Lauren Groff on Faith and Flannery O’Connor

This week’s story, “To Sunland,” is set in 1957 and is about two siblings, Buddy and Joanie. Their mother has recently died, and Buddy, who is twenty, has been living with his aunt. “Big like a man and twenty years old, but you’re just a little baby in your head, poor soul,” she says to him. Joanie, who is seventeen and bright and determined, has made the decision that they must leave the small town in Florida where they’ve grown up. When did these characters come to you?

Buddy came into my mind first, whole, sitting on a porch in the dark on a January morning in Florida. All I knew of him at that time was that he was grieving his mother, and was going to end up at a place called Sunland, in Gainesville, which was a real place that took care of people with developmental disabilities. I tried to understand what he was seeing on that porch, and what he was feeling. After I’d sat with Buddy for a little while, in walked his sister Joanie, who was pretty and tough and burned so badly by the place where they were from that all she longed for was to get away. The story hinges on these two powerful longings, Buddy’s for his mother, and Joanie’s for flight and reinvention.

The “Sunland” of the title was, as you say, a real institution in Gainesville—“that place for the feebleminded and epileptic,” as a man who picks them up calls it. When did you first learn about the place? The story takes place in the year the institution has adopted its new name. How significant is that change for you?

Since about 2006, I’ve lived about half a mile from Tacachale, which used to be called the Sunland Training Center (there were once a number of these centers in Florida), and all along I’ve had only the vaguest idea about the place’s history or what its purpose was. These days, it’s a grayish, industrial-looking place with a high fence and a guardhouse at its gate, which gives the place a carceral air, and for a long time kept my imagination at a remove. I didn’t really understand that it was a progressive community for the developmentally disabled until embarrassingly recently. I don’t exactly know where I came across Tacachale’s former names, not only Sunland but also, when it opened, in 1921, the Florida Farm Colony for Epileptic and Feebleminded Persons (which was changed to the Florida Farm Colony for Epileptic and Mentally Deficient Children, in 1939). The previous names struck my twenty-first-century ear as having very real embedded cruelty in them, the kind of reflexive unkindness that tells so much about a time and place’s unquestioned values and morals. These small clues are so fertile for fiction about the past. The story came out of the gulf between the viciousness I read in the names of the place and its purpose of caring for the most vulnerable of society.

How did you enter the world of late-fifties Florida? Were there any writers you were thinking of in particular?

In some ways, I’m a Southern writer (though not exclusively one), and I think it’d be impossible to be any kind of Southern writer writing about the nineteen-fifties without thinking of Flannery O’Connor. I have a deeply complicated relationship with her work; though I do feel in conversation with it, it’s not always a civil conversation. Sometimes, it’s a blistering argument. I love so much about O’Connor—her wit, her daggers, her fury—and, at the same time, I also find her brand of Catholicism hard to take, or maybe internally incongruent, since her stories read to me as if she actually ascribes to the Calvinist idea of double predestination, that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned. I get the impression that she sees nearly everyone as already damned, which strikes me as both cynical and fundamentally untrue. I love human beings enough to trust that they will try to do their best, and will always be disappointed when their worst selves take over. I think we’re all equally saved and damned, and all of our dark and light angels wrestle ceaselessly, and there will never be a clear winner even at the moment of death. In the case of some artists, those same angels will keep wrestling in the work after death, as long as there is an audience to witness it.

Is this it for Buddy and Joanie? Or will “To Sunland” be part of something longer—are you going to follow what happens to Buddy at Sunland and to Joanie in Maine?

“To Sunland” is a self-contained story; I don’t sense in it the dark, intricate, knotty complexity that I’d need to devote hundreds of pages and multiple years of my life to whatever in it would make up a novel. That said, I do hope that the characters in all my stories seem to have a life beyond what is on the page, that there’s a sense of a great deal more to come for them. I know—because readers often tell me to my face, sometimes with intense personal irritation—that people who don’t read a lot of short fiction often get frustrated with the form because they want to know what is going to happen to these characters that they’ve invested so much in over so few pages, only, in the end, to be left without knowing how things are ultimately going to shake out. Literary taste is obviously subjective, but this sense of a buried complexity is, at least to my mind, exactly the thing that makes for a strong short story. I need the weight and movement of a rich life playing out invisibly off the page in both directions, out of the past and into the future, for any story to have enough of a wallop for me to take it into my brain and let it change me. ♦

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