The sky was overcast and gray when I met Lauren Groff for lunch in her adopted hometown of Gainesville, Florida with the rollout of her new book, Florida, just weeks away. The weather was a grim but honest backdrop for our conversation about Florida, both the book and the state. For all of Florida’s insistence that it’s the Sunshine State, it’s just as much one of heavy gray clouds and thick walls of humidity. The clouds had been hanging low in the sky all day, threatening one of the almost daily downpours that begin in May and last through the summer. Groff was eager for the threat to end; eager for the rain to fall.
Our conversation began as most conversations between two Floridians begin: with talk of weather, particularly the obstinate need to differentiate hot from humid. This conversation is learned; a skill one acquires after at least a few years in Florida. Like many Floridians, Groff is an accidental resident, brought to the small college town in the northern end of the peninsula by family and stability. She moved here with her husband, who, over a decade ago, took over a family business. Both of her sons were born in Florida—Groff tells me that she spent the summer of her first pregnancy trying to find relief from the heat and humidity by swimming “like a big manatee, slow in the water”—but her transition to Floridian has been marked by a particular kind of restlessness that seems unique to the state. It’s less of a clear transition than a slow succumbing to Florida’s unique malaise, a realization that comes when, one day, you find you can easily converse about humidity, tourist traps, and invasive species.
Groff and I then turn to the next mandatory conversation for Floridians, exchanging stories about the non-Disney tourist traps that define Florida, those locales that imbue the state with its distinctive identity. If Floridians trade these stories like currency, then Groff is particularly rich.
Groff tells me about a visit to Weeki Wachee, an icon of both old Florida and tourist traps where, for nearly seven decades, women have been dressing as mermaids performing balletic underwater shows (Groff wrote about the mermaids in a ruminative essay for Oxford American). It has been at least a decade since I trekked the 300 miles to Weeki Wachee, and Groff encourages me to visit. She notes that the mermaids’ show now includes a tribute to fallen soldiers. In turn, I tell Groff about the Coral Castle, a group of large structures outside of Miami with a mystical reputation. Built by hand over the course of 20 years by a Latvian immigrant named Edward Leedskalnin, the Coral Castle is often described as a labor of love, a romantic gesture built in memory of a girl who jilted Leedskalnin, leaving him sad and lonely the day before a promised wedding. The girl, it turns out, was only 16 years old, a fact that makes the story far less romantic and the endurance of the site as a tourist trap all the more baffling. (Billy Idol reportedly penned his 1987 hit “Sweet Sixteen” in Leedskalnin’s honor.)
She tells me about Bob’s River Place, a swimming hole on the Suwannee River in Dixie County, which she visited recently with family and friends. “It’s just this guy who has this place on the river and opened it up to people,” Groff says as she describes it with a laugh. Bob’s River Place is made up of rope swings dangling from tall trees that drop into the Suwannee, as well as a slide and a few floating pads; there’s even, Groff notes, a karaoke station. “There’s so much sex in the air, it’s very sensual,” Groff says with her characteristic warm expressiveness. “It’s the weirdest place I’ve ever been in my entire life...It’s so insane...all these boys who haven’t fully developed their brains swing on these ropes, hanging 100 feet up,” she adds as she gestures emphatically. She did one pass at a rope swing and adds, “I’m really surprised that no one died while we were there.”
Later, when I Google Bob’s River Place to confirm its location, the search engine suggests “Bob’s River Place death.” I click out of morbid curiosity and read about all of the people who forever disappeared into the blackwater of the Suwannee after jumping from one of Bob’s ropes.
Bob’s River Place, with its danger and odd eroticism, could easily have been a setting for one of the stories in Florida, Groff’s second book of short stories. Throughout the 11 stories that compose Florida, the “erotic” “dense, damp tangle” of the state haunts. In Groff’s hands, Florida is an “Eden of dangerous things” populated by snakes and alligators, its landscape defined by widening sinkholes and waterways that are threatening barriers. If Groff’s menacing terrain of “frenzied flora and fauna” evokes a state of danger, then the women and children who navigate the landscape are aware and are, in turn, filled with anxious trepidation.
In story after story, Groff’s protagonists find themselves either abandoned, abandoning, or alone. Mothers and caretakers are particularly keen to run away. In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” the mother disappears, leaving her vulnerable young son with his professor father, who collects snakes and stores “fodder mice” in the boy’s closet. The boy is haunted by his loneliness, a “living creature that shadowed him,” yowling cats, and puppies that have been gobbled up by the ever-lurking alligators.
In another story, a young woman abandons her life only to find herself the accidental caretaker of yet another missing mother’s children. She too leaves the children, unable to provide for them. In one of the collection’s most haunting stories, “Dogs Go Wolf,” two young sisters are left alone in a fishing camp on an island in the middle of the ocean. The girls, starving and scared, dress in their mother’s clothes, cover themselves with her perfume and makeup and stagger into a stranger’s arms. “Ghost girls in clown makeup and floral sacks, creeping out of the dark forest,” Groff writes, describing the girls as characters in a grim fairytale.
Even in stories with run-of-the-mill mothers, anxiety and dread still permeate their narratives. In “The Midnight Zone,” the narrator is left to care for her sons after she falls while changing a lightbulb, stuck in a cabin “so far from humanity in all that Florida waste.” In “Flower Hunters,” a woman is “frightened of climate change” and “frightened of her children.” She is even more frightened of the anxiety that has accumulated around her, the result of a dying planet that she cannot control.
