How Lauren Groff, One of ‘Our Finest Living Writers,’ Does Her Work

Lauren Groff, the three-time National Book Award finalist, was marching through the woods of New Hampshire, her pants stuffed into her socks to keep out the ticks. Two muddy dogs jogged ahead of her and a reporter trotted along behind.

The outing was unusual for an author interview — and, given the pace of the hike, not an insignificant amount of exercise. Typically, these conversations take place over coffee or lunch, at a publisher’s office or maybe in a writer’s living room. But Groff had chosen something different: a five-mile hike through the woods and a swim in a pond, followed by a lunch of chickpea salad and a beet slaw with pistachio butter, all of which she made herself.

A former college athlete who still runs, swims and plays tennis regularly, Groff, 45, has a physicality about her that is central to how she lives and writes. That attention to the body is also central to her newest novel, “The Vaster Wilds,” in which a young woman escapes from Jamestown, Va. in the 17th century, and tries to survive on her own in the wilderness.

“In Lauren, the intellectual and the physical work together in her writing process — her body is involved,” said Sarah McGrath, her editor at Riverhead Books. “You can see that in this book in particular.”

Groff, whose work slides back and forth between historical and contemporary settings, has had three New York Times best sellers and is unusually productive for a literary writer.“The Vaster Wilds,” which Riverhead will release on Tuesday, will be published almost exactly two years after “Matrix,” a finalist for the National Book Award. That story follows a woman who builds a penurious 12th-century nunnery into a seat of female power and wealth.

Three years before that, in 2018, Groff published “Florida,” a story collection which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2015, she published “Fates and Furies,” a novel that examines a marriage from the enormously divergent perspectives of the husband and wife. That book, too, was a National Book Award finalist, and Barack Obama’s favorite that year. A letter he wrote to Groff about the novel hangs, framed, on the wall of her home office.

“In Lauren, the intellectual and the physical work together,” said her editor, Sarah McGrath. “Her body is involved.”Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

But novel writing is an endurance sport, and Groff said it takes her about five years to complete one. She’s able to keep up her publishing pace by working on several projects, even several novels, simultaneously, holding entire, vibrant worlds distinct in her mind. She began “The Vaster Wilds” before “Matrix,” she said, but finished “Matrix” first.

Those different projects live in different corners of her office, a former nursery with blue walls on the second floor of her house in Gainesville, Fla. And when she shifts from one piece of writing to another, she doesn’t shuffle papers on her desk, but moves her body to another part of the room. On a recent Zoom-tour of her work space, she had one project going at either end of her long wooden desk and another on the daybed.

“I’m trying to Jedi-mind trick myself into not putting so much pressure on any particular project by having them be really loose for the first really long span of time,” she said. “I’m writing toward — who knows? Letting it be exploration and joy, centered around either questions or a central thesis or an image.”

When Groff starts something new, she writes it out longhand in large spiral notebooks. After she completes a first draft, she puts it in a bankers box — and never reads it again. Then she’ll start the book over, still in longhand, working from memory. The idea is that this way, only the best, most vital bits survive.

“It’s not even the words on the page that accumulate, because I never look at them again, really, but the ideas and the characters start to take on gravity and density,” she said.

“Nothing matters except for these lightning bolts that I’ve discovered,” she continued, “the images that are happening, the sounds that are happening, that feel alive. Those are the only things that really matter from draft to draft.”

Giving up on projects that don’t work doesn’t feel like failure, she said. “It’s practice, right?” Credit…Zack Wittman for The New York Times

Groff, who has a goofy sense of humor and an unpretentious erudition, was raised in Cooperstown, N.Y., in a family of athletes. Her sister, Sarah True, was an Olympic triathlete. Groff played soccer at Amherst College and met her husband, Clay Kallman, on the crew team. Kallman said when they first got serious, he started running marathons to up his game.

“She’s got a lot of restless energy, she’s got a lot of motivation,” he said. “For her, writing has been a great outlet, and so have athletic pursuits.”

Groff and her family remain close. Though she lives in Gainesville, where Kallman owns and operates off-campus housing for University of Florida students, she spends every summer in New Hampshire, close to where her sister and her brother live, and where her parents have a house. Her parents and their Golden Retriever spend part of the year in Gainesville. (The New Hampshire house was the site of the interview for this article, which happened in the company of Groff’s dog, Olive, and her parents’ dog, Gem, who kept plopping down in mud puddles during the hike.)

When Groff agreed to move to Florida 17 years ago, she did so conditionally. She’d relocate, she said, only if she could travel as needed — for writers’ retreats, for book tours — and if Kallman agreed to reassess periodically. There’s a physical contract stating those terms, signed by her and Kallman, somewhere in her files. The document also delineates some of their child care plans — an arrangement that allows her to wake up at 5 a.m. and disappear into her writing for hours, without having to manage the routine of getting two children fed and out the door.

Groff and Kallman wake up together, they said, but the morning is not a time to chat.

“I get so mad at him if he tries to talk to me,” Groff joked about her husband. “I like the morning because it’s empty of people and ideas and you’re still sort of in a dream state until the caffeine kicks in. It’s the best time of day, for sure. It’s a very gentle time of day.”

In the afternoon, Groff deals with the business of being an author, responding to emails, doing publicity, writing blurbs. And she reads. A lot. In just the past few days, she said, she finished “Living and Dying With Marcel Proust,” completed a reread of “Moby Dick,” and started a graphic novel called “Roaming.” She estimates she reads about 300 books a year.

Groff will drop quotes into casual conversation, citing, say, Frank Lloyd Wright’s take on form and function, but she manages to do this in an entirely unaffected way, just tossing out an interesting nugget for consideration. Her editor, McGrath, said that Groff reread all of Shakespeare so she could write a version of “The Vaster Wilds” in iambic pentameter “just for fun,” as a way for her to master Elizabethan rhythms. (The final book is not in iambic pentameter.)

She is also a candid early reader for her author friends, like Hernan Diaz, whose novel “Trust” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. Groff, Diaz said, was one of the first people to read the book.

“She’s one of our finest living writers,” Diaz said. Her work, he said, has a profoundly ethical dimension, without “finger-wagging,” and her sentences are precise and complex, but also full of emotion. “This is a near impossible balance, one that I strive for as a writer all the time, to make the syntactical edifice as sound and capacious and beautiful as possible, but then fill it with emotion and heart and vibrancy. She does that.”

Groff said that in the midst of writing the books she’s published, she has also started numerous projects that came to nothing — most of them now exiled to bankers boxes behind a curtain in her office. But a few years ago, Kallman said, she brought a manuscript with her to a bonfire.

“She was like, well, this isn’t going to work,” he recalled. “So she threw it into the fire and it went up in flames. There’s a lot of creative destruction.”

But Groff said that giving up on projects — or even setting them on fire — doesn’t feel like failure, because none of that time or effort is wasted.

“It’s practice, right?” she said. “It’s like going out there and running five miles. It’s the same idea. Some days, it’ll be really tough and awful. And some days, you’ll see an alligator gilded by the sun.”

And then, she joked, you’ll run away from the giant reptile and hit your personal record.

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