LAuren Groff, 43, grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a place he fictionalized as a perfect city in his best-selling debut novel, The monsters of Templeton (2008). His second novel, Arcadia (2012), explored the failure of utopian communities in the 1970s, and his third, Fates and Furies, about an unconventional marriage, was chosen by Barack Obama as his favorite book of 2015. In 2018, he produced his first collection of short stories, Florida. His latest novel, Matrix, is an inventive tale from the 12th century nunnery that focuses on Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry (known as “lais”) in French. Groff now lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband, Clay Kallman, and two children.
What made you want to write about Marie de France?
I have always loved her. I studied French and English at university and for a while I thought I wanted to be a medievalist. I love chivalric romances and I love that period. To be honest, I was trying to write a novel about the contemporary world, but it was so overwhelming that I didn’t feel like I had enough distance to do justice to this incredibly complicated and difficult time that we are living in. I couldn’t do it in the middle of the Trump presidency with all these feelings of constant daily dread, so I had to look at things with a slant and see the roots of the contemporary world 1000 years ago.
How long have you been researching it?
For decades. I thought he would make a wild new version of his lais. I thought I was going to go back and break it all, as you see with all these amazing new translations of Beowulf. No one knows much about Marie de France because at that time, women were only considered important through relationships with their parents, husbands, and children. This gave me a lot of freedom to go back to his own texts and remove a series of 100-150 images from them in order to build a biography from them.
What were the most surprising things you discovered about medieval Europe when I was writing this book?
I was amazed at how funny people were in the Middle Ages, incredibly hilarious. Also, how messy the relationships were, even within the confines of a much more rigid and hierarchical religious world. You find pregnant nuns and same-sex relationships everywhere. We humans are human.
You write very sensitively about the natural world and I wonder to what extent this is, to some extent, a political decision. There are parts of the book that seem very aware of our planet’s overheating.
Climate change is not as new as we like to pretend it is. Humans have long had a profound effect on the environment, and for tens of thousands of years, not in the last 30 years, which is how the story of climate change is so often told. So yes, it was a deliberate decision to talk about how Marie, creating her own utopia for her nuns, is also committing a destructive act. I decided that it would be immoral for me, as a writer standing on the brink of climate disaster, not to talk about the worst thing humanity will ever face.
What impact did the endorsement of President Obama have on your career?
It was amazing. He also tempted many reluctant male readers. It meant that my father’s friends read my work for the first time; I mean, it was my fourth book! But it also really paralyzed me, which is why the next book I wrote was a collection of short stories. In fact, I wrote a couple of novels and destroyed them.
In both Matrix, about the claustrophobic life of nuns, and Arcadia, which was established in a hippy commune, you explore the idea of life without privacy. Is this a topic you were consciously reviewing?
This issue worries me on a daily basis because I live in a particularly libertarian area of the US, so I see a fight to the death between what we owe to our community and our individual freedoms. That is what is dividing America right now: We are seeing a fundamental struggle. As a result of that, I am drawn to the narratives of collectivism and I am really skeptical at the same time. It comes from growing up in a small community, a hometown of less than 2,000 people, where everyone knew each other’s business for generations.
He has been an outspoken critic of President Trump. Are you feeling better now that President Biden is in office?
Before all this debacle in Afghanistan, he probably would have said yes. I never thought he was going to be perfect, but in the first months of his presidency he did some very good things. He’s skating on incredibly thin ice and it may be pre-emptive to say this, but the Afghanistan mess could mean we will sink further into radical right-wing populism. I was briefly less anxious about my children’s future and now I am not. I still dream of living in Scandinavia.
How does it feel to try to write novels while you are also in Twitter?
I can walk away for four to six months in a row, but I often feel very lonely because my job is really lonely. I talk to my dog a lot. Twitter is great if you’re too eager to work, but again, it’s often inflammatory. It takes the things that you fear and turns them into full-blown anxiety attacks. I have a secret plan to quietly leave one day …
What kind of reader were you as a child? What books and authors have stayed with you since childhood?
I was a huge introvert with an older brother who wouldn’t let me talk, so I was the biggest reader. My parents did not guide me in any way; I would just go to the library and see what I could find, so it would be Nancy Drew or Jane Austen and then a book on railroads. I used to buy 10 cent books at the library every time they sold their moldy copies.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’m reading a lot of Henry James. Ambassadors, The golden bowl and Princess Casamassima – because I thought I was going to do a giant Henry James project. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a novel I wanted to start with. What other thing? In the dark room by Brian Dillon, which is great. I am also reading Yūko Tsushima, who wrote Woman running in mountains, because I’m writing something about her.
What book or author do you always return to?
Middlemarch It is the book that I read once or twice a year because of George Eliot’s extraordinary serene intelligence. It is as if you are living in the brain of the smartest person you have ever met, and a very compassionate person. It makes you feel like your confused, everyday life has suddenly been refined. You see the way you should be living She focuses me.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism