Photo credit: Megan Brown.
“I still wouldn’t choose Florida as my home state, but I’m glad it chose me,” Lauren Groff replied when I asked why she had chosen to live on the peninsula full of snakes and rains, marshes and forest. Still, the author, whose works include the Obama favorite Fates and Furies and the acclaimed collection Delicate Edible Birds, named her new book after this unchosen habitat. Florida brings together eleven stories written over the course of the dozen years Groff lived in the state, but she never intended to pay homage. “The fact that these are all Florida stories comes out of the fact that I feel ambivalent or unsettled about the place where I live,” she said.
It seems almost contradictory that ambivalence, as a mode, would be the seed for such potent fiction, but one of Groff’s distinguishing skills is the ability to write within such contradictions. Her work is subversive, but quietly—it captures what’s mysterious about the inevitable, what’s bizarre about the inescapable. This collection has some familiar motifs from her novels—long marriages, frightful domesticity, foreignness, and the surreality of motherhood. And while most of the stories have appeared elsewhere and received big awards, brought together, these narratives of young families, divorced couples, and unconventional women vibrate with something new. These are stories about how human nature is an extension of the natural world, how our relationships are contoured by greater forces, and how time is delivered by nature—regardless of the checks and measurements we superimpose.
The rains in Florida are biblical, to say the least. The margins between earthly and celestial routinely dissolve. From the little girls abandoned alone on a tropical island in “Dogs Go Wolf” to the mother in “Flower Hunters” who reads the naturalist William Bartram while her children trick-or-treat in a storm, the characters in Groff’s stories experience the fluctuations of the outdoors on an elemental level. Nature is eroticized in a way that is not quite sexual yet wholly sensual. I asked the author for a word to describe this writing technique, one that transforms humans into phenomena, creatures—while at the same time placing, with precision, those characters in their environment. Her suggestion was wilding.
This call-and-response between domesticity and nature animates quotidian banalities, such as adultery in “For the Love of God, for the Love of God” and “Eyewall,” parenthood in “The Midnight Zone” and “Yport,” and aging in “Above and Below” and “Salvador.” Groff takes the structures we mistake as essential to life and makes them look absurd before nature’s implacability. The stories in Florida suggest that the relationship between humans and our planet—that home none of us chose—transcends the power struggle of dominance and submission.
I corresponded with Groff as she was bouncing between Iceland and the state that claims these stories. “I love Iceland—and yet I felt immediate relief on touching down here,” she wrote. “After twelve years, Florida has, despite everything, become home.”
Many of the women in this collection are Florida transplants, once northerners “dazzled by the flora and fauna.” Do you still feel that sense of wonder?
Most days, I have a moment or two of wonder. Yesterday, when I took the dog for a walk after dinner at sunset, there was a giant dead rat snake on the sidewalk that I marveled at, and then I came home in the dark through such a pungent smell of jasmine, which is in full bloom right now, and my head got a little swoony from the potency of the scent.
Throughout these stories, there is the sense of dazzlement—and fear—that the Floridian landscape elicits, but I noticed that the mothers incline toward an awe that is more fearful, while the childless women seem more resigned to their smallness before nature. Was that a shift in perspective you went through when you became a mother?
I didn’t clock that, but I think it’s a good observation. The first stories were written in Florida in the years before I had children—the earliest story in the collection is from 2007, and my eldest son was born in 2008. I’d say the way nature is described in the earlier stories is, in texture, a bit more granular, a bit oddball. The perspective takes a step back with the later stories, in which the characters tend to have children. It’s an accurate assessment of my own changing vision of nature when I suddenly had children in the world whose fates I couldn’t fully control. Nature went from something lived with intimately to something with a scope far beyond the boundaries of what I, as a human, could possibly understand—from awesome to awful. There’s awe in both, but in the latter, there’s a great deal of dread too.
The first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” follows a mother who roams her neighborhood at night and sees her neighbors lit within their windows as though they’re in “domestic aquariums.” It made me wonder if being a voyeur is about detaching from our humanity, an attempt to braid ourselves into our surroundings—rather than seeking an understanding of humanity, and ourselves, by studying others. What do you think? As a writer, studying others has a greater role in your life than most.
I wonder if it isn’t more likely that there are multiple things going on at the same time when you’re a voyeur. It’s true that there’s an element of distance needed to make observations while on the move, and you’re not looking to engage with humans in conversation. But there’s an intense curiosity at play, too, a sense that you’re engaging profoundly with others, though you’re doing so more invisibly than you would by other means. You’re definitely engaging with humanity, and with yourself, when you’re looking intensely at another person or at another person’s life from the outside—if you wanted to disengage, you’d sit in a dark room and stare at a blank wall. Take, for example, reading. The reader of any book is a deep-feeling, deeply engaged voyeur—she’s not disengaged just because she doesn’t walk into the text and sucker-punch the narrator, no matter how much she might want to! The writer has to observe, but it’s observation in service of engagement.
Throughout the collection, there is also a sense of dissolution between humans and nature. There’s a heart-wrenching passage in “Dogs Go Wolf” when the older of the two island-stranded sisters feels more like a cloud than a human, somehow of the atmosphere rather than of a body, and she is utterly content—her future lawyer self will pine for this state. There’s an echo of this in “Flower Hunters” when the woman says to her dog, “One day you’ll wake up and realize your favorite person has turned into a person-shaped cloud.” Do you think it’s possible to find the freedom, maybe the bliss, of detachment and still engage with the day-to-day world?
