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Welcome to Word to the Wise, where Refinery29 sits down with the superstars of the literary world to talk about your new, soon-to-be-favorite books.
Full disclosure: I read "The Midnight Zone," one of 11 stories in Lauren Groff's short story collection Florida, out June 5, three times in one sitting. In "The Midnight Zone," an unnamed mother narrates what occurs after a family vacation in a Florida cabin "shipwrecked in 20 miles of scrub" swiftly goes awry. The cabin's walls are the only structure protecting the mother and her two sons from the wild danger lurking outside, where poisonous snakes and panthers roam. Inside the cabin is another peril — one that's less grounded in wildlife, but no less immediate. Groff, whose last novel Fates and Furies was a finalist for the National Book Award and was named one of then-president Obama's favorite books of the year, knows how to weave dark and lyrical stories that pull you in. In Florida, you'll get 12 of them.
Like this unnamed mother, all of the characters in Florida have similar brushes with the state's wildness. In "Eyewall," a woman hides out in her bathtub during a hurricane that threatens to tear the structure of her house apart. In "Above/Below," a student falls through the economic cracks after a breakup and finds herself made invisible by poverty. And in the devastating "Dog Go Woof," two young girls are stranded on an island with nothing but makeup and toys, and left to fend for themselves.
After 12 years of living in Florida, Groff can render the state's particularities — lizards that stick to screen doors, the running routes of Gainesville — with stunning clarity. In conversation with Leah Carroll for Refinery29's book interview series "Word to the Wise," Groff spoke about the experience of living in the state, which inspired her to write these stories. "Underneath this constant pour of sunshine, there's the swamp. The real, dark strangeness of Florida is very there, but it's highlighted in gold. It's absolutely magical," she said.
Many of the stories in Florida, including "The Midnight Zone," are narrated by a character whose biographical details mimic Groff's. The woman is a writer and a mother of two sons who moved to Gainesville somewhat reluctantly — just like Groff. While reading Florida, try resist the urge to conflate Groff with this figure. Still, the author thinks you'll do it anyway, and so she planned for just that.
"I like to play with the readerly expectation that if there's a female character in a book, it's going to be the author because she doesn't have the art to create something special, or something not based on her life. It's really fun to pull in the reader and make them feel this, but I have the control over it. I'm the one asserting control over the reader's expectations. I have a really good time doing this," Groff said.
Listen to "Word to the Wise" for more from Groff — including her bold "By the Book" column, the virtue of the short story, and why one person was very, very confused after reading Florida.