Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies focuses on two charismatic characters, Lancelot (Lotto) and Mathilde, as they navigate the peaks and valleys of their seemingly idyllic matrimony. The depths and intricacies of these two protagonists are revealed separately in two sections, with Lotto recounting their lives in Fates, and Mathilde often offering divergent takes and revealing new truths in Furies. It’s a bold, nakedly honest, deeply sensual novel filled with literary references from Greek mythology to Shakespeare.
Fates and Furies has been long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award. Groff is also the author of two other novels and a collection of short stories. She has won the Paul Bowles Prize for Fiction, the PEN/O. Henry Award and the Pushcart Prize. CityBeat recently caught up with her on the road to discuss everything from gender roles to clean hotel sheets.
CityBeat: Fates and Furies is a book in which the two central characters are extremely committed to their marriage. How do you reconcile this with your own attitudes toward matrimony?
Lauren Groff: I’m not ambivalent about the particular marriage of Lotto and Mathilde; rather, I’m ambivalent about marriage in general, which, when I look at it squinting, seems a little retrogressive, a little too rigid in terms of gender roles. That said, I’m happily married myself, so my ambivalence comes from the fact that I’m not 100-percent for the institution, but the institution works for me. I wanted to push against more traditional ideas of marriage in a subversive way.
CB: Was there one thing that interested you in writing about the marriage of Lotto and Mathilde?
LG: I wanted to write about a happy marriage, because there are so few literary models of the like. Most novels that are about marriage are about unhappy ones, full of infidelity and brokenheartedness. It’s always harder for me to write happy than to write sad, and I wanted to challenge myself.
CB: I was surprised to discover that you are able to alternate between literary projects.LG: Novel projects take so long, and there are so many periods of slow production … you always have the option to work on something that’s exciting. I don’t think it’s hard to switch back and forth. It’s a way to make writing consistently surprising and fun.
CB: Do you ever find a need to outline?
LG: I don’t outline, but I do a great number of drafts in longhand, which I then throw out without rereading and start over again. This way, I can build the story before really sitting down and working on the language.
CB: Was there a specific time you can point to when you knew you wanted to become a writer?
LG: I grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the town’s big writer is of course James Fenimore Cooper. I held him in some awe and, because he was the model of what a writer was, somewhere in me it seemed that all writers were like him: dead old white men. I wrote poetry from the beginning, but it didn’t strike me as likely that I could become a writer until I took a creative writing class in college, and started reading contemporary short stories there. Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley and Joy Williams — all of these writers exploded my world and made me glimpse the possibility of writing as something I could try to do.
CB: You seem to write so naturally and without affect about sex and sensuality.
LG: Thank you. I think it takes a lot of trial and error to write well about anything, and writing about sex without veering into either the comic or the overblown mode is pretty tricky. One trick is to make sure the sex replicates the complicated emotional calculus of the scene. Another is to rewrite until you don’t make your significant other blush and avoid eye contact.
CB: How difficult is it being on the road during a book tour? What are some of the real challenges that many people might not ever imagine?
LG: Life is lovely on a book tour. You get to stay in quiet hotels with clean sheets and nice toiletries, you get to eat out (often too much). The only thing that’s a little tough is that it takes an introvert so much energy to perform night after night, and most writers are at the far end of the introversion/extroversion scale.
LAUREN GROFF will read from Fates and Furies 5 p.m. Sunday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Commons. More info: josephbeth.com.