Flights and Flurries

The success of Lauren Groff’s novel has put her at the heart of a whirlwind.

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Lauren Groff and Seth Meyers

Lauren Groff discussed her latest bestseller on Late Night with Seth Meyers last fall. Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

For Lauren Groff MFA’06, the last year has been marvelous. Unexpectedly thrilling. And exhausting.

The humble novelist, who tries not to read reviews and prefers to write at home, has spent months on a national tour: book signings, literary festivals, awards banquets, and numerous interviews, even matching wits with comedian Seth Meyers on his late-night talk show. And in early 2016, she was off again, this time with stops in Amsterdam and Australia, packing what she calls her event persona.

“Trying to be charming and clever — it’s awfully difficult,” Groff says. “I know that it’s going to be many, many years until I have another tour, if I ever have another tour again, so I’m just trying to really, really love what’s happening and be appreciative of it.”

Groff is much in demand due to the success of her latest book. Fates and Furies, a duo of perspectives on a fiery marriage, has earned a legion of honors. The accolades include a nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction; the number-one spot on Amazon’s list of Best Books of 2015; and the endorsement of President Barack Obama, who revealed in a People magazine interview that it was his favorite book of 2015.

Like her previous best-sellers — 2008’s The Monsters of Templeton and 2012’s ArcadiaFates and Furies showcases the lyrical prose Groff polished while earning her master of fine arts from UW–Madison’s English department. She chose the UW to study creative writing with one of her all-time favorite authors, the award-winning Lorrie Moore, who was on the faculty at the time.

In her earliest writing, Groff says she was trying to replicate Moore’s style. “I was trying for her wry, hilarious voice, and I was trying for her devastating wit, and failing so terribly,” she says. “So I kind of went in the opposite direction.” She developed a narrative that led to a big break: Groff sold a short story, “L. Debard and Aliette,” to Atlantic Monthly while in her first semester.

She treasures her connections with her UW professors, including Jesse Lee Kercheval, Judith Claire Mitchell, and Moore, who now teaches at Vanderbilt University. “They’re the kind of incredible human beings you know are there no matter what,” Groff says.

Although Groff said she’d retire after the leader of the free world praised her novel, her schedule proves she was joking. Her Twitter account often previews her next tour stops for Fates and Furies; she mentors an eleventh-grade writing apprentice; she teaches a residency at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina; and she says, with a bit of mystery, that in between her travels, more writing is in the works.

Fates and Furies is Groff’s fourth book. The New York Times Book Review, which calls her “a writer of rare gifts,” says it is “an unabashedly ambitious novel that delivers — with comedy, tragedy, well-deployed erudition, and unmistakable glimmers of brilliance throughout.”

“I can only say that I’ve been working on three separate things, and one of them may end up working, or all three of them won’t,” she says.

Groff does most of her writing at home in Gainesville, Florida, where she and her husband, Clay Kallman, live with their young sons, Beckett and Heath. She often bestows thoughtful nicknames upon her characters, such as a lead subject in Fates and Furies — Lancelot, known as “Lotto” — whom she’s described as a personification of Florida’s grandeur.

“I wasn’t trying to go for subtlety,” she says. “Names are really important — a micronarrative of who the person is.” So what of a character reflecting Madison?

“Ooh, I don’t know. … I have yet to do that,” Groff says. “I would think about the lakes … because that’s what sort of haunts me now, and that’s what I miss the most. The lakes, and the spicy cheese bread at the Farmers’ Market. And just the overwhelming sense of kindness and helpfulness that I felt there.”

Published in the Summer 2016 issue

Tags: Alumni, Arts, Awards, books

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