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Lauren Groff Delves Into The World Of The Nunnery In New Book

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Lauren Groff, one of America's most acclaimed contemporary novelists, has set her new book "Matrix" in medieval times in a nun's abbey, presided over by Marie of France, who's banished there when she's 17. Lauren Groff, could you please set the scene of a summer there?

LAUREN GROFF: (Reading) At night, the heavens spin into their summer constellations. The nuns take pauses in the greater work to sow the wheat to plant the gardens. Rains come in the night, and the wet earth bursts to green. In the abbeys, sleepy without its souls, a mother vixen with heavy teats trots out of the cellar, dragging a whole dried sturgeon. In June, a miracle, and Felisa (ph), whose half body had frozen after she stepped over copulating snakes, awakens, having regained the use of her frozen face and hand and only limps with a single unwilling leg now. She credits the intercession of St. Lucy (ph), of whom, in desperation, she molded a wax votive with her good hand and let it melt on a hot stone while praying.

SIMON: Lauren Groff, a two-time National Book Award finalist and author of "Arcadia," "Fates And Furies" and other books, joins us now from Gainesville, Fla. Thanks so much for being with us.

GROFF: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

SIMON: That's a tough life, isn't it?

GROFF: It's a tough life, but it's a beautiful life. The nuns at the time, especially the Benedictine ones, had a very frequence (ph) process of praying halfway through the day, and the night, also. And they worked very hard, and they prayed very hard, and they loved very hard, and their lives were taken care of.

SIMON: Marie de France, like Joan of Arc, is a real person. How much of an attempt did you make to tell her real story, and how much was that wonderful fodder for imagination?

GROFF: Well, we don't know much about Marie de France. She was the first female poet in the French language that we know of. There are suppositions that she was an abbess. There are suppositions that she was a bastard daughter of nobility. But what I was able to do was to go back to her own works, the lais and the fables that she wrote, and to pull out images. And I built a life, a biography out of those images. So I bet this has nothing to do with the actual life of the actual Marie de France, but it's the closest I could get to her.

SIMON: And to be clear, "Matrix" has nothing to do with the Keanu Reeves...

GROFF: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Jada Pinkett Smith films.

GROFF: Absolutely not. This is just "Matrix." And "Matrix" comes out of the Latin for mother, right? So I'm returning it to its original idea, I think.

SIMON: Marie of France turns out to be what we'd call an entrepreneur these days.

GROFF: (Laughter).

SIMON: That makes her a target for the schemes of men, doesn't it?

GROFF: Well, she was a business woman, for sure, because these abbesses took care of huge swaths of land in a feudal system. I mean, they were really versed in many languages. Marie became a capitalist (laughter) because she resisted a lot of the pressures of the system she was born into - right? - the hierarchy of the church. At the same time, she internalized a lot of these hierarchies and these feelings of her own singular worth. And her abbey she decided she wanted unchecked in a very capitalist sense. So I think she's both a really magnificent personality and a very flawed one.

SIMON: You spent some time, I gather, in an abbey in Connecticut. You know, and times change, but what are some of the lessons that are still available there?

GROFF: I am deeply in love with this abbey. It's called Regina Laudis. It's in Bethlehem, Conn. The nuns there are Benedictines. And they have a hospitality mandate. So if you write to the abbess, she might invite you to come stay with them. And so that's what happened. I went. And they are such extraordinary, smart, amazing people. Half of them have Ph.D.s, right? One of the nuns actually was so impassioned about cheesemaking that she went to France and became, you know, a professional cheesemaker. Other ones are - come from the world of opera. And there was this beautiful life, I mean, a life that I envied in a lot of ways because the older nuns are taken care of by the young ones into death, right? And they're surrounded by the people who love them so passionately and deeply. And so I'm just profoundly in love with these women and this abbey that feels, like, slightly utopian to me.

SIMON: And I gather you had a religious background at one point and don't anymore. But there's a literary richness in religious life that - well, something we can all cherish.

GROFF: There's an immense literary richness in religious life, I think. I mean, in my own religious life, when I was a child, I was a very fervent, very passionate child. And so I clung to these narratives of religion. And, of course, the Bible is a series of extraordinary stories. I mean, it's rich with so many insights into human personality. I mean, it's just - it's like an incredible set of storytelling. And I'm still moved by these stories, even though I'm more secular. I - every time I go to an art museum, for instance, I can understand the substrate of narrative happening, which I think is extraordinary in a very beautiful thing, I think.

SIMON: What do we take from Marie's life in these times, do you think? What do you take?

GROFF: I take questions, right? I think that the job of the novelist is not to answer anything or to incite action. So what I would like for this book to do is to ask a lot of questions about, what does the shape of female power take? Is it different from the shape of the hegemony of male power? Can we create our own powerful religion within ourselves? How do the actions of our ancestors speak into today? I mean, there's - I would hope that there are dozens of questions that this book is posing without necessarily being able to answer anything.

SIMON: Lauren Groff - her highly anticipated new novel, "Matrix" - thank you so much for being with us.

GROFF: My pleasure, Scott Simon. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.