Curbside Talk - Ludlow v. Holic - Part II
By Victor David Giron
Curbside Talk is a series we’ll run periodically featuring authors / publishers / artists conversing with each other on how their urban locales influence (or not) their work. For our inaugural conversation we’re pleased to feature two young talents we’re excited about – California based author Lavinia Ludlow and Florida based author / illustrator / editor Nathan Holic.
Lavinia Ludlow is the acclaimed author of the germophobic punk-rock epic alt.punk, and the upcoming rock-band novel Single Stroke Seven (Casperian Books). Both books focus on characters embroiled in the music scene of the Bay Area, drifting through the often-unknown hidden spaces of Sacramento and San Jose. Find Lavinia here. Nathan Holic is the editor of the anthology 15 Views of Orlando, a collection of loosely linked stories about the city of Orlando, and he is the author of the monthly graphic narrative “Clutter,” a story told as a home décor catalogue. Find Nathan here.
Ludlow’s characters are scattered across Northern California. Holic’s characters live and sweat in the sauna of Central Florida. Florida/ California. CentralFla/ NorCal. East Coast/ West Coast.
This is Part II of their conversation about “setting.” Read Part I here.
Nathan: In your novels, what did you get right, and what do you think you got wrong?
Lavinia: In alt.punk, I wrote about a narrator who lived in Sacramento through college and her late twenties. I think I hit the mark when it came to locations like the State Fair, the shitty apartment complexes, the downtown clubs. I only spent a few years there so I know I couldn’t write through the eyes of someone who grew up in Sacramento or went to high school there. So I may have hit the mark in a situational sense, but any other sense such as adolescence, I would have probably missed completely.
In some cases, I think writing about a city involves reinventing its essence as well, bringing it meaning through specific character interaction and experiences. Your character will be your own, and no one else can write him/her or his/her situations or experiences quite like you. I’m not saying that you just invent some national treasure or landmark which is obviously not real in the city of Orlando, but a writer can bring meaning and life to a city which others may completely overlook. It can be painted in a delightful (or atrocious) light based on the way your characters view it, interact with it, make it shine (or tarnish).
So, Nathan, do you attempt to bring specific meaning and connection to a location which other writers may have tackled, but only you could present or “hit the mark” in your own way?
Nathan: I suppose I do, sometimes. I'm sure there are moments in my fiction when I describe an area or event that has been described by dozens of other writers. For instance, I've got a (long) short story called "The Power Outage" that will be published in The Apalachee Review sometime this Spring, and it focuses on the city of Orlando in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley back in 2004. Though I don't think I've read any other fiction about Charley (he wasn't quite as dramatic a hurricane as Andrew in Miami, or Katrina in New Orleans, but man, did he do a number on Central Florida), I can guarantee that other writers have tackled the storm and/or the aftermath. But I try to showcase what it was like to live in a tiny apartment on the far edge of the city, out in the forests and swamps of Seminole County, without any power, in the still heat and humidity of August, with the dumpsters full of rotting refrigerator contents...and with a maniac redneck living upstairs, twenty feet away from you...To be fair, my view of the Hurricane Charley aftermath is incomplete: it doesn't tell you what it was like to live in the city, or what it was like to live in one of the nicer suburbs where power never went out, or what it was like to live in one of the coastal towns where whole neighborhoods were flattened. But it does show you one tiny corner of Central Florida, and how those characters were able to deal with the situation, and with one another. In that regard, my depiction of the event (and the setting) is going to be unique, no matter what.
Generally, though, I think I tend to focus on areas and locations that I haven't seen in fiction before. If I've seen it before, I think I do make those little internal comments like, "Can I do this any better than this author has done it?" or "Is there anything left to say?" If not, why bother?
When you read one of the Tom Wolfe city novels (Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full), you just start to think, "Well, shit, I guess I can never write about New York. He's pretty much got it covered."
So when I search for settings, I usually think about the places (especially in Orlando) that no one else has touched, and that no one else even thinks about as "settings," the places that people take for granted. The old grocery store that has stayed in business for 60-70 years, and still has the same old sign. The boiled peanut vendors on the side of the highway, just outside of town. The forgotten graveyards. The seemingly repetitive neighborhoods that are nonetheless filled with unique individuals who do not want to just "blend in." These settings aren't as sexy as Disney World or Universal Studios, but they're still pretty damned interesting, and sometimes they say more about who we are as Floridians than the big-time corporate ventures like Disney World.
