Lauren Groff is not a woman of if, but rather of when. She’s the type of person who believes in the greater good, whose achievements reflect the enormous efforts she exerts to find kindness and insight from even the smallest of exchanges. Though success has been no stranger to this bestselling author, it comes highly deserved in the presence of her diligence, drive, and constant awareness of her reader. Having already penned three successful works, Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies (Riverhead 2015), currently holds a top ten position on the New York Times hardcover fiction list, is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize, and has been long listed for the National Book Award—all within the first few weeks of its release.
Marriage, the central subject of Fates and Furies, is a game of strategy, bluffing, and endurance, one that is not successful merely based upon its early triumphs or pitfalls. The only parties who hold true authority in commenting on one’s union are the two who share that bond, which both necessitates and justifies the intimate dual perspective of Fates and Furies. Told in two sections that depict the independent and interwoven lives of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and Mathilde Yoder, the reader is spoiled rotten with the minute yet scandalous details that ultimately bind to create secrets too large and sticky to sweep away. Groff holds her readers close, allowing us to nestle ourselves beneath her hand of cards as she carefully hides them from view. She challenges traditional form and the upholding of time as a linear construct, citing Greek drama and the works of Virginia Woolf as influences.
In the midst of the West Coast leg of her book tour, Groff elaborates upon the need for truth within fiction, explains why she is unapologetic about her writing, and demonstrates the importance of always remembering to be grateful.
The Rumpus: We live in an age of such immediacy and impatience, and it’s a treat to see two perspectives on a twenty-four year marriage unfold within a matter of hours. But what the reader doesn’t get to see is the time necessary to craft those lives on the page. How long have you known the main characters, Lotto and Mathilde?
Lauren Groff: I started writing the book while I was writing Arcadia, since I usually do two projects at once. I think I had the idea and lived with some of the stories that I was not writing as a document but as writing on the wall since 2008, so it’s been a long, long time. Now that they’re out in the world, I feel that they’re becoming strangers to me again, but that’s the normal process.
Rumpus: And the lives of your protagonists continue through Lotto’s plays, which are included intermittently along with his wife’s reactions. It’s uncommon within works of fiction to see the writing of characters and the responses of their loved ones and critics. Why did you feel that it was important to explore this?
Groff: I always like to try and find the most appropriate form for the function of any theme, and by showing Lotto’s plays not only do you get to see what’s happening in his life and the contemporary every day, but you also get to see reflections from parts of his life that even he may not be entirely keyed into. Like all people who write, we steal from our own lives and a lot of time we don’t quite realize what we’ve done until someone points it out to us. I love that aspect of creativity, which is one of the things this book is about. Who gets to be a writer, what makes people have the self-regard to become an artist, and how does life filter through the artist and become something different. All of these were things I was thinking about while writing, and the format also has the benefit of going through time very quickly.
Rumpus: The inclusion of square brackets brings a lovely external commentary and we can get a sense of who might be speaking, but it’s never openly addressed. What inspired their placement, and would you like to illuminate the identity of the speaker?
Groff: I don’t want to impose any read upon the reader, but I’ll tell you where it came from and what I was trying to do. Plays are just all sort of playful asides, and there’s a great deal of reference here to Greek mythology, plays, and dramas. The idea of the chorus is really important in Greek drama and I loved the idea of including that.
At the same time, what happens when you’re writing a book is that everything you read, watch, and live through sometimes goes into the book itself. That’s when you’re at your highest receptivity. Once a year I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and every time I read the central section, called “Time Passes,” I’m blown away by Woolf’s idea of time. This is one of the things that I wanted Fates and Furies to be about, the way we experience time and how it’s not always linear. In “Time Passes,” what we see is the effect of time upon the house where everyone in the Ramsey family was so happy in the first part of the book. We see the wind coming through the cracks, lifting up a scarf and dropping to the floor, and the slow disintegration of the house. The human comes in these square brackets, and the most devastating scene of all comes with Mrs. Ramsey’s death. She’s the sun, the nucleus around which every character in the first part of the book circles. What I loved about it was this notion of time as a colossal, swift form. It’s much more dark than human time, but there are these swift leaps into human time and back out. In my book, I was trying to mark granular human time and then use leaps of the voices from a much higher, more vertical view into the story and then back out.
It was really fun for me, too. I felt really happy after I read each one over the course of writing.
Rumpus: You have your finger firmly places on the modern linguistic pulse. How do you pay attention to contemporary colloquialisms while writing about decades past?
