon a version of this moment that urgently requires our attention if we’re to continue to survive. And yet even Groff, who lives in Florida—where the landscape is becoming uninhabitable in front of her eyes, where her younger son was quarantined less than two weeks into this school year because of exposure to COVID-19, where so many of her neighbors refuse to do the bare minimum to protect themselves and one another—wonders at this point how much more the future can bear.
I first encountered Lauren Groff’s writing when I read Arcadia, and I first encountered Lauren Groff herself at a reading of her story collection Florida in London three years ago. At the event, she mentioned that critics always describe her writing as “lush,” and she hates the word because she thinks it’s sexist bullshit. What male authors ever have their writing characterized as “lush”? (She thinks the same, by the way, goes for “lyrical.”) Around that time, she famously gave an interview to The New York Times Book Review in which she cited exclusively female writers as her most admired contemporaries and called out male writers for not reading more women. In person, she’s breezy and very funny, self-effacing, and charming, and yet she has a perceptible streak of rage. “She gets very angry at poor decision making,” her husband, Clay Kallman, told me. “She gets very angry at injustices. She gets very angry at the way the world is based on history instead of [being] what it should be.”
Every single person I spoke with about Groff described her as driven. She grew up in a bitterly cold house in Cooperstown, New York, in a family made up of WASPs and strict Presbyterians who went to church for three and a half hours every Sunday and committed just as fiercely to everything else they did. Her father and brother are doctors; her sister is an Olympic triathlete. The use of her voice, she felt, wasn’t encouraged, which was part of what made becoming a writer and challenging the protective nature of silence feel so thrilling. Although her family has acclimated to, as she characterizes it, “having kind of a criminal” among them—someone who chops up secrets and transmutes them into fiction and autofiction—she says they were devastated to begin with. The first time Kallman recognized himself in one of Groff’s stories, when they were a year out of college, he wrote “bleh” across the first page and gave it back to her. He’s since come to peace with it. If characters aren’t drawn from something real, he figures, how can they be believable?
When Groff was 12, a friend gave her a book of works by Emily Dickinson, which initiated a long detour into poetry. While she was at college, studying literature, something happened—she can’t say what it was because she still can’t talk about it—that made her realize that she had one life, and she had to dedicate it entirely to something, and that thing would be writing. Writing would be the immovable boulder at the center of everything. Everything that came after—work, marriage, even her children—would have to bend around it. And they did. Before her first son was born, she drew up a contract with her husband delineating household chores and duties, ensuring that her time to write would be walled off and sacred. She describes these safeguards as “privileges” and seems uncomfortable talking about them, not because she regrets the strictures she set out but because why should she have a room of her own to write in when so many others don’t?
In 2006, she placed her first short story with The Atlantic, a characteristically vivid and tender narrative about the love affair between an Olympic swimmer and an heiress weakened by polio, playing out against the backdrop of the First World War and the Spanish flu. (Pandemics, she said, have long been heavy on her mind, partly because she’s a hypochondriac and partly because it seemed like a historical inevitability that one would happen in her lifetime.) In 2008, at the age of 30, she published her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a fable about place, time, and buried secrets. “I think within her body of work there’s a sort of unified sensibility,” the writer Laura van den Berg, Groff’s friend, told me. Her writing presents different worlds, landscapes, eras, but always similar lines of enquiry. The random, inequitable essence of luck—whom it gifts and whom it doesn’t—is something her stories keep coming back to. (The male protagonist in Fates and Furies, who’s seemingly blessed from birth, is named Lotto.) Utopian communities—mostly failed ones—persist throughout her stories, as though Groff is imagining over and over why we haven’t yet succeeded in conceiving of a better way of living, and what it might take to make things work.
One unusual thing for a writer of her pedigree is how prolific Groff is, which she attributes to her “compulsive” routine. Every day she wakes up at five, makes coffee, and writes for an hour before anyone else is awake. If she can’t write, for whatever reason, she reads. Reading, in her mind, is 80 percent of the job of writing. Then she runs, which she also sees as pivotal because of the way it returns her attention from her mind to her physical self. She writes all of her first drafts longhand because if she writes on a screen it looks too much like typeset language and she doesn’t feel like she can change it as much as she needs to. “The physiology of writing like this,” Groff said, mimicking crouching over a piece of paper, “you’re much closer to the page. Your whole body is focused on it. You can smell the paper. You can smell the ink.” Somehow it makes her feel more animal, more alive. In early drafts, she puts no brakes on her writing. It’s a place, she said, “where I’m allowed to be as angry or wild or vindictive as I want to be.” It’s later, mostly during the editing process, that she tries to change things so she doesn’t end up hurting anyone.