Lavinia: How do you craft a character to be a Floridian? How have you noticed (if at all) Florida slang or expressions differ from other parts of the nation? Countries are more obvious, but I know there may be things that Floridians say that may make a Californian look at him/her crooked, and vice versa. Do you intentionally work to interject local sayings to give your characters a Florida "flavor," or is it a natural occurrence?
Nathan: That's a really fun question. I'm not sure about expressions, but I know a lot about attitude and temperament, and how those inform the way we act and communicate.
For instance, you can't write about Florida without writing about the heat and the humidity. If you write about Orlando and your character is super-happy because it's sunny outside, and it's 80 degrees in November, then your character is going to come across as phony, or as a tourist. The heat and humidity have a real effect on people down here. The lack of seasonal change, too. The stores in the mall all change over to new seasonal offerings, but the temperature doesn’t change, and if you buy a sweater, you get one chance all year to wear it. It grinds on you, probably in the same way that the 24-hour sunshine grinds on everyone in the Arctic. It's like you don't get a chance to reset. You sweat and you sweat and you sweat, and--in July and August--you get short-tempered, and you have permanent indentations on your face from the sunglasses, and then--in winter, when the rest of the world is complaining about snow--you're still sweating.
You also can’t write about Florida (and Orlando, specifically) without tackling tourism, and how the tourism industry affects the attitude and mentality of everyone in the city. Every city has tourists, I know. And it seems like most major American cities actually list tourism as their top industry (I think San Francisco is a prime example of this). But no one knows tourists like Florida knows tourists. And no one in Florida knows tourists like Orlando knows tourists. We know what it's like to have our entire culture determined by the international tourism, too, and what it's like to fight for our identity. We know what it's like to have the world's best customer service (we've got the Disney Institute here, and everyone seems to be held up to the example of the most famously trained "cast members" in the world), and so--when we travel--we're always disappointed by the customer service or the accommodations wherever we go. We're spoiled by brand-new hotels here in town, brand-new restaurants, brand-new apartment complexes, brand-new everything. We have people in the city who say things like, "Why would I ever go anywhere else?" and, while I can't argue that it's tough to find better and cleaner across-the-board lodging and convention centers, and newer and friendlier big-box stores, etc., it's just a strange mentality. People in Orlando will say things like, "Why would I ever go to Chicago?" as if it is some hunkered-down snowscape year-round, and because there are no roller-coasters in the Loop, it's not worth visiting. I've had male friends say, with all seriousness (and with never having visited) "There aren't any hot girls in Chicago. How would they tan?" as if the winter months are just too much for any reasonable or attractive person to want to endure, and so they clearly all flock to California and Florida.
People in every city are myopic, I think, and view their city as the center of the world...that's sort of a given...but in Florida, and in Orlando, this sort of mentality (especially among the youth) is intensified by the fact that everyone really does visit here. To write about Orlando, and to write about Orlandoans (and young Orlandoans), you have to be able to capture that attitude, that over-confidence, that absolute cluelessness about what exists outside the city. Some of the inner-city Baltimore moments from The Wire were so fresh and honest because they helped us to understand what it was like to never leave a four square-block radius for an entire lifetime. In Orlando, though, you've got the whole world coming here...you've got the whole world at Epcot, for crying out loud...but at the same time, it's a warped vision of the world and the way it operates. To know Florida is to know that warped vision, and to write Floridian requires that you understand how strangely your characters view the world.
Read Part I of Nathan and Lavinia's conversation here.
Lavinia Ludlow is the author of the celebrated punk-rock novel, alt.punk, and the upcoming Single Stroke Seven. Both titles are available from Casperian Books. Connect with Lavinia and read more of her work at http://ludlowlavinia.wordpress.com. Nathan Holic is the editor of the anthology series, 15 Views of Orlando, available here at the Burrow Press web site; all proceeds from sales directly benefit the Central Florida literacy organization Page 15. He is also the author of the ongoing graphic narrative "Clutter," available online at Smalldoggies Magazine. Read more of his work at http://nathanholic.com.