The Peculiar States of Florida

Laura van den Berg and Jeff VanderMeer in conversation

van den Berg and VanderMeer

After two acclaimed story collections, Laura van den Berg brings us her debut novel, Find Mean “unforgettable . . . unique . . . glorious” (TimeOut New York) tale of a young woman struggling to find her place in a world that has been devastated by a mysterious disease. Here, native Floridians van den Berg and Jeff VanderMeer (author of the widely and wildly acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy) talk about the many ways in which Florida influences their writing, the “daily contact with the surreal,” and the best theme park in the state, Gatorland.


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Laura van den Berg: I was born in Florida and lived there until I was twenty-two; even though I’ve been away for over a decade, Florida does still feel very much like my regional identity. Yet I remain unclear on what, exactly, that adds up to. What does it mean to be from Florida? I’m still not quite sure. In New England, where I live now, I often feel southern. In the “true south”—my mom is from Tennessee and very adamant that Florida is not the “true south”—I often feel northern. In the Midwest, I just feel confused. I’m not sure if there’s a clear question in there, but I’m interested to know if your Floridian identity feels similarly nebulous or if it’s more concrete?

Jeff VanderMeer: I get a sense of Florida’s identity almost by virtue of editing out one thing to see another. North and South Florida are almost separate countries in terms of climate, culture, etc. and that might be the area your mom is thinking of when thinking of Florida. I love visiting, but as a resident of North Florida, South Florida feels so different to me. Then there’s the overlay on South Florida of the antics described by Carl Hiassen, and you can’t deny that in his first few novels he’s more or less doing journalistic reportage of the Real Absurd. Whereas parts of North Florida feel a lot like more like rural Georgia even though #FloridaMan exists here in equal measure—small towns, Spanish moss, and a kind of languid life. Tallahassee, where I live, is often described as a “great place to raise a family.” But does it have an identity separate from what you experience when you cross the state line into Georgia? I’m not sure about that. It feels more “true south” even though somebody in South Florida is reading this right now and scoffing. Maybe that’s the real True South Florida and the rest of us are just Deep Fried Southern.

Then you have Orlando, which for ages I thought of as a plastic town because of Disney World. I still remember as a kid going to Epcot and seeing from the monorail a man down below placing sea shells on the fake beaches outside of the cottages you could stay in. Something about that sight really repulsed me. Except this past year, in my travels, I accidentally rediscovered Orlando and found parts of it that don’t conform to that stereotype. A real literary culture is emerging there, for example, and a real local food culture too. But you lived there, right? You would know better from a resident’s perspective.

LvdB: I am indeed from Orlando—I’ve never lived in another part of the state, though I spent part of the summer in the Keys recently—and I agree its grown a lot in terms of the arts (and food!) culture. To me, though, the peculiar thing about living in Orlando is that since it’s a city in the center of a state known for its irrepressible sense of place, it’s always stuck me as, well, kind of placeless. The texture of my childhood was in many ways very typically suburban in terms of the identical neighborhoods and the identical malls and the identical chain restaurants and the identical highways. Part of that was my own limited sight, though. Leaving and visiting regularly has given me a fuller, richer sense of the city.

And Disney? Totally with you. I only went a handful of times as a kid, as my parents weren’t keen on traffic and long lines, but the nightmarish falseness—your Epcot story being a prime example—has always freaked me out. It’s like a never ending X-Files episode. Also, I grew up hearing all the urban legends about people being decapitated on Space Mountain.

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JVM: The other overlay is the Florida that’s wild, and in that regard there’s a clear identity, from the marshes and forests of the Panhandle to Payne’s Prairie in Gainesville, down to the Everglades. A kind of truth in wetlands that conveys continuity lacking in the human population. That same snapping turtle’s going to show up in Lake Ella here in Tallahassee, Biven’s Arm in Gainesville, the Sebring lakes, and those swamps past Homestead.

Then, pre-Disney, post-wilderness, you’ve also got the ruins of all of those weird theme parks from before I-75 split the state in two, including Dogland, where you used to be able to ride a St. Bernard. A kind of kitschy archeological layer presaging the arrival of The Mouse.

In that context, I’m wondering if you even try to reconcile the bits and pieces of Florida in your fiction? I’m not sure what reconciliation would look like. What I like about Florida in your fiction is you’re not showing us the usual things, the usual places that people from outside of the state think define Florida. Part of that is the usual writer pursuit of what’s not cliché, but what about those settings and those people interest you in particular?

LvdB: The weird theme parks! I love them. Holy Land is in Orlando, as is Gatorland, which is pretty much my waking nightmare, due to a deep fear of reptiles (this was not an easy fear to have when I lived in Florida; I once slept in my car because lizards had gotten into my apartment). Really, though, what does Disney have on theme parks that recreate biblical times or allow you to zip line over a pit full of gators?

