Bordered by a swampy lake, abandoned construction sites and amusement parks, stark inequality and unsettling extremes frame the lives of a gang of 13-year-old girls in Florida. They obsessively orbit the local preacher’s daughter, Sammy – until she goes missing. Watching from a distance, they edge ever closer to discovering a dark secret about their fame-hungry town and the cruel cost of a ticket out. Dreamy and nightmarish, otherworldly and uncomfortably real, Brutes is a sometimes surreal coming-of-age story and the debut novel of Dizz Tate, a Florida native now living in London.
Christine Schutt told us that Florida in her eponymous 2003 novel stood for “good health all the time”, while Lauren Groff told us that Florida in her eponymous short story collection is “teeming, unruly, vast, unpredictable, full of a creeping dread and wild beauty”. Can both be true? And do you consider yourself and these writers as part of a Floridian literary tradition?
I love both of those books enormously. Both writers are two of the most excellent sentence-makers around, and I re-read both frequently as a warm-up when I write, to channel my thoughts into an imitative, rhythmical pace. I kept this line from Christine Schutt at the top of my drafts when I was writing Brutes: “In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard.”
In Schutt’s version of Florida, the state is an unattainable destination of dreams; the closest the narrator and her mother come to it is a tanning box made of foil that her mother sunbathes in, surrounded by snow in their northern driveway.
In Groff’s version, Florida is presented in all its swampy, ancient reality. I think both versions can definitely be true simultaneously, which is why Florida is such a wonderful setting to write about and to live in. It’s a fragile dreamworld perched on sinking ground. It feels very human to me, a place designed like a child’s fantasy, a theme park of fun, somewhat desperate and always destined to fail, because Florida is, as Groff knows from living there, always “unruly and wild”, a place far older and stranger than its inhabitants, who are often old and strange themselves.
The construction site and the swampy lake that border the neighbourhood of the teenage girls in Brutes feature heavily. How does the specific landscape of the book shape the story?
I wanted the girls to feel trapped in their surroundings; too young to drive, there are only so many places they can reach on foot, and walking in Florida can be dangerous – it’s too hot to be outside for long. Florida is a state that tends to be robustly manicured and maintained in the rich part of the cities (the grass literally spray-painted greener, Disney World a pristine paradise monitored for children’s frequent vomit).
But surrounding the cities there is the swamp, and the swamp will always win. You can’t keep the alligators from crawling up the pipes into the lakes and the swimming pools, regardless of how big and clean the houses are, or how many locks are on the doors. There’s extreme wealth disparity in Florida and this is very symbolic in the landscape: the gated communities versus the apartment complexes, the hotels within the theme park walls versus the motels along the highway.
I wanted to represent all of this in my book, all the familiar failures of human inequality, but I also wanted to include the lake. The lake, for me, is a reminder of a world that existed before and will exist long after the carnival of Florida has blown away or sunk below the sea, a mythological pair of eyes watching everyone, with equal disdain, from the backyard.
Brutes is an enigmatic novel. Do you prefer not to offer easy answers for the reader and does this help you create atmosphere?
I think the world is an enigmatic place, and I’ve never felt comfortable offering answers for anything, easy or otherwise. There’s a line from George Saunders that I love: “Sometimes to represent an emotional truth, you have to violate reality.”
Since I was a kid, I looked to books like they were telling me secrets. They felt like they were honest in their weirdness, because they didn’t pretend, like parents or teachers tended to, that there was an explanation to everything. So I think I feel comforted by the inexplicable, because it feels like the truth to me.
Is the casual cruelty the girls treat each other with a reflection of their particular situation or of teenage girlhood in general?
I think the girls are tough and they are trying to figure out how to be in the world they’ve been dealt to live in. More than anything, they want to be loved and they don’t feel especially loved. They are experimenting with ways to find love, and they think the only way they’ll get it is to be special, singular in some way, because that is what the world is telling them.
They want it so badly that they are mean, grabby, clingy, needy. I understand these feelings deeply, and they feel more true to me than affection delivered in tender, well-timed compliments. Love is not always expressed sweetly, especially the first time it’s felt. And cruelty is the easiest, silliest, often funniest way for the girls to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable. Sometimes, when you feel weak and ugly and afraid and a little desperate, like most 13 year olds and many others do, the only way it feels like you can win the fight is to throw the first punch.
What did the use of the second person narrative voice convey in the novel?
I wanted to show the multiplicity of being a young girl, how you are at once powerful and powerless, full of manic joy and wild pain. I wrote a few drafts in the first person, and found having one narrative voice made me feel lonely, and it wasn’t true to my experience of being 13, when, confused and insecure as I was, I made a group of friends who made me feel accepted and understood and brought me a lot of joy.
They were a loud, fearless, combative, hilarious, brilliantly strange group, and the dynamics were fascinating to me, even then. Looking back now, it felt like we wanted both collective and individual satisfaction simultaneously: to be loved by all, but chosen by one. To be the favourite, the best friend. Using the choral voice helped me show the political, shifting tensions within the group, their joy at being together, their fear of being left behind.
I also wanted it to be in the present tense, because 13 to me is the first age I truly remember, an age of experiencing everything for the first time, unencumbered by memory. It’s an anticipatory age, and fearless in its singular ambition: to make a boring, trapped life memorable through wild plans, escape attempts, dares.
What do monsters in the story represent?