Lauren Groff, MATRIX

Lauren Groff, MATRIX

Lauren Groff, the award-winning author of Florida, joins Zibby to talk about her latest novel, Matrix, which was inspired by the often overlooked medieval female poet, Marie de France. Lauren shares why she wanted to discuss contemporary issues through a historical lens, why her novels often go through four or five very different iterations, and the number one tactic she uses to get out of her own way when writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lauren. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your new book, Matrix. Very exciting.

Lauren Groff: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: For listeners who aren’t familiar with your work, and particularly this one, would you mind giving a little synopsis for this book? Then we can talk about your whole career and everything else.

Lauren: I’ve been obsessed with this medieval poet named Marie de France since college, which was many years ago at this point. I had wanted to write a book about her because nobody knows much about who she was. Women in the twelfth century were not considered important unless they gave birth to kings or they were married to kings or they were the daughters of wealthy men. Nobody knows who Marie de France was, but she wrote these incredible poems called Lais. I fell in love with them. I got very, very excited a couple of years ago about writing about this time period because I thought it would be a really interesting way to see the contemporary world a bit slant. I felt overwhelmed by all of the problems of the contemporary world. I almost felt as if it was a moral issue that I couldn’t actually write about them as deeply as I wanted to, but I could if I were situating a lot of the issues at their roots in the twelfth century. This is a book about my imagined life of Marie de France as an abbess in England in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It is a wild book. It’s probably my strangest book so far. I like it. I hope others will.

Zibby: I love that. It’s so funny to identify your own work as wild. When you’re thinking about it, what makes you say that?

Lauren: Marie is a mystic. A lot of her mysticism is drawn from the actual mystics of the time. I went back and I looked at Hildegard of Bingen. I looked at Julian of Norwich. I looked at a bunch of other incredible mystics. Female mystics, one of the most astonishing things about them was that they were able to create power and space for themselves to maneuver by their mysticism in this time when there were just incredibly rigid hierarchical structures caging women in. These mystics, through their visions of God and the Virgin Mary, were able to sort of craft a safe haven for themselves. That part is really wild. The structure of it is based on a uni-crystal medieval labyrinth. The structure itself is also wild. We get to see the entire life of this woman who was, in many ways, a misfit for her time but who is also very powerful in both sides of the word power. She’s powerful because she’s very capable and very smart. She has internalized some of the ideas about power that she then spreads to her nuns under her care also. She’s a complicated figure. I think she’s wild in that sense too.

Zibby: This is a massive undertaking, all of the things you did with this book. When you thought of it, were you like, I’m totally going to do this? Were you at all intimidated by your ideas when they came? What was that moment like for you?

Lauren: I’m not going to pretend that I’m a mystic either, but I had been thinking about this for a long, long time. Then I went to this lecture by my friend, Dr. Katie Bugyis, who teaches now at Notre Dame. As I was sitting in the audience — she was talking about the liturgical practices of twelfth century nuns. I just sort of saw the book in front of me. It wasn’t complete. I didn’t have all the details, but I could see the way that I could filter my understanding of the contemporary world through this figure. It just sort of came to me. It’s not that it’s easier than any — I don’t think it’s easy to write any novel, especially not my books because I really don’t know what I’m doing until four or five drafts in. We can talk about that later. I did have this very, very strong sense of the kind of book I wanted to write. It was immediate. I just knew that sitting down every single day, I was slowly bringing myself to that point. I wasn’t cowed in a way that I have been in the past with other books. I basically had to get a master’s in medieval history while I was doing this.

Zibby: Wait, I want to talk about what you just said about the multiple drafts, but I want to also go back and figure out — first of all, how do you have such a beautiful French accent? Are you part French? What is that about?

Lauren: Oh, that’s very sweet. I spent a year as a youth fellow in high school and college in , France, where I lived with a catering family. They had the fourth-largest catering business in France. I learned to speak French through them and through eating a huge amount of food and drinking so much alcohol, kir royale every single night. It was really spectacular. I think once your feelings of shyness have been worn off by a couple of kir royale, you can start to speak with some ease.

