Writer Lauren Groff provides insight on writing, criticizes budget cuts, and defends the arts

Marika Yang Feb 26, 2017

Writer Lauren Groff spoke at Carnegie Music Hall as part of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press, on Feb. 20. Groff is The New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies, which Barack Obama declared was his favorite book of 2015. She is also the writer of The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and the acclaimed short story collection Delicate Edible Birds.

Writers have to be readers, Groff said to begin her lecture. In her writing process for her novel Fates and Furies, she found herself returning again and again to works of art that she loves, beginning with Shakespeare. Groff delved deeper to learn more about the man himself, finding little but ambiguity about his religious beliefs, his possible affairs, and his wife. Shakespeare lifted plots almost entirely from others, and in Groff’s words, he “took and took and took.” He was a “genius of synthesis.” Groff quoted the great American writer Cormac McCarthy: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books.” She agreed, stating that Fates and Furies is also made out of many other books.

If Fates and Furies was to be summed up in one word, Groff states it would be marriage. For Groff, this idea came from her confusing and contradictory views on marriage. She grew up in the feminist atmosphere of the 1990s, taking courses that discussed the sexism in the institution of marriage. However, when her now-husband proposed to her, she said yes, because though she had made it perfectly clear that “marriage was repugnant to her, [it was] deeply important to him.” Groff has been married for eleven years, with two children, and declared getting married was the best decision she ever made.

This hypocrisy — that she had benefited from an institution that she so deeply despised — influenced her writing. When Groff starts a new project, selecting the topic of the book is her most important decision. This is because she has to live with it for several years and wants to wake up thinking about it every day.

Marriage was something she could look at endlessly and never grow tired of. This topic was combined with another idea that came to her, the idea that she could never really know someone, not even her husband, that we, as human beings, cannot ever “crawl into someone else’s mind.”

Groff saw marriage as a mature love worth analyzing. Marriage carries many of the ideas that are present in literature; power struggles, class struggles, and time. “Novels are a sculpture of words and time,” she said.

Part of her writing process is developing new passions. When writing Fates and Furies, the two passions began with no relation to her writing, but eventually developed and influenced important directions of her novel.

Groff’s first passion was, of course, Shakespeare. A few of Shakespeare’s characters influenced the creation of characters in Fates and Furies. Falstaff from Henry IV, Part I, Part 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet were inspiration for Lotto, the husband in Fates and Furies. The wife, Mathilde, was inspired by Lady Macbeth.

Her second passion was Greek mythology. The title of the novel itself is a clear allusion to this. The Fates are three goddesses who spin the destinies of men, while the Furies are three goddesses who take vengeance from men who swear false oaths. But the most vital feature of Greek mythology that she stole, Groff said, was the idea of time. In literature, time is often confined to the years of a character’s life, in human time. In Greek mythology, there is a three-dimensional vision of time, the gods’ time. Groff incorporated this wider scope of time in her novel.

While Groff said there were many other influences for Fates and Furies, she decided to switch the focus of her lecture by using the remaining time to speak about something very urgent to her: the importance of art itself.

In January, the government proposed budget cuts for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, all collectively a minuscule percent of the national budget. Groff claimed these cuts are not fiscally conservative but politically motivated and partisan. They say that the arts don’t matter and essentially tell artists to “sit down and to shut up.”

“Art is utterly necessary,” Groff said, to large applause. “Art is culture. Culture is life.” She used the famous quote from William Carlos Williams’ poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” In the poem, he states “it is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Groff argued that this is often misquoted and leads to the misconception that Williams believes a man dies without poetry. What Williams is really saying is less lyrical but more true. Men do not die because of lack of poetry, but die miserably with lack of poetry. Groff explained that Williams is saying that the pursuit of poetry and the pursuit to art leads a man to a death that is not miserable because he has led a noble, happy life.

“Art can lead the way to resist. Art can teach you how to love. Art can keep you from despair. Art is always political, and good art is always oppositional. Art can keep you alive. It feeds the soul,” Groff said. She concluded her lecture with a request to the audience: “Do everything you can do to keep art alive in this terrifying world of ours.” She asked us to fight for all artists, because in doing so, we are “fighting for [ourselves] and for the bright and living soul of this country.”