Katie Tobin

Dizz Tate on Florida and Girlhood

Brutes, Dizz TateFaber, pp. 352, £14.99.


I found your description of Florida so visceral and enigmatic, and Brutes really encapsulates it incredibly well. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your own experiences informed how you chose to characterise the setting?

I moved to Florida from London when I was eight years old, and lived there until I was seventeen. My family were there on temporary visas, so I always knew I would have to go back to England eventually. I loved Florida, and I was heartbroken to leave. The beauty of the landscape feels exaggerated, and because I was an outsider there, I watched it both suspiciously and adoringly, the way you’d watch a beautiful stranger over a familiar friend. I think writing from a place of admiration was important for Brutes; it gave the book a sense of longing that felt true to the time, the characters, and their ages. I felt such a freedom when I lived there as a kid, even though, as an adult, I could see the danger and the hypocrisy and the vulnerability of the state much more clearly. I feel like my version of Florida came out of a desire to represent it both realistically and idealistically, because Florida exists as a contradiction. It is a beautiful, big-skied, materialistic paradise; it is also a stinky, polluted, dangerous swamp.

I know there’s been a lot of comparisons to The Virgin Suicides already, but I actually found myself drawing more comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Like Brutes, it’s a text seemingly concerned with undoing the polite facade of Southern femininity, and instead exploring how cruel and feral adolescent girls can be. I’m curious about how you see Southern Gothic literature as a means for deconstructing womanhood, particularly in Brutes.

I love this comparison! Florida is a funny outlier in America, there’s a saying there that: “The further North you are in Florida, the more Southern you get.” Florida is its own deal, it has such a unique, melting-pot history, but it is a wonderful landscape to use in fiction; there’s an oppressiveness to the climate, a spiky edge to its beauty, that lends itself to an atmosphere of mystery, of dreamy inexplicability. I love the small gap that exists between realism and surrealism in Southern Gothic novels and stories, where life is presented in a way that is recognisable but just tilted beyond possibility, toward the unknowable, the indescribable.

In the South, and Florida especially, there’s an immediate sense when you step out of your door that you’re in a world much wilder and more ancient and more powerful than you. Florida is not a subtle landscape, it’s trying to build a perfect fantasy on the most unstable of land. This idea happens to match the emotions of early girlhood exquisitely for me. Thirteen is a singular age, Florida is a singular place: both are gorgeous and brutal and almost impossible to believe.


The novel’s form is fairly experimental, which I adored about it. What was it like to move from the vignette-style passages in first-person plural to the individual chapters once the girls are adults?

I actually didn’t want to write an experimental novel at all. I tried so hard to write a simple, linear story, but it just didn’t work. I originally wrote it a few times in first-person, but the narrator felt like a thirteen-year-old therapist, analysing her own behaviour and that of her friends. I had the details, all the tacky, wonderful, dollar-store commodities of girlhood, but the voice was completely false. Then I found the first-person plural voice after reading Mariana Enriquez’s story, Our Lady of the Quarry, in the New Yorker. Then the novel flew off. As soon as I wrote it in a group voice, the narrators were funny and powerful and restless, mad and mean and loving. It felt true to my memories of what being thirteen was like.

The first-person chapters were the last parts of the book I wrote. I wanted the book to have an adult perspective, and I wanted to show that, however imperfect the character’s lives are in the future, they are still trying to experience the world. They’re working, they might be failing at love but they are still participating in its rituals. Often when I sit down to write, I feel like I’m being pushed on stage to make a speech I haven’t prepared, but because I’d been drafting for so many years by the time I wrote the individual chapters, I felt like I could hear their voices. And they were funny! Maybe because I was a bitter-but-fun waitress writing bitter-but-fun waitresses. They felt familiar to me.

On that note, I’d love to know which character you found to be the most compelling to write the voice of for those sections.

I guess it’s a cop-out, but I like them all. Maybe Hazel, because she’s unafraid to admit her own brattiness, and she’s reaching out to her sister even though she can’t ever get it quite right. She wants to be sincere but her heart is cynical, and she’s battling between those two life-views all through her story. My favourite people to write about are those who are trying to be loving but just can’t get over the obstacle of themselves, who can’t get the words right.

Finally, I’d like to ask about the transition from writing short fiction to writing a novel. Can you talk about your process for this, or what guidance you’d offer others looking to make the same leap?

I found it really challenging, and it took me a long time. I kept getting stuck around the 30,000 word mark and losing the will to keep going. I imagined I’d write this stylish, simple book, but I kept getting bored. I realised I needed a larger canvas, and my two subjects became girlhood and Florida, both of which have enough detail to fill a hundred books. So I would advise that you need to find some big subjects, maybe questions or experiences that have haunted you for years, anything you won’t get bored by. Boredom is the enemy! I felt cheeky sometimes when I was drafting this book. I’d be on my own in my messy flat before a restaurant shift, sitting on my computer thinking: yeah, let’s send a hurricane through right about now. Click, click, click. That’s the fun thing about writing, you don’t need any budget to make an entire world change sentence-to-sentence. It made me feel very free and powerful, when I felt very trapped and powerless in my real life! I think you need to feel like you have something to prove when you’re writing, whether it’s with a story or novel. You have to think: no one thinks I can do this, so I’m going to do it anyway. Even if the “no one” is you. The determination will push you onward when the work is inevitably terrible for a while. But there is a difference between writing stories and a novel, and I didn’t know it when I started Brutes. Novels are so damn long! Stories feel like moments, they’re flickers of light. Beautiful, illuminating, ruthless. They don’t think twice about dumping you in the dark, leaving you to try to figure out what you’ve just seen. But a novel is a whole house on fire. Maybe writing one needs to feel dangerous and a little out-of-control, at least at first. You’ve run in blind, you can only see smoke. You’re desperately trying to save something.

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