The uneasiness of Groff’s protagonists is echoed in my conversation with Groff. She talks about hurricanes, climate change, and politics. Florida, she says, is “all about danger.” Like many of her protagonists, she’s also concerned with “external” threats: “As soon as you bring a kid into the world, you realize that you can’t control the danger in their lives,” Groff says. “I think that’s where all of this sense of profound discomfort with danger came from, and anxiety and dread,” she adds as she accidentally pours too much hot sauce on her tacos.
Groff’s anxiety has turned, she says, to “full-on dread” since the 2016 presidential election. “I’m not sleeping anymore. I’m so exhausted all the time because of this stupid world.” But, even as she’s engaged with the news cycle, she worries, too, that “we can get addicted to really strong feelings and emotions, and I think that the dread might be one.”
Still, despite her uneasiness, Groff believes in the necessity of outward-facing fiction—of literature that’s “not afraid to ask difficult questions.” She senses, however, that those kinds of books are few and far between. “I haven’t finished more books this year than I have in my entire life,” she says, articulating a familiar feeling among readers. “They’re good; they’re complex; they’re mechanically well put together—they’re good little machines, but they’re not talking about these terrifying, upsetting things.”
She reflects for a moment before making a clear differentiation between art and entertainment without, she emphasizes, privileging one over the other: “Some people just want entertainment right now; they just want to distract themselves. Entertainment is a reflection of what you look for in life. So, when people talk about characters not being relatable, it means that they really just want to see themselves.” Art, she says, “opens really ugly doors.” “If you’re a reader right now who needs to escape and be entertained,” Groff explains, “you’re not a reader who is compelled to engage with what is going on.” From her perspective, “going in the direction of art is the only way to go.”
It’s not just an issue of asking questions but, Groff elaborates, “asking the right questions.” The question of what literature should do—what it should be—particularly at this tense moment in history isn’t just a philosophical inquiry for Groff. “I had been writing this one book through different forms for 12 years, and then I finally finished it,” Groff says. “I liked it!” she added, “it was the culmination of so many years of work.” But she felt like the book, about the 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant, was “so self-enclosed that it doesn’t actually engage with the world.” It felt “immoral.” She adds, “There’s a morality to what we’re creating and what we decide to pay attention to. It’s not that books on books are immoral, I would never say that, but focusing on books to the exclusion of the outside world, especially when it’s in such stress, feels wrong.”
The Maupassant book “felt wrong,” Groff says, “so I threw it out.” She doesn’t mean that she threw it out metaphorically, but rather she set the manuscript on fire. “I put it in a bonfire. It felt wonderful. It felt so good, and I only write books by hand,” Groff says. “It’s gone, it’s gone,” she adds with a small trace of regret.
Though the final product of Groff’s 12 years with Maupassant is gone, the French writer managed to find some space in Florida. In Yport, one of the three stories set outside the state, a mother of two sons travels to France to research a biography of Maupassant. Instead, she finds herself distracted by her boys and her thoughts, unable to work on a project that brought her to the country. “It began as a translation project,” Groff writes, “it then turned into a historical fiction.” Though Maupassant “has been stuck in her, a fish bone lodged in her throat,” Yport’s narrator can’t bring herself to work on Maupassant. Groff writes that “reimagining another writer’s life in fiction has begun to seem tricksy to her, diversionary, like sleight of hand. The times are too troubled for such things. These urgent days she wants the truth, stark and cold.”
But if Yport’s narrator is made listless by her anxiousness, perhaps her greatest surprise is a revelation about herself, a realization about who she is and where she belongs. “She doesn’t belong in France,” Groff writes. “Of all of the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”
After lunch, we stop briefly for coffee at a self-consciously hip cafe that has, among other things, a large, life-size plaster sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus rex on its grounds. We talk about #MeToo and exchange whispers. Groff is very supportive of #MeToo but, like many, is frustrated by its limits. “I’m not sure if outing people is going to be enough to change behavior,” she says, referencing a recent #MeToo story to emerge from the literary world.
“When things are regulated by fear, there’s an eventual relaxing of the fear. It’s not striking to the very root of the problem. It’s just grazing the top of the grass.” Still, Groff says, “it needs to be done.” But, she worries that it won’t be enough “unless the men themselves change the culture.” “It’s purely woman driven right now. I’ve yet to see a vocal male writer come out and be an ally,” she adds with a trace of anger. Groff asks me if I can think of one male writer who has come out in support of #MeToo. We both think for a while before I manage to stumble on one name. In the background, the T. rex hovers perpetually stuck mid-roar framed by dark, heavy clouds.
After coffee, I follow Groff to her home. It’s the kind of neighborhood that has grown organically without regard to city grids or planning. Meandering thin roads are peppered with houses of many styles; mid-centuries and Cracker-style homes sit next to one another. Groff’s home is a stylish arts and crafts that, she says, she and her husband renovated when they first moved in. She gives me a tour of her house and introduces me to her family, all the while her dog, a lively Labradoodle named Olive, eagerly follows us around, taking the chance to lick my ankle and calf whenever we pause.
Groff shows me her office on the second floor. On the walls are the cover art for her novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies. On the opposite wall, hangs a framed handwritten letter from Barack Obama, who in 2015, named Fates and Furies his favorite book.
At her house, with her sons quietly reading upstairs, Groff tells me that she’s finally accepted Florida as her home. “My sons,” she says, “are never going to know any other home.” “I have to learn to love Florida. I have to learn to love the place that goes into who they are, especially since I believe that landscape is psyche.” She adds that the landscape “changes who you are at a really profound level.” I ask her if Florida, an “Eden of dangerous things,” has changed her. She thinks for a moment before exclaiming, “Oh look, it finally started to rain.”