When I saw that the author of a current re-read, Fates and Furies, was at an event in London at the same time I was- not just in London, but at a Waterstones I’ve wanted to visit for years – I knew I had to go. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
I arrived at Waterstones Piccadilly early so that I could browse a little before the event – with six floors of books on offer, there’s both a lot of choice and a lot of opportunities for me to make a horrible dent in my bank balance. I managed to resist buying the entirety of the fiction section, opting for the short story collection, Florida, that Lauren Groff was here to talk about, and a novella I saw on a table and picked mainly for the title and cover. I’ve never heard of The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas, so I’m excited to discover some new (for me) writing.
The event started a bit late due to some delayed sound equipment but staff kept us informed and offered us all a glass of wine. It was only a 10 minute delay, and the event began promptly once we were all seated.
Hosting the event was Lucy Scholes, a journalist and host of a new feminist book club at Waterstones Gower Street.
Lucy began by asking Lauren about the deep sense of ambivalence towards Florida that seems to course through the story collection.
Lauren replied with a great discussion of what she thinks ambivalence actually means. Rather than meaning simply ‘unsure’, she argued that ambivalence can refer to being pulled in multiple directions by extreme emotions. With reference to her feelings about the state of Florida, where she currently lives, she loves that her family are there, and that they are surrounded by beautiful landscape; it’s just that the beautiful landscape and wildlife who inhabit it also want to kill you. (Her humour and delivery are outstanding). I love the sentence she used, describing living there as feeling like being on the ‘precipice of collapse at all times’.
She also argued that feeling like an outsider helps to write about places, and she feels like an outsider wherever she is. She needs a distance of time, though, before writing about it – she’d lived in Florida for 4 years before the first story of this collection was written out.
It was very interesting to me that Lauren said she is never not writing a novel; that she’ll write never expecting or wanting it to be published. For her, the need to write comes from profound loneliness, so the novel is a friend to nourish and give feelings to.
On the other hand, ‘the short story is an eruption’ of emotional intensity. All writing ideas, though, have to mature in her subconscious and be processed before being written down. Lauren likes to build an argument through (or from) story to story to bring the collection together.
Lucy mentioned that Florida is also present in Fates and Furies, a novel that former US President Obama loved and recommended. Were the stories here merging with that book in some way?
Lauren stated that she has always seen Fates and Furies as an opera – everything is pushed to a more grotesque level of reality (melodrama). Lotto is almost an embodiment of Florida – sunny on the outside, and swampy and dark just below the surface. Through landscape and other characters’ points of view, Lotto became an enchanted kingdom, but an opposing one to Disney’s versions.
This led to a great discussion about Florida’s literary history. Lauren is clearly passionate about it, noting that while Florida is a deeply literary state, no one talks about it.
Lauren also described the importance of place in writing – it profoundly affects the way you think as a writer, as well as influencing the characters (their motivations and interactions). Landscape part of them all.
When Lucy mentioned some of the praise for Lauren’s writing, a discussion followed regarding the use of the word ‘lush’. Lauren is put off by it, firstly because it’s mostly used to describe a female writer’s work, and also because it denotes excess. In her own writing, and especially in ‘Florida, each sentence was very considered, everything was meant to be there. There’s no room for excess for short stories, she said, but in her writing, she is trying to take in multiple registers within those structural boundaries. However, her scenes are sensory and immersive, and Lauren shared with us her pre-writing technique for creating these landscapes in writing.
Lauren is obviously an avid reader (300 books a year!) and she argued that poetry and plays are great inspirations for aspects such as forms, language, structure and repetition.
What’s very clear is that Lauren’s ‘purpose’ for the collection is for it to ask an overall question that branches out through the stories, so that some form of argument may be put together. The last story shouldn’t give an answer: she wanted it to splinter the question and ask even more.
Lucy then asked about importance of collation and structure for the collection, to which Lauren responded that she knew question and argument of the book from the beginning. She tried to avoid repetition within them unless it had a meaning for whole collection.
I loved the notion that an audience member had that the stories are ‘pregnant’ and anticipatory – it’s a great image that I think speaks to Lauren’s entire writing style. There’s usually something being said just beneath the surface.
Lauren noted that a book is like video of self in that moment, and looking back in it can be both lovely and humiliating. I thought this concept was enlightening – again, Lauren showing how adept she is with words in person as well as on the page.
She said she doesn’t like that books or ideas are almost set into concrete when others read it because she wants her work to be malleable. There is always a danger of words being taken out of context, or characters being conflated with real figures (including herself).
Though she believes that everything she writes is initially ‘bad’, she can sense when something is ‘alive’ in her writing. She knows she can then work that to get it to publication. She has to get it as close to perfect as possible before letting anyone else read it.
Following this, there was a signing, and Lauren was absolutely lovely to talk to. There was no sense of rushing anyone, even though we were running late.
I should also say that the staff at Waterstones Piccadilly were wonderful throughout the event, especially when a First Aid incident briefly halted proceedings.
Overall, I loved this event. Insightful, fascinating, and a great opportunity to learn more about an incredible writer.
*Florida, by Lauren Groff, is published in the UK by William Heinemann.