Lauren Groff, 43, grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a place she fictionalised as a picture-perfect town in her bestselling debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton (2008). Her second novel, Arcadia (2012), explored the failure of utopian communities in the 1970s, and her third, Fates and Furies, about an unconventional marriage, was picked by Barack Obama as his favourite book of 2015. In 2018, she produced her first short story collection, Florida. Her latest novel, Matrix, is an inventive tale of 12th-century nunnery focusing on Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry (known as “lais”) in French. Groff now lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband, Clay Kallman, and two children.

What made you want to write about Marie de France?
I’ve always loved her. I studied French and English in college and for a while I thought I wanted to be a medievalist. I love chivalric romances and I love that period. To be honest, I was trying to write a novel about the contemporary world but it was so overwhelming that I didn’t feel I had enough distance to do justice to this incredibly complicated and difficult time that we’re living through. I couldn’t do it in the midst of the Trump presidency with all these feelings of constant daily dread, so I had to look at things at a slant and see the roots of the contemporary world 1,000 years back.

How long have you been researching her?
For decades. I thought I would do a wild new version of her lais. I thought I was going to go back and rip it all up, like you see with all these amazing new translations of Beowulf. Nobody knows much about Marie de France because at that time, women were only considered important through their relationships with their fathers, husbands and sons. This gave me a great deal of latitude to go back into her own texts and withdraw from them a series of a 100-150 images in order to build a biography out of them.

What were the most surprising things you discovered about medieval Europe when you were writing this book?
I was surprised by how funny people were in the middle ages, like unbelievably hilarious. Also, how messy relationships were, even within the confines of a much more rigid, hierarchical, religious world. You find pregnant nuns and same- sex relationships all over the place. Humans are humans.

You write very sensitively about the natural world and I wondered how much this is to some degree a political decision? There were parts of the book that seem very conscious of our planet overheating.
Climate change is not as new as we like to pretend it is. Humans have long had a profound effect on the environment – and for tens of thousands of years, not the last 30 years, which is how the story of climate change is frequently put forth. So, yes, it was a deliberate decision to talk about the way Marie, through creating her own utopia for her nuns, is also committing a destructive act. I decided it would be immoral for me, as a writer standing on the precipice of climatic disaster, not to talk about the worst thing humanity will ever face.

What kind of impact did President Obama’s endorsement have on your career?
It was astonishing. It also tempted a lot of reluctant male readers. It meant that my father’s friends read my work for the first time – I mean, it was my fourth book! But it also really did paralyse me, which is why the next book I wrote was a collection of short stories. I actually wrote a couple of novels and trashed them.

In both Matrix, about the claustrophobic life of nuns, and Arcadia, which was set in a hippy commune, you explore the idea of life without privacy. Is this a subject that you were consciously revisiting?
I’m preoccupied by this issue on a daily basis because I live in an especially libertarian bit of the USA, so I see a struggle to the death between what we owe to our community and our individual freedoms. That’s what is breaking America apart at the moment – we are seeing foundational strife happening. As a result of that, I’m both drawn to narratives of collectivism and really sceptical at the same time. It comes from having grown up in a tiny community, a home town of under 2,000 people, where everyone knew everybody else’s business for generations.

You’ve been an outspoken critic of President Trump. Do you feel any better now President Biden is in office?
Before this whole debacle in Afghanistan, I probably would have said yes. I never thought he was going to be perfect but in the first months of his presidency, he did some very good things. He is skating on incredibly thin ice and it may be pre-emptive to say this, but the Afghanistan mess could mean we’re going to sink even further into radical-right populism. I was briefly less anxious about my children’s future and now I’m not. I still dream of living in Scandinavia.

What’s it like trying to write novels while also being on Twitter?
I can walk away for four to six months at a time but I often get very lonely because my job is really lonely. I talk to my dog a lot. Twitter is great if you’re too anxious to work but then again, it’s often inflammatory. It takes the things you are afraid of and makes them into full-blown anxiety attacks. I have a secret plan to quietly walk away one day…

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which books and authors have stayed with you since childhood?
I was an immense introvert with an older brother who wouldn’t let me speak, so I was the biggest reader. My parents didn’t guide me in any way; I’d just go to the library and see what I could find, so it would be Nancy Drew or Jane Austen and then a book about railroads. I used to buy 10 cent books from the library whenever they were selling off their mouldy copies.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m reading a bunch of Henry James – The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl and The Princess Casamassima – because I thought I was going to do a giant Henry James project. It hasn’t happened yet but it’s a novel I wanted to start. What else? In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon, who is great. I’m also reading Yūko Tsushima, who wrote Woman Running in the Mountains, because I’m writing something about her.

Which book or author do you always return to?
Middlemarch is the book I read once or twice a year because of George Eliot’s extraordinary calm intelligence. It’s as though you’re living in the brain of the smartest person you’ve ever met – and a very compassionate person. It makes you feel that your confused, quotidian life has suddenly been refined. You see the way you should be living. She focuses me.

Matrix is published by William Heinemann (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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