Lauren Groff Used 'Fates And Furies' To Bring 'Feminine Rage' Into Light

Oct 27, 2015
Originally published on October 27, 2015 8:23 am

Welcome to the third session of the Morning Edition Reads book club! Here's how it works: A well-known writer will pick a book he or she loved. We'll all read it. Then, you'll send us your questions about the book. About a month later, we'll reconvene to talk about the book with the author and the writer who picked it.


As his choice for Morning Edition's book club, acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Russo selected Lauren Groff's Fates And Furies. Russo says what drew him to the book, which follows the arc of a marriage from the radically differing perspectives of the husband and wife, was intrigue.

"The secrets here are character secrets, not plot secrets," he says. "And they are revealed in ways that sometimes take your breath away. You have to wait almost until the last page of the book to get to the last of the secrets."

Groff revealed some of her writing secrets, and answered some of the questions that NPR listeners submitted, in a recent interview with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.


Interview Highlights

On Mathilde, her book's "quietly ferocious" female protagonist

One of the things I was looking at when I was writing this book was the phenomenon of feminine rage — because this is not something that we as a society talk about all that often.

In literary history that there aren't very many good models of feminine rage — and the ones that we remember are ones where women take that anger internally and implode themselves in a real way, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. I mean, they both end up killing themselves because they're so angry.

I wanted a strong woman who doesn't self-destruct.

On why Mathilde still seems to choose to be a stereotypical wife

I think that she makes a lot of traditionally "wifely" decisions, right, in the marriage, but I kind of wanted to see where those decisions come from. And they come from not only her background but also the society in which she has been raised. We're all functions of our societies, right? And we all become who we are because of the invisible forces that mold us.

On how William Shakespeare influenced the story

I definitely read a lot of Shakespeare when I was writing this book. ... He's full of the bawdy. ... He writes in every single register there is, and I love that. I love that he's both comic and tragic, and highly poetic, but also just dirty at times. ... I love that within the world of Shakespeare's plays, the whole world is sort of encompassed in a certain way.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. The novelist Lauren Groff has been telling the story of a marriage. We hear the story twice from different points of view in her book, "Fates And Furies." It is our latest selection for the MORNING EDITION Book Club. The acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Russo recommended it.

RICHARD RUSSO: The secrets here are character secrets, not plot secrets. And they are revealed in ways that sometimes take your breath away. You have to wait almost until the last page of the book to get to the last of the secrets.

INSKEEP: The husband has secrets. He goes by the name Lotto, and he becomes a playwright. The wife has even more secrets - a seemingly quiet and reserved woman who goes by the name Mathilde. As part of our book club talk, novelist Lauren Groff took our questions and some of yours.

I want to try to summarize this book in this way. It's the story of a marriage. The first half, you focus on the life of the husband. In the second half, you find out that the husband, who was with his wife for decades, didn't really know her at all - at all. What got you thinking about a story like that?

LAUREN GROFF: Well, I would actually say that he did know her on a certain level, a very elemental level. I mean, he knew who she was deep down. And sometimes, that's a more pure knowledge than just knowing her past. But what I was interested in was the phenomenon of marriage because I am, myself, married. But I'm also ambivalent about marriage. And you know, it's this strange, you know, intimacy. But also you have to retain your autonomy in a very major way. And so I just wanted to sort of suss out the complications of marriage and sort of use marriage also to think about other problems.

INSKEEP: Would we get you in trouble with your spouse if I asked why you're ambivalent about marriage?

GROFF: No, absolutely not. He knows.

INSKEEP: OK.

GROFF: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: All right, good.

GROFF: So we've been together since 1999. And he has known from the beginning that the institution of marriage is something that I resist quite a lot because of its historical background. You know, it's primarily - in the beginning - was away for young women to be sold to older men in order to create babies, you know? It wasn't the best, you know, institution to buy into. So he knew from the beginning. And then, one night on a Mexican beach, he got down on one knee and had a diamond in his hand. And I looked at him. And I said, you know, I could say no, and I would lose this gentle, wonderful human. Or I could say yes and become a hypocrite. And I said yes. So writing this book was part of my way of trying to come to terms with what I truly feel about marriage. But the problem with writing a novel is that you don't answer any questions. You just raise a hundred other questions.

INSKEEP: And it is interesting - without giving away too much of the plot here. You have the husband again and again point out that his wife is the purest, most wonderful person on the face of the earth, even as other minor characters off to the side keep referencing how awful she is.

GROFF: I agree that there's a willful ignorance in Lotto about Mathilde, his wife. But I'd also say that the moments that he sees her being awful are not her actually being awful. I would say that they're moments where she's being strong, and she's making the most difficult decision that she can for herself and for the people that she loves. And those are the decisions that perhaps we might not make. But they were right for her at the time. So I don't actually think that she's being awful. I think that she's being quietly ferocious.

INSKEEP: Quietly ferocious - tell me about that word and why you like that word and why you like a character to be ferocious.

GROFF: Well, one of the things I was looking at when I was writing this book was the phenomenon of feminine rage because this is not something that we, as a society, talk about all that often. In literary history, there aren't very many good models of feminine rage. And the ones that we remember are ones where women take that anger internally and implode themselves in a real way, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. I mean, they both end up killing themselves because they're so angry. I wanted a strong woman who doesn't self-destruct.

INSKEEP: Can I bring in some voices here of people who have read "Fates And Furies" and had questions?

KARLA SWIGGUM: My name is Karla Swiggum. I live in Jackson, Wyo. And I was wondering - the whole book got me thinking about the idea of nature versus nurture in the end. And I was wondering if Mathilde's personality would have been different if she'd been forgiven by those who were supposed to love her when she was such a young girl, only 4 years old. Or was she born into the world as one of the Furies, and the people in her life saw her inner nature right from the get-go?

INSKEEP: OK, nature versus nurture - how did you think about that as you created this character?

GROFF: That is such an excellent question from Karla. And I'm struggling to see it myself. As parents, right, you raise these kids and you try to figure out what is going on in their nature and how sometimes we can nurture them forward or pull them back a little bit. And in this book, I'm not quite sure. You know, I don't know if Mathilde is completely formed by that traumatic early experience or whether that is just PTSD. And it's sort of static in the back of her life. It's hard to tell. I would say probably it's a mixture of both. She's probably an intensely focused human being in general. And then the parts of her early life that have changed her have changed her immensely.

INSKEEP: One more question. I hope it's not giving away too much to say that there's a moment when it's discovered that the wife, Mathilde, sneaks out of the bedroom at night, finds her husband's manuscripts, and changes and corrects and edits them without him ever knowing. Have you, as a writer, ever come back to your manuscript in the morning and found it to be, mysteriously, in slightly better shape than you thought?

GROFF: No. But I'm also not a drunk, which Lotto is. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GROFF: I also, you know, am incredibly controlling. And if my husband even read my work when I'm not ready for him to do it, that would be, you know, World War III in our household. It would be very, very ugly and very bad - because I believe that my work is just not ready until it's ready. And if anybody even hears me talk about it before it's ready, it just sort of shrivels up and withers and becomes this sad little dead plant. So no, never, never in my life.

INSKEEP: Well, I won't ask what you're writing next, then.

GROFF: Please. Thank you. I mean, I could tell you, and then I would have to start something new.

INSKEEP: Of course. "Fates And Furies" is the novel by Lauren Groff. Thanks very much. I really enjoyed this.

GROFF: Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Her novel is our latest selection for the MORNING EDITION Book Club. And you can find out more by going to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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