At 43, she has published six books and has a seventh on the way. This year, in addition to Matrix, she published a novella, What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?, and a new short story, “The Wind,” that I found one of the most wrenching things she’s ever written. After Matrix comes the book she was writing before her Harvard vision, The Vaster Wilds, which she describes as a kind of “female Robinson Crusoe” set in 1609 Jamestown, in which a woman grapples with the constructs of religion and the compromises she has to make to survive. Those two books and a third she’s working on all spin around a central thesis: the idea that so much of our present suffering comes from a misreading of Genesis. God instructed man to have dominion over Earth and its creatures, and yet dominion, Groff thinks, has been interpreted as domination instead of care: “the right to kill, the right to take, and not the right to nurture.” Masculinity and faith, she believes, have brought the world to this moment, when California is on fire and glaciers are melting, when women no longer have meaningful reproductive rights in Texas, and when life on Earth is disintegrating at a dizzying pace. Everything she writes now is a direct or indirect confrontation with this existential threat to humankind, a negotiation with history over how—if—we can adapt quickly enough to save ourselves.
If you read enough—and certainly if you read as much as Groff does—it becomes clear that everything comes around, that, as Groff says, “we are all embedded in the cyclical nature of time.” To contextualize anything in the present, you have to know the past. Being alert to history gives you a more panoramic view of everything rather than of a tiny, contemporary subsection. Matrix, a book set in the 12th century, is also a communion with now: our impulses, our foibles, our enduring discomfort with female power. Marie’s efforts to protect the abbey by making it inaccessible to outsiders outrage her enemies. Women are supposed to submit, to receive, to be available. And yet Marie’s uses of power, altruistic as they are, carry their own cost: Even this utopia, the most functional one Groff has ever imagined, has a heavy footprint.
The morning I spoke with Groff for a second time on Zoom, from her house in Gainesville, Florida, I asked her whether she thought that the renewal within Matrix—a community that heals and flourishes under an ambitious matriarch—was possible outside of fiction. She paused. “I think if I were to speak out of fear,” she said, “I would say no. No chance. We’re done. But if I were to speak out of life … I once saw [the writer] Helen Macdonald, who I think is a genius, talk about life, and she said, ‘Listen, life wants to thrive if we give it an opportunity. It will.’ But it would mean we would have to break systems so thoroughly. There would be no going back to capitalism, for instance. We would have to break with the idea, the Disney-given idea of the hero, or maybe actually the Greek-given idea, of a single hero who is able to save us all. Because that’s not how history actually works. It’s a collective action when good things happen. So we would have to rethink narratives. And I do believe in human ingenuity. I just don’t know if we’ll be fast enough.”
Despair is not her natural mood. She’s too funny for that, too enchanted by the beauty in everything, too awed by how brilliant people can be, how brave. She’s also, often, too angry. “To me, great literature, whether it’s poetry or fiction or nonfiction, has a real kind of heat on the page,” the writer Elliott Holt, Groff’s friend, told me. “Anger is a great animating force in fiction. And you feel it in Fates and Furies, and you feel it in Matrix, and thank God it’s there.” The Greek chorus in Fates and Furies describes anger as pain in the form of energy. Anger is kinetic, propulsive. Despair is static, dull. It’s a feeling that settles when there is nothing to be done and nowhere to go.
Between Fates and Furies and Matrix, Groff published Florida, a collection of stories about the state where she’s lived for 15 years, where she moved reluctantly to support her husband’s job, and where her feelings constantly dance between low menace and grudging awe. It’s a place where the dynamics of everything are amplified, where everything is extreme, including the coronavirus, which killed more people in Florida—where citizens are polarized over masks, vaccines, and the relationship between personal responsibility and public health—in August than in any other month since it first emerged in the United States. “I think my optimism is dying because of Florida,” Groff said. The essential struggle of Florida, the book, for her was: How do you live in such an uninhabitable place, when the landscape and the fauna—and, as COVID-19 made clear post-publication, such a large proportion of neighbors—represent constant threats to your life?
Still, even through darkness, Groff writes. And runs. And reads. “I do think Lauren is someone who really believes in art and literature as a soul-saving practice,” Laura van den Berg said. “And I think that’s where a lot of her drive comes from. It’s not discipline for the sake of discipline, or ambition for the sake of ambition. I think she really has a deep belief that literature is what makes life worth living.” While life and work are still available to her, Groff can read Marcus Aurelius and try her best to bring beauty into the world. She may not have a lot of hope, but she has a lot of longing. To crib a line from Matrix, the work and the hours and the Google spreadsheets go on.