As a child of central Florida, I had major south Florida envy growing up. As you said, it does feel like a different country down there, and I imagine that was the draw. It always seemed kind of exotic to me. I also have a hard time writing about places I know too well and for that reason it would be very difficult for me to write a story set in Orlando. But more than anything the curiosity and mystery and, to a certain degree, longing I have felt around the southern tip of the state made it a natural direction to move toward on the page—it’s very much my own fictional approximation of Florida in that way. And there’s something about being so far south, on the very edge of the state, that appeals to me enormously. Where does one go from there?

That said, I resisted Florida for a long time. It was only until Isle of Youth and my novel, Find Me—the last couple of chapters take place in Florida—that I started writing stuff set there. In my first story collection, I actively avoided it. But looking back I can see that the surrealness of Florida was one of my biggest aesthetic influences, so in a sense I was writing Florida whether I liked it or not, dammit. Can you relate to that feeling at all? Of the landscape of Florida having left some kind of unshakable imprint on your work?

JVM: Perhaps the unshakable imprint is in the layers. You can’t drive down the Panhandle toward St. George Island without encountering the history of small-town Florida before tourism, new poverty, the Gulf Oil Spill. There’s all the evidence of Native American influence and of invasive plant and animal species. Even a static landscape is in flux and exists on all of these different levels. Some of that’s just how the world is, some of it is the unique contradictions of Florida.

What does Florida or some idea of Florida, add to your novel, the change from one setting to another, do you think? Is it in part comfortable for you, therefore useful in grounding the end of the novel, or . . . ?

LvdB: The novel is divided into two parts: the first is set entirely in a hospital in Kansas, in the dead of winter, and the second is set entirely on the road, as the narrator progresses toward south Florida. As I worked with this architecture, I became conscious of the various juxtapositions emerging in both the physical and emotional landscapes: cold to warm, landlocked to coastal, restraint to abandon. The narrator is moving toward Florida with the hope of finding a sense of home and I think there was something about having her move toward my actual home that helped me to fully imagine the nature of her pursuit.

JVM: That makes sense. For me, writing something with certain absurdist and speculative elements, grounding The Southern Reach in the details of natural Florida, served perhaps a similar purpose. With all of those details conveyed from first-hand experience, and from a place that I have a deep personal connection to, the less-real elements came into focus much easier, sometimes extrapolated outward from those details.

LvdB: That reminds me of Joshua Rothman’s recent essay on your fiction in The New Yorker, “The Weird Thoreau,” where he remarked that The Southern Reach books “are fractured, lyrical love letters to Florida’s mossy northern coast” and then goes on to say that the “novels take place in a landscape that combines the marshes of Florida with the islands of Vancouver.” Florida is, to me, so full of contradictions that it’s a particularly difficult place to capture head-on. Was this “Florida and un-Florida” kind of landscape a way to capture an essence of place that would be harder to get with a more direct or explicit treatment?

JVM: With me it’s generally the daily contact with the surreal in the North Florida landscape. In some of my prior work I was obsessed with the connectivity of plants and fungus and with themes of decay and regeneration. It seemed very organic and I didn’t think much about why. Then, one day, I realized I was, without thinking about it, walking to the mail box through a front yard that was a living example of these things—full of fruiting bodies, and evidence of the way in the South, in the heat, things decay rapidly. And how there’s perhaps greater evidence of the rate of change, which we try to keep out with air conditioning and pest control. Up North, there’s a certain stasis that comes with temperature, a sense of preservation that doesn’t exist in hot places. At least, in terms of the visible evidence of it. So these themes and fixations and obsessions show up in your characters because it’s part of mundane existence.

Visible borders and fences are fairly arbitrary human constructs much of the time and still exist partially in the mind as barriers. Similarly, the signifiers of human existence, like place-names, exist as something both more enduring and more ephemeral than the world without us. So for me there was a greater specificity and truth in ignoring human markers where possible and being precise about the natural world. Especially since, as you’ve noted, people have such differing views of what “Florida” is.

What’s funny is there’s really nothing in the novels that doesn’t scream “North Florida wilderness” to anyone who lives here. For others, its dislocating. That essay was really quite a gift, but even it classifies a swarm of red grasshoppers as preternatural, when that’s pretty much a yearly summer occurrence out here.

What do you think non-Floridians don’t really “get” about Florida, or find hard to believe?

