Storms, snakes, sinkholes and secrets are the recurring motifs in Florida (William Heinemann, £14.99), a collection of short stories from the author of Fates and Furies, 2015s runaway hit that was a favourite among critics and famous faces, from Sarah Jessica Parker to Barack Obama. Groff tells us how she’s getting on with a less literary president and chasing tree frogs out of her room.
Christine Schutt recently told us that the Florida in her eponymous 2003 novel stood for “good health all the time”. Hemingway and Updike wrote about it. Is it meaningful to talk about a Florida literary tradition or is it just where some novels are set?
I think it is meaningful to talk about a Florida literary tradition, though my impression is that “good health all the time” is sharply against an overarching view of what Florida is in literature (with the caveat that I love Christine Schutt and think she is a genius of the sentence). In the work of both Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston – who have a better claim for understanding Florida than do Hemingway and Updike, who were essentially tourists here, the state is teeming, unruly, vast, unpredictable, full of a creeping dread and wild beauty. That’s what I see, too.
Have your previous works been equally influenced by your surroundings at the time of writing or has Florida uniquely inspired you?
All of my work has been influenced by my surroundings because our surroundings make up a subtle part of our characters. Anyone who stands up straighter when walking into an elegant building, or relaxes into her bones at the beach, knows what I’m saying: the way a place makes you feel causes your emotions and reactions to shift. The dread I feel in Florida has seeped into my fictions.
In this collection of short stories set in the state “shaped like a gun” neighbourhood gossip casually recalled includes a jealous husband shooting his wife and her lover with a shotgun, and parents who fear snakes’ venom but overlook the dangers of guns kept in the home. Have casual attitudes toward firearms in Florida been altered since the tragic Stoneman Douglas High School shooting?
I wish. I think the vast majority of Americans are heartbroken about guns, and violence against children. The crazy-eyed gun fanatics are a small subset, but they’re loud and have a lot of money, and have bought off our politicians, and, until we rise up to punish these politicians, they have proven themselves too indebted to their donors to change gun laws. The NRA is a terrorist organisation and should be treated as such. Attitudes are shifting, but too slowly to save children’s lives.
Homelessness is a recurring motif throughout these stories. Is the problem particularly pronounced in Florida and what are attitudes towards homelessness like?
The problem is pronounced in Gainesville, where I live, which has a mixture of a good climate and a progressive government, which does its best to take care of the vulnerable. That said, business owners in the downtown – two blocks from where I live – raised a fuss about the homeless there because so many of the people who live in gated communities thought a large homeless population implied danger and wouldn’t come downtown. Some cruelty came about afterwards, tent cities being burnt down and gates going up around parks where people slept, with the final result being a one-stop community that satisfies no one but does its best to keep vulnerable people safe. The attitudes toward homelessness are mixed, as with everything else in this place: the people who know how close they are to homelessness themselves are the ones most consistently generous, and the rich white businessmen of the world feel free to ignore or treat the homeless like dirt.
You also refer to the white barricaded gated communities in contrast to the “dicey” neighbourhoods, which are black and poor. Are racial segregation and discrimination more pronounced in Florida than other states and why?
Racial segregation is horrific where I live in Florida. You have to remember that this place was a Jim Crow state – there are many white residents still alive who grew up in a Florida where they never spoke to a single black person because they didn’t have to – everything was segregated, from water fountains to schools to hospitals. And though this city is progressive and we’re long past desegregation, the ways geography and neighbourhoods were used to reinforce segregation, remain still in place.
The tension between the natural state of Florida as stormy swampland and as a place inhabited by millions of residents and tourists is evident throughout your stories. How do residents and authorities respect the natural world while constantly battling it?
There’s a constant and intriguing tension between the domestic and the wild in Florida: even in my house, I was awoken last night by a tree frog that had somehow come in and was chirping out in the dark living room. My dog found it before I did. Authorities don’t tend to demonstrate any respect for the natural world – I think of the governor, who is a climate-change denier, even though parts of Miami are already underwater – but the residents are ferocious and work every day to take care of our springs, our forests, our prairies, to eradicate the invasive species we can. Though, of course, humans are the most pernicious invasive species in this place.
Fates and Furies was Obama’s book of the year in 2015 and you said you felt widowed when he left the White House. How are you – and America – faring with a less literary president?
We are faring very poorly; I am faring very poorly. My mental and physical health are both breaking down under the onslaught and I’m not alone. Every day the One-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named reverses protective measures that were shielding the environment, workers, women, transgender people, and children from predation, and it’s hard to catch your breath at the sheer scale of the greed and evil. We are going to suffer profoundly for a long time because of this terrible narcissistic man and his enablers.