In early 2010, an email arrived in my inbox from a writer I didn’t yet know—but one whose first novel, in what seemed a bizarre coincidence, I had just purchased the weekend before. It’s perhaps less freaky when you consider that the book, Lauren Groff’s Monsters of Templeton, was a bestseller, was recently out in paperback, and was gracing the front tables of most good bookstores. But I’d been out of the loop and picked it up on a whim, drawn in by flap copy about a town and its layered history. For all I knew, I was now hallucinating this email. Lauren was reaching out with a kind word about a short story of mine and a fellowship nomination; and I was putting it together that this was the same author whose work I’d already discovered and admired in the pages of The Best American Short Stories.
It was a while before we met in person. By the time we did, we knew that we each had a baby and a toddler, that we’d shared some non-writer classmates (there was fun gossip involved), and that we had similar headstrong ambitions for our writing. In short, I really liked her as a person, in addition to admiring the hell out of her books. A good thing, because under other circumstances, I might have been envious as the world—and even Barack Obama—fell in love with her work. Instead, my primary response to Groff’s tremendous success has been something along the lines of “Squee!” (If that makes me sound like an unserious person: Well, sure. But I’m just a fangirl at heart.)
To this fangirl’s delight, Groff’s hotly anticipated sixth book (her fourth novel), Matrix, appears 9/7 from Riverhead. We find ourselves in medieval England, following an imagined life of the real poet Marie de France, whose surviving Breton lais and fables are almost all of what we know of her. Groff casts Marie as a bastard relative of Eleanor of Aquitaine, placed against her will as the prioress of a struggling abby. The nuns are starving and sick when she arrives as a teenager; by the end of her life, Marie has transformed the place into a thriving separatist utopia.
There’s tremendous invention involved here; we don’t just have the careful recreation of the likely, but a joyful and winding path into the dreamlike-but-plausible.
Lauren and I chatted this August, right after I’d finished the book—and was still in its throes, as I continue to be.
Rebecca Makkai: Something funny to me about the way this book is being introduced to the world is the way people are talking about you “suddenly” writing historical fiction. I’m looking back, and Templeton spanned two centuries; Arcadia was set largely in the ‘70s and ‘80s; and some of your short stories, like “L. DeBard and Aliette” (have we ever talked about how much I love that story??) are historical. I assume what people mean is that this book is deep history—we’re talking the 12th and 13th Centuries here—but I wonder if it came from a similar impulse, that urge some writers have to reach back and do research and fill in the gaps around what we do know of a time and place (or, in this case, a real person).
Lauren Groff: You and I both often play around with history—I’m thinking of both The Great Believers, which began in 1985, when you were a very young child, and your stunning, fabulist story, “The Briefcase,” which gestured at a kind of World War II or midcentury war-torn mitteleuropa, the first story that made me fall in love with your work—and I’d hazard a guess that it’s for the same reasons. Let me know if I’m wrong! I think I reached for historical fiction recently because the contemporary world was so overwhelming, so many terrible things happening all at once, and I felt as though I was unable to process it quickly enough to do justice to the moral weight of events.
Writing about the 12th century felt as though I could write about things that were still urgent today, but told a bit slant, held enough at arms’ length that I wouldn’t be submerged. One of the many reasons I began Matrix was because I’ve been curious about the Crusades, and the way that so much of the Western world seems to have unraveled out of these early bloody, horrific, repeated stabs at the imposition of Christianity on distant reaches of the world. I wanted to try to trace the contemporary world’s roots backward through time, to see how the medieval Church gave rise to where we are now, devolving into tribalism and selfishness, at the brink of climate apocalypse.
RM: I definitely hear you about the impossibility of processing the ongoing world quickly enough. And I will say, you deftly avoided the issue so many of us are dealing with in contemporary novels, trying to decide whether to move the timeline forward or backward a few years to avoid COVID. I’m lucky that a lot of my new book is set in the ‘90s, but the “contemporary” part, set in ‘22, has to deal with this ever-changing shitscape, and I don’t know if I’m going to have to slap some facemasks on my characters right before it goes to press.
But I also know that writing historical doesn’t usually make things easier in terms of the work; it often means you’re essentially doing the labor for two books — a novel, and the hidden Master’s thesis underneath. You obviously know (or learned) your medieval history incredibly well. I’m not going to ask you about your research process because I know you’ll end up having to answer that question endlessly… but here’s what I want to know. With every fictional project, we have a different contract with both realism (are these things plausible) and reality (did these people/places/events really exist). So, with Templeton you had a lot of magical elements (lake monster!) but it was also based on a real place (Cooperstown, NY), albeit renamed. Arcadia and Fates and Furies were much more realistic (no lake monsters) but were still, as far as I know, about entirely fictional people and events.
