In her latest short story collection, Florida, coming from Riverhead in June, Lauren Groff circles around the state she’s lived in for 12 years now. “This book really came out of so many years of just being stuck in a house in the middle of a swamp,” Groff says. “And I think part of the way the stories go together is this feeling of wanting to burst out of the claustrophobia.”
For Groff’s first five years in Florida, she resisted the state, turned off by the hot temperatures and how different it is from New York, her home state, where most of her books are set. But Florida became a part of her and her work. “It sort of started creeping into my consciousness,” she says. She started writing about the state in order to try to understand it.
Every day, Groff goes for a run on the prairie in Gainesville. For her, these runs are a chance to explore her natural surroundings. “About a week ago, I stepped over a coral snake,” Groff says. “Right now, the sand hill cranes are coming. They are these gorgeous, really weird birds that have a sort of rasping sound. The flora and the fauna—that’s my favorite aspect of Florida, and that is what we are losing the most.”
Groff lives with her husband (whose family has lived in Florida for three generations now) and two sons, who are nine and almost seven, in a home that was built in 1904. Her boys share the house with Groff’s writing career, which she thinks of as her first child. “I’m going to feed it and give it all the love that I’m going to give my physical children,” she says. “As a writer, you want to hate your own work when it’s not going well, but you can’t if you think of it as a kid. You can’t hate your kid. Love them and be kind, and take a deep breath, and go into another room, and come back and be nice!”
Groff says that her sons are respectful of her writing career; they know she has a room of her own where she goes to work. “The boys don’t get to take away from my writing, and, of course, my writing doesn’t get to take away from them, either,” she says. “It’s on equal par with them.”
The stories in Florida deal with the wild and the domestic. In “The Midnight Zone,” a mother worries about her sons while nursing a concussion in a remote cabin 20 miles from the nearest town. “Safety was 20 miles away and there was a panther between us and there, but also possibly terrible men, sinkholes, alligators, the end of the world,” Groff writes. In “Dogs Gone Wolf,” two sisters are abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves.
“I think a song that is happening under the surface of this book is the tension of our being domestic creatures,” Groff says. “Domestic meaning being a mother. I am domesticated despite myself, because I have children—and a house, that is sort of an uncomfortable domestication also. And because I’m a person; I have a physical body. All of these things are ways of being domesticated. And the animal life seems in some ways almost a dreamy transference. It’s a way of seeing the opposite—turning this idea of domesticity around and having a separate life, or being able to empathize outward instead of keeping things inward.”
Groff even uses animals and insects as a way to describe people. In “Eyewall,” a story set during a hurricane, a character’s skin is “alligatored” with age, and the narrator describes herself as a “beetle-browed girl.” She wrote “Eyewall” without having actually experienced a hurricane herself. “I think I was so afraid of it, I had to actually write it to see if I could survive it,” she says.
Groff says her house is “termite riddled” and jokes, “Either we are going down by hurricane, or we are going down by termites.”
Living in Florida gives Groff plenty of fodder for her fiction. She uses her life as a jumping-off point. “The piece of sand around which I build a book has to be something that I feel really strong ambivalence about, or something I feel really powerfully about,” she says. “And I feel most powerfully about people. So I think it’s probably the case that if a story ends up working out for me, it’s because I’ve put someone I care very deeply about into it. Either as an oppositional character, or as a piece of that character, or as a feeling for that character.”
Reading is also a significant part of her writing process. Groff reads almost 300 books per year. “Every book that I write is haunted by other books,” she says. (She has three novels: 2008’s The Monsters of Templeton, 2011’s Arcadia, and 2015’s Fates Furies, and another short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, from 2009.) “There is a constant conversation with literature, or else it’s just not interesting.” Chekhov is one of her major inspirations; she returns to his collected stories over and over again. She starts her day at 5 a.m. with some poetry.
Groff often works on more than one story or book at a time, and sometimes projects that fail get folded into new projects. “It’s really weird, the way things sing to each other,” she says. “Like whales underneath the surface.” But whales can get lonely, and so can work that is left alone for too long.
“My youngest son, when he was one, came up with this funny word that we use: lonely-bored,” Groff says. “Lonely-bored is the saddest you can feel. If you are lonely-bored, you are the saddest person on Earth. And I think that’s why writers write: because we are lonely-bored.”
Groff’s stories are the opposite of boring. The short stories that make up Florida cover a wide canvas. She says stories made more sense to her than a novel because the state is “such a fractured and contradictory place.” She thinks of the state as a central character in the book.
“People think they know Florida,” Groff says. “Nobody knows Florida because Florida is not knowable. It has Miami in it, but it also has Tallahassee. It has the so-called Redneck Riviera, the coast, where everything is so different. Florida is the South, and it’s salsa dancing. It’s magnolias; I have a magnolia right there out my window. It’s mockingbirds. It’s all of the clichés, but it’s everything else as well. We have NASA; we have everything. So when people are like, ‘Florida is not the South,’ I’m like, ‘Well yeah, it is, but expand your scope of what the South is. The South is not just Trump signs. The South is also people like me, sitting lonely-bored in their little studio, writing lonely-bored stories.’ ”
Michele Filgate is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.