Ahead of her next novel, Matrix (out now), the author looks back on her most memorable tome — warning, spoilers abound!

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Lauren Groff
Credit: Eli Sinkus

Lauren Groff wants us all to keep more secrets. And even though she wrote one of the most significant marriage novels of the past decade, 2015's Fates and Furies, she's not sure she wants us to join in holy matrimony, either. "I wrote the book in opposition to marriage," she says of Fates, her portrait of a relationship on fire told by a wife who knows it and a husband who does not. "Even though I am married, I don't necessarily believe in the institution — its patriarchal elements, the idea that you can't keep things from your significant other — and I was hoping to sort out the need for it."

Fans of the National Book Award finalist, which landed at the top of then-President Obama's year-end list of favorites, will have seen the sentiment coming. As the book traced the love story of main characters Lotto and Mathilde from a college courtship to their bohemian years in New York City as a budding playwright and gallerist, respectively, to an idyllic middle age reaping the perks of artistic success, it laid the groundwork for one of the most delicious literary twists of the era: that Mathilde, puppet strings in hand and bursting with skeletons from the darkness she's kept hidden from her husband, has been orchestrating every step of Lotto's career.

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Credit: Penguin

Groff, 43, explains that Fates was originally conceived as two separate novels, meant to be read in either order; her agent, the famed Bill Clegg, urged the merging into a single work. She did a rewrite, placing Lotto's perspective at the beginning purely for practical purposes: "He dies, so he had to go first." Groff adds that she wasn't in Lotto's corner for much of the book — part of the pleasure of the slowly-building reveal is the reader's ability to believe he is a golden boy whose talent brings him prosperity, but Groff saw the house of cards for what it was. "A big struggle was getting myself to care about this man who gets everything, who has everything," she says. "He's so narcissistic, right?" While the author didn't write the novel with the aim of taking down the male gender, she is quick to point out that in Matrix, about nuns in medieval England (see page 17), she was compelled to create a literary feminist utopia: "I just eradicated men,"she says with a laugh.

As popular as it was, Fates — like every novel worth its weight — had its share of detractors, mostly men who bristled at Mathilde's deceit or found it unrealistic that a woman could keep such a detailed inner life hidden from her husband. Groff doesn't read reviews — save the one by President Obama, which she had framed — but is aware of her protagonist's critics. "I want to defend Mathilde," she says. "She was entitled to her privacy even within her marriage. Just because you stand before a judge doesn't mean you give up your secret landscape." Groff also sees Mathilde's behavior as a "slightly more dramatic version" of the typical woman. One of her most vivid memories of Fates' promotional tour is the stream of women who spoke to her about their own histories of sex work, which mirrored Mathilde's experience and was more widespread than she realized. "I probably would have done the same thing as Mathilde," says Groff. "I'm 100 percent behind her decision to do it."

When crafting the life story of two people as complex (and complicated) as Lotto and Mathilde, it can be hard to know how to conclude it: What does the end look like for those who live as big as they do? Groff knew from the jump that Lotto wouldn't survive the first half of the story —"I chose an aneurysm because I wanted him to be taken unawares" — but Mathilde's journey needed more. "I wanted her to be at peace with the decisions she's made," says Groff. "I wanted to give her autonomy and, mostly, the ability to be happy without a husband."

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