LA Times on Tallahassee: Florida, Decay, and the Literary

(The aftermath of a night at Waterworks, the local tiki bar here in Tally, with book dealer Mark Wingenfeld. The guy checking IDs was reading the latest Stephen King simultaneously with some William Faulkner and some esoteric engineering book. Way cool.)

Carolyn Kellogg just posted her piece on Tallahassee, for which she interviewed me, as part of her literary tour of the country. (See also her post on Lexington, with Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe.)

Excerpt: For me, this place is in Florida and not in Florida. It’s too far north to be subtropical or metropolitan in the way people think of this state (i.e., Miami). It’s also too far north to have participated in the artificial plastic Renaissance of the Disney Empire in the center of the state. Yet, it’s got that sense of subtropical decay from farther south, almost a Southern Gothic sensibility, as in parts of Georgia and the rest of the South. People ask me where the inspiration for the fungal technologies and fascination with entropy in some of my work comes from. … Well, it comes right from the front yard! I always say that if you took away air conditioning and pesticides for a year, Florida would recede back into wilderness.

Below the break, a piece I posted on my old blog about living in Florida from an inspiration point of view.

Readers of my Ambergris stories who do not live in Florida, or who have only visited Florida’s tourist attractions, often wonder how Florida could possibly have influenced me. In fact, the decay and proliferating fungi of Ambergris are elements also inherent to Florida. I live in Tallahassee, in the north of the state, about 45 minutes away, by car, from any hint of coastline. In the summers here, the humidity level hovers around 100 percent. The temperature is consistently 90 to 95 degrees F. The rain, for a couple of months at least, is near constant, and often ferocious. (A friend of ours from England told us that the first time he experienced Florida rain, he stopped his car from shock; he was used to the constant mist of England, not this torrential downpour.)

In such a climate, the rate of decay, the infiltration of insects, the appearance of fungi and lichen, are all accelerated. If our modern civilization stopped functioning for just four months during the summer–no pest control, no air conditioning, no lawnmowers–Florida would revert to a natural state far more swiftly than anyone might think.

We’re in the heart of the summer now, and the vegetation around our house is defiantly green, richly green–one might almost say “verdant.” The azalea bushes that surround our yard like a thick fence have long since bloomed, the watery fire of their blossoms snuffed out. The only colors now are greens and browns and white–the greens of grass, trees, and lichen; the brown of soil, of rotted twigs and branches, of tree trunks; the white of tiny mushrooms circling the decay. Our backyard has long been mostly compost pile, with a thick surface of brown leaves on top. Through this the mushrooms sometimes appear, like little sentinels. The half decomposed limbs of fallen branches are thick with lichen–a rich, green color that calls to mind the endpapers of old Victorian novels. The insects are everywhere, especially at night–great, awkward flying beetles like dreadnaughts, and tiny, ephemeral whispy things with legs like pencil lead, and moths like drab paupers circling the globe of our outdoor light. (Sometimes we see damselflies, more delicate than dragonflies, and unable to survive except at certain elevations, in certain types of humidity; they are black and shiny and velvety, but they move like drunken sailors.) Below the surface: earthworms, cockroaches rustling through the dead leaves. Above: thrashers, thrushes, wrens, blue jays, crows, and squirrels. At night, frogs will stick to the windows and we will watch their tiny pink-and-white throats shiver and pulse with life. At night, while you are trying to become the opposite of awake, you will hear the chorus of the frogs, which bark, and the chorus of the cicadas, which sound like tiny drills, and the chorus of the crickets, which sound as if they are trying to soothe both the frogs and cicadas to sleep.

We have one enormous, tall tree in the front yard. The biggest wisteria vine I have ever seen winds its way around the tree all the way to the top. I used to think that the tree and the wisteria were locked in decades-slow combat, a battle that might not end until long after I was dead. But lately I have begun to suspect that the tree and the wisteria are locked in an embrace. It is a decades-slow love story, which will reach its fruition long after I am dead.

When the wisteria blooms, it covers our cars, using the rain to stick to the doors, the roof, the windows, so that over time, if we are not careful, they are transformed into Mardi Gras floats. Their blossoms fall onto the grass and leaves. They become brown, shapeless, rotting into the ground, like everything else.

My fantastical city of Ambergris is but a pale reflection of this…


  1. says

    Although I lived 5 miles away from the Atlantic coastline when I lived in Palm Beach County 5-7 years ago, one thing that I remembered even there in that manicured lawnscape (and even more so when I would drive up to visit a close friend in Gainesville) were the smells. I grew up in the South and even now, the smell of honeysuckle perfumes the air, but in Florida, there was a different “air.” Slightly heavier than the Basin air I feel on the sticky days here in TN, with a combination of perpetual blooming and rotting that I remember even now. Thanks for reminding me just what it was about Florida that I miss on days like today.

    And referring back to your first paragraph, I wonder if that combination of blooming/rotting helped drive Faulkner’s writing as well.

  2. Andrew says

    I live in a wintry wasteland of hardwoods, pines, deer and bears… I hate the heat.

  3. says

    Loved reading what you have to say about Tallahassee. It’s an amazing place. So much talent, beauty, art.
    But it’s too damn hot for too damn long.

  4. Andrew says

    Are there any hardwoods (oaks, maples) in Florida or is it just palm trees? If so do they change color in the fall?

  5. says

    Living in Mississippi, I too know something about humidity, heat and the creep of decay. Jeff, do you ever experience that sort of summer heat that seems to get inside of you and you can’t shake it off, even when you go inside? It’s like the humidity just steam-roasts you inside and out, and even the air conditioning can’t make it go away.

  6. says

    What you’re describing is sort of what I was expecting when I moved “down South” from Minnesota. I didn’t appreciate, then, that north Georgia is foothills and pine trees. I’m relieved, though. To me, giant carnivorous reptiles are nature’s way of telling you live someplace else.