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The Florida Roundup
The Florida Roundup is a live, weekly call-in show with a distinct focus on the issues affecting Floridians. Each Friday at noon, listeners can engage in the conversation with journalists, newsmakers and other Floridians about change, policy and the future of our lives in the sunshine state.Join our host, WLRN’s Tom Hudson, broadcasting from Miami.

A conversation with author Lauren Groff on Florida's nature, quirks and 'shadow chill' of book challenges

A light-skinned person holding a microphone and standing in front of a ribbon at an opening ceremony. Behind her are a group of people clapping.
Eli Sinkus
Lauren Groff at the opening of The Lynx in Gainesville.

Lauren Groff, who has written several Florida-themed novels, appeared on "The Florida Roundup" to discuss opening an independent bookstore in Gainesville in response to laws challenging books in schools, and other topics.

A white, one-story building with a window. Black capitalized serif letters on two of the building's walls read "The Lynx Bookstore." Next to the window is a large painting of a brown lynx's face and paw.
Cooper Dean
Lauren Groff opened her own bookstore in Gainesville called The Lynx, in response to laws that challenge books in schools across the state.

Novelist Lauren Groff said she didn't love Florida for the first 10 years she lived here. Now, she's learned to appreciate the beauty of the Sunshine State.

Groff has written five novels and two short story collections, including one titled "Florida." This spring, she opened her own bookstore in Gainesville called The Lynx, in response to laws to remove books in public school districts across the state.

Groff spoke Friday with Tom Hudson on "The Florida Roundup" about her bookstore and her writing.

How would you describe the literary genre that is the state of Florida through the years?

I think the state of Florida is a monkey bread of a state, right? It's a lot of different things all stuck together. Even environmentally, it's not the same all over. We're very varied. So I think the state of Florida is glorious. Spectacular.

A lot of fiction involving Florida through the years usually involves humans versus nature. There's some natural component, and a lot of writing that involves the state of Florida. Corruptibility of people is a theme that oftentimes happens when people write about the state of Florida, have novels set in Florida. And occasionally there is some individual heroism that shines through in some of these stories. What do you think is the draw of Florida as a setting for fiction writers?

Well, I think it's wonderful to be able to write from the margins. Nobody has ever written anything good from the center, because you can't see enough, right? You don't have perspective. And Florida is very much viewed as on the margins of the society of the United States of America, right? So I think it's partially because of the whole Florida Man meme, but our status existed before then partially because of Walt Disney, partially because of the fact that 63% of us, I believe, are from elsewhere. And so it's somewhat hard to create a sense of cohesion in a place like that or to have a narrative that's complicated and rich and is able to be projected outward to other people in other states.

What do you think the appeal is to readers to consume stories that are set in Florida?

I did not love the state of Florida for the first 10 years I lived here. It's been 18 years now. But through books like "The Yearling" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, through "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston, through "Rivers of Grass" by Marjory Stoneman Douglas ... so many great books have been written by Floridians and about Florida, that has actually taught me the treasure, the unbelievable beauty of this state. Not just the the environmental beauty, which is so spectacular and profound, but also the history and the people here, even though we are often teased by other places for being a mess, and we are. We're a beautiful mess, I think.

"... So many great books have been written by Floridians and about Florida, that has actually taught me the treasure, the unbelievable beauty of this state. Not just the the environmental beauty, which is so spectacular and profound, but also the history and the people here, even though we are often teased by other places for being a mess, and we are. We're a beautiful mess, I think."
Lauren Groff

It is a rich tapestry upon which to pull from and to be influenced by. And of course, you, as you mentioned, have lived here for 18 years in Gainesville, you have a collection of short stories with the title "Florida." How would you describe, though, Florida as a theme in your writing? It may not be directly about the Sunshine State or even set here in Florida.

I think I use the pathetic fallacy a lot. John Ruskin has this beautiful thing about pathetic fallacy, which is nature and emotions sort of correspond in literary fiction. And I do that a lot with Florida because I do find that my mood is profoundly influenced by the weather here. An excruciatingly hot day will turn me into a hibernating owl. But one of the gorgeous days in January, when the flowers are out, and the sun is shining, and everyone else in the country is suffering turns me into a lover of all humanity. So I do think the weather and the natural aspect of this place is unique in that it really does inform a lot of the stories coming out of people — the feeling, perhaps, of danger in the state. When it's hurricane season, you never know what the storm on the horizon is going to bring. There is this extra pepper or this extra salt of maybe danger being put into the daily meal of our lives. So I think it's an interesting place to be in terms of the way that our placements between the Gulf and the Atlantic makes us into a place of coasts and a place of storms, and a place of humidity and profound heat. And all of this brings different things out of every writer.

