The novelist Lauren Groff lives in the Sunshine State but finds herself inexorably drawn to the shade.
That's a contrast she has probed relentlessly in three novels (including the best-selling "Fates and Furies") and two short story collections. And it explains why she decided to name her fifth work of fiction (and newest volume of stories) "Florida."
"People who don't know Florida carry around the idea that it is a place of perpetual sunshine and Mickey Mouse ears, a place that is a little bit ridiculous," says the 39-year-old author. "But people who live here also see the darkness. There's a pervasive, constant dread that is a mental state but also a physical and environmental state."
The longer that Groff talks about the deceptive nature of appearances, the more it seems that she's talking about herself. The tall woman with the classic bone structure is a fitness buff who swam competitively when she was young – her sister is the Olympic triathlete Sarah True. Groff is married to her Amherst College sweetheart, and they have two sons, aged 7 and 9.
Her first novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize. Her second was named one of the best books of 2012 by The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her third was a finalist for the National Book Award, was Amazon.com's 2015 book of the year and was chosen by former U.S. President Barack Obama as his favorite read during the past 12 months.
It all sounds extremely enviable. But the fortysomething women who populate Groff's stories struggle to live up to their internalized expectations. They are wrenched by ambivalence. They desperately want to communicate to the people they love but are beset by the conviction they've failed.
"These are feelings," Groff says, "that are shared by almost all of the mothers I know. We're all ducks that under the surface are paddling as hard as we can."
She talked with The Baltimore Sun about the inspiration for her characters, the different expectations readers have of male and female novelists, and her inability to feel genuinely comfortable no matter where she's living – and why that's a feeling she cherishes.
Q: In one of your stories, the main character realizes reluctantly that if she feels at home anywhere, that place would be Florida. Has that also become true for you?
A: At times I feel trapped by Florida; there are parts of it that I dread and parts that I love passionately. I belong here because it's where my children were born and where the people I love the most in the planet are happiest.
And as a writer, it's your job not to feel comfortable anywhere, so Florida is probably a good place for me to be. Writing is a deeply oppositional art form. As a writer, you're always pushing against the constraints you've been given.
Q: Place has always been terrifically important in your books. Would you be a different kind of writer if you lived in Colorado or Maine?
A: I would be a profoundly different writer. Where you live changes who you are on almost a cellular level. I grew up in upstate New York and I can clearly delineate my own change in my character after I moved to Florida. If you come from a hilly, cold place with four very clear seasons, there's a natural bent towards reticence and towards speed so you can get inside and away from the cold. In the summer, there's a bursting, almost operatic feeling when you're suddenly released from all your binds.
In Florida, you do have seasons, but you have 100 of them, and they are contingent on which plants are flowering. Now, it's magnolia season and before that it was Confederate Jasmine season and before that it was camellia season. It takes a different kind of noticing. Summers you hibernate inside because it's brutally hot, so it's the opposite palate from New York.
Q: How do stories start for you – with a picture in your head of a place or a particular character, a voice or a sentence?
A: Novels and stories are completely different processes.
With a novel, I'm trying to get at a larger idea that's sitting really uncomfortably on my heart. No matter what I do I can't access it, so I write a novel in that direction. I know it will take years. I read hundreds of books and write hundreds of pages that will be destroyed. When I wrote "The Monsters of Templeton," I was deeply and profoundly homesick and wanted to recreate a place through mythology. "Arcadia" was about the really fundamental emotional question of how we bring children into a world we are killing. "Fates and Furies" was about who gets to tell the stories.
A short story is different. Sometimes images or characters waltz into my head, or an individual sentence. I don't act on a short story until I put it back onto the compost heap of my subconscious and let it mature. Over the years new things flow in, and eventually the story becomes mature enough so that it blocks out the larger projects I'm working on and makes me want to write it.
Q: All the stories in "Florida" have female narrators except for one, "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners." How did you decide to tell that story from the point of view of a young boy?
A: Each of these stories is built around a grain of sand, an individual person I have known. Sometimes it's just a hand gesture, and they would never know that they were the basis for the character. In that story, the main character had to be male because he was inspired by someone in particular.
Q: Will you tell me who?
A: 1/8Laughs.3/8 No.
Q: Some of your stories intentionally mislead readers into assuming initially they're autobiographical – only to have you take the story in a direction that clearly never occurred in real life. Do you enjoy messing with our expectations?
A: I've been playing with this very deliberately in my work. The characters in "Florida" who seem the most autobiographical are not in many ways. I'm very cognizant that people tend to overtly ascribe autobiography to any woman's writing. People will still ask autobiographical questions of female authors in interviews and at readings. Part of the joy I get is sewing confusion into the readers' minds; they're going to assume my stories and novels are autobiographical anyway because I'm a woman.
Did you see how during the recent lionization of Philip Roth 1/8after the author died May 223/8, the tributes were very careful to never conflate him with Zuckerman? 1/8Nathan Zuckerman is a character created by Roth who, like the late author, is a Jewish-American novelist.3/8 Part of it is the willingness to concede authority to male writers. People are much less likely to grant authority to writers who are women.
Q: Has writing gotten any easier now that you've been doing it for a few decades?
A: It's funny – the more books you write, the more of a struggle it is. I look back at the first three books I wrote, and I marvel at how relatively quick and joyous the writing was. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I'm still terrified on a daily basis.