I blew through the last quarter of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in the wee hours, gasping. Surprise is rare in literary fiction, which is snobbish with its pleasures, generally picking meditation over movement; surprise is even rarer in novels that run on language as flush, wild and glinting as Groff’s. “Goodness, he would lick her crown to hallux,” thinks teenage Lotto, just before fucking his teenage crush (“hands blistered to blood,” Groff writes; “her eyes overflowed the liner”) in the actual middle of a house fire. Romance, to Lotto’s wife, is like “corn rammed down goose necks, this shit they’d swallowed since they were barely old enough to dress themselves in tulle.” The style is wrought heavily but carefully, and its force is like water—pulling you under, letting you float.
But the real game in the book is the structure, with all those surprises. Groff writes one character’s impatience with the “fat social novels”—a craving for “something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” Fates and Furies explicitly provides that. The novel’s about the fancily dressed marriage of golden-child Lotto and steely, sphinxish Mathilde. The first half (Fates) is from Lotto’s perspective, and arcs forward through time like a comet trail; the second half (Furies) is from Mathilde’s, and spirals backwards, all over the chronology, exploding the facts of Lotto’s story at every major point of contact.
And yet, being married, they’re attached to the same story, the same life. Neither half of the narrative is primary. Both build towards the same complicated point that underlies fiction’s basic theory and perhaps, one of marriage’s too—that a lie can lead to truth, and studied manipulation to something real. The novel is full of this mystic, volatile twinning—the titular forces of Fates and Furies are equal, like Mathilde and Lotto, and related in the same unpredictable way. Lotto’s section makes you believe in predestination, Mathilde’s in entropy—and the hinge between them, the book as a whole, in both. Lauren Groff and I talked on the phone last week.
Lauren Groff: I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy. I’m not normally an ebullient person, but it’s been a great, great week.
I hope so!
It reads like a blockbuster. And fiction is such an obscure, nebulous project; I wonder what it feels like to have come up from years in the mines with such a big diamond. People who’ll just now be picking up your work will get you first through this moment. What are they not seeing, what have they missed?
It’s so tempting to put an artificial narrative on your development, but in truth, it’s been a lot of stubbing my toe on walls that I didn’t know were there. To extend the metaphor to a point of being ridiculous—you’re in a labyrinth, just trying to find your way out. And I feel as if I’ve been so inured to failure, because I fail more than I succeed. As with any kind of fiction, I throw out so many pages; I get rejected so many times.
So your battle really becomes with the single page and not with anything other than that. Any extra reader is a gift. Time is the currency—the highest valued currency we have now. And people giving you their time is so incredible. They don’t have to like your book, either. That’s a totally separate gift.
I’ve got about three other projects right now, and I know as soon as I sit down to them again, I’m going to be the same dumb Lauren who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Nobody knows what they’re doing. That’s what makes it so fun and so gleeful. And honestly, I’m so happy this week, but I’m going to go home and clean up kid puke and try to convince my husband to let me have a dog.
I just typed “God” in my notes, because I’m thinking of the dog [a Shiba Inu named “God”] in the book.
I had a Shiba Inu, actually. She was so awful. She bit people, it was horrible.
They’re so cute, though!
So, what you said about currency makes me think of something Alexander Chee wrote recently—where time for a writer is “our mink, our mansion, our Lexus.” I’m wondering what it’s like to have big projects percolating simultaneously, how you’re able to psychically allocate so much time without knowing what’ll result. Or, maybe you do know? With Fates and Furies, the structure is so distinct and governing that I wondered if you started with it—wanted the book to work exactly this way.
I am a person beset with fears, and one of my fears is that this thing that I will be writing for five years won’t work. And the likelihood, of course, is that it won’t—and that’s fine.
So, to offset those fears, I tend to do multiple projects at once. With Arcadia, I was writing Fates and Furies at the same time, sort of to resist what I was doing with my last book. I think that when you work on two things at once, it’s a negative and positive charge—suddenly, you’re energized, and the two things work off one another, too. I’m also sort of a contrarian; I finish something, and think, “I don’t want to write a story like that ever again.”
