Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Nicole Starczak, on behalf of the Creative Writing program at The New School and the NBCC, sat down with Lauren Groff at The New School in New York City to talk about her book Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Nicole Starczak: Welcome listeners, I’m Nicole Starczak and on behalf of the Creative Writing program at The New School and the National Book Critics Circle, I have the great privilege of talking with author Lauren Groff about her book Fates and Furies, which is a 2015 NBCC finalist in the category of fiction.
Lauren Groff: Hi, Nicole.
NS: For those of you who haven’t read Fates and Furies—which President Obama called his favorite book of 2015—and without giving anything away, I want to give a quick setup before we get into the questions. The book is about a marriage, and the first half of “Fates” is told primarily from the point of view of the husband, Lotto, while the second half, “Furies” is from Mathilde’s perspective, Lotto’s wife. So at the end of the book, what you have are two distinct versions of the same 24-year marriage.
So, Lauren, there is a TED talk by relationship therapist Esther Perel called “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Marriage.” In it, she describes love as to have and desire as to want, and the difficulty in maintaining the tension of both. How does love and desire operate in Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship? Is it different for each of them?
LG: I think love and desire operate differently for each of them. There’s something really interesting in the idea of “love as to have” and the idea of matrimony as this idea of possession. From the beginning, Lotto feels as though he possesses Mathilde. She does not necessarily feel as though she possesses her husband; she possesses herself in very real ways. They both desire each other, but the thing I was most interested in trying to figure out, to ask questions about—because in fiction you don’t get any answers, you get a lot more questions—is what to do with this feeling of possession, this feeling of being right in the world or not. Mathilde is a character who is uneasy in the world, in a way that Lotto is not. A lot of it has to do with his invisible privileges because he was born the way he is. He’s relatively attractive, tall, wealthy, smart. He has all the privileges one could possibly have and she does not in many ways. And how does that work when it’s applied to this very old institution of marriage that has been going through these massive social transformations, particularly in the last forty years? All of these questions are interesting to me and I wanted to think about them harder in the course of writing the book.
NS: While Lotto emerges from the book so clearly, the people closest to his heart all keep deep secrets from him. Why does love for Lotto seem to engender so much secrecy?
LG: Lotto is a character who is relatively narcissistic. I think anyone would say that just looking at him as a character. It’s kind of fun to write a narcissist because everything is about them always, no matter what. When something is about a character, only about a character, even if it’s not necessarily about them, that’s the way that they see the world. So they don’t necessarily have the curiosity to look at other people and to try to imagine what’s happening on the inside of them. So if the people around him have secrets, even though he’s a very smart person, he’s not very perceptive because it would never strike him that people who are close to him, people that he loves, would have secrets. It’s one of those ideas: What goes into making a character? What goes into making a character with a relatively trusting nature, which Lotto has?
NS: So, there’s opportunity to manipulate him?
LG: It’s less manipulation because they love him. Everybody in this book loves him, which is one of the other privileges that he has. So, it’s not per say manipulation, it’s more retention of autonomy within this feeling that he has that he knows everything there is to know.
NS: There is a great quote from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in reference to Nicole Diver and Rosemary Hoyt. It goes: “Their point of resemblance to each other, and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them.” Knowing that Fitzgerald published this book in 1934, I initially read it as quite an antiquated point of view. Can you speak on this with respect to Mathilde, who is a modern woman, but who still feels the need or desire to operate through men?
LG: I don’t know that she feels the desire to operate through men. It happens in her life multiple times that she operates through men. She has no power. One of her ways of getting power is to operate through men. Ultimately, she understands, and it’s a very slow dawning that she doesn’t have to operate in the world of men. It’s not necessarily that they were men, which is what she was attracted to, it’s that they have the power and she didn’t. So for her, it was mostly transactional. Although, she also deeply loves Lotto, but she also needs what he has to give her. So whatever the power would have been at that point for her, she would have wanted it. The mere fact of gender would have had no bearing on the story if gender didn’t have the power that it does, even today.
NS: So, you think that gender is essentially coincidental in this story?
LG: No, I don’t think it’s purely coincidental. But I think for her character, in order for her to get the thing that she wants, it’s one of the things that she could have used and she does use.
NS: Moving onto sex. James Salter once said in the Paris Review, “I think the major axis of life is a sexual one.” He was so good with sex, and you’re so good with it. And in this book, sex seems to function in Lotto and Mathilde’s lives so differently. Can you talk about what sex means to them as individuals?