LvdB: I love your phrase “daily contact with the surreal” and I think that’s a quality that can be hard to convey to a non-Floridian. That daily contact that is at once surreal and utterly pedestrian. I went to graduate school in Boston; it was the first place I had ever lived that was not Florida. Things that seemed mundane to me were suddenly regarded as “crazy” by my peers. Take, for example, the hotline you can call to have an alligator carted out of your backyard. If you call the hotline it gets you to the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program. The acronym for this program is SNAP. I spent part of my childhood on a lake, so having an alligator in your backyard was not an unusual occurrence, but in Massachusetts, it was not so normal.

On a semi-related note, I’ve followed with great interest the rise of writers who are Florida-born and/or have spent formative periods of time in Florida. Yourself, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Alissa Nutting, our labelmate Lindsay Hunter—just to name a few. It can be tricky to link all those writers to Florida, since in some cases it’s more a fact of biography than a subject in their work, and yet I do think we could find some common ground, namely an embrace of the idiosyncratic, a tilted worldview, even if the nature of the tilt differs. I have a possibly misguided feeling that Floridians, current and former, should stick together, so I might be stretching for connections here, but nevertheless: is a new “class” of Florida literature emerging?

JVM: It’s funny because for a long time I would’ve said that Florida fiction was defined mostly by the mystery genre—because of the popularity of Hiassen and also several other mystery and thriller writers who used settings like The Everglades—which in a pop culture sense reinforced the impressions formed by shows like Miami Vice. So to me at least—and I may not have been paying attention—this rise of a more variable Florida literature has been interesting. I also find it interesting because, for example, I find your Florida convincing and don’t find Karen Russell’s convincing—for reasons that probably are mostly to do with the complexity and contradictions of Florida. Depending on where we grew up, we all experienced very different versions of the state. And then, in writers like Kelly Link, there’s no overt mention of Florida, usually, but I do feel a kind of affinity there when she touches on things that seem “Florida-like.” Whereas Lindsay Hunter could never mention Florida in her short fiction, I feel Florida really deeply and intrinsically in her work. Although I know I’m expressing this in a vague way—it’s such an instinctual thing.

LvdB: I know what you mean about it being instinctual. The Florida narrative, the way people experience the state, is so multifaceted there’s not really a consistent Florida story to be found in literature. And I love that, actually, the ungraspableness.

Hey, I have a question about genre: I agree that for a long time Florida lit seemed defined by the mystery genre, but at the same time the weirdness and inexplicableness and wildness of the state also seems like it would be rich with possibility for speculative fiction. Are you aware of a tradition of speculative fiction that concerns Florida?

JVM: What’s funny is that your question brings us back to the odd aspects of Florida. But other than Kelly Link, who usually doesn’t deal with Florida directly, most of what’s out there that I’m aware of kind of turns Florida into a theme park, which gets back to that kind of Disneyfied aspect. There are all kinds of possible reasons why Florida doesn’t have a strong tradition in this regard, but it might be these contradictions we’re talking about that create such a surreal narrative to begin with that it’s hard for fiction to compete on those terms. My prior fiction about Florida is either naturalistic with one weird element popping up (talking rabbit; alas, it cannot tell us what happened to the bunnies in Authority) and also trying to capture the carnivalesque contradictions of small-town Florida festivals with a little something called “The Festival of the Freshwater Squid.” Which got me in trouble with the town of Sebring, cephalopod experts, and a BBC wildlife show crew who took it for fact. Which might be another way of saying, “Florida is stranger than fiction.” It certainly should, in spirit, allow for tall tales that might not seem believable if set elsewhere.

Speaking of that “spirit,” do you think Florida is there in your work even when it’s not explicit on the page? Is there Florida in “Antarctica,” for example?

LvdB: I do think Florida is almost always lurking below the surface in some way, even if by virtue of my reacting against Florida. An early reader of The Isle of Youth posed the idea of writing a collection of only Florida stories, but in my view it was crucially important for the collection to be both Florida and anti-Florida, to create a world where Opa-Locka and Antarctica could sit side-by-side. That was true of my novel to: if icy, land-locked Kansas is a kind of anti-Florida, a natural-seeming response or correction was to have the narrator move south.

I can also see Florida’s influence in terms of my attraction to the surreal and a certain extremity of landscape. The storms, rapid growth and decay, the rotting heat: Florida is an extreme climate in many ways and it has imbedded in me a love for extreme landscapes, in addition to places that are weird and ungraspable. The harder it is for me to “sum up” a place, the more it interests me, and I know that’s the Floridian talking.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (published by FSG Originals in 2013), received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Find Me is her first novel. She lives in the Boston area.

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor. His fiction has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales and in multiple year’s-best anthologies. He writes nonfiction for The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and The Guardian, among others. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife.

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