Zibby: I spent a summer, I guess it wasn’t enough, when I was fourteen or fifteen — I think I was fourteen — in France. I lived with a family. They owned a pool company. We were in the South of France. It was one of the only houses with a pool. It was amazing because the guy owned the pool — anyway, it was very exciting. I did start dreaming in French by the end of that summer. I was totally immersed. Now thirty years later or whatever, I can’t even pretend to speak with an accent like that because I’m such an imposter. I can basically understand everything, but I can’t speak anymore. I can’t remember the words. I can’t find them, but I can understand them.

Lauren: I bet it would take you maybe a week before everything just flowed back. Language is this amazing thing. Language is so deeply embedded in who we are. It’s so beautiful to see it reawakening. One of my sons had an au pair for a year from Spain. She only spoke to him in Spanish. He was between one and two at this point. He thought that he forgot everything for years, nine years. Then we had spent maybe two days in Mexico City, and he started responding in Spanish. There’s these deeply engrained, very unusual pathways that he just hadn’t used in a very long time. They just started coming back. I think it’ll come back. All you have to do is be there.

Zibby: I don’t know. I feel like those pathways are so buried under — they’re like the subway system of Manhattan. There’s giant buildings built on top of those pathways at this point. It would take a lot of excavation to retrieve them, but maybe. We’ll see. Let’s go back. Also, how did you become a writer? Did you always know you wanted to do this? What was your education? Where are you even from? What’s your story? How did we get here?

Lauren: I’m from Cooperstown, New York. It’s a tiny, little town in Upstate New York. Most people know it because of the Hall of Fame.

Zibby: I was going to say, Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lauren: Baseball Hall of Fame, yeah. There’s also a beautiful lake. James Fenimore Cooper is from there. There’s an opera called Glimmerglass. It’s a very idyllic, beautiful place to grow up. My parents are extraordinarily hardworking people who basically left my siblings just up to our own business. We spent all of our time doing sports and reading books, swimming in the lake. It was a really beautiful childhood for a writer. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was twelve when someone gave me Emily Dickinson’s collected poems. I thought I was a poet because she makes it seem so easy, which is hilarious. If you’ve ever written a poem, you know how hard it is. As a twelve-year-old, I thought, oh, my god, I can do this. I was writing secret poetry through France. Then I got to college. I tried to take a couple of poetry classes. They wouldn’t let me in because my poetry’s bad. I finally got into a fiction class. Up to that point, I was a dual major in both French literature and English literature, but I hadn’t actually studied any contemporary work by anyone at all. I hadn’t read any books from after 1950. Suddenly in this course packet, I get short stories by people like Grace Paley, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore. My brain just sort of shorted out. I was reading these people. I was hearing these voices that were so similar to my own. I was always an enormous reader, but for the first time in my life I thought, oh, my gosh, wait, I don’t have to be a secret poet. Maybe I could actually write fiction and be a living, contempory author of fiction. After that, I spent three years trying to write at night while I was a bartender. Then I worked as an admin assistant at Stanford University and finally got my MFA. From then on, I’ve been a full-time writer. It was a process, but I’m very grateful. I’m grateful to my parents, first of all, for their benign neglect, for sure.

Zibby: Literally, my mother, every time she watches me as I hover over my kids in some way, she’s always like, “Zibby, benign neglect, benign neglect.” I’m like, “I don’t even understand what that means.”

Lauren: Just be lazier. That’s all you have to do.

Zibby: I think work has forced me to be more laid-back about my on top of them. I think they’re benefitting, so that’s good.

Lauren: That’s good. That’s very good.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Lauren: Mine just turned thirteen and ten. They’re really spectacular.

Zibby: Aw, that’s nice. It would be bad if you came on and said how terrible they were.

Lauren: I know.

Zibby: When you’re working on your different books, how long does it take you to write one of these masterpieces?

Lauren: Oh, very sweet. It just depends on the book. Some books take five or six years. Matrix only took me a full year of writing eight to twelve hours a day. This one, I worked on very intensely in a short period of time. I work on multiple projects at once, too, because I do believe that fiction requires a great deal of silence and darkness and time. They’re like mushrooms. They have to grow in the dark. Often, if you’re working on only one thing, you’re just putting way too much pressure on that single thing. When I work on multiple things at once, which is always, they sort of cross-fertilizer in the darkness, in my subconscious. The ones that don’t have as much energy or juice, I can feel good about walking away from for the moment and focusing on the ones that are sort of shouting at me and feeling very excited and ready. It’s a beautiful, slow process for most of my work, to be honest. A lot of times, I’ll start something, put it aside after a draft because I know it’s just not working in the way that I chose to tell it. Then a few years later, don’t pick what I’d done, but pick up the idea and try again for a different draft. I do a lot, a lot of drafts.