LG: Lotto early on was quite a player and he had a lot of sexual experiences. Mathilde, on the other hand, she’s not cold by any means, she really enjoys sex, but she understands it to be about power in a way that he doesn’t. For Lotto, it was a matter of connecting with another human being. It’s a physical connection that doesn’t require huge amounts of what we were talking about earlier, the intellectual curiosity. For Mathilde, it’s so much more complicated and so much more complex in terms of the dynamic. Like dialogue, sex is a lot of times about power and slight transitions of power, in the moment, but also in general. When I was trying to think of these sex scenes that I wanted to write, and I desperately wanted to make sure there was sex in this marriage because most of the marriages you read about in contemporary literature, and distant literature, there’s almost no sex at all, and if there is, it’s just sort of mentioned in passing as the way that babies are made, but it’s a real and vital part of intimate partnerships. So I looked at this and thought what I really need to do is make sure it’s a dialogue, a dialogue through the body. There are waves of power and return. Even if it’s transactional, there are still moments of twists as with any conversation one can possibly have. There are twists where the other person does something that you don’t expect. It really helped me to think about it as just a silent dialogue.
NS: I want to talk a bit about craft: The physicality of your characters and spaces is so strong. When you’re bringing a detail to life, what’s most important to you?
LG: This is a really hard thing for me. I work really hard at trying to figure out what is the living detail. If I didn’t, my books would be 5,000 pages long and no one would ever read them. When I write, I write in layers. I write lots of quick drafts. The first one will be about four to six months, and they slowly grow over time in terms of how much time that they take up. What happens at the end of the draft is that I throw it out and start over again. Between drafts, it’s interesting what takes place: I tend to lose the things that aren’t the living details of the scene and I gain an idea of what the scene needs in sensory detail. Even though I could spend fifty pages writing about three minutes and go off on poetic descriptions of what’s happening through the window, I try not to because you want to give weight to the things that really matter, or seem to matter, or sort of build a subterranean world underneath the surface world. I only get to that through my repeated processes of drafting and discarding and drafting again.
NS: You write through editing, it sounds like.
LG: Yeah, I do. I write through editing. But it feels as if I’m writing the first glorious draft every time because it has a sort of urgency and momentum. So it’s not as if I’m editing-editing all the time. My ultimate draft, the one after I’ve paid a lot of attention to the words, which does not happen until very late, is basically an editing draft where I take one to two bottles of wine, and my red pen, and I sit there all night long and try to cross out whatever I can possibly cross out. I do a lot of editing, but as I’m writing, I think of it as composition for four years at a time, even though I’m writing the same story over and over.
NS: Were there any writers or projects that influenced Fates and Furies?
LG: Oh my gosh, so many! There is a truism that says that books come out of other books. It’s my job to be a reader as much as it’s my job to be a writer. I think any book of mine has about a thousand other books in it. Some of the most obvious ones that come to mind when I’m talking about Fates and Furies—I went through this huge Shakespeare phase where all I wanted to do all day long was read Shakespeare's plays. I tried to get through all of them. I failed. I have yet to get through every one of Shakespeare’s plays. I went through a Greek myth phase, where I took a lot of online courses on Greek Tragedy, the Greek hero, the great dramas. Those went in, too. Anne Carson goes in because I love her and she’s possibly my favorite living author. Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge went in. Jane Gardam went in with the Old Filth books, which I love; I think they’re amazing and modern classics. I should probably stop there because if I don’t I will never stop.
NS: What’s on your reading list? Or nightstand? And is there anything surprising?
LG: Yes, but I can’t talk about the surprising things because they’re part of my next project and if I talk about it too much it will die. There’s a new Kelly Link introduction to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber that I want to read again. John Barryman’s The Dream Song, which I haven’t read. Magda Szabo’s The Door, which everybody says is an amazing book, but I have yet to read it. I have so many books on my nightstand it’s threatening to topple the nightstand itself. A lot of them are books of poetry, which ostensibly one could read in a sitting, but they’re so dense that it takes me a long time.
NS: Lauren, thank you so much.
LG: Oh, it’s my pleasure!
NS: It’s been so interesting talking to you.
Again, I’m Nicole Starczak and I’ve been talking about Fates and Furies with author Lauren Groff. Lauren is also the author of Arcadia, The Monsters of Templeton, and the short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds.
And on behalf of The New School and the NBCC, I wish you the best of luck with the upcoming award ceremony held here at The New School on March 17th.
LG: Thank you so much.
Lauren Groff is the New York Times-bestselling author of three novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the celebrated short-story collection Delicate Edible Birds. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and several Best American Short Stories anthologies; has won the Paul Bowles Prize for Fiction, the PEN/O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize; and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Orange Award for New Writers, and the L.A. Times Book Prize.
Nicole Starczak is a first-year fiction student in The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program and the former director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. You can find her on Twitter @MissNicoStarr.