With this book, I did know I wanted to write something that had the dude’s perspective and then the woman’s. And by the way, this was before Gone Girl, and I don’t think there should really be any comparisons.
Oh, for sure. I don’t think it’s meaningful in your case at all—or in really any of those “next Gone Girl” comparisons. Complicated Woman Has Secret is not a narrow category but a general fact.
Yeah. People throw the description around and I’m like, “Come on!”
I think Fates and Furies is more like the Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge books, or something—which are phenomenal, but also no one’s read them. I did know from the beginning that it was going to be he said/she said. I thought it was going to be two separate books, which didn’t work out at all, and wouldn’t have worked out at all. And I’m glad that my agent got really angry at me for suggesting it.
So I knew what I was doing—except of course I never know exactly what I’m doing, exactly what the story is that I’m telling. I do many, many drafts over time. Like I said, I’m a person run by fears, and one of the fears is not being perfect on the first pass. So I intentionally make myself be messy and destructive, because honestly, I’d rather spend three months on one sentence than forge ahead. I’ll do things like write an entire draft in longhand—
Oh my god—the night I stayed up finishing Fates and Furies I was texting one of my girlfriends who’s a great fan of yours, and she told me this longhand thing. I couldn’t process it. You what?
Yeah, I write everything out in longhand in one fast go. And then I throw out the first few and start over again. By the end of the first draft, the whole thing messy and disgusting and horrible, but you really understand the foundational stuff.
Oh my god.
No! It’s really a time-saver! Because otherwise you could work for years and years on something with structural flaws, and then, in the end, it falls down.
Is this the way you’ve always written fiction?
Not at all. I wrote for three years with an incredible lack of success before my MFA. I had to experiment, and learn what works.
I can see how it’d be a purification—you burn it down to the essential every time.
It’s sort of like doing blueprints before you build a structure. Otherwise, I’d be just putting bricks on top of bricks, rather than drawing it out first. And I do draw it out: I put up pictures and draw maps, too, trying to create a three-dimensional vision. There’s that old Alice Munro saying: a story is a house that you walk through. She can do that internally, because she holds it in her brain and she’s a mega-genius, but I had to build my house externally over many, many drafts.
Earlier, you talked about two projects creating a positive and negative charge. You’ve got that same opposition within this book, too: parallel timelines, of the same events, which are nonetheless vastly different from both parties’ sides. If the story is a house, you were building twin ones simultaneously—or more like, building one house that holds two distinct ones on top of each other in space. How did you do it?
The actual way the first draft took place was on my wall. I put up huge sheets of paper, and would write Lotto’s and immediately write Mathilde’s afterward, or I thought of something from her point of view I’d turn around and write it from his.
A lot of it didn’t make it into the book, of course, but it looked almost like a messy drawing, a drawing covered with words.
That makes sense, and seems to be maybe the only way you could chronologically make room for the type of surprises in the second half, which often go back in time instead of forward, re-angling the plot. The structure itself is a surprise, actually. I thought it was going to be this cosmically but traditionally realist novel until Mathilde’s section, which was so destabilizing. Reveal after reveal after reveal.
That was part of the whole project. In the first half, I was trying to build a traditional bildungsroman, which is a very masculine form of storytelling. They’re all about men; there are almost none about women, and that’s just the way things are. And so with Mathilde’s part, I just wanted to puncture holes in that bildungsroman structure, which is maybe insane but was also very fun.
There is another way that the book surprised me, which was—I’d read the jacket copy, which said something like, “This marriage is phenomenal, and then something happens, and it gets even more phenomenal.” I was like, “Okay, book jacket.” I figured you were writing about a happy couple that just got happier. (Which was intriguing in itself—what’s rarer in fiction than a happy marriage?)
But then the book showed me I had been thinking so superficially. Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is increasingly phenomenal in the way that marriages really are, which is in the fact that, for all the peaks a marriage can contain, time builds in proportionate valleys of—I don’t know, effort and secret and pain.
