A Q&A with Lauren Groff, Author of September Indie Next List Top Pick “The Vaster Wilds”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Lauren Groff’s The Vaster Wilds (Riverhead Books) as their top pick for the September 2023 Indie Next List.

Set in 1609 colonial America, The Vaster Wilds follows a young servant girl who flees her colony and must survive alone in the wild.

“Lauren Groff is at the height of her power as a writer. The Vaster Wilds explores how one young woman’s experience of survival defines her. Rich in nuance, gorgeous, and full of the mystery of spirit, this novel meditates on life itself,” said Deirdre Kidder of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.

Here, Groff discusses her work with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: One of the things I’m always curious about with historical fiction is what the research process looked like. Can you tell us a little about your research? Was there anything you learned that you really wanted to include or stay true to?

Lauren Groff: I absolutely love research, and could happily spend years in the stacks without much result, if I didn't make myself follow a strict timeline. I usually give myself a specific amount of time to read as much as I possibly can. In this case, I immersed myself in primary documents from the settlers at Jamestown, more contemporary work contextualizing these primary sources, Elizabethan poetry and plays and prose, notably those of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, books about survival and what happens to human bodies under extreme duress. Then, when I had somewhat of a grasp of the material, I'd write a draft, research some more, write another draft, and on and on. For one draft I went a little loony and decided to write it in strict iambs — the shortest of all drafts, because it was awful — but this failed experiment gave me an idea of the deeper rhythm of the book. 

BTW: Given the history and bias of the time, you navigate contemporary issues like gender and the portrayal of Indigenous communities with nuance. Would you like to talk a little more about how you navigated writing 1609 in 2023?

LG: Oh goodness, thank you, it wasn't easy, but it was necessary. Particularly tricky was the trajectory of thought — my protagonist had to embody a lot of the prejudices and bigotry of her age in order to turn them inside out and see them critically.  But if you write about bigoted mindsets in your characters, you risk certain readers thinking you're espousing those ideas. It's all very complicated and delicate, and I'm grateful for many readers who helped to steer my ship closer to its destination.

BTW: What draws you to survival stories? And what are you hoping readers take away from this one?

LG: I'm crazy about survival stories, from children's books like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet, to incredibly stupid and satisfying television shows like Naked and Afraid. (Apparently, there's a show in the UK called Naked, Alone and Racing to Get Home, which obviously I'm just itchy to watch). I'm sure that these narratives act as small inoculations against my own climate anxiety, the way Bruno Bettelheim described fairy tales as inoculations to help children deal with their own existential crises, their stepparents, their hungry bellies, their smallness in the enormous and terrifying world. I hope readers not only feel the dread of surviving in inhospitable nature, but also the ecstasy of living within and among and as a part of nature.

BTW: Could you talk a little bit about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

LG: I wouldn't be a healthy, happy human without books or bookstores. Books are, in my mind, the greatest invention that humans have ever created, and nothing a techbro can come up with would ever be able to match it. They're a way to capture the writer's soul and have it speak intimately to the reader's soul, which is a staggering feat. I've always had a life in books as vivid and deep as the one I live outside of books. And bookstores are essential — they're the beating heart of the towns lucky to have them; they allow writers to write more books, and readers to discover the books that will enrich their lives, that they will carry with them in a kind of gentle chorus for the rest of their days.