Lauren Groff never wanted to live in Florida. “I mean, Florida is the biggest joke of all the states,” she says. “It is the punch line to every other state’s joke.” Nevertheless here she is: the acclaimed novelist, short story writer, and twelve-year resident of Gainesville whose husband works in his family’s construction and real estate business and whose two sons have only ever called the Sunshine State home.
“It’s a struggle every day,” Groff says, biting into toast with preserves at Oxford Exchange in Tampa, where we’re having breakfast on the third morning of the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. “We moved here because, well, family businesses—they’re impossible to get out of. We’re never leaving.” She smiles ruefully as she chews. “I haven’t come to terms with being a Floridian yet. This is not my vision of myself. I feel if I were given my druthers, I would live in Paris full time, but that’s not where life brought me.”
It is in Florida, however, where Groff has honed her writing voice—all of her books have been published in the years she has lived here—and it is in Florida, perhaps, where she has discovered her most powerful subject matter. Groff’s new story collection, appropriately titled Florida, published in June by Riverhead Books, is ambitious, personal, and dangerous. Made up of eleven stories, it begins and ends with narratives told from the perspective of a character at odds with her circumstances. “Ghosts and Empties” follows a woman, a mother, as she runs in the predawn darkness trying to both escape from and return to her spouse and children. The final story, “Yport,” shows the same mother on vacation in France with her sons and, in the last scene, crouching in fierce maternal protection over one of them.
“I believe short story collections have to be an argument,” Groff says. “The argument here is about my life in Florida. In the beginning you see my narrator prowling, trying to get away from her family. At the end you see her crouched in this almost unbearable neuroticism of motherhood.” Another crunch of toast. “So the argument about maternity comes full circle.”
Yet Groff’s best work may not be in her starts or her finishes, but in her middles. She is an artist who knows how to pace herself, comfortable in suspension.
Lauren Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a small town of fewer than two thousand that is best known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. She is the eldest daughter of a doctor and a biology teacher. She and her two siblings all participated in sports, were required to get good grades, and took after-school jobs starting at age fourteen. “It was pretty much a lovely, normal-type family,” she says. “But problems—we never talked about them. If there was a problem, we’d find out through other people who’d heard about the problem, not from the family member directly.”
Groff pauses for a sip of coffee. “They still do this. If my mom’s mad at me, she’ll never tell me. I’ll have to find out from my dad or sister what’s going on. My dad’s family is mostly Dutch, and they have a lot of that shunning tradition. When he’s mad, he’s mad. He really shuts down. He won’t talk. He gives you the silent treatment.”
While she hastens to clarify that she has “the best parents; they’re really lovely people,” she also notes that her parents’ psychologies permeate her art. “Part of it is you need to find the stories people are keeping from you, but you also need to find the deep-down secrets you’re keeping from yourself,” Groff says. “There’s a lot of cowardice in not facing the things that keep you up at night.”
“The things that keep you up at night” could serve as a tagline for most of Groff’s work, which includes three novels, The Monsters of Templeton (Hyperion, 2008), Arcadia (Hyperion, 2012), and Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books, 2015), and the celebrated story collection Delicate Edible Birds (Hyperion, 2009). But the line is a perfect match for Florida, whose stories all seem to inhabit the same dark world, one in which the physical dangers of hurricanes and snakes hint at the far deeper, more complicated emotional and psychological threats that lurk just under the surface of Groff’s characters.
“I’m interested in the cowardice and also in the deep beneath,” says Groff about her work. “I try to express these things and also express the ambivalence about them. I think parts of my new book where the narrator doesn’t ask questions that may reveal a worse story are important. It’s a very deliberate act of hiding. In ‘Ghosts and Empties’ my narrator is constantly trying to look into other people’s lives but not necessarily looking into the scary parts of her own life.” It is no wonder then that Groff chose the story as the first in her new collection. Each successive story digs deeper from there—the characters growing bolder, daring to look a little closer at the scary parts.
Groff may have been too busy to look very closely into any parts of her own life while she still lived at home in Cooperstown: She earned fourteen varsity letters in high school, maybe not competing with but certainly keeping up with her younger sister, Olympic triathlete Sarah True. However, after high school and before enrolling at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Groff spent a year in France living with a family of caterers. “Between the wine and champagne and every meal with dessert and cheese, I gained forty pounds,” she says. “When my parents came to pick me up at the airport, they didn’t recognize me.”
She eventually took off half the weight—“My souvenir of France, the other 20 pounds”—and at college signed up for soccer and crew. Joining the latter turned out to be a significant event, because the team captain, Clayton, became her boyfriend, then her fiancé, and then her husband. They lived first in Philadelphia and then in Madison, Wisconsin, where Groff earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, before grappling with their next move. Clay wanted to live and work with his father in his native Florida and eventually raise kids with Groff close to his family. Groff made a decision.
“I had my husband sign a ten-year contract. I said, ‘I’m out of here in ten years.’” She pauses. “That decade is technically over, and we should renegotiate, but the most important part of the contract wasn’t about where we lived. It was about how we live.
“I told him that if I made this move for him, then here were my demands,” she says, and it becomes clear that this was no hypothetical contract. This is on paper: “I’m a writer. I’m going to continue to be a writer. I will never be a full-time mother. You will wake up with them. I won’t see you or the children in the morning. In the afternoons we’ll get a babysitter until I’m ready to come out of my office.”
She adds: “I understand that if I’m cornered, I get really resentful, and resentment just kills marriage.”
Groff says she is glad she put her needs in writing because, no matter what people believe, American parenting remains a sexist enterprise. “My husband is the primary parent, but my kids’ teachers still call me first,” she says, which can lead to a complicated situation when Groff is traveling for author events. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘What am I going to do? I’m in California.’ You can hear them thinking, ‘Ohhh, so you’re that writer mom.’”
The contract may be clear to Groff, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t disputes. “Sometimes my husband takes it less seriously than I do, but regardless of your gender or parenting status, if you’re the writer you have to take it more seriously. It means you’re taking yourself seriously as an artist.”
Separating herself as a spouse and parent from herself as an artist works, Groff says, because she’s very good at compartmentalizing. “I’ve come to understand that there are multiple Laurens, not a single one who is better or worse than any other, and that they can overlap and even contradict one another. The writer in me is deeply hostile to the mother in me, and the mother in me is fiercely protective of her children versus her work.” She compares the two states to writing and giving a reading. “Those are two very different skills, and they need to be cultivated separately. It’s all a matter of listening carefully and maintaining a fine balance and, if something goes awry, attempting to reset.”