Genesis according to Lauren Groff

Upon the release of ‘The Vaster Wilds,’ the author talks archival interventions, iambic pentameter, and historical fiction’s bad reputation

The opening sentence of Robinson Crusoe is a burdensome, 106-word-long introduction stuffed with jokes and digressions. Daniel Defoe’s castaway hero is as verbose as he is obsessed with building his own concept of civilization—that is, to remake the sinuous landscape he shipwrecks onto with the familiar, angular architecture of England. Crusoe is also the seed of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wilds, if only as a foil for her quiet, haunted narrator.

Where Crusoe is an endurance exercise in man’s empirical reality and a righteous colonial fantasy, Groff’s writing is lush, somatic, and subtle. Her work is alert to the nuance that the wilderness her white English protagonist—known as “the girl”—finds herself lost in, is not wild to the people indigenous to it. The novel’s first drafts were forged at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute as a Mary Jemison-esque captivity narrative, but found its final form as a survival story that probes into girlhood, whiteness, and embryonic American identity.

Groff’s writing is alive to the brutality of survival, masterfully rendering every small violence endured and acted out by its resilient narrator. While the girl’s story is set some 400 years ago, The Vaster Wilds is an urgent intervention into the canon of American pioneer stories, composed with equal parts grit and grace. Arriving in bookstores today, its author spoke with Document about writing in iambic meter, historical fiction’s pretensions, and the creation of humankind.

Olivia Tryenor: I want to talk about your 2019 lecture about The Vaster Wilds. In it, you synopsized the novel’s project: ‘I wanted to write a fusion: a female Robinson Crusoe, reimagining a girl fleeing Jamestown in [the] starving time. Eventually, she joins Native Americans. It’s a captivity narrative that’s not propaganda or Puritanical justification […] I think of it as an anti-captivity narrative.’ What made you rethink the story?

Lauren Groff: Often, when I think I’m done with a book, I realize with dismay that I’ve only actually written what I thought the book was about, and not what the book itself actually wants to be about. We’re at odds, then, the book and me—a little mad at one another. That’s when I have to go back in, to rewrite, rethink, to listen to my book telling me that it was more interested in Western ideas of god and social structures, and that the expected narrative—the Mary Jemison narrative, in which my protagonist ends up in a new culture—maybe wasn’t the right one for this character, these ideas, this book.

Olivia: You’ve mentioned that you wrote a draft of this novel in iambic pentameter, minding that Shakespeare would have been the protagonist’s contemporary. While that bardic meter didn’t make it to the novel’s final form, your language still manages to be surprising and sharp. How did you approach keeping the language molten, as early English authors did, while also legible for 21st-century readers?

Lauren: Oh, bless you, I tried! It absolutely is. Instead of strict iambs—the draft was incredibly fun to write but also incredibly stupid to read—I had to listen for a kind of deeper musical language, [or] sub-language that had a sense of the period’s play to it. I had to strip the language down—it’s a bare and wintry world, the protagonist is famished, the plot is headlong—but also retain some strangeness, a little crackle at the edge of the sentences.

“Often, when I think I’m done with a book, I realize with dismay that I’ve only actually written what I thought the book was about, and not what the book itself actually wants to be about. We’re at odds, then, the book and me.”

Olivia: Your effort to make a narrative for someone who is nameless—metaphorically and literally—reminds me of Saidiya Hartman’s concept of ‘critical fabulation,’ the exercise of imagining an alternative future forged from an absence in the archives. What is the alternative future that this book’s imagined history puts forth?

Lauren: Dr. Hartman has been a huge influence on my thinking, particularly with ideas about how, perhaps, fiction shouldn’t be held in natural antipathy to real academic history, but may be an exquisite tool to understand the gaps and silences in our knowledge and archives. If there’s room in history for the nameless, for those who aren’t the victors of wars, for the ordinary and the poor—there is room to value the ordinary person of the present, and to try to create a future that honors them.

Olivia: You started this book in 2016. How have the intervening years affected the historical intervention this book seeks to stage?

Lauren: Lord! There was a time during the writing of this book that I thought I lost all hope because of what has been going on politically and environmentally in the world. But you can’t make anything without hope. The creation of art or literature or anything at all is inherently hopeful; my book began canting away from a bleak condemnation of humanity to something a little more humanist. Also, I think there has been a gorgeous wildfire progression in civic understanding, thanks to the—sometimes harsh, often justified—school of social media, calling into question a lot of the things I took for granted in the first few drafts. I’m grateful for the growth.

Olivia: There’s a passage I find particularly striking in The Vaster Wilds, where the protagonist sees two Indigenous girls and imagines herself to be immortalized in their minds. The omniscient narration immediately violates this dream—she is soon forgotten by them. Can you tell me more about this passage—the way legacy can be fantasy, and the friction of imagination?

Lauren: Though she is a servant, my protagonist will never not be an English subject—raised in the assumption of Western superiority, always seeing herself from the standpoint of the people around her. She can’t imagine that she’s not central to the Indigenous girls’ imaginations.

“The creation of art or literature or anything at all is inherently hopeful; my book began canting away from a bleak condemnation of humanity to something a little more humanist.”

Olivia: What interactions with archival materials did you have while researching this book? How important was historical fidelity to writing this text?

Lauren: I had a lot of interactions with archival materials. There were many interesting primary sources about the settlement of Jamestown, and far more interesting critical, modern rereadings of these primary sources. I was and am terrified of anachronism, jolting the reader out of the text, and I hope none remain—I did my best to eradicate them! If there are some still there, well, I guess they neatly delineate the flaws in my own perception.

Olivia: There’s a disregard in the literary community for historical fiction, and you have said you didn’t think you would write another such novel after Arcadia—yet your last two novels take place in the 12th and 17th centuries, respectively. Has your view on historical fiction changed?

Lauren: It has! The literary snobbery against historical fiction is very deep and cyclical, but one only has to remember that some of the greatest books in any language were historical fiction, or written when the memory of the era the books were set are no longer fresh—War and Peace, Middlemarch, Absalom Absalom!. I do want to write about the contemporary world—and think I am in Matrix and The Vaster Wilds—but sometimes the contemporary world gets in the way of its own telling. If you want to write about, say, female power and capitalist growth and humans’ effects on the environment, and can do it without making the reader feel bonked over the head by topicality, maybe historical fiction can be a way to do so.

Olivia: I want to close by talking about god. A previous profile posits your central thesis as ‘the idea that so much of our present suffering comes from a misreading of Genesis.’ In your own words, what is Lauren Groff’s reading of Genesis?

Lauren: Well, when god says, in the glorious King James version, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,’ I think there was a radical mistranslation of both ‘subdue’ and ‘dominion,’ both of which imply force and hierarchy. I’m sure whatever eternal force created such beautiful and delicate and wondrous things as the earth contains, things meant to be savored and treasured, didn’t mean clear-cutting forests and industrial hog farms, but rather cultivating, caring for, ensuring the thriving of every living thing that moveth on the earth. Such a devastating misreading has been humans’ downfall. It has brought us to where we are now: on the cusp of irreversible disaster. And with that, I’m off to make dinner for my family.