Here, you’re taking the real history of Marie de France, a real person about whom not much is known. What was your commitment to the historical record? How much liberty did you want to take regarding her life? How closely did you want to hew to the granular details of daily life in that time and place, and the workings of a medieval priory?
LG: I see we’re getting into the beautiful and intensely fraught world of literary ethics! I am massively curious about this on your behalf, Rebecca, because you’ve obviously wrestled with these issues, yourself, particularly w/r/t The Great Believers, in which you’re writing about a period through which you never lived as an adult, and people you hadn’t known at that time. One can be paralyzed by the intense ethical obligations one has to not only individuals but also the larger group. How did you struggle with these issues?
RM: I mean, I struggled mightily, as I should have. The biggest mistake anyone could make in that situation is hubris. I spent more time researching than I did writing, in large part because I was writing about trauma (the early years of AIDS) that was still remembered by the living. They were there for me to ask about it, and their experiences, and those of the people who weren’t around for me to ask, were the reasons I had to get it right on even the most granular level.
In your case, though, there definitely aren’t people to interview in that same way, unless they’re historians… Did that free you up, or was it a hurdle?
LG: I wasn’t able to know much about Marie de France. Women at the time were only interesting to chroniclers because of their relationships to the men in their lives, the fathers and sons and husbands, and the historical figure of Marie is as a result sort of sunk into obscurity, I had a dual responsibility: to try to construct a life out of what we did have, the work by her own mind and hand, taking imagery and ideas out of the Lais and Fables that she wrote, and reverse-engineering a life on this scaffolding of imagery; but also to not put anything into the book that I hadn’t already found in the historical record.
All of Marie’s visions take bits and bobs from the visions of other mystics at the time; and though there is no abbey in the historical record that built a great earthworks of a labyrinth, unlike Marie’s abbey in the book, there are multiple apocryphal mythologies of labyrinths: Henry II, for instance, was said to have built a beautiful garden labyrinth around his mistress, Rosamund Clifford, to keep her away from the vengeance of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine: a failed labyrinth, because, according to some legends, Eleanor was still able to poison Rosamund. I don’t believe this myth for a second, but because the vast majority of people at the time got their news from oral storytelling (the Gutenberg press wasn’t invented until 1450), spread information was frequently misinformation, at a scale, incredibly, even worse than Facebook’s today.
I wanted to try to feel the world in my animal body the way that medieval bodies felt the world in their animal bodies, and that meant trying to get into the granular ideas of time and rhythm: this was all before mechanical timekeeping, and they measured time in ritual and attention. I think this is an ethical question, too, but about trying to come as close as possible to an impossible verisimilitude, one of the underlying moral issues for all fiction. But, yes, I relied heavily on my historian friends, too.
RM: Going on a bit of a tangent, I was struck by the labyrinth as a manifestation of the female body, and of female autonomy. The labyrinth here protects these women, keeps them separate and safe from interlopers.
LG: Yes! There’s an explicit parallel between the female body and the labyrinth. In the research phase, I kept turning around to find these unicursal labyrinths, like the one in the Cathedral de Chartres, which was supposed to symbolize a sacred pilgrimage to Jerusalem; they just kept recurring, and soon there arrived the myth of Rosamund. And, last, I saw an incredible news story about how climate change was causing these ancient, lost foundations of buildings and earthworks to press up through the living grass, embossing themselves back onto the world, and the labyrinth became not only a carrying metaphor for the book, it also showed itself to be the underlying structure of the book; it’s the architecture of the whole thing.
RM: Maybe counterintuitively, I see this book as a parallel to your 2012 novel Arcadia, which is set on an upstate New York hippie commune. I think it was the moment early in Matrix when Marie has to give all her earthly possessions to the convent that I went, Ohhhh, this is another group of people living in communal isolation, with all the messed-up hierarchies… Of course, we’re talking about a wildly different book here; no one’s going to accuse you of a creative rut. But do you see those connections?
LG: Oh, no, this isn’t counterintuitive, I’m so glad you see it! It’s very much a part of the same moral world, and it was a deliberate choice from the beginning. I am drawn to small communities, utopian communities that go wrong (they all go wrong, eventually); when I was touring Arcadia, I kept stubbing my toe on the idea that the longest-lasting utopian communities were the ones built around religion. I kept wondering why. I also find extreme joy in enclosing my characters in a tight microcosm and watching how poorly they begin to behave. Personality gets magnified in enclosed places.
RM: This is another shared obsession. I sometimes joke that all I’m trying to do is rewrite Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, my childhood favorite. All I want is to trap a bunch of people in a building in a snowstorm and watch what happens.
