Lauren Groff has enjoyed the successes of the literary world since her debut novel The Monsters of Templeton came out in 2008. Her star continued to grow with a short story collection and a second novel—2012’s Arcadia—before becoming a supernova in 2015 with the release of Fates and Furies. Everyone seemed to have a copy—from strangers on the bus to high school English teachers to President Barack Obama.
Whatever was going to come next was sure to come against high expectations and be criticized under a microscope. Groff knew that, so she’s technically still deciding what her full-length follow up should be. Instead, the writer decided to go back and collect her stories, which have been published in a variety of outlets ranging from Tin House to The New Yorker, in new collection Florida.
The collection takes place over the course of decades in various towns and features a variety of characters. The connecting thread is that they all take place in Florida and explore what the state really has to offer. I communicated with the National Book Award finalist via email to discuss what she’s been up to since Fates and Furies was released, why Florida is the perfect state in which to set a short story collection, and how she taps into characters with such precision.
The Millions: First, I was hoping to catch up with what your world has been like since the extreme high of Fates and Furies. A National Book Award finalist. Numerous “Best of” lists. Obama’s stamp of approval. What’s life been like?
Lauren Groff: Oh, life has been nice. I’ve been busy. I’ve been protected a little bit from the high winds of Fates and Furies by my extreme self-skepticism. I’ve written multiple drafts of three other novels, one of which went into a bonfire (RIP—you won’t be missed), two of which are still being thought through, one of which may work out someday. We’ll see. Each project needs to, in some ways, obliterate the previous project, so I’ve been waiting for the firepower to arrive.
TM: The majority of these stories were published within the past decade—give or take. How have you changed since the earlier stories (2012’s “Eyewall”) to now?
LG: I’ve somewhat resigned myself to the idea that I may live in Florida for the rest of my life, and that all the other imagined lives for myself have slowly withered away. It sounds sad, but there’s so much about this life that allows the writing to happen, and it’s where the people I love are, and where they’re happy, so it’s all pretty much at a balancing point right now. And I’ve grown a deep love for the resilient, teeming Florida wilderness that people who don’t live here don’t often know about.
TM: I feel like Florida is really this unknown entity to a lot of people who have never been there. There’s Disney. There are hot Miami night clubs. There are Everglades. But Florida is huge. What does Florida mean to you?
LG: Florida is giant. You can’t ever successfully define it because it’s not a single cohesive thing; it’s endless and changing and strange and gorgeous in its contradictory nature. My Florida is a pretty taut spiderweb of ambivalence; I’m stuck here but also lifted somewhat off the ground at the same time. There are things here that I despise; there are things I would lay down my body to protect. I would need the rest of my life to write my way out of Florida, the mental state, not just the actual state of the union.
TM: A lot of times readers assign autobiographical truth to writers’ novels. Your first novel was about a woman who didn’t know who impregnated her and I read in an interview that people asked you about that. I’m assuming people asked about your marriage after they read Fates and Furies. With short stories though, it’s different. Do you want to stop the buck here and answer if there is any Lauren Groff in these stories?
LG: Just a minute ago I read an excellent Tim Parks piece about this in the New York Review of Books, and now I’m convinced both that there’s no such thing as autobiographical fiction and that there’s no fiction that’s not entirely autobiographical. My answer for this question is the same with every book: There’s not not a Lauren Groff in it—whoever she is has been made a little grotesque by fiction.
TM: Your characters are wide-ranging in this collection. Is there something that you feel connects them somehow?
LG: Florida—both geographically and as a sense of bright dread—connects them.
TM: Other than characters, how do you know when a story or a novel is going to work? What is it about a piece that clicks for you?
LG: I’ve learned not to write stories when they’re new in my head, unless they’re so loud they need to be written so that I can go back to thinking about other things. A story is an idea that needs to build its layers in the subconscious for as long as it takes, until something sparks the story and it starts to come alive. The process of building a novel, for me, is a more physical and daily and laborious process, though in the end it’s the same kind of building, just out in the open. The difference is that it has to take place day after day on blank pages, instead of in the darkness of the subconscious, because of the scale of the thing. And I never really know either are going to work until I catch the tone and color of the prose it needs to be written in.
LG: I really liked Daniel Alarcón’s The King Is Always Above the People and am always interested in Ottessa Moshfegh’s work. And I thought Catherine Lacey’s new story collection, Certain American States, out soon, was brittle and brilliant, particularly the story “Violations.”
2017 has been another year of transition for me. After living in Madison, Wisc., for only a year, I moved out to California. It’s been strange and a little unsettling to move farther and farther away from my family and friends in New York. I’ve also felt anxious because teaching duties in Madison and Iowa City, a fairly demanding new job I’ve taken on to pay the bills, and edits for my forthcoming debut story collection have kept me from writing any new fiction. And then, of course, there’s been the nightmarish daily assault of Donald Trump, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, gun violence… The list goes on.
Thank goodness for independent bookstores! A Room of One’s Own, Skylight Books, Eso Won Books, and The Last Bookstore helped new cities feel more like home. Greenlight Bookstore and Prairie Lights Books have been priority stops whenever I dipped back to Brooklyn or Iowa City. Thank goodness for books. Here are some that have ushered me through a challenging year:
A People on the Cover by Glenn Ligon
The Mountain by Paul Yoon
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma
Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
WHEREAS by Layli Long Soldier
Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar
New People by Danzy Senna
Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey
Somebody with a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill
House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Afterland by Mai Der Vang
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
Bestiary by Donika Kelly
Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Play Dead by francine j. harris
Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott
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Book award season enters high gear as the National Book Award finalists have been released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be announced on October 4, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 15.
The fiction list includes an eclectic mix and features eight women, including Jennifer Egan for her long-awaited new novel.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman(excerpt)
The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (excerpt)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Egan’s Year in Reading)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko (excerpt)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (People Without a Home: On Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko)
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (excerpt)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (“Haunted by Ghosts: The Millions Interviews Jesmyn Ward“, “Literature’s Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing“)
Barren Island by Carol Zoref
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (excerpt)
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald (excerpt)
Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. (excerpt)
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (read our interview with Gessen)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. by David Grann (excerpt)
No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein (excerpt)
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean (read our interview with MacLean)
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (excerpt)
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (excerpt)
Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
The Book of Endings by Leslie Harrison
Magdalene by Marie Howe
Where Now: New and Selected Poems by Laura Kasischke
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Nick Ripatrazone on Layli Long Soldier)
In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae
Square Inch Hours by Sherod Santos
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Nick Ripatrazone on Danez Smith; excerpt)
Afterland by Mai Der Vang
Young People’s Literature:
What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold
Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (excerpt)
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
American Street by Ibi Zoboi