A light-skinned child surrounded by tall gray bookshelves filled with books.
Eli Sinkus
The interior of The Lynx bookstore.

Weather is fairly shallow, right, when we have nothing else to talk about, we can talk about the weather. But there is something to be said about sand in our shoes in the state of Florida and for a creative professional like yourself, to find something deeper than the heat index as an inspiration for you as you're waking up early, before sunrise in Gainesville to write.

Yeah. The other thing, too, is I came from the north, where we didn't really have termites, right? We didn't have alligators in every retention spot. We don't have things that constantly want to eat you. Walking (in) a forest here, you're liable to get thorns and palmettos slicing up your legs and things like that. ... Nature has teeth here. And that's one of its beautiful things.

Survivability is a theme of yours that comes in a number of your novels. The most recent novel is about a young girl who survived servitude in the wilderness of colonial America, for instance. You write a another story about a 17-year-old in medieval England and surviving running a convent there. Is that something that you think has come into your writing because of your 18 years here in Florida, where nature bites, perhaps more than in western New York state?

That's a wonderful question. I write because I can live on the page beyond the confines of my own human life here in Florida. So it's partially, I think, trying to find a way to live in this place that I found deeply inhospitable at first. Trying to find a way to love the place where I was planted. The other thing is, I'm also — I think — a very fearful person, a very anxious person, let's just call it that. And I think writing my way through stories is a way of having courage or gaining courage or teaching myself how to be in the world. There's a great theorist named Bruno Bettelheim. I love him so much. And one of the things that he talked about in terms of folk tales, is the fairy tale was this sort of inoculation against terror in a certain way. It was a way for children to see the very worst thing that could possibly happen to them, right? So they're starving and their parents send them out into the forest to die of starvation. That's the worst possible thing that could happen to a kid. But told in story form, it becomes this little inoculation, a little vaccine. It allows the child to eventually be able to handle life issues, anxieties that come out of life. I think that's what talking about Florida, talking about the terror of the weather and the things that want to eat you in this state, did for me, it sort of inoculated me and made me more courageous to be able to actually deal with life to survive out whatever Florida threw at me.

Books stacked on columns of gray bookshelves on a wall. Above the bookshelves are decorative panels cut in a diagonal and vertical pattern.
Cooper Dean
Lauren Groff opened her own bookstore in Gainesville called The Lynx, in response to book bans across the state.

I want to move from the meteorological threats to some of the public policy threats that you have perceived that led you to open up an independent bookstore in Gainesville. It was a response to the culture wars that Florida has been at the center at for the past several years.

Clay, my husband, and I in April opened a bookstore called the Lynx in Gainesville. And we are a general-interest bookstore. We have over 8,000 books at this point, but we have a special emphasis on banned books and books by LGBTQI writers, books by Floridians, books by Black, brown, marginalized Indigenous peoples. So we're really intentionally pushing back against the authoritarianism that is rising right now in the state of Florida. I've always listened to what people have been saying in the past about the rise of book bans. So I've been watching it very, very carefully. There's this German poet from 1829 ... and he said, (spoken in German). So in the places where people burn books, they will one day burn people. I've held this within me as a direct warning, because I do think it is the tip of the wedge of authoritarianism and it is being inculcated by the state. It's not just individuals doing this. The state of Florida is actually doing this to its citizens. So I think we need to stop the wedge now before it gets much, much worse. And so we opened this bookstore in order to reverberate love through the state of Florida — tolerance, acceptance — we have a plan to give out, now at this point, it's going to be thousands of books — banned books, children's books, all over the state. We want to be the Dolly Partons of Florida. We want to make conversations happen.

"If these this tiny, tiny, tiny minority of people really cared about what was happening to kids, they'd ban the things that are collectively maiming and killing children on a daily basis, which is guns. But books cannot kill you. Reading books can just give you ideas."
Lauren Groff

Dolly Parton being well known for giving away books throughout her musical career.

That's right, hundreds of millions of books. I love her so much. She's an angel. So what we really want to do is engage, right? We want to have freedom of expression, we want to have freedom of ideas. We want to engage with the people who are doing this and have them open their minds. We're doing this as an emanation of love. We're not doing this against anything. What we really want is Floridians to feel loved and accepted for who they are.

