Lauren Groff on new book Florida and counting Barack Obama as a fan
One of the books we’re most looking forward to next summer isn’t a “beach read,” per se, but it does take place in Florida. Fates and Furies author Lauren Groff follows up her acclaimed 2015 novel with Florida, a dark collection of stories set in the titular Southern state.
Out June 5, 2018 (and available for pre-order now), Florida’s tales follow characters dealing with the state’s thin boundaries between the human world and the nature outside. There are violent storms and pipe-dwelling snakes; lost parents and lost minds. In one standout, a woman hallucinates people from her past as her neighbors flee and a hurricane rages around her home. In another, two young sisters find themselves alone on an island, growing wild as they figure out how to survive. In many stories, set across different time periods, women push back against traditional ideas of motherhood and wifely subservience.
EW can exclusively reveal Florida’s stunning cover below — along with a Q&A with Groff about the weirdness of Florida, the differences between writing novels and short stories, and what it’s like when President Barack Obama picks your novel as his favorite book of the year.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this collection?
LAUREN GROFF: I moved to Florida about 12 years ago, and I hadn’t really written about it for a while because I… didn’t actually want to be here. [We moved] because of my husband. And it’s such a strange and alien place if you come from the north. It’s not the Disney World Florida, you know? We’re surrounded by swamps.
But eventually I started, despite myself, loving the place really deeply, while still feeling really ambivalent about it. And I think a lot of times, fiction comes out of these sources of ambivalence, where you have this passionate love and an equal and opposite feeling of distrust or danger, and you just want to make something out of that ambivalence.
What do you think you can see differently in Florida as a transplant? What do you think natives might not see?
It’s funny that you ask that because I just went for a run, and I was on the bike path, and just out of nowhere a little coral snake went right in front of my feet. I will never not be surprised by reptiles. I’m astonished by them. But also, the plant life is really different. I spend my summers in New Hampshire, where there is, in the spring, this bursting out of the ground because everything’s just really happy to be alive. But here in Florida, it’s this strange and constant cycling of flowers and plants that are always… they always seem a little bit prickly. Like the palmettos are a little sharp. The palms themselves have these berries that fall but they’re not edible, they just stain everything
Everything seems a little bit dangerous in an interesting way. And everything’s very hot. And it really has this profound emotional effect on people, which I think, if you’re raised here, you wouldn’t see. But it’s this shift between having to put up with the heat and sunshine, versus someone who spends most of the winter in the dark, huddled against the cold, and then comes out in spring and summer.
You have a thread throughout these stories of women feeling unsatisfied, or women feeling weird about motherhood. Where did that part come from?
Yeah, it’s all just part of being an ambivalent human being. (Laughs) And it’s not just about Florida. I obviously really love my children — I feel like I have to say that before I say the rest of the piece, which is, a lot of expectations for mothers in the world are deeply misogynistic and troublesome. I chafe very much against a lot of the expectations that we don’t sometimes question when we go into things like becoming a parent or getting married. I’ve never liked them, and I rail against them in my heart while still trying to live my life like a good person and treat my children as they should be treated, with respect and joy and all of those things.
A lot of my fiction comes out of an inability to marry two halves of my understanding. I love being a mother of my boys. I’m not sure I love being a mother in the way that our culture demands of mothers.
Like the way you’re expected to sacrifice all of your own happiness for them?
Right. That’s ludicrous. I’m not happy to do that! We should not ask that of women. That’s insane. We’re human, too! I actually feel like this book is political but in a quiet way, insofar as I think I’m pushing really hard against unfairness that’s kind of under the surface.
Right — you have a story in this collection about a woman who leaves an unhappy marriage and her young son to go run a bookstore up north. It was interesting how you followed the son instead of her, and also that more didn’t happen with her in the story. She tries to contact her son, but only once.
That actually came out of [a real story]: My father-in-law’s mom had a bookstore during World War II that she wasn’t really allowed to. That wasn’t about my father-in-law, per se, but a lot of his early Florida childhood is in there.
Do a lot of these stories have roots in people you know?
Oh, definitely. And a lot of these stories were written with a single person in front of me, in my vision. There’s a story in the book about two little girls alone on an island, and they have nothing to do with my sister and I. But my sister is one of the closest people to my heart, and she was having a hard time, so she was just sort of present in front of me, and I had this urge to write something about an older sister for a younger sister, taking care of her in a way. So every one of these stories has a person or an imaginary person I’m writing for.
Why did you want to come back to stories after Fates and Furies?
Actually, some of these stories are old! I think the oldest one is from 2009. I’ve been writing stories all along. I love it — it’s a completely separate skill set and mindset.
So for a novel, I like to wake up every day and not talk to anyone until I’ve been working for a few hours. And then short stories are these things that I sort of carry around for years and years and years, and something I read or something I watch, or even having an image of something makes the story so urgent that I can’t actually work on the novel.
I work on them simultaneously, and I actually love to work on multiple projects at once because it takes a little — it takes much longer to finish a project. But what happens is they talk to each other in your subconscious, underneath the surface. And I think they make each other stronger, all of the work that’s going on underneath. I love short stories. I love them so much. It sometimes feels as though there’s such a limited readership of them that the stakes are lower, so you can risk more.
Because they want to be reading short stories, so they’re going to follow you into the weird?
Yeah, for sure. Or if it doesn’t work out, if I’m trying to do this thing that’s so crazy, the story just won’t be published, right? You’re not throwing away 15 years of novel-writing. You’re throwing away like six months of story writing.
Do you have a favorite between writing short stories and writing novels?
They’re natural in different ways. One’s like swimming and one’s like running. It’s just different muscles. The feeling of writing a short story, because I try to do a full draft in a sitting, is more urgent and accelerated. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many revisions in short stories. It’s just differently urgent and equally exciting and fun. I probably write more pages of short stories because I always have two or three that I’m working on, and I’m usually working on one-and-a-half to 2 novels depending on how disappointed I am in what’s going on. (Laughs)
I love this cover so much. It’s so much darker! I think I’m getting too deep into this, but it reminds me of a kind of inverse version of the California state flag. The way Florida and California are kind of alike, but so different.
That’s so interesting! I hadn’t thought of that at all. My husband looked at it and he saw a panther moving through night vision goggles. It makes sense in the context of one of the stories.
But I actually saw something really different — I saw like an old, weather-beaten board on which there’s a painted panther, and he’s kind of half-off so you don’t know where his face went. I love the mystery of that. He’s not fully present — he’s kind of a ghost himself. I love the unresolved aspects of that. It’s such a beautiful cover, too. It’s so strange for a summer cover, too. It’s really dark. You expect like, beaches and Fabio, but this is very different.
I have to ask… what is it like to sit down and write after President Barack Obama picks your novel as his favorite book of the year?
So, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have deep emotional ambivalence about this, because I love Barack Obama so very much. The fact that he’s not here with us is like a constant daily wound — not to be overwhelmingly dramatic!
It feels like a vote of confidence, but also, in some ways, I would like to make him proud, right? (Laughs) He’s one of my ideal readers, so I would like to write toward him in a certain way. It feels good.
You have to compartmentalize and have a completely different brain when you sit down to write and not allow matters of the ego in and at all. You’ve got to allow yourself to fail pretty desperately for most of the writing process before you can even do something that you like, so I try to get away from the whole concept of anyone reading me. But in revision, or when I send a story out, I allow myself two seconds to be like, (whispers) “Maybe Barack will like this one, too.”