‘Florida‘ is a haunting look at the ‘pestilence and dread‘ hiding in the sunshine state

Lauren Groff knows what you think of when you think of Florida: Disney, Miami, Florida Man.

But in her new book Florida, the writer describes a different tenor to the sunshine state.

“My Florida is different. My Florida is full of pestilence and dread,” Groff told MashReads.

Florida is a collection of short stories set in, well, Florida, as a a series of narrators navigate their lives and the landscape in the southern state.

“This book is about Florida. But it’s not just the state, it’s about the state of dread and premonition, and the desire to push outside the realm of domesticity, and how to raise little boys and make them into good people, and it’s about snakes, and it’s basically everything that you can come up with.”

To that end, the stories that make up the collection find their protagonists in a series of disparate situations. In one story, two girls are abandoned on an island and must survive without any adults. In another, a woman decides to stay in her home while a hurricane hits. And still another tracks a woman on her nightly walks because she is too angry to stay at home with her husband and kids.

But though each tale is different than the other, connecting all of these stories is a palpable sense of anger, discontentment, isolation and more.

“I don‘t want to write books that aren‘t engaged politically, and I also don‘t want to write books that aren‘t engaged with the things that are really, really weighing on me, and my anger is one of those things that are weighing,” says Groff.

That‘s not to say that the book is to disparage the state. Just the opposite.

“I hope that Floridians will come to this book with joy because a lot of time in popular culture, we see Florida as a stereotype. And I would hope that the people that I love find complication in the book. But, the book is a work of utter love and of joy, as well as darkness, too.”

This week on the MashReads Podcast, we talk to Groff about Florida. Join us in the episode below as we talk about we talk about writing, what we miss when we talk about the sunshine state, and more.

Interview highlights

(Edited lightly for length and clarity)

What inspired Florida?

The state of Florida is the massive inspiration behind the book. I moved there twelve years ago and it’s a place that I never wanted to live. I think it‘s because I come from the north and we have a lot of bias and a lot of scorn for Florida. And some of it is absolutely earned  — it’s the state of Disney. It’s the state that’s dangling off the side of America like an apendage, it’s a very ugly state in some ways. We have the meme Florida Man.

Because of that reputation, as I was reading, I realized that you have this deceptively hard challenge of conveying the ethos of Florida in your book because everyone has this idea of Florida already in their head. How do you tackle that?

I tackle it by trying to disregard that reputation. There is not a lot of Disney in this book. There is no Miami in this book, which is the other thing that people think of when they think of Florida. And I love Miami, I love it deeply. It’s what I thought I was getting into when I, at last, reluctantly, decided that it would be okay to live in Florida, but [my experience] has not at all been like that. My Florida is different. My Florida is full of pestilence and dread. I go for a run out in the prairie all the time and I see alligators and snakes. I ran over a coral snake the other day, which, had it sunk its fangs into my ankle, I would have died immediately.

My Florida is different. My Florida is full of pestilence and dread.

You’ve mentioned pestilence and dread several times. Can you say a little bit more about that?

So Florida for me, the name of it, sort of is indicative of a larger emotional issue. I have children, and we are living in the most ecologically vulnerable state — Florida, within 20 years, is not going to be the Florida we know now in any way. And it breaks my heart on a daily basis to imagine what‘s going to happen to it if we don‘t check climate change, and it looks like we‘re not because we‘re reacting to it in geological time, as slowly as we possible can, and it‘s going to be bad. So I walk around with this feeling of both terror for the future and overwhelming love of the present and knowledge of the past. So it‘s almost as if Florida, for me, symbolizes a much larger emotional state of where a lot of people are right now, were we‘re just trying to cling to what we have at the moment and not think too much about the future because it‘s too terrifying. 

That‘s such a big thing to have to contend with: the loss of the landscape, and the desolation of a state. How do you take that idea and distill that into a story collection, and specifically these stories which are are so deeply human?

I learned a long time ago, that if you‘re going to write politically, you cannot write polemically because polemical fiction is terrible. I had to find a way to write politically without writing politically, to sort of sidle up to the problems that are really weighing on my heart and all I could come up with is really investing myself in these characters who are also deeply invested in these ideas. The stories come out of the characters, I hope, and they come out of the landscape, and the way the characters interact with the landscape. And the rest of the political stuff upwells from that.

So you would consider this a political book?

I think this book is deeply political. I spent a very long time writing another novel that I finished and I looked at, I thought it was kinda cool, I liked it. But it was a different direction. I finished it right after the 2016 elections and I reread it and I thought, “Oh my god. This thing is ingrown.” That novel wasn‘t something that I wanted to put into the world anymore because the world has changed. It felt solipsistic in a way. So I threw out that novel. And in building Florida out of stories that I previously published and writing a couple of new ones, I wanted to think about writing a very political book… I don‘t think I can write a book that‘s only about books anymore.

Switching gears, one thing that I really loved of yours that I read recently is your , which I felt was such a quiet rebellion. One of the things in that interview is that you only mention women writers. Can you walk us through that interview?

Bless the New York Times Book Review because I have been a really vocal critic of a lot of their “By The Book” interviews. Not the “By The Book” itself, which I actually love, I think it‘s a brilliant thing that they‘re doing, showing us the inside of the minds of the people who are interesting in the book world. But week after week, for a long time, almost since the inception of it, these men would come in, and either they would mention two female writers, both of whom are dead, in their list of influences, or they‘d mention none. Usually the younger writers and the more aware writers would make it equal. But it was so frustrating, and I kept calling out the New York Times on Twitter. And it‘s to their credit that they even let me do a “By The Book,” even as a vocal critic.

If we‘re not reading outside the bounds of what we‘re told to read, then we‘re doing a profound disservice to the present and to the writers of the past who have been overlooked.

But I wanted to show, particularly to people who would start to read it and not know what I was doing, how weird it is to see a list of only women. And I think that actually happened to a lot of people—they thought, “why does this feel strange,” and they it slowly dawned on them “oh my god, she‘s only listing female writers.”

And it doesn‘t seem strange when men do it and only list male writers.

And my point is, when people in authority mention writers, they confer upon those writers a leg up into the canon, and the same people get mentioned over and over again and become canon. If we‘re not reading outside the bounds of what we‘re told to read, if we‘re not reading outside the bounds of white male supremacy as it has been for the last millennia, then we‘re doing a profound disservice to the writers of the present and of the past who have been overlooked.

So my entire goal — it was a very political statement what I was doing with this — was to make it clear that this is not going to stand anymore and I wanted to bring in as many women of color, and women in translation, and women from other countries, because we are really insulated in America. We only read a certain quantity of the same people over and over again, and it‘s to our detriment.

Image: Riverhead BOoks

Then, as always, we close the show with recommendations.

  • Lauren recommends Rachel Cusk‘s book Kudos. “I just finished Kudos by Rachel Cusk on the train, and I am still cogitating over it because it ends with this incredible… wait, maybe I shouldn‘t say what it ends with, I don‘t want to do a spoiler! Someday if you see me and you‘ve read this book, let‘s talk about the ending because I don‘t know what to think about.”

  • MJ recommends Motherhood by Sheila Heti. “It‘s astounding. Sheila Heti is such a phenomenal writer.”

  • And you can read Lauren Groff‘s “By The Book” interview .

And as always, if you‘re looking for more book news, be sure to follow MashReads on and if you want to keep up with even more book news this year.