LG: YES. An impossible dream of mine is to write a book trapping six people in a stuck elevator for a week. The ideal result would be an intense Nicholson Baker-slash-George Saunders novel, though this story would probably inevitably end in murder.
RM: I wonder why we’re so drawn to that concept. And we certainly aren’t the only writers who are! I’m thinking of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, or even White Lotus, a recent dispatch from TV-land. There’s something helpful on the craft level, in that your characters can’t just run away from each other and their problems; and that stuckness amplifies the conflicts. But I wonder if those scenarios don’t also tap into something deeper that we’re all constantly working through, about human attachment and being stuck emotionally with certain people on this planet, even when we wish we could move on. (Marie’s attachment to Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly falls into that category…)
LG: It’s a deep existential issue. We’re stuck in the bodies we’re born into, in a specific time and place that, perhaps, we wouldn’t have chosen if we’d gotten the choice. We can shift the places as we live and, as humans, move chronologically forward in time, but in the end it’s a struggle to both remain in these flawed and stinking and hairy containers of flesh, and a struggle to come to grips with not being able to escape them, except temporarily, in sleep or ecstasy. And the deeper horror is that we’re stuck in our bodies alone. We’re surrounded by others, but unless we’re pregnant (or are possessed by demons or have a tapeworm), inherently by ourselves.
This is why I think human attachment is always so sticky and constantly bewildering; we’re longing for the impossible, to be less alone, which even in the closest relationships happens sporadically, not constantly. It’s also why the hunger for god is so pervasive in human history, and why some of us choose—why I have chosen—to spend life writing and reading. Literature is folding another consciousness into our own, letting it overwhelm our own, so that we briefly become plural, bigger than that first small and singular self.
RM: There’s certainly a parallel there to Marie. She falls into religion, but then finds her own path through it; yet her writing might be the primary way she reaches out beyond herself and her own (literal and figurative) cloister.
LG: Writing is spooky. You’re colonizing another’s brain for as long as it takes for them to read your work. There will never be a greater or more powerful human technology, which is why literacy was something kept from women for a very long time. In Marie’s day, only wealthy women were literate, and sometimes even noble women were kept in the dark. When Marie reaches for pen and paper, she’s reaching for a weapon.
RM: I do think that one of the absolute best things about being a writer is that not only are you connecting with people through literature, but then you actually sometimes get to be real-life friends with the people whose work has meant something to you. We’ve known each other (I just confirmed this by searching my email!) since January of 2010, when you had two books out (Templeton and Delicate Edible Birds, you first story collection) and I had just landed my agent and was waiting for her to send my first novel out to editors. We have a lot in common (we’re the same age, we both have two kids around the same ages, our fourth books were the big breakouts for both of us), but since I’m always going to be a book or two behind you, I feel that watching your career is like watching the best possible version of what could happen in a few years in my own.
LG: Oh my goodness, I’ve never been a finalist for the Pulitzer! The truth is, I am always watching you with such admiration and delight, as beautiful friend and inspiration and always the person who will give my imagination a good old kindly kick when it needs one. Anyway, let’s make a bet: in twenty years, if humans are still around by then, I’d wager you’ll be two or three books ahead of me. Maybe it’s the weight of the world, maybe I’m reading too many fat Victorian books, but I feel a great slowing happening in me these days. Anyway, I know for a fact that you’re looking down the barrel of at least two more books, and probably, with your energy, eight or ten. I’m tired just thinking about it.
RM: You come from a family of literal olympic athletes… When I hear you talk about slowing down, I take that in the most optimistic way, thinking of you pacing yourself for some marathon books. Not necessarily longer ones, just ones that take longer to cook.
And you’re right that I’m already looking ahead; the book I’m finishing up now is a boarding school murder story, but the next novel, just getting started, is the imagined life of a real female historical figure. I wonder if there’s something about being six books in that made us both reach for historical women, or if we have parallel astrology, or if I’ve been spying through your windows, or what…
LG: Maybe it goes back to the first question—maybe the intensifying, accelerating modern world requires an indirect touch? Let me know if you figure it out. Anyway, I truly cannot wait for your historical novel, and for your boarding school murder mystery, too. Let’s meet back up here just before that one comes out so that I can grill you, yes?
RM: It’s a deal, and I think instead of a 20-year bet we need a one-year one. I’m betting we’ll both be stressed about our teenagers, the world will still be on fire, and we’ll still be writing our way through it. And I think you’ll be deep in the throes of a new and completely unpredictable project. Six people stuck in an elevator? With a tapeworm? I can dream…
Lauren Groff is a two-time National Book Award finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. She has won the Story Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Groff’s work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, and she was named one of Granta’s 2017 Best Young American Novelists.
Lauren Groff’s Matrix is available now via Riverhead.