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While studying at Radcliffe for a semester in 2018, author Lauren Groff, who hails from Florida, would visit the Brattle Theatre to escape Boston’s frigid winter.
On Sept. 19, the three-time National Book Award finalist returned to the Brattle Theatre, this time to talk about her new novel “The Vaster Wilds,” the story of a young girl’s survival after escaping the Jamestown settlement in 17th-century New England.
Her conversation with Laura van den Berg — a fiction writer, Harvard lecturer, and close friend of Groff’s — proved to be insightful both for aspiring writers and avid readers looking to understand Groff’s themes. Groff is a self-proclaimed cynic of the modern world, which is why she has been writing historical fiction. But she is also humorous, eccentric, and honest, which made the event both entertaining and incredibly thoughtful.
Groff began the event by reading a short passage from the start of “The Vaster Wilds.” The passage depicted the main character’s initial escape into the New England woods, showcasing Groff’s mastery of vivid yet accessible descriptions of brutal natural environments and the human presence within them.
She found inspiration for “The Vaster Wilds” a couple of years ago in a magazine in a doctor’s office. The magazine included a story about the diseases, famines, and violence of the Jamestown settlement office. A few years later, she reread Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” a novel about a shipwreck survival that served as a further inspiration for her book.
Groff then decided that she wanted to take what she calls the generic hyper-masculine frontier narrative about adventure and survival and turn it on its head, effectively transforming the quest for survival into a captive narrative centered on a young girl embracing the unknown on her own quest.
Much of the discussion at the event surrounded the complex relationship with God and religion in “The Vaster Wilds.” Groff confessed that she almost began crying at a book talk the previous week when novelist Ann Patchett told her that her book “runs away from God.”
“I was like, ‘No, Ann, she’s running towards God and away from religion,’” she said.
She mentioned her use of the third person as a tool that ties the narrative to religion.
“I think a lot of contemporary writers are afraid of the third person, because the vast majority of the stories I saw were in the first person, and I think it has something to do with this flight away from the sacred or a suspicion of a larger authority, or even of religion itself,” she said.
Despite the trend she has seen toward the first person, Groff said that she loves the third person because it allows her to interrupt the chronological narrative with thoughtful insight that adds the texture to the story.
The conversation then shifted to Groff’s extensive research process.
“I’ll give myself a specific amount of time to do that historical research. That means everything — primary sources, and then contemporary sources conceptualizing those primary sources as well,” she said.
Groff said that her time spent doing research before writing is limited, although getting her drafts to their final form is a process that takes years.
“I won’t know what I need to know until I’ve actually done a draft and figured out how stupid I am,” she said. “Then I give myself a very short period of time for a first draft and it’s ugly. I never reread it. I can’t read my own handwriting. I write it all the way through longhand, then put it to the side in order to understand what more I need to do. Then you go back out into the research, back out to the actual experts who actually know something about this world and synthesize all of that into the next draft.”
When Groff finally feels like she knows the story and its historical context completely, she sets the drafts aside and begins again, typing this time, and is able to focus on crafting the language.
“I’ll never be a historian, I just don’t have the ability to do it. But the beautiful thing about fiction is that it’s not married to the moment in truth, right? It’s the appearance of truth,” she said. “And we do our best and we try to try to write with as much morality as possible, and to try to stay as close as possible to the truth of not only the penmanship but the larger scope and characters and the time, but knowing at the same time that you’re holding a paradox — which is that it is all invented.”
After the discussion, the members from the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. Avery E. Barakett ’24 asked Groff how she decides the form — a novel or a short story — an idea is going to take.
“The form of the novel takes place slowly over the drafts,” Groff said. “The form of the short story — I don’t even try and write the short story until it is accumulated enough in my circling galaxy to have the form.”
Barakett was impressed by Groff’s short story, “The Midnight Zone,” which she was assigned to read in her English class, finding it to transcend the basic levels of character and scene.
“This takes it to a level beyond,” she remembered thinking. “I want to go see how she does it.”
Barakett decided to attend the event after it was mentioned by her English professor. She found the talk to be fun and insightful.
“It was really interesting,” Barakett said. “I’m probably gonna come to more of these.”
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