In the first few pages of Matrix by Lauren Groff, we meet our heroine – a reimagining of the 12th century poet Marie de France – at her lowest, filthiest ebb. Too rough and unattractive for court, she’s cast out on horseback, on a wet day in early spring, to become the 17-year-old abbess of a failing convent in southeast England. There’s nothing to eat, the nuns are ill, and her servant lover, Cecily, abandons her rather than be “buried alive” in a nunnery. It’s an energetic, deliberately modern historical novel about female love, ordinary pleasures, and the life that Marie might have lived.
Lauren discussed the book with me from her library in Gainesville, Florida, where she’s lived with her family for 15 years. We talked about basing her heroine on an enigmatic historical figure, her impressions of the nunnery she visited in order to research the book, and the choice to write a novel with no male characters (“even the oxen are female”).
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In a different time we would be having breakfast face-to-face in London, but we have to pretend. What are you having for breakfast?
If we were going out together in London, I would eat an enormous breakfast because I love the traditional English breakfast but the beans and tomatoes and eggs. But I actually don’t eat breakfast anymore because I'm doing intermittent fasting right now, so I wait until noon and then eat a huge lunch. It’s just black coffee until then, which is what I’m drinking at the moment.
What does your day look like when you’re in the middle of a novel? Is there a lot of structure?
There has to be a great deal of structure, or else I will never finish anything. I also think that structuring the day closely is the best mitigation against frustration and disappointment in your own ability at any given time—you just wake up the next day and try again. I get up every day, very early, at about five, get some black coffee then go straight upstairs. You have a child, so you know, as soon as they’re awake, the creative day is all over. Getting up a couple of hours before everyone else gives you the space and time and darkness to sit there in leisure and think. I come downstairs while the boys eat breakfast, because they’re my favourite humans and I want to see them. We’ll sit and talk. They’re 13 and 11, so they don’t always tell me everything that’s on their mind. Then they go to school and I go back to work. At 9am or 10am I go for a run because it resets everything, or I go play tennis. And then I come back and I’m ravenous. I eat lunch and then if I'm really on a roll, I'll go back to the fiction, but if not, I’ll do just general work of writing – emailing, blurbs, all of that writerly stuff that is subsidiary but also important.
Does any of that change if you aren’t in the middle of a novel?
I'm always working on something longer, because I usually have four or five projects going at any given moment. The beauty of working like this is that you go where the energy is, where the heat is, where the focus is. It’s always exciting to sit down with the work. It’s never a grind.
Did you ever think about doing anything other than writing?
Yes. I graduated from college in 2001 and I spent some time as a bartender while I wrote at night. Then I worked at Stanford as an admin assistant, again writing at night, until at last I went to grad school in creative writing. But during those first three years when I wrote my first three novels, I failed over and over, and felt lonely in my failure. I put together application packets for grad school in comparative literature. But then, as I was standing over the mailbox, I decided that I really didn't want to do this, and I had put my recommenders through an unnecessary amount of work because I just didn't want to go to grad school in comp lit. For a minute there, I was thinking of becoming a professor. But I think all along I really wanted just to be alone and write fiction. That's all I've ever wanted to do.
I was comforted by Matrix. Do you see it as a comforting book?
You know, I didn’t when I wrote it. I was trying very hard to quietly subvert some ideas about the world and tropes in fiction, so I was focused on those, and not on the reader's comfort. But it's funny, I’ve been told that the book is comforting because it's about someone who's building something tangible, and we're in a time of pandemic when it feels as though everything is falling apart.
There are a lot of fundamental pleasures in this novel. I think that’s also where I found the comfort – sex, friendship, growing things, building things, seeing hard work pay off. Was that intentional?
Yes. A part of this book is this sort of repudiation of asceticism, and a deep dive into sensory pleasure. But also the pleasure of community and the sort of spiritual pleasures that I think don't tend to be thought about or focused on that much in fiction, primarily because, you know, we tend to centre fiction on conflict. What I mean by this is that conflict is sort of the lingua franca of all narrative. But I think pleasure is an equal counterpoint to conflict.
The narrative structure is unexpected. We have Marie de France on a hard-won, satisfying rise, and I started to get worried that we were in for some terrible disruption in the second half. But instead, her power and influence continues to build.
Some of the reason for this, perhaps, is that I have been thinking through the general traditional arc of storytelling – the way that we teach our students how to tell stories with the rise in action then climax and denouement – and I realised a few years ago that it was predicated on a male sexual experience. Instead of the usual dramatic climax, in this particular book – because the story was so female centred – I wanted the narrative rise to be closer to a female orgasmic experience instead. The arc I see as a series of rings, not a rise, then break, then a fall, which is what we're used to.
This is your first historical novel. Were there writers who were inspiring you to go in that direction?
Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourites. She’s unbelievably amazing. The Blue Flower was the beginning of my thinking about the way that you could write historical fiction. Sometimes when you read historical fiction, the writer is so anxious to make sure that you know that they know what they're doing that the details are overabundant. But in The Blue Flower everything is so light. The characters are beautifully sketched in. It’s a character story that just happens to be set in a certain period of time that she knows very deeply.
That was the feeling that I wanted – a swift historical fiction that’s actually speaking in multiple voices, not only in the voice of the 12th century, but also in the voice of the 21st century. I wanted that sort of multiplicity of time to come out in every single line and every single detail so that the reader was reading in dual time periods.
Did you ever think a 12th century nunnery might be a hard sell for readers?
Every single book I've ever written, I've been like ‘nobody's ever going to want to read this.’ I think one of the great joys of writing fiction is that you get to scare yourself and to take huge risks that you think most of the way through that are just not going to pay off. You're doing it because you love it and not because you think anyone else is going to love it. Most of the time that I'm writing, I think that I don't know what the audience could possibly look like for this particular story, but I hope there is one.
Maybe because of the way that you write – having so many projects, and being willing to set them aside – it feels like the stakes are a little lower, and you can be more playful.
Yes, absolutely. I'm not putting everything I have into one project all at once. I only have four novels in the world at this point, but I’ve probably written ten novels. A lot of them are just waiting for a better form, or for me to be mature enough to write them more cleverly.
In which part of the UK is Matrix meant to be set?
It’s a compilation of a few places. I was thinking of Barking Abbey and Shaftesbury Abbey, but I didn’t want to clearly specify any individual places. I was thinking it was located in the southwest [of Britain], maybe 40 miles inland from the ocean.
I read that as part of your research, you spent time in a nunnery. Is that right?
Yes, but not for very long. It was a long weekend. There’s a place in Connecticut called Regina Laudis where there are cloistered Benedictine nuns, and part of the Benedictine rule is the rule of hospitality. Almost every convent that’s Benedictine has a guest house that you can apply to, and they will allow you to come and visit.
The Abbey of Regina Laudis is beautiful, set spectacularly in the Connecticut countryside. I went in November. The bread is fresh-baked and the vegetables are from the garden. They have a nun who went to France to learn cheesemaking, so the cheese is really good. So in some ways, the nuns' life is a profoundly idyllic life and one that I envied. They all have a vocation, but they’re also there in order to take care of one another and to be taken care of. Eventually, when they become very old, the younger nuns are the ones who guide them through the ageing process. It’s so beautiful to me because it breaks with the way that we have learned to think about old age and our debt to our fellow humans.
How did the lack of privacy and individuality strike you as an outsider?
Those were both huge elements that I was thinking about while writing the book. And of course, the nuns are all wearing the same things, they’re all eating the same things. But humans are humans. I did ask if they felt constrained by the lack of individuality. They said no, because once you take away the amount of privacy that one is accustomed to in the larger world, you start to see personalities becoming more distinct, individuality becoming stronger and more vibrant in very real ways. I thought that was fascinating, and I really wanted to play around with that in the book.
So little is known about Marie de France. How did you decide what kind of a life you were going to give her?
I didn't have much to go on, to be perfectly honest, I only had her work. So I went back to her work, I went back to the lais and the fables. I read very carefully and extricated lines and ideas that I felt were indicative of the person or personality that was writing. The end result was almost a piece of flash fiction in some ways. I began to see when I was doing that, that my idea of the original person was of someone who's a sensualist – very much an animal in the best way. The original writer was a sensual person, and very savvy about sex. Marie interacts with the world through the body and through her own bodily hungers. She is someone who's wide awake to sound and to taste and to the luxury of ermine.
I thought, then, that even if this person were in an abbey, she'd be having sex, right? This is a person who has an appetite for living, experiencing as much as she can through the body. And there's no one around but other women. Of course, this character is my own invention. Who knows what the original Marie de France was like.
But it was also my project from the beginning that men weren't going to be seen in focus in this book. They were going to be shadowy figures in the distance. I wanted Marie to have a fulfilling life, I wanted her to know erotic love. And so of course, because there are no men her erotic experiences had to come from women. It was just all part of my understanding of the character.
That was going to be my last question. There are essentially no male characters in this book. Was that deliberate, or a natural consequence of setting a novel in a nunnery?
Oh no, it is deeply deliberate. I mean, even Jesus is not invoked as Jesus. God is a woman in this book. The animals are female animals. There are male characters but they're never mentioned directly or seen as anything more than a vague force in the distance. So no, I very deliberately tried to flip the tables because if you read enough mediaeval literature that isn't explicitly from women of the time, women are just a side thought. They never come into focus. They were not considered interesting enough to be written about on their own merits. It's really only the men who were at all interesting to the scribes and historians of the time. So I thought, what would happen if that were flipped and women were the only interesting people, or the only visible people in the book? Oh, yes. I felt glee in building this world. Even the oxen are female.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Eli Sinkus.
Lauren Groff's novel Matrix is available now, published by Penguin Random House.