Every morning Lauren Groff wakes early, around 5 AM, to take a long run through the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 21,000-acre expanse set on a freshwater marsh. “The other day I was running in the silence of the prairie and the fog was coming off of the tawny grasses, and there were big rain puddles all around. Just glorious.”
Now, Groff says, she finds it very spiritual to be in Florida nature, but this was not always the case. “When we first came to Florida, Clay took me through the Everglades by bicycle,” she says with a laugh. “At one point I looked ahead on the path and saw four giant alligators lounging in the sun, their jaws wide open. Clay had already ridden past them. We were separated by four giant alligators! I screamed and said I was sorry that he had to die this way. He rode back to me really fast. They didn’t even move.”
She was petrified to go back outside for a while, and she uses that brand of fear to great effect in the stories in her new collection, setting her narratives in snake-infested swamps and buildings covered in kudzu. When Groff saw Spanish moss for the first time, she says, “It reminded me of armpit hair.” Her remarkable gift for dark description can be seen in all of her books, starting with her debut, The Monsters of Templeton, but it took on more power in her first collection of stories, Delicate Edible Birds, in which one character describes depression as “this black sack filled with cobras.”
One story from that collection, “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a strange twentieth-century version of Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard’s legendary love affair, caught the attention of novelist Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them (Penguin Press, 2013). “My reaction was, ‘Who is this person?’” Holt says. “At the time I was an editor at One Story magazine, and I asked to interview her; there are some people you feel like you’ve known forever, and Lauren is one for me.”
Holt emphasizes Groff’s dedication to her work. “I don’t know a single person who works harder or is more disciplined or is harder on herself than Lauren is,” she says. “She’s incredibly focused, and her life is very structured but in a good way. I think the fact that she used to be a competitive athlete helps.”
“I love the way running forces your thoughts into a different form,” Groff says about her current favorite athletic activity, “the same way a poem written in a strict form makes strange new connections between thoughts.” But she also admits: “In case it wasn’t already apparent, I’m an anxious person. My writing is all about calibrating anxiety so that I have enough to finish the piece I’m working on—but not so much that it swamps me.”
This may help explain why her books are so distinct from one another. She needs to finish each one and then put it away. “I need to be a completely different person than I was when I start my next book, every time,” she says. Each book is a reaction against the previous book, from The Monsters of Templeton, in which the fifty-foot-long body of a sea creature surfaces in a town’s lake while a disgraced student returns home to search for her father after his mysterious disappearance, to Fates and Furies, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction and President Obama’s choice for his favorite book of the year, which tells the divided story of a marriage—the first half from the perspective of a failed playwright named Lotto, the second half from the perspective of his wife, Mathilde—threaded together into a revelatory portrait.
Groff isn’t the only author to take such a stance on previous books, of course. At this year’s AWP conference she gave a reading with novelist Nathan Englander, who shares her perspective on past work. “We’re both oppositional personalities,” she says about the author whose most recent novel is Dinner at the Center of the Earth, published by Knopf last year. “So we were discussing how ready we each were to oppose the previous book we’d written. It actually is a revolt, a revolution against what came before.” She says she does this every time, no matter how successful her previous project. “I do it on purpose. And I think for me it’s a way to kill the previous book. I am invested in becoming a better person, and I don’t think I can do that by staying the same. As I write my way into my evolution, I become a better writer, too.”
Her agent, Bill Clegg, thinks Groff’s appeal is “something elemental and volatile in her sentences and plots, a tension between her capacity to create beauty and her impulse to subvert and destroy it,” he says. “She never lets you fully relax into a character or a story or even a passage, and that tension is exhilarating. Reading Lauren’s work, you have a sense that she writes first from a deeply personal place and is accessing these forces as they exist in her.”
And sometimes, Groff would be the first to admit, those forces can be quite explosive: She is not afraid of burning things up—literally. This past New Year’s Eve she threw the pages of something she’d been writing for twelve years onto a bonfire. “I’ve been struggling a lot with creativity in this ‘brave new world’ of Trump’s America, which is so vastly different from what I thought was my America,” says Groff. “Many artists right now are thinking about how to be creative when there’s so much to do. Creativity saved my personal life, but maybe it’s not enough to save our society. I want to bear down really hard on our responsibility to other people.”
The irony of the twelve-year manuscript and her ambivalence about Florida is not lost on Groff. “Everything about me now is different, down to the cellular level, except for the house I live in. I had a bias when I came down here, and I wasn’t open to loving it.” She is glad to discard all of what she calls her “knee-jerk Northerner hostility, thinking Florida was all hicks or uptight retirees,” she says. “Gainesville is a university town full of everyone from students to farmers to hard-core punks to artists. There are good people wherever you land.”
But “to escape the Florida heat for the summer, at least,” Groff and her husband have renovated a barn in rural New Hampshire. During the February cold they ran the woodstove and watched insects that had burrowed into vintage beams emerge, “falling into confusion onto our shiny new floors and walls.” Like those insects, she says, houses take on the personalities of the humans who live in them, humans who “remain pressed into the walls and floors like ghosts, even after they’ve passed.” Some of her unforgettable characters in Florida feel like ghosts pressed into its pages: a penniless grad student in “Above and Below,” two abandoned little girls in “Dogs Go Wolf,” and a bereft widower in “Eyewall.”
The cover of Florida features a golden panther on the prowl. “It’s a vision of danger and wildness,” says Groff. “Everything about Florida, every object and animal and plant, is translated through the characters’ mind-sets, an indicator of alienation or fear or anger—or anxiety.” Groff says that Florida bothers her, shakes her up, brings her to a new place. “It’s a set of contradictions for me. For a long time it was my nemesis, but it’s also my home, where I wake up every day and where my children were born and where my husband is from—and if it can give rise to the three best people I know, it can’t be all bad.”
We’re sitting on a bench beneath an enormous bush—or tree, or vine. Or something. Florida is multilayered in ways that are not always obvious, much like Lauren Groff, and as we talk an image occurs to me, one that may help explain the collective tone of the book. “It’s almost as if each story in this book is a horizontal layer, and when you stack them on top of one another, you can see a Lauren-shaped figure in the middle,” I say.
“That was my working image for it,” she says, “but I never thought anyone would see it. Funny that it has to do with construction. I seem to be fascinated by community, houses, ambivalence, anger, other books, loneliness, and place. Turns out you can do a lot of different things with those elements.”
Others agree. A few weeks after this interview, Lauren Groff was awarded a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship. Past the beginning of her career and nowhere close to the end, Groff shows the kind of creative stamina and artistic endurance that will sustain her through the middle. As for whether or not the argument she poses in Florida comes full circle, Groff says about her current relationship with the state: “I’m pulled strongly in two separate directions, and they’re both valid, but I’m suspended within them.”
In other words, she’s right at home.
Bethanne Patrick is a writer and book critic who tweets @TheBookMaven. She is working on a memoir for Counterpoint Press.