The store's motto is "Watch us bite back." How do you hope to influence public policy, influence parents that have filed these objections with school districts over books? One of which is your book in a school district in the Panhandle, for instance.

Right. So if you actually look at the people doing the banning, it's a very tiny group of people. It's sort of the will of the minority being enacted upon the majority, unfortunately. And the other thing that's happening, too, is that there is a sort of the shadow chill that's actually happening as well. So I have a friend, she's a brilliant fifth-grade teacher of language arts and history. And she used to teach the Holocaust by teaching "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. It's a wonderful, wonderful graphic novel about the Holocaust, which has been banned in some places — not in our county. But she doesn't feel comfortable teaching the Holocaust through "Maus" anymore, because she's so afraid of what if one of these parents comes into the room? Will she lose her job? So there's this shadow chill that's much, much more insidious and much worse than even the 5,000 individual titles being challenged or banned in the state of Florida right now. That is more than 2,000 more than the next bad state, which is Texas. So we are definitely the nexus of this book banning and book challenging that's happening in the state of Florida. Let me just say one thing, though. If this tiny, tiny, tiny minority of people really cared about what was happening to kids, they'd ban the things that are collectively maiming and killing children on a daily basis, which is guns. But books cannot kill you. Reading books can just give you ideas.

A dark green bookshelf filled with books. On the top of the bookshelf reads "Banned Books" in gold letters. In the middle of the shelf is a TV with a screen that reads "Upcoming Events at The Lynx." In front of the TV are pride flags and candles.
Cooper Dean
The "Banned Books" section at The Lynx.

The supporters of the state law that has led to these book restrictions and Gov. Ron DeSantis have said it's not the state of Florida that's banning books or restricting books. The state has approved laws and rules that what they say empower parents to object to obscene material. You're shaking your head at that explanation, though.

Well, I mean, it's very cynical, right? I mean, it empowers parents, I guess. But it allows teachers to be under the gun in a very real way. It allows librarians to be threatened. It's this larger environment of chilling and lack of freedom of expression that we're really, really worried about. I think in some ways, too, it's really, really important that we stop this now. But it's also a major distraction from the larger ways the state is taking some of the freedoms away from the people of the state of Florida. So the freedom of bodily autonomy, right? The freedom to learn our own history, which the state actually is not allowing us to do at the moment. This is actually governmental decree. That we cannot teach Black history the way that it should be taught, which is with the definition of slavery as a bad thing. So you can listen to the rhetoric or you can look with your own eyes and understand that this is actually being enacted by the state of Florida.

Lawmakers and the governor did OK and sign a bill that tightens rules around those book objections that adults and parents have been filing. But that's something that I take it you're not satisfied with.

No, no way. No. A free people read freely. And just because there's moderation in this challenging and banning process doesn't mean that those 5,000 books are now suddenly free to be read by all people.

Your husband's family ran an independent bookstore in Gainesville for a number of years. I looked on Google Maps, the location is now a Wawa convenience store and a medical marijuana dispensary. It's 2024, Lauren, there's this thing called Amazon, you know. Your stance on the policy of books not withstanding, how difficult is it to run a physical bookstore in Florida these days?

First, I do have to shout out my husband's family, they ran the Florida Book Store on University Avenue, right across from the university, for over 60 years. So in 1932, my husband's grandfather, in the middle of the Depression, started out of his dorm room to sell books in order to pay his way through college. And I thought that that was really gorgeous and wonderful. Yes, you say Amazon, but I actually think people are longing for independent bookstores. Independent bookstores are the nexus of a community. The linkage between authors and readers, between communities, between people who love the same kinds of books. So what we are doing is we're creating a community center, we're creating a third space. So our role is much larger than that of just a retailer. Our role is really the beating heart of any city and all independent bookstores are like this.

Do you see your creativity continuing to be based in Florida?

Oh, who knows? You never know what the muses are going to hand you on a day-to-day basis. I know I have a few Florida stories building in me at the moment. But I don't really know what the future holds.

And will you be writing them from the state of Florida?

Oh, yes, for sure. I mean, now that we have a business, we are stuck. Actually, my husband has always had a business. So we've always been stuck. Yeah, we're here. We're here for the duration.

Black capitalized serif letters on a white wall that read, "Watch us bite back."
Cooper Dean
The Lynx's motto is "Watch us bite back."

I wasn't always a morning person. After spending years as a nighttime sports copy editor and page designer, I made the move to digital editing in 2000. Turns out, it was one of the best moves I've ever made.
As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.
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