Laura van den Berg on embracing Florida as a writer after years escaping it

I needed time away from my home to understand, and to accept, how much that ‘daily contact with the surreal’ had shaped my sight

Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth, on the pull of her native Florida that she had long resisted: “I found that I needed the anchor of home, of the familiar, in order to stabilise the wild worlds I wanted to capture, but more than anything I was coming to terms with the inescapable influence of Florida on my work”

Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth, on the pull of her native Florida that she had long resisted: “I found that I needed the anchor of home, of the familiar, in order to stabilise the wild worlds I wanted to capture, but more than anything I was coming to terms with the inescapable influence of Florida on my work”

 

I was born in Florida – in Orlando, right in the centre of the state – and lived there until I was 22. For over two decades, the landscape of Florida was the only one I knew intimately, and yet the state never quite felt like home to me. When I was a little girl, my parents tell me, I would point to the northern states on a map and say that was where I wanted to go.

And north I went, to Boston, to pursue a graduate degree in creative writing. I lived in a minuscule apartment near the river and learned how to read a subway map and how to not fall on the ice-slick winter streets. I spent hours perusing the newly published novels and story collections in bookstores – a scarcity in the central Florida of my childhood – and talking fiction with my classmates and reading and writing. I loved the constant clatter of the city and the extremity of the seasons. Finally I felt at home.

I lived in Boston for three years and during that time, I wrote my first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us; other stories that didn’t make it into the collection; and several failed novel openings. All these works had one thing in common: there was not a trace of Florida to be found. Instead I favoured far-flung landscapes: Madagascar, the Congo, Scotland, a stranded submarine. I wanted to scrub myself free of Florida. In the great north, I did not want to be seen as a Floridian or, heaven forbid, a Florida writer.

When one of my teachers suggested I consider writing about where I was from, I was indignant. Wasn’t imaginative travel, the ability to transcend your own lived experience, the whole point of writing fiction?

Yes, it is, in my view, at least. I’ve always found the Write-What-You-Know axiom small and stifling. Yet what I think this teacher was – rightly – trying to tell me was that she sensed I was holding something back in my work, that I wasn’t putting all of myself into these stories, and that kind of hesitancy was an imaginative failure in its own right. About this, she was not wrong.

A year after I graduated from my creative writing program, my first short story collection was published. I began a second collection and a novel.

As I worked on the collection that would become The Isle of Youth, a curious thing happened: I could feel my style and sensibility shifting. The conceits of these stories were even more outlandish than ones in my first collection. A woman follows a troupe of acrobats around Paris; a teenage kleptomaniac works as a magician’s assistant and steals from her audiences; a band of young bank robbers called the Gorillas go on a crime spree in the Midwest; twin sisters trade identities and become ensnared in the Miami underworld. The increasingly surreal style of these stories wasn’t the only shift: I was, at long last, writing about Florida.

By then I had been away from Florida for five years, long enough to see my homeland with new sight, but time wasn’t the only factor. On a practical note, I found that I needed the anchor of home, of the familiar, in order to stabilise the wild worlds I wanted to capture, but more than anything I was coming to terms with the inescapable influence of Florida on my work.

Florida is a most unusual place. It can feel at once stifling and like anything is possible there. The weather – the heat, the hurricanes – is intense and unpredictable. I spent part of my childhood on a lake, where it was not at all abnormal to discover an alligator in our backyard. Everyone knows that Disney is in Orlando, but how about the Holy Land Experience, a theme park that recreates biblical times, or GatorLand, where you can zip line over a pit full of alligators? In a recent conversation with the writer Jeff VanderMeer, he spoke of the “daily contact with the surreal” that comes from living in Florida. I needed time away from my home to understand, and to accept, how much that “daily contact” had shaped my sight.

When I first left Florida for Boston, I was so eager to shed my Floridian identity, perhaps some of my earlier surreal gestures felt hollow and unconvincing because they were not rising from the particular brand of the uncanny I knew best. I was trying on different types of eccentricity, as opposed to welcoming in the eccentricities of the place that raised me.

In The Isle of Youth, there are seven stories; three of these stories are set in Florida. Some early readers posed the idea of a collection set exclusively in Florida, but that never felt right to me: I aspired for The Isle of Youth to be both of Florida and bigger than Florida. There are still some far-flung locales to be found – Antarctica, Patagonia – but there is also a rich embrace of my home, the place I could never escape, no matter how far north I moved, and by the time I finished The Isle of Youth, I no longer wanted to.

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg is published by Daunt Books, at £9.99. It is reviewed in The Irish Times by Sarah Gilmartin on March 21st and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, as was her debut collection.

lauravandenberg.com

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