The older I get, the more my own boundaries seem to be fading, which is terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. If I live to be eighty (if humanity survives that long), I’ll be transparent and able to walk through my neighbors’ front doors, not just look through their windows. I think the feeling comes from the slow hardening of potential into reality—you become stuck in a less kinetic form of personhood through the process of becoming who you will be—and it can feel sometimes as though your deepest self turns into a piece of internal furniture, something lived with and sometimes overlooked because it can be taken for granted. Some of this is because I’m in a long marriage, some because I’m a mother whose relationship to her children will always be porous. In their different ways, my family will always consider me part of their own bodies. Some of it comes from the ongoing project of the life of writing, where the longer you write, the more the writing comes from the id and the less it comes from the ego. I wouldn’t call the condition bliss. It doesn’t always feel good. It’s a condition of aging plus perspective.
After I read the line “Rain unleashed itself” in the story “Eyewall,” I couldn’t read the rains of these stories as happening any other way. Weather, particularly rain, consistently arrives with apocalyptic power. In both “Salvador” and “Eyewall,” a woman is trapped inside during an epic storm and survives to find an object untouched by the storm. In “Eyewall,” it’s an egg, and in “Salvador,” it’s “one perfect orange, its pores even and clear.” What is the significance of the objects and their survival?
Natural forces in Florida assert themselves far more strongly than I’ve experienced in other places I’ve lived—upstate New York, France, Massachusetts, California, Wisconsin, Louisville, New Hampshire. Here, in the summer, a day without a quick burst of rain will be relentlessly hot and humid, so you learn to long for the release of a storm. Though I’ve never felt more as though rain could kill me than when we first put a metal roof on our house and a torrential downpour came through. The weather always holds an element of violence here. It reminds you that you’re an animal. And I guess I’m always moved by an object’s life span, which often plays out on a different scale than the human. An orange blazes briefly before it’s gone, but the piece of volcanic rock I brought back from Iceland for my little son will long outlive him and probably most life on this planet too. We think of pencils as ephemeral, but if they’re not used, they can exist without disintegration for multiple generations. We live our daily lives among exquisitely varied timelines. I find this endlessly fascinating.
I’m also fascinated by timelines and the units and constructs we try to impose on time. In your stories, time and nature are almost interchangeable forces. In “Midnight Zone,” you write, “Time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it.” This opened up so much of the collection for me. In “Eyewall,” you reference “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot, which is a poem very much concerned with how to charter time, how to consciously live within it and acknowledge it as something outside of our control. Eliot’s poetry became another key to this collection for me. “Burnt Norton” came to mind: “But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden / The moment in the arbour where the rain beat / The moment in the draughty church at smokefall / Be remembered; involved with past and future. / Only through time time is conquered.” Do you feel more subject to time in environments with more wildlife, more nature? I wonder if it’s easier to avoid the weight of time in cities.
Time is something I’m acutely aware of, and I’m so glad you saw this element in the collection. Humans are the most delusional species because we expend so much energy trying to deny the passage of time and its necessary changes. Art, in some ways, is the attempt to assert human control over time, despite the ultimate futility of the effort. I was definitely thinking of Eliot during different points in the writing of these stories. Only humans play with time, loop it and bunch it up and poke through it, in the service of trying to understand it. And what I find when I spend a prolonged period in nature is that these delusions are stripped away—I think deer probably understand they’re going to die someday, but there’s nothing they can do about it, and so there’s no agony in the knowledge. There are seasons, internal clocks in nature, that quietly insist on the rightness of time passing.
The stories are full of references to works that reckon with mortality and the cycles of time—traces of Hansel and Gretel in “Dogs Go Wolf,” the writing of the naturalist William Bartram in “Flower Hunters,” and elsewhere, ghost stories. But to name a story after one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets was probably the most explicit. “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” centers on Jude, a mathematical prodigy whose father is obsessed with snakes and whose mother, a trapped renaissance woman, leaves Jude behind when she flees the prison of her marriage. Why did you reference this sonnet for this story?
I think Donne is one of our truest prophets of sex and death. I love this sonnet deeply—the fact that he apostrophizes the angels of revelation and God himself, the way he bows to the anxiety that his own sins are such he may not be among the redeemed, the way that he pleads to be taught how to repent. It was this last leap in the poem that I was thinking about in terms of Jude, how he has something vicious (in a very human way) in him and how his longing to be better is so deep that he can barely face it in himself.
There’s a spirituality in these stories. How do you reconcile religion and fiction, religion and the natural world? The Bible is, in essence, a collection of stories interpreted for a certain purpose. I think we gravitate to fiction for a reason that is somewhat related—to understand the world we’re in, figure out how to live. There’s a line in “Above and Below” that reads, “One living thing lost among so many others, not special for being human.” Is the distinction here about faith systems and power, about choice?
I was raised a pretty religious little girl within a strand of Calvinism that was paternalistic and harsh. I started to turn against organized dogma as a young woman, though the stories and moral code of my childhood are still printed on the insides of my bones. There’s a lot of the Bible in all of my work, but much of it is hidden. But after I turned away from religion, into that void poured a sort of mostly hopeful—if sometimes despairing—humanism that found its deepest expression in literature and art and music, all of which I find click the same spiritual gears in my head that religion used to turn. The difference between religion and humanism, if both are lived somewhat passionately and ecstatically, is a question of form, to my mind—religion seems (to me) to be about obedience, staying within a form, and literature is the way of constantly pushing against and opposing and testing the boundaries of the forms and institutions that bind us.
Lucie Shelly is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s fiction magazine, Recommended Reading.
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