By Kate Dwyer
Lauren Groff, a Gainesville, Florida—based author who has been nominated three times for the National Book Award in Fiction (for “Fates and Furies,” “Florida,” and “Matrix.”), often grapples with themes of faith, the spirituality of the natural world, and the constructs of organized religion. When asked why she continually returns to these topics, the author explains that questions of faith and religion “make up some of the quiet urgencies of my thinking, the very things that bring me to the page.” But “fiction answers nothing,” she adds. “It just pares these central questions down to ever- finer splinters.”
In her latest novel, “The Vaster Wilds,” (Riverhead Books) Groff explores the flexibility of the solitary mind as we follow Zed, a young woman wandering the wilderness outside colonial Jamestown. The starving servant girl slips through a crack in the palisade walls and flees to the forest, where she believes she will have a better chance of surviving the winter. When she’s sure no one from the settlement has followed her, she fashions a tent and makes a fire. Within the next few days— it is soon revealed that a soldier from the settlement is, in fact, hunting her—the girl frees a frozen fish from an ice floe and eats it raw, then captures a duck for its eggs and meat. At times Zed allows herself to inhabit a “second self” living an entirely different life and recounts her doomed romance with a Dutch glassblower on the ship that brought her to the New World, along with her passionate caretaking of the child Bess, who died in the Jamestown famine.
Here, Groff talks about her research process, riffing on Elizabethan style, and why this may be her favorite project yet.
Books & Books
Books & Books
Why Jamestown? What first sparked your interest in this time period? Do you see any contemporary resonance?
About a decade ago, I read—in Smithsonian magazine—an article about the Starving Time in Jamestown, the horrid winter of 1609–1610, when the colonists starved and were caught in a siege and were dying of disease and bad water. A young girl of the fort had been discovered to have been cannibalized; this stayed in my mind until I had the idea to write a sort of female Robinson Crusoe.
What was your research process like?
Oh, I love research. I did a lot of reading primary sources and modern academic contextualizing of said sources: I read about the effects of extremity on the human body; I returned to Shakespeare to get the music and rhythm and some of the language of Elizabethan era. Eventually, you have to just leap into writing, knowing that your understanding will necessarily be incomplete, and that you’ll have to fill in what you don’t know when you discover you don’t know it.
“The Vaster Wilds” reads as if the girl had been in captivity inside the settlement. How would you define a “captivity narrative” and what did you do to try to subvert the form?
I love that you picked that up! Early American captivity narratives were very popular during the first centuries after Europeans came to the New World because of their titillating qualities, and because they served as a kind of propaganda for Western expansion. I wanted to reverse their inherent assumptions of European supremacy, male supremacy, and redemption through suffering.
Books & Books
Books & Books
“Fates and Furies”
In a note to early readers, you mention the “sheer crunchy iambic delight” of Elizabethan language. How did it feel to flex your voice within Elizabethan constraints? Did you see it as a challenge?
I adored playing with the language. It didn’t feel as though I had constraints—sometimes form can be liberating—and I wanted to have language that held an inherently propulsive forward rhythm.
In your mind, how does “The Vaster Wilds” fit into your larger body of work?
This is probably a much better question for a critic! I would hope that everyone of my books is unusual, surprising, not the story that the previous book might lead a reader to expect, but also very clearly mine, in terms of voice, and quality of humor and language. I am always obsessed with community, of course, and this is perhaps a representation of community in a negative space.
In the same note to early readers, you mentioned that this book is closest to your heart. Why?
This book comes closest to my own understanding of the great ineffable mysteries of the universe, I suppose. It was also the most difficult book to write (so far), and the Puritan ethos of my childhood has sunk so deeply into my bones that there’s probably a part of me that does conflate difficulty with worth. Alas!