It came to Lauren Groff like a vision. Two histories clicked in her head, offering themselves up as a single story. An old story, like nothing she'd written before.
It stemmed from her longtime love of medieval French literature, from her new understanding of the lives of nuns.
And from her deep, intense desire to "just get rid of men."
"To live in a world without men, just for a little while," Groff said via Zoom, with a half-sigh, half-laugh, explaining why her new novel, "Matrix," is set in a remote 12th-century convent. "To not feel the pressure of that kind of constant expectation, of angry orange people yelling at you all the time."
So in the first pages, she sends her protagonist — the real-life poet/nun/enigma Marie de France — to an abbey in England, "pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall."
A prison that becomes, by book's end, "a shell, a cathedral, a home."
A two-time National Book Award finalist, Groff will come to St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater on Sept. 14 to launch the fall season of Talking Volumes literary conversations.
While best known for chronicling contemporary life, as she did in the mesmerizing, bestselling "Fates and Furies," a split portrait of a marriage praised by critics and former President Barack Obama, she's turned to history before — notably with "L. DeBard and Aliette," a 2006 short story set amid the flu pandemic of 1918.
Historical or contemporary, her writing conjures complex worlds and timely questions. Yet, her sentences often feel weightless. Like little marvels.
The trick, Groff said, is to create characters that "you love very deeply."
In an interview from her home in Gainesville, Fla., Groff answered and posed big, knotty questions with quick nuance and wit. About the Crusades and climate change. About the pandemic, something she's anticipated, feared and written about, again and again. About American masculinity, which, as the mother of two boys, is not just an intellectual problem but a practical one. About historical fiction, once a filthy term in the publishing world.
"It's increasingly clear that the historical novel is being embraced and reinvented," a recent New York Times article argued, citing Groff's highly anticipated "Matrix" as evidence.
"It's super fraught, this idea of historical fiction," Groff said. "It can feel like tourism in time. Or it can feel like decorative writing, as opposed to necessary writing. There's a profound bias against it that prevents people from picking it up and seeing the contemporary resonance."
Before penning "Matrix" — which comes out Tuesday — Groff had declared that she'd never again write a historical novel. (She's written one yet to published.) But she became convinced that the best way — the only way, maybe — to capture this particular present was by looking back.
"I was trying to think through the pain and rage and sadness of living in the anthropocene with authoritarianism on rise," she said. "It was overwhelming. It was just so much. I didn't feel as though I could intellectually grasp enough of it to do this time justice. ...
"I didn't want to look directly at it, because I knew my vision would fail."
'The trap of their time'
A few years back, during a fellowship at Harvard University, Groff's brain "exploded into rainbows."
Another fellow, Katie Bugyis, was lecturing on new evidence, in documents and dental remains, that nuns worked as scribes and illuminators, entrusted with rare pigments and religious texts.
Groff was entranced by these women, "caught in the trap of their time and their gender, able to resist through writing they weren't supposed to do."
As soon as the lecture wrapped, "Lauren immediately rushed me," Bugyis said by phone, and in the days following, posed question after question about the abbeys and the abbesses who ran them.
During the 12th century, women's options were limited, said Bugyis, author of "The Care of Nuns: The Ministries of Benedictine Women in England During the Central Middle Ages." It's true that some saw being forcibly committed to a convent as a kind of death sentence, she said. In "Matrix," Marie's servant refuses to go with her to the abbey, aka "be buried alive forever with a bunch of dead-eyed nuns."
But "this way of life ended up opening up opportunities that didn't exist for women outside the convent," Bugyis said.
The Notre Dame professor can't bear to read or watch most depictions of nuns in popular culture. They're either strict taskmasters or crazed women, trying to escape.
"I knew from the get-go that Lauren wanted to honor these women's lives in all their complexity," Bugyis said. Curious and caring, Groff brims with compassion, she said.
"There is a stark beauty to Lauren's prose. It has a wonderful restraint to it. Lauren as a person just overflows."
Marie, from France
Scenes from Sunday services at a Presbyterian church in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Groff grew up: Out-of-tune singing. Lots of standing up and sitting down. Itchy tights slowly inching down her legs.
She remembers, too, fervently reading the Bible, rich with stories. "It's such a good foundation for being a citizen of the world," Groff said.
Today, she's raising her boys without dogma. Groff, 43, said she believes "whatever God is … is a light you can find in the world and in other people. ... I find it in my kids."
For many years, she wrote poetry. Bad poetry, she claims, "very internal and very inverted and very precious." But it gave her a private lexicon, an understanding of architecture, an appreciation of mystery. Her junior year at Amherst College, she couldn't get into a poetry class and took fiction instead.
By then, she'd devoured the classics, by George Eliot and the Brontës, the books that cost 10 cents at the library sale. In this class, for the first time, she read contemporary fiction — by women, in particular. Short stories were a revelation. "That was my vocation from then on."
Marie de France, too, was a college discovery. Her writings, bursting with drama, psychological complexity and startling images, upended Groff's perception that the Middle Ages were "a lot of chanting monks and starvation." So when she decided to write about nuns, she knew she'd write about Marie de France, too.
Marie's arc from angry teen to powerful abbess fuels the novel.
"She has passed from the temporal to the everlasting," Groff writes as Marie takes the veil. "She has committed herself to this scraggly awful place, to these women she hardly knows. There is in fact a change in her, something subtle, but every time she tries to touch it, to turn it around and consider it, she is left holding nothing."
Her daily life is free of men. But despite the walls, dams and mazes she builds to protect the abbey, she wrestles with the structures erected by and for them. She craves power. She prioritizes business over people. She keeps some of her nuns ignorant on purpose.
Marie is no hero, the abbey no utopia.
To explain, Groff flips back to present day. She attended the Women's March in 2017. She wore the pink pussy hat. But she was frustrated by "the well-meaning but naive sense that if women had only been listened to, none of this would have happened," she said. "When in reality, white women were the ones who voted Trump into office. I mean, we're at fault here.
"This putting of women on a pedestal as though we are people devoid of violence and hatred and power — I mean, Margaret Thatcher existed. ... "
With her new book, Groff pushed against that idea, complicating it and along the way, complicating Marie. Still, she held her character close, never losing sight of her light.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 14.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $22.50-$32.50, mprevents.org. Season tickets available. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required for admission.
Kate DiCamillo on "The Beatryce Prophecy," a new novel for middle-grade children set in medieval times (Sept. 30).
Amor Towles on his new novel, "The Lincoln Highway" (Oct. 13).
William Kent Krueger on his new Cork O'Connor mystery, "Lightning Strike" (Nov. 3).
The series is produced by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio, and hosted by MPR's Kerri Miller.