In Lauren Groff's 'Florida,' Everything's Out To Get You

Jun 5, 2018

"Florida in the summer is a slow hot drowning." That's one way Lauren Groff describes the state in her new collection of short stories. In another part of the book, she calls Florida "a damp, dense tangle. An Eden of dangerous things." Why Florida? "I've lived here for 12 years and it's still so alien and fecund and steamy and strange to me," she says. "Reptilian, dangerous, teeming — I mean, there are so many things that you could call Florida."


Interview Highlights

On the dangers of Florida

There are snakes everywhere, alligators in retention ponds, the mosquitoes are the size of house flies, I mean, everything ... and if it's not the hurricanes, it's the termites, right? Something's going to take your house down. So it feels like there's this deep, dark something happening at the center of the state, and yet we're just pouring sunshine over it, and that feels very much like a microcosm of America, right? I mean, there's a lot of darkness happening, and we pretend that everything is fine, we pour sunshine on everything.

On headlines about "Florida Man"

I love Florida Man! That's the funny thing, that's the stereotype that everybody knows about Florida, is if something weird happens in the U.S., 80 percent of the time it has happened in Florida. Someone has been standing on top of his car, throwing golf balls at a police car, that's definitely, that has happened in Florida ... This book is very internal, right? It's very much about domesticity, and resisting domesticity, and nature sort of imposing itself on people. It's dark, but it's psychologically dark.

On her similarity to one of her characters

She's not not me ... she's not me, she's a fictional character, someone that I know, made grotesque, basically, that's what I think of. There's no such thing as fiction that is not somewhat autobiographical. Likewise, there is no such thing as memoir that is not fictional. And it's possible that some of the things that this narrator says and thinks are things that I myself have said and thought. But I think in general, I'm less grotesquely frightened of the world.

On the significance of snakes in the book

Snakes are the most untamed thing I can think of, right? The most wild, the least concerned about humanity. They're the one thing that I see, even now after 12 years in Florida — and I see them almost daily, because I go for a run out in the prairie a lot — they're the one thing that actually sends visceral horror through me, like a lightning bolt ... I mean, snakes are very much related to the pigeon brain in me, that is just full of dread.

On whether Florida will ever stop seeming alien

I don't want it to, I don't want it to because I'm a writer of fiction, and I think that if you feel too comfortable, you're writing from the inside, and so I think that the role of the fiction writer is very much to press up against the strictures of the society and the people within the society. So if you're writing from the inside, you can't do your job in a lot of ways. But also, I truly don't actually think that I would be happy anywhere! I'm a fiction writer, and it's possible that I would feel the same dread if I lived on my own island in the Caribbean ... even though I still struggle against this crazy state I find myself living in every single day, I am grateful for the struggle.

This story was produced for radio by Jolie Myers and Lauren Hodges, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Florida in the summer is a slow, hot drowning. That's the way Lauren Groff describes the state in her new collection of short stories. In another part of the book, she calls Florida a damp, dense tangle, an Eden of dangerous things. Lauren Groff is best known for her novel "Fates And Furies," and this short story collection is appropriately called "Florida." Lauren Groff, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LAUREN GROFF: I'm delighted to be on the show. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why Florida?

GROFF: Oh, because I've lived here for 12 years, and it's still so alien and fecund and steamy and strange to me.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Those are great words to describe the state.

GROFF: Reptilian, dangerous, teeming - I mean, there's so many things that you can call Florida. And so I'm from upstate New York, this little tiny village called Cooperstown which is the prototypical American village. And then I came down to Florida against my will - absolutely. And there's still...

SHAPIRO: Because of your husband?

GROFF: Yes, dang it. Yes, it's his fault. I was not prepared to love the place. And in fact, I didn't for about five years partially because of this feeling that everything is slightly dangerous or is kind of out to get you. You know, there are...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GROFF: ...Snakes everywhere, alligators in retention ponds. The mosquitoes are the size of houseflies. I mean, everything...

SHAPIRO: Even the weather's out to get you. You've got hurricanes.

GROFF: The - absolutely. And if it's not the hurricanes, it's the termites, right? I mean, something's going to take your house down. So it feels as though there's this deep, dark something happening at the center of the state, and yet we're just pouring sunshine over it. And that feels very much like a microcosm of America, right?

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

GROFF: I mean, there's a lot of darkness happening, and then there's - we pretend that everything is fine. You know, we pour sunshine on everything. So I'm just fascinated by this place. It still feels alien to me.

SHAPIRO: There is a lot of the state that does not appear in the short story collection. There's no Disney. There's no South Beach, Miami. There's no plastic surgery or beach bunnies. Did you intentionally wall all that off? Or was it just that this is the stuff that made its way into the book, and the other stuff didn't?