Groff: I put in the words that I love and feel right for the moment. Words come back into vogue once in a while, but I try to write for the highest quantity of pleasure for myself. Sometimes that’s setting in straightforward Anglo-Saxon words.
Rumpus: But sometimes those words are so delicious that you have to speak them aloud and wonder how we don’t use them on a daily basis.
Groff: Going back to the idea of writing with joy, that’s one way to do it. You have to pull the words that make you happy.
Rumpus: Moving from pleasure to privacy, there’s a feeling of secrecy and a value on trust that’s developed between the reader and the text. How do you think about your reader and build trust in them from afar?
Groff: I think you just have to try your hardest to tell the truth. When you’re writing fiction, you’re making a lot up, but there’s a difference between making something up that’s untruthful and something that’s truthful. You don’t want to ever feel as if you’re acting falsely. It’s this emotional resonance and you can lie in fiction. Part of the trust that the reader provides is putting their attention in your hands, and you have to be able to tell them that you’re never going to lie to them. You’re going to tell them a story, but it’s not going to be untruthful. It’s much more nebulous than straightforward fact, it’s more mysterious and harder to define. You know it when you hear it, and you also know when it’s missing.
Rumpus: The driving question that you’re asking throughout the text asks what we need to feel safe in this life and further presses what we’re willing to give up to get there. What were some of the challenges in writing about something that is so deeply personal and varies across the board?
Groff: Of all the books that I’ve written, even though I am a married person and some of those things that are in this book come directly from my life, this is the least autobiographical book that I’ve ever written. As soon as you publish a book and the reader reads it, they’re making an extension of your brain with their brain. When I do these tours, I’m afraid that people see my characters in me. The truth is that it’s far more complicated and rich than that. I am not Mathilde and I am not Lotto; I’m some sort of weird mixture of both.
Rumpus: Family is also a huge theme within Fates and Furies, one that’s hidden in plain sight. We think about Lotto’s mother and we learn Mathilde’s back-story, but it’s always about them and never just about their extended family. I’m wondering how your own family may have impacted your work, in this project or beyond.
Groff: I lucked out with the family that I was born into. My parents are incredible human beings who told their kids that they can do whatever they want to as long as they’re good people. I was raised in an environment where they fully supported my decision to first be an intense reader and then gradually writer. My sister is an Olympic triathlete who’s going to Rio and was just in London, and there’s basically no profession more distant from being a novelist than what she does. And my brother is a doctor, so we were all able to follow what we wanted to do.
In my family now that I’ve built in Gainesville, Florida, with my husband and my sons, there is a part of me that wrote this book because I do have some guilt about being a creative person. I’m not ever apologetic because I think in particular women are asked to be apologetic and have shame about their choices in terms of being women writers. And I’ve never succumbed to that shame because that’s put on me by other people, and I don’t have that guilt either. I do sometimes feel that I neglect my husband and children a little bit when I’m deep in the throws of writing, so there’s a part of me the sympathizes very deeply with the people who do all of the day to day stuff in a family so that the writer can play around with words. One of my obsessions while I was writing this book was reading the biographies of playwrights, and in every single one the mothers, wives, and daughters were these shadowy figures on the side who were basically not interesting to the biographers. It felt so false; it wasn’t the way the anybody lived their lives. Yes, the life of the creator is important, but so is the life of the person who is sharing the creator’s house.
Rumpus: There was a sincere feeling of gratitude in your concluding acknowledgements, particularly the one in which you call a blessing upon “the readers of all books.” It’s a symbiotic relationship: so long as there are writers, there will be people who want to read, and vice versa, though infrequently do the two interact beyond the page. Why did you to extend this grace?
Groff: I am so grateful to any reader, not only of my books. These days time is the most precious thing in all of our lives, and nobody has any. The time that it takes to sit down with a novel like mine is time that they could be doing other things. It’s a gift, a tremendous one that people are giving you when they choose to read your book. It’s more a responsibility. If I don’t remember that gratitude, then I write with a sort of entitlement and I think that that’s so deadly to a creative person. If you write with a feeling like you deserve everything and people should be listening to you, then you’re probably not writing good stuff. It takes an attention to other people, not just this narcissistic attention to yourself. I’m moved by the mere fact that people have read my book, and every time I go and do an event, there’s a part of me that wants to hug everyone in the room. They’ve given me so much of their time, and even if they didn’t like it they’ve still given me a gift. It’s the dream, and we do all of this in the dark with our hopes settled in our shoulders. We go blindly into our world and hope that one day we’re able to connect, and when that connection happens it should be something that’s filled with gratitude and pleasure. And that’s what it does for me.
Author photo © Megan Brown.