In her new affecting and all-too-topical Scribd Original story Junket, Lauren Groff drops her heroine — a writer not only battling the challenges of the 21st century but also her own demons — straight onto the lap of some serious luxury: a high-end spa in the Arizona desert. She’s there to do a book talk, lend “a tang of the intellectual” to a wellness retreat for the well-to-do, and to relax, but that’s a lot harder than it looks for a woman on the edge. Here, Groff talks with her editor Amy Grace Loyd about the genesis of the story, spas she’s loved, her dream spa gift-box, being an introvert, and the books that are inspiring her now.
Scribd: This fall/winter of 2021, you were on a world tour for your novel Matrix — meeting and greeting, all during a pandemic. I bet you were ready for a spa or some sort of retreat after all those flights, hotels, and having to navigate COVID protocol. So, if you could design a retreat just for you, what would that look like?
Lauren Groff: The upside of getting to do a great deal of travel is vast, but there is a real downside, in that travel is especially exhausting for a person who is as severely introverted as I am. A few years ago, I started to find spas and saunas in the cities where I go because after a couple of weeks on the road, I begin to crack. I like hot water, massages, silence, the good food I usually find there. In San Francisco, I love a jimjilbang, a Korean spa, called Pearl Health Spa and Sauna; in Asheville, N.C., I love Sauna House, a Finnish-style sauna; in Istanbul, I had one of the best afternoons of my life at the Aya Sofya Hurrem Sultan hamam near the Hagia Sofia; in Stockholm this past autumn, I went to the Centralbadet, first to a fitness class where Swedish septuagenarians kicked my ass, soaked my humiliation out, and had the most beautiful lunch imaginable. I love the hot water, soothing scents, and the anonymity most, I think.
Scribd: If you could create a spa gift-box — like a super-fantastical box, what might it have in it? You and I have talked about the word “no” as refuge and right for those sorely in need of a break. What about putting the permission to say no in that box?
Lauren Groff: Whenever I need to retreat to regrow my soul a little, I put a bracelet on my wrist that just says NO! It forces me to say no to things that I otherwise would say yes to, either to please people or because I like to make future Lauren pay for the mistakes of optimism that present Lauren loves to make. I would put one of those in the box, along with rosewater face mist, exquisite dark chocolates, cashmere socks, the music of Arvo Part, Epsom salts, a lacrosse ball to get knots in your back out, and a smart swift paperback that you can take into the bathtub with you, something like Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus or Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower.
Scribd: It occurred to me that you were working on Junket while or around when you were working on Matrix because they share some preoccupations about going to places/spaces away from life's normal traffic and expectations — about what a refuge or a retreat can be — and both are about labyrinths. I know the labyrinth was at the heart of the architecture of Matrix: heroine Marie, a woman of the 12th century, placed in austere circumstances, finding her way through as a form of survival with great strength and style. Here in Junket, the labyrinth is about a writer finding her creative force again, yes? Not so dissimilar from Marie but in such wildly different circumstances: Lost only to be found? Obstacles as gifts?
Lauren Groff: This story had originally been a part of a novel I was working on concurrently with Matrix (and a third book, called The Vaster Wilds), all of which are very different in terms of plot and setting and character, but all of which are obsessed with God, the way that the gilded cage of religion has forced women into specific roles, the way church dogma has informed our interaction with the natural world, on and on. They're wildly separate projects but they share a secret language of images, one of which is the labyrinth. I eventually scrapped the book that Junket had been taken from (not forever, but the story I was telling was not right), and kept only this story from it, which stood alone. A labyrinth seems to me to be an almost primordial image, a powerful visual representation of God, something that exists outside of language but holds its own gravity and power.
Scribd: Marie of Matrix has, of course, so few choices: It’s either an arranged marriage or get thee to a nunnery — and it is the nunnery she gets. The writer of Junket is blessed with many more choices — she's a woman of this over-full time, of course — but feels other kinds of deprivations and all kinds of anxiety. She has to decide how to navigate all the crises in her own life and in the world and still put one foot in front of the other, still find enough faith in herself and in her relationship to others — whatever alchemy she can find — to do the work of writing. Not easy, is it? How might you describe it?
Lauren Groff: I'm pretty sure that the protagonist of Junket is in denial about the severity of the breakdown she is currently experiencing. She's a product of the 21st century, which means a product of wild overstimulation and abundance in terms of information and technology. She's an ordinary person, but her quality of life exceeds exponentially even that of royalty in the Middle Ages; at the same time, much of which medieval people would have taken for granted has been removed from her. If all is possibility, nothing is certain. Faith needs some sort of foundation to build on, and, at this point in her life, she's found so many of her foundations falling from beneath her feet.
Scribd: Can you talk a little, if you feel comfortable, about your process of writing — how you locate the faith, the magic, the endurance? Or other ways to find joy out there? Or just to the power you feel when the storytelling is going well, when you are zeroing in, word by word, to what you hoped to convey?
Lauren Groff: I try very hard to remove all expectations for the finished project when I attend to my daily work of thinking. In the direction of the finished project lies both madness and certain disappointment. I also refuse to be a capitalist in art, which is, to my thinking, a profoundly anti-capitalist human endeavor. It helps to keep the two things as separate as possible: the finished product is the reader's and no longer mine, it is a tool mostly helpful in allowing me to pay the mortgage today so that I can sit down tomorrow to make the actual art. I am only as interesting as a writer as the words I'm currently writing. That is where the entirety of the joy lives.
Scribd: Could we say that storytelling is regenerative then? In its way, a kind of a proper spiritual and intellectual getaway in one form or another for the writer and the reader? It's no accident that Marie of Matrix is a poet and the protagonist of Junket are both writers.
Lauren Groff: Oh yes, of course, storytelling is both generative and regenerative. When you write, you use fleeting abstractions to create a concrete understanding, then you communicate it to another mind. It is one variety of spiritual searching.
Scribd: It's also no accident that religion is a big element of Matrix and that a kind of quasi-religious experience is part of Junket via some new-age spiritualism. Are you testing the possibilities and limits of these kinds of ways of seeing and being? Toggling between the visible and invisible world?
Lauren Groff: Yes, this is the intention for both works.
Scribd: And how does laughter fit into your program of enduring? You are damned funny — it shows brilliantly in Junket!
Lauren Groff: You're kind! Humor is subversive; if you make someone laugh, you are aligning them with you in some way. Writing about the political — and religion is of course political — can risk becoming polemical unless there's a subversive intent.
Scribd: And, finally, because you are a reader and there's no writing well without reading, which books would you recommend for lift-off in one way or another — that make you want to write or that inspired stories like Matrix and Junket?
Lauren Groff: We definitely don't have enough time to list every beautiful and inspiring book in the world, but right now I'm heavily into the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's Septology novels (think Scandinavian Proust obsessed with God), and recently reread Virginia Woolf's The Waves and was startled to see the extent to which I've long been influenced by her, the absolute G.O.A.T of novelists.
Can healing crystals cure climate change? Of course not. But a last-minute New Age retreat does start to cut through one writer’s cynicism in this rejuvenating short story for anyone weary of the 21st century’s excesses and ills, from three-time National Book Award finalist Groff.
About the Author: Amy Grace Loyd
Amy is an editor, teacher, and the author of the novel The Affairs of Others. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and was an associate editor on the NYRB Classics, the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine and later at Esquire, and an executive editor at e-singles publisher Byliner. She is currently an acquiring editor and content creator for Scribd Originals.