Yeah. And I hate the modern tendency to simplify everything down to its bare bones. Reduction leads to so many of the bad things in this world, leads to incredibly stupid political parties—and of course, I’m reducing things right now. But complexity is really what’s more beautiful, and that’s true when it comes to marriage too. As one lives within a marriage, one builds more and more layers, more and more complexity and interest—stories that one tells one another, and different viewpoints on certain stories. And I love that.
To build that within the narrative of a marriage, though, still seems rare. The institution either gets painted as absolute or useless, the couple as cleaved, one way or the other—but it’s maybe always neither and both.
Totally! I’ll be honest: I am deeply ambivalent about marriage. It’s the best thing ever and the worst thing ever. I would never have chosen to be married had my husband not proposed. It’s a safe place, and it’s also a straitjacket. And the fact that these two things can exist at the same time is really one of those mysterious bolts of lightning—it’s a beautiful thing.
Right. And that paradox is central to Fates and Furies: the characters being totally known by each other, and also totally unknowable. It recurs in the book: two things will be very opposed to each other, and also both true.
Maybe it comes down to the way that there’s an essential ambiguity, I think, in the way we have these philosophies about ourselves and about our lives. Lotto thinks he is fated for greatness; everybody tells him that he’s fated for greatness, and he really believes it. But Mathilde, on the other hand, is animated by very different deities. She does not subscribe to that philosophy about life. But both philosophies are equally true. They’re not fighting in this book; they’re living in harmony.
Did this book require this level of intensity in the language from the beginning?
I think, in terms of the prose, I responded to the characters. I actually think—I’m not a synesthete at all, I’m not like Nabokov, but I do feel things in tones, and these two parts of the book have different tones. I saw Lotto’s like Florida: jungle-y, lush green, gold, sunshine, sparkling bits. Mathilde’s part, I see it as very cold blue.
Mathilde is so beautifully cold. And it’s a surprise, too, because in Lotto’s section, she seems—not subservient, but she is explicitly secondary: working to support him, encouraging him, cleaning up broken wine glasses. Then in her section, you realize how little we knew about her, how wrong we were to think she was in any way subservient. And I was wondering if it was satisfying to just write Lotto as blithely accepting all this invisible help from her, and then know her half would be just like, “FUCK YOU.”
Oh, yeah. That was entirely the point! From the beginning I thought I was writing a book about privilege. Invisible privilege, because that’s what Lotto has; he has every single benefit a human being could have. It might have actually been harder to write him because of it. My natural sympathies are not along those lines, so I had to find a way to love him. And, of course, I eventually did.
But I love Mathilde more—just because she’s so much smarter than he is. She also loves him so deeply; she knows that if she let certain things about her go loose, she would hurt him so immensely. She has a coldness, a self-control in a way that I’ve always admired in other people but been unable to find in myself.
She’s Claire Underwood-esque—the lack of friends, those 30-mile runs.
Yes! It’s funny, I did watch House of Cards at some point while I was writing this, and there are real similarities, although I didn’t think about them at the time. I like that Lady Macbeth ability to be strong. Mathilde can just see things more distantly in the future than Lotto.
And she can seem subservient, and that’s a trait I have seen in people who are actually constantly boiling with rage—particularly women. We’re told to be nice, sweet, not to be angry, because the anger of a woman is an incredibly frightening thing. It’s not something that we as a society value at all. And there’s nothing more devastating to a woman than to be called a harridan, a hag, whatever a witch is—someone with power who fights against the status quo.
All along I knew she had this secret life within her that he wouldn’t see. She’s afraid of showing him exactly how furious she is. But that’s not to say that she’s damaged or self-destructive. She’s not. She’s self-protective and controlling, and that’s a very different thing.
Yeah, there’s some real, fluid honesty in this book about female compromise—its inevitability, its omnipresence, and its real limits. Mathilde has all the power, but Lotto has the glory; it couldn’t run the other way, because that’s not how the world works right now.
She’s never been a victim and she never would be. She’s just clear-sighted. She is hurt, like everyone else; she’s human. But she’s able to understand things on such a distant level. And I so agree, and I hope that that’s what people get from her. I wanted to write the opposite of many heroines in literature—a woman whose anger doesn’t end up imploding and destroying her, but rather a heroine whose anger explodes outward into the world.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Images courtesy of Riverhead.