With the 2022 National Book Festival fast approaching, Florida Humanities is highlighting the authors and books selected to represent the Sunshine State at this year’s festival. As part of the book festival’s Route1 Reads initiative, Florida Humanities was tasked with promoting stories that illuminate the important aspects of the state and commonwealth connected by the 2,369 miles of U.S. Route 1 from Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. 

Our Route1 Reads 2022 selection is Florida by award-winning author Lauren Groff. A finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and winner of the Story Prize, Florida brings readers into a place where the hazards of the natural world lie in waiting to pounce, but the greatest mysteries and threats are emotional and psychological. Groff’s 11 short stories in this novel center around Florida’s landscapes, climate, history, and state of mind yet span characters, towns, decades, and centuries.

Groff, who resides in Gainesville, Florida, is the author of six books of fiction. Her work has won countless awards, including The Story Prize, the ABA Indies’ Choice Award, and France’s Grand Prix de l’Héroïne. Groff is also a three time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Prize, the Southern Book Prize and the Los Angeles Times Prize. Her most recent novel, Matrix, received a 2021 Florida Book Award for General Fiction. 

In anticipation of her work being showcased at the 2022 National Book Festival, Lauren recently had a conversation with Dominic Howarth, Book Manager, at St. Petersburg’s Book + Bottle independent bookstore.

Their conversation is below:

Dominic: Hello Lauren! Book + Bottle (as a collective entity) is a huge fan of your work, with me and bookseller Andi constantly recommending your catalog to customers!

Lauren: I’m so grateful, Dominic. Thanks so much!

Dominic: When it comes to your short story collection Florida, there are tales of menace and snakes and hope and love; which of the 11 tales speak to you the most and why?

Florida by Lauren Groff

Lauren: The story that’s closest to my heart is the one that’s closest to my lived experience, “Yport,” or the last story in the book. I really did take my little boys alone to France; I really did lose my love of Guy de Maupassant in the process of researching. I think the final image, of the little boy holding a stone in his fist over the delicate ecosystem of a tidepool, is the image that reflects backwards into the rest of the book.

Dominic: In your “By The Book” interview by the New York Times in 2018, you said how in literature, you “wait in ambush for the exact, perfect, telling detail, the thing that makes the scene or line come alive.” In Florida, what is a perfectly telling detail that you are proud of?

Lauren: Ha! Oh, yes, the only thing that we have in writing is profound specificity. I like how, in “Flower Hunters,” Florida is characterized as “an Eden of dangerous things.” Whenever I’m on the bike path, running, in the morning, and I see a rat snake slithering on past my toes, I think about the profound beauty of this state, and the ominous feeling I often get when I think of its politics or the environmental degradation here.

Dominic: Your novel Matrix is stunning — you had taken the stance that you would never “write historical fiction” again, and then, we as an audience were gifted with Matrix. Do you find, as a writer, that you have overcome other “I will never” moments to write the story you need to write at that moment? 

Lauren: Thank you so much for your kind words and YES! I’m so glad you mentioned this. I feel as though I’m constantly saying “I will never” moments that I’m later repudiating. Perhaps repudiation is the clearest way to figure out how to write certain things. Perhaps a too-rigid idea of what we need to do for our stories kills the mystery necessary to write them in the best possible way. Other “I will never” moments that I’ve dropped include: writing sex scenes, writing about my children (whoops), writing book reviews again.

Dominic: How does your reading change depending on what you are writing? Do you read similar stories to the tale you have in mind that you wish to tell, or do you go for the opposite so as not to be too influenced by another person’s writing?

Lauren: Oh, I think writers should be yearning to be influenced by the great storytellers of our disciplines. I read as much, as deeply, as I possibly can. If writing historical fiction, I will read all the excellent historical fiction I can find; if I’m writing short stories, I’ll read Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Grace Paley, Joy Williams, and on and on and on. I also try to build in some opportunity for the chance discovery, the surprising books that lead me in unusual, unforeseen directions.

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Dominic: What has been your favorite book of 2022 so far?

Lauren: I’m deeply in love with the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s Septology, translated by Damion Searles, a seven-novel cycle that’s Proustian and spiritual and cold and about art and beauty and death. It’s spectacular. The final volume came out this year.  

Dominic: What do you think the role of “the writer” plays in our current social climate? Is it to entertain? Is it to create art? Is it to say something that engages and changes the current political moment? Is it all these things and they are constantly changing?

Lauren: I think you’re right that the writer’s role is all things you mentioned—the artist, the entertainer, the private citizen with a larger platform—and that we should inhabit all of them as fully as possible, while knowing that the artist takes precedence over all. 

Dominic: As a bookshop AND a wine shop, we believe that every book has the perfect bottle to pair with it! What kind of wine do you think pairs best with Florida? With Matrix?

Lauren: I believe this too! Every main character I’ve ever written has been a wine-lover, so this seems apropos. I think, for Florida, I’d pair a beautiful Sancerre—nice and extremely cold—to mitigate the dread and heat of Florida. For Matrix, I think, because Marie is Catholic and from France, a deep, rich, blood-red Bordeaux. 

Dominic: Thank you so very much for your time! And if you are ever in St. Petersburg, come by and we’ll treat you to a bottle on us!

Lauren: I can’t wait to drink wine and talk books with you—my two absolute favorite things to do! Thanks ever so much.

This post is a collaboration between Florida Humanities Center for the Book and Book + Bottle located in St. Petersburg, Florida. Book + Bottle is a bottle shop, independent bookstore, coffee café, and wine bar all rolled into one exquisite little package. Florida Humanities Center for the Book is a proud supporter of independent bookstores statewide.