Lauren Groff on Blending Research and Imagination in Historical Fiction
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of Matrix
Lauren Groff’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, was shortlisted for the Orange prize; her novel Arcadia was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times fiction award. Fates and Furies drew instant raves: “Even from an impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ron Charles. Fates and Furies won the American Booksellers’ Association Award for Adult Fiction, the Madame Figaro Grand Prix le l’Héroïne and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Her second story collection Florida (Florida is a “damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things,” she writes) won The Story Prize. What next?
Her first historical fiction, a feminist foray into a medieval nunnery that is stunning in its labyrinthine artistry and sensual tracing of life as lived during the era of the poet Marie de France and the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine. We connected by email in late summer to discuss Matrix.
Jane Ciabattari: How have you fared during this tumultuous time in global history? Where have you been living? How has it been to Zoom toward your book launch?
Lauren Groff: Thanks for asking. I have not fared all that well, to be honest, but I think very few people are ecstatically happy right now; we’re all languishing together. My boys and I had spent the summer in New Hampshire, in an area that has gorgeous vaccination rates, but about two weeks ago we came home to Florida, where that walking smirk DeSantis is doing his best to kill as many of his constituents as he can. I’m full of rage. I thought for a while that we were going to be all right in/re Covid come the fall, and of course it isn’t ideal to have to shift back to Zoom, but, well, I’d rather be pixellated and alive.
JC: When did you first become fascinated with the medieval poet Marie de France? And what made you decide to center your new novel on her life and work?
LF: I took ancien français for two semesters in college, and, for a while, thought I wanted to be a medievalist. I discovered Marie de France then, and have been coming back to an idea to do something with her for the past two decades. For a hot minute, I thought I wanted to do a translation of Marie de France’s Lais (a collection of rhymed stories, or narrative poems) as spiky and novel as Maria Dahvana Headley’s wonderful Beowulf, but never found any traction in that direction. I had a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study when I saw a lecture by my friend Dr. Katie Bugyis, a professor at Notre Dame, about the liturgical practices of medieval nuns, which was so fascinating it made me remember my love of Marie de France. I immediately put aside the book I was writing at the time and started building Matrix.
JC: How did you go about researching this historic figure? How did you build her life through your imagination, given how little is known of her “factual” biography?
LG: It was liberating that there was so little in the historical record about Marie de France. I had immense latitude. I still wanted to hinge the character on something, though, so I went very carefully through the Lais and her Fables, pulled out every vivid detail I could find, then used those details to build a scaffolding for a life.
JC: How would you explain the power of an abbess in medieval times? Was it common for abbesses to be selected from royal families and/or nobility?
LG: Because the only women who were given any education at the time were royals and nobles (because they were expected to run large estates), abbesses were drawn from the very wealthiest and most influential families. The abbesses of the largest abbeys, in particular, were astonishing people, fluent in multiple languages, numerate because they had to take care of the rents and sales of crops, well-versed in medicine, delicate in dealing with hierarchical superiors and their own sisters whose personalities didn’t always mesh, deeply knowledgeable of the sacred texts and music that they needed to care for their nuns’ spiritual lives. The abbeys sometimes controlled so much land that they had the status of baronetcys and had to provide large numbers of men to muster for war. All this to say that abbesses and prioresses had to be experts in many fields and were often powerful, extraordinarily intelligent people.
JC: A nunnery was one of the few places where women could have agency or authority in medieval times. What were the challenges in showing this side of a community that appears to be cut off from the world?
LG: In Matrix, Marie’s abbey belongs to the Benedictine order, which has as one of its precepts the idea of enclosure, or deliberate protection of the religious from the secular pollution of the world. Since there were other orders, not all abbeys and nunneries ascribed to that, of course, and some were deeply engaged in the work of the world. Even within the most powerful Benedictine abbeys, the abbesses were subject to men in superior positions, so their autonomy was pretty circumscribed, even though the very powerful abbesses had more. And yet there was often a bit more breathing room for women there, abbeys and convents were often used as refuges, and it’s also true that noble and royal women chose to retire at abbeys when they widowed and their children were grown. I think the challenges of this kind of setting were inextricable with its delights: personalities flare and become even more potent when any group of people are stuck together with no exit.
JC: How did you settle on your title? And how does a matrix open the lock for Marie to soar?
LG: I love the word matrix: it’s from the Latin for “mother,” and means so many things: the mold from which something is cast, like a sculpture or record, the substrate in which gems are found, an organizational structure, and on and on. I’d say Marie is more like a seal matrix, the carved bit of stone or metal that one presses into wax to seal a letter. And if I said any more, I would give away things in the book, which I don’t want to do.
JC: In Marie’s life in the nunnery (and through her ties to her “mentor,” Eleanor, the queen) you portray strong relationships with other women. Is her sensuality part of the “real” character? Or your invention?
LG: I have no idea what the real person was like, so who the heck knows who or what she longed for. But the Lais are frank in a delightful way, and Marie de France was clearly not naive about sex or bodily hunger.
JC: Marie is a mystic; she has a series of lyrically described visions that set the pathway for her leadership of the nunnery over the decades. How did you go about researching this element of the book? Was the “real” Marie a mystic? Did other women religious figures influence her character?
LG: I tried very hard not to put anything into the book that I hadn’t found reference to in my research. Marie’s visions borrow from the visions of many other mystics over the centuries, like Julian of Norwich and Clare of Assisi, and so on. We don’t even know if the real Marie de France was an abbess, so we certainly don’t know if she was a mystic, unless you think all poets are mystics. In any event, I was more interested in the way that visions gave the great mystics space and time to work in. I looked at someone like Hildegard von Bingen, a great genius of the age, who became a mystic after menopause set in, and though I believe in her visions, it’s hard not to see how much power and latitude she was given because of her status as a mystic.
JC: Marie is attuned to nature, the seasons, the growing cycles, wild life and the cycles of the animals that provide sustenance for her community. I’m curious about your research, which appears to give us an authentic sense of this place in medieval times.
LG: I did a huge amount of research, but of course I’m a novelist and will almost certainly get things wrong. One of the more beautiful things I saw when researching was the way that time operated within smaller and larger cycles, the liturgical cycles of the day, but also the way the year was broken into cyclical feasts and celebrations. This was a time without clocks, without mechanical means of measuring time, and so humans, when measuring time, had to pay attention to light and the cues of nature, when flowers opened and closed, where the sun was, how ripe the fruit on the trees was. It’s a different form of attention than what we live in now.
JC: The labyrinth is key to your novel. What inspired you to use the labyrinth as a structural foundation, and in a lengthy passage in the novel in which the community builds a labyrinth to protect them from the outside world? How were labyrinths viewed in medieval times?
LG: There’s a labyrinth in the Cathedral of Chartres that I kept as motif on the wall in front of my desk. At the time, unicursal labyrinths symbolized the pilgrim’s voyage to Jerusalem, and Marie was a (failed) Crusader as a child, in Eleanor’s Women’s Army (a phenomenon that some historians say was apocryphal). I loved the idea of the labyrinth as embodiment of her one-way enclosure within the religious life. Then, when I was struggling with the structure of the story, I looked up, saw the image, and thought, “Oh. Yes.” That’s my structure underpinning the narrative.
JC: What are you working on now?
LG: I work on far too many things at once, and have about eight different notebooks with eight different projects. They’d shrivel into sad wrinkled puffballs if I told you any more.
Matrix by Lauren Groff is available now from Riverhead Books.