GROFF: Well, one of my ideas about this book is that it's the Florida that is not the replicated vision of Florida that people see all over the world if you don't really know the state, right? So if you do imagine the state, you do think South Beach, which is lovely and wonderful. You think Disney and standing in those horrible lines for hours. But I was more interested in the stories that don't necessarily get told or the narratives that are maybe a little bit outside the norm.

SHAPIRO: There's a meme that I'm sure you've seen which is Florida Man, which basically...

GROFF: I love - (laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Collect crazy headlines about things that men in Florida have done. And sometimes I felt like this story collection could be subtitled Florida woman.

GROFF: Right (laughter). But Florida woman is really subversive, and she doesn't like Florida Man very much. Let's be honest, right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GROFF: I love Florida Man. I mean, that's the funny thing, right? That's the stereotype. That's what everybody knows about Florida, is, you know, if something weird happens in the U.S., 80 percent of the time...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) It's in Florida.

GROFF: ...It has happened in Florida, right? Someone has been standing on top of his car, like, throwing golf balls at a police car. And that's definitely - that has happened before.

SHAPIRO: And he was naked.

GROFF: And he was absolutely naked, right? Absolutely. This book is very internal, right? It's very much about domesticity and resisting domesticity and nature sort of imposing itself on people. It's not - it's dark but psychologically dark.

SHAPIRO: Because you brought up the idea of resisting domesticity, I have to ask you. There's one character that comes up a number of times, and she's ambivalent about being a mother. And she says motherhood was never interesting to her. Her husband had to be the one to make up for the depths of my lack. And this is a character who lives in Gainesville and is the mother of two children. And it's hard not to observe that you are also a mother of two living in Gainesville.

GROFF: That is a good observation, yes.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

GROFF: (Laughter) So my general statement about this is that it's not not me, right? I mean, I think the question is...

SHAPIRO: This is your prepared statement that you're reading for the press. This is not not me.

GROFF: (Laughter) Ari Shapiro, the character is not not me.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GROFF: Yes. So she's not me, right? She's a fictional character. So she's someone that I know made grotesque, basically. That is what I think of...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GROFF: So there's no such thing as fiction that's not somewhat autobiographical. Likewise, there's no such thing as memoir that's not fictional. And it's possible that some of the things that this narrator says and thinks are things that I myself have said and thought. But I think in general I'm less grotesquely, like, frightened of the world.

SHAPIRO: I have to confess since I read this book I've been having snake dreams.

GROFF: Awesome. Good (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Will you read from one of the stories in this collection called "Snake Stories"?

GROFF: Absolutely. (Reading) Walk outside in Florida, and a snake will be watching you. Snakes in mulch, snakes in scrub, snakes waiting from the lawn for you to leave the pool so they can drown themselves in it. Snakes gazing at your mousy ankle and wondering what it would feel like to sink its fangs in deep.

SHAPIRO: It's hard to escape the allegorical significance of a snake. I mean, you reference Adam and Eve. You reference the "Iliad." Snakes come up a lot in this collection. And do you know why?

GROFF: Absolutely. Yes. So snakes are the most untamed thing I can think of - right? - the most wild, the least concerned about humanity. They're the one thing that I see even after 12 years in Florida - and I see them almost daily because I go for a run out in the prairie a lot. They're the one thing that actually sends visceral horror through me...

SHAPIRO: Daily.

GROFF: A lightning bolt - pretty much daily, yeah. I mean, there's either a dead snake on the ground or my kid's bringing a snake in the house. My kids love snakes. They love them. I mean, snakes are very much related to the pigeon brain in me that is just full of dread.

SHAPIRO: So you've lived in Florida for 12 years, and it still seems alien to you. And you go for a run nearly every day, and a snake still sends visceral horror down your spine. Do you think these things, this place that is now your home, will ever stop being visceral and horrifying and alien? And would you want it to?

GROFF: I don't want it to. I don't want it to because I'm a writer of fiction. And I think that if you feel too comfortable, you're writing from the inside. And so I think that the role of the fiction writer is very much to press up against the strictures of the society and the people within the society. So if you're writing from the inside, you can't do your job in a lot of ways. But also, Ari, I truly don't actually think that I would be happy anywhere, (laughter) right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GROFF: I'm a fiction writer. And it's possible that I would feel the same dread if I lived on my own island in the Caribbean - right? - if I lived in, you know, Mont Saint-Michel in France - right? - if I lived in Taiwan. Even though I still struggle against this crazy state that I find myself living in every single day, I am grateful to the struggle. And I'm grateful that it's something that I feel oppositional toward and love at the same time.

SHAPIRO: Lauren Groff, thank you so much for talking with us.

GROFF: Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Her new short story collection is called "Florida." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.