The one book about Florida you must read this summer

Best-selling author Roxanne Gay wrote once in an article for The Guardian: “Florida is a strange place: hot, beautiful, ugly. I love it here, and how nothing makes sense.”

She’s certainly not the only one to think that. The Sunshine State has been inspiration for writers from Hemingway and John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and James Patterson.

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Now Lauren Groff, author of the acclaimed novel “Fates and Furies,” has published a collection of short stories simply titled “Florida.” There’s nothing simple about it. The book compiles narratives with complex, puzzling characters from different Florida towns. The themes of its stories will certainly ring a bell with readers who have made this state their home.

Groff is one of them now, having settled in Gainesville.

“Not one of these stories would have emerged if I hadn’t moved to Gainesville twelve years ago,” Groff said in an email interview. “It’s such a strange, wild, delightful, and liminal space, where punk rock and college football live at ease together, where citrus trees know frosts intimately, where we’re solidly in the Deep South but also in the general and placeless cosmopolitanism of academia.”

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Groff’s writing career is nothing short of impressive.

She is a New York Times bestselling author and her works have been published in The New Yorker and Granta, the latter naming her as one of its 2017 Best Young American Novelists. “​When you’re a finalist for the Granta honor, you’re asked to submit a short story,” Groff said when asked if the nomination came as a surprise to her. “I knew that there was a possibility I’d be named a Best of Young American Novelist, but I wasn’t prepared, by any means, by how moved or delighted I’d be when it actually happened.​”

Groff says that what she finds fascinating about Florida is an amalgam of elements that give it such a particular feel.

“​This is a monkeybread state, a state that isn’t one thing, but many things all jammed together,” Groff said. “Miami and the Deep South, the beach and the swamp. You can’t tell a single narrative about Florida, but you need to tell hundreds to begin to do it justice. I love how there’s this real perilous edge to the state, but over the danger there’s a constant​ pour of sunshine. I love that it’s a microcosm of America and if you study Florida long enough you’ll begin to see the ​submerged narrative of the country at large.”

“Florida” gives off strong vibes of magical realism, where snakes, sinkholes and panthers in hidden Florida towns replace Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo with its yellow butterflies and ghosts.

The microcosm Groff refers to can be read in one of the stories in “Florida” titled “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” The plot centers on a snake hunter and his family who live in the thick of wilderness surrounded by swamps and wildlife. Snake hunting sounds similar to python trapping in the Everglades, but Groff said that the story was inspired by something else entirely. “For that story, I thought of all the snakes I’ve had to leap over on my runs in Payne’s Prairie, and also thought of my father-in-law, who will pick any snake up with his bare hands.​”

Groff doesn’t admit to having any story as her favorite, just as each of her sons “privately understand that he’s my favorite.”

She continues on to discuss the poetic tone of the book, which seems almost lyrical in its intensity. ​”When I began to write I was a poet, and I think that writing short stories hits the same dopamine receptors in the brain ​that writing poetry does,” Groff said. “Novels are different for me. It’s almost as though they’re the slow and careful work of carpentry, which has its own immense satisfaction. But short stories are ecstatic.”

In regards to Florida readers relating to the stories in the book, Groff says that she isn’t quite certain what people mean when they use the verb “to relate”:

“If it means that the book will reinforce their pre-formed ideas about what Florida is​, I would hope not,” Groff said. “I think the job of literary fiction is to challenge the things we think that we know. Now if the question is if I think they might like the stories, I hope very much that they will.​”

Now that “Florida” has been published, is there a future novel in the works for Lauren Groff? Her answer is coy.

“There have been and continue to be multiple long projects on the stove. I haven’t been able to commit to one fully in the past few months, but I look forward to a long and beautiful fall and spring to put everything I have into a new book. “

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