Zibby: This is what you meant before when you said it was four or five drafts for each book?

Lauren: Yes, exactly. For Fates and Furies, my last novel before Matrix, I was thirteen full, totally rewritten drafts from the beginning — I write them from the beginning in longhand — primarily because I cannot actually read my own handwriting. It’s so egregious. I don’t want to until all of the foundational issues have been figured out. I don’t want to pretend as though my book is anything less than the immensely flawed and failed thing that is has to be for the first however many drafts until I understand the iceberg underneath the surface and the structure that I’m going for and the tone and the language that I’m trying to use. All of these things have to be figured out first before I even attempt to try to write something that will remain.

Zibby: Wow. It’s not surprising that Matrix is from almost a thousand years ago. You’re such a literary — I can’t even think of the right word — wordsmith. You just seem so gifted and talented in a different way than most people today, like that you’re not of this era or something. The way that you’re talking about literature and craft, there’s this magic. I don’t know. It’s very cool. I hope you recognize it in yourself, that this is not the typical contemporary author, which perhaps is why you’re getting nominated for all these awards and all this other stuff. It’s really interesting to listen to you. It’s great.

Lauren: To be honest, I’m a really, really anxious person. I get in my own way all the time if I don’t find ways to get around myself and to put my ego so far away in the ocean that I can’t even see it. Part of it is coming back to this idea that the work of the heart is work that we do simulating the play that we did as children. If you watch your children play, playing with Legos, playing with friends out on the street, there’s this feeling of surrendering to the joy of the moment that we lose, I think, if we put too much pressure on ourselves. I have OCD issues. I have anxiety issues. I have the gamut of issues. The way that I’ve gone about figuring out how to get beyond these issues is really to remember that I’m just trying to create joy. This is what we’re doing. Sometimes that means dealing with the immense frustration of having to write a full draft of something that you think may be a fit and then being like, well, no, it’s not, and starting over again. That is really frustrating, but it’s also really cathartic, and coming back to the beginning with a sense of just pure pleasure. What we’re doing is not brain surgery. What we’re doing is just joyous. It should be the way that we felt when we were making mud patties when we were kids. It should be beautiful. Resetting expectations not for the end result, but for the process and for trying to dig deeper into the sentences and find the beautiful spark at the heart of every single good sentence, I have to just to be a sane human on this planet with all of my many mental issues. To be able to be sane and do this work, it’s not caring about — it is caring eventually, but it’s not caring at the moment about the external issues. I think that this goes back to most of the things that we do. I can’t maintain this for anything but my work. I am the worst cook on the planet because I’m very impatient. People are going to eat it anyway. I might as well just make a lasagna and eat it for four days.

Zibby: That sounds like great cooking to me. That’s way more than I do. Just making a lasagna, are you kidding? I haven’t made a lasagna, I don’t think, in my life.

Lauren: We’re vegetarian, and so it’s really hard, especially in Florida where we are, to find good food external to the house. We have to cook. To get back to the point, it’s just play. We’re just playing. Trying to remember that we’re playing is the basis of my practice.

Zibby: I love that self-awareness. Whatever mental issues you may have, it sounds like you’re working with somebody amazing because you are harnessing it all. I need to get that phone number, please. I don’t know what percent — I have to go back and do a survey of all the people I’ve interviewed. I feel like eighty to ninety percent of all authors have anxiety.

Lauren: Yes, yes, everyone.

Zibby: If not a hundred. That’s why this podcast, in part, makes me feel like I’ve found my people because everyone has some of the stuff that I have. It’s very comforting, in a way.

Lauren: Same, yes. This is one of those beautiful things. The more you talk to writers, the more you’re like, oh, we’re all messed up. This is great.

Zibby: So it’s a weird thing that I live half my life in somebody else’s life by reading about it? Really? Reading itself is the craziest thing.

