Over the course of four novels and two short story collections, Lauren Groff has tackled subjects as diverse as climate change, marital discord, and life in a medieval nunnery. Her latest, The Vaster Wilds (Riverhead, Sept.), is a survival story that upends some of the founding myths of America. “All of my books deal with the balance between individualism and community,” she says. “This book definitely comes out of that particular anxiety, but the individual is at the center.”
The novel follows a servant girl who, in 1610, escapes the illness and starvation rampant in Virginia’s Jamestown settlement, eking out an existence in the woods as she heads toward what she imagines will be a new and better way of life. “She doesn’t have any conception of how large North America is—she knows the French are to the north and the Spanish are to the south,” Groff says. “She thinks she’s going to make it to the French. She really has no idea how far it is, and that it’s almost impossible to do. I hope that the depictions of what she goes through are so vivid that people feel them in their bodies—the strain and the ecstasy of this flight, and the spiritual moments that happen later on.”
Groff took inspiration from numerous sources, including an old favorite: Robinson Crusoe. “I wanted to tell that story from a woman’s point of view,” she explains. “It’s interesting to look into the long history of these stories and find how closely related they are to feelings of spirituality external to any institution or church.”
She also explored early American women’s captivity narratives, such as those of Hannah Duston, Mary Rowlandson, and Hannah Swarton, and how they were used to justify spreading European culture in North America. “Because a lot of the narratives were edited or rewritten by men like Cotton Mather, I thought it would be good to create an actual woman living underneath the story,” Groff says. “I also wondered if I could invert the way that these have always been used, to instead critique the project of the United States of America.”
One unexpected side effect of her research: “It showed me how many ways there are to die,” she says. “It didn’t do what I really wanted it to do: to act as an inoculation against the terror of the world. But of course, that’s not the only reason why one writes fiction—it’s to explore, to connect, to see urgently something that seems somewhat mysterious or enigmatic, and that you can’t actually put into words until you write the book.”
Lauren Groff will be in conversation with novelist Meg Wolitzer on Wednesday, May 24, 10:30–11 a.m.