Lauren: It’s true. You’re allowing your brain to be colonized by another brain. You really are. You’re letting someone else’s ghosts speak into your ear for the time it takes to read a book. That’s an incredible dissolution of the borders of self. We’re dissolving the self into another person. That’s beautiful. It’s wild. It’s science fiction. Reading’s amazing.

Zibby: Wow. Okay, that’s my favorite description of reading, ever. Yes, it’s like science fiction. I always say it’s like magic, but it’s not. You’re right. Science fiction is a much better way to describe it. Excellent. You must be a writer. This is great. Great language. I’m sure you have fifty-seven projects going on. Do you have any idea what’s coming out after this book?

Lauren: I do, actually. I was working on a different book when I started Matrix. That one, I think I’m finishing. That will be the next one. It deals with some very similar issues. It’s women within the confines of the religion that they were sort of forced to be in coming up against the boundaries of nature. That’s what happens with Marie as the abbess in Matrix. It’s what happens to my character set in 1609 in Jamestown in the next book. I think, I hope, knock on wood, it might be out in 2023, but who knows? Who knows if there will still be publishing by then?

Zibby: There will. There will.

Lauren: All right, good.

Zibby: I think I’m booked until then. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. You’ve already given so many pieces of advice along the way, but as a final question for advice for aspiring authors because I ask everybody this each time, what advice would you have?

Lauren: The only advice I would ever give to any author is something that I tell myself every single day. It goes back to what I was saying earlier, which is, find the way to play. Find the way to take yourself less seriously. Let the work itself just feel joy. Sometimes that means taking a step back and doing things that seem only slantwise involved in the work. Some days, I cannot actually write. I cannot actually put a word down, but I show up. Those days, maybe I’ll take out my large container of paint swabs from the Home Depot and go through them and find the color toward which I will write a scene. Maybe the tone of the color will somehow seep back into the scene and show me something new. I’ll do an Oulipo exercise. I’ll go for a run. Sometimes just being an animal in our animal bodies, that’s where the work actually comes in. Remember that play is just as essential to the work that we’re doing as the work itself of being faithful, sitting down as often as we possibly can, daily if possible, and taking ourselves and our work seriously. It’s joyous. It’s this give and take between seriousness and joy that we have to try to always hit.

Zibby: Have you written this in an essay or something?

Lauren: Sort of. Michigan Quarterly Review, I gave a lecture for the Zell Writers. I think it just came out. I do go into it for a good preachy span. It’s the way that I try to approach all work. I do think that if we remember that what we’re doing is an absolute privilege, then maybe if everything else feels really hard, maybe gratitude will get us to the desk. That’s also good.

Zibby: If you, in your spare time, want to write an essay for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write about either the science fiction of reading or writing as play, we would love it. I would love to read it. I would love to refer back to it. I would love to keep it. I would like to print it and put it in a little picture frame on my desk. That would be awesome if you feel like, but I’m sure you’re very busy.

Lauren: I would love to. Oh, my gosh, I actually had a small panic attack this morning about the things that are happening that I have to finish. Yes, I will keep it on the burner. Maybe someday I’ll do it.

Zibby: The author I interviewed right before you today, her name’s Bethany Crandell. Her book was about middle-aged women kind of snapping. We were trading what we did to manage the chaos. I was literally saying breathing, for me, is not meditative breathing. I have to put my hands on my chest to hold myself down. I’m like, . When you’re talking about panic attacks this morning, I was right there with you. Not trying to add anything to your plate. It was more just a compliment. I get it.

Lauren: I had to do yoga this morning just to get through the panic attack. Yes, I hear you. I hear you. I think we’re all here right now. I don’t know a single person who’s not. We’re in it together.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s a particularly stressful time for particularly anxious people.

Lauren: That’s right.

Zibby: That’ll be the chapter title of this phase of my life.

Lauren: I love it.

Zibby: Lauren, thank you so much. I’m so glad we got to chat. This has been such a joy. I feel like I just dipped into a really interesting book for a few minutes. Enjoy Florida. I hope to meet in person someday. Good luck with all your stuff.

Lauren: Same. Thank you.

Lauren Groff, MATRIX

MATRIX by Lauren Groff

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