Anyone who's spent an afternoon on Key Biscayne or climbed the island's lighthouse has seen them: the cluster of mysterious wooden houses, hugging the horizon, absurd and alluring in the middle of the sea. The ramshackle frames are all that remains of Stiltsville, a colony of homes built in Biscayne Bay starting in the 1930s.
It took her a full decade, but Miami native Susanna Daniel has taken the elemental draw of the place and turned it into an acclaimed debut novel, Stiltsville. The book tells the story of Frances Ellerby, a young woman from Georgia, who falls in love with a Stiltsville resident and risks everything to start a life with him in the middle of the bay.
In an interview with Cultist, Daniel talks about how her own childhood in Stiltsville shaped the book -- and why it took her ten years to finish. You can also catch Daniel reading from her novel next Thursday at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 7 p.m.
New Times: You grew up in Miami, but what's your connection to Stiltsville? Your family owned a house out there?
Daniel: We had a house in Miami in Coral Gables, where I grew up. And my grandfather built our stilthouse in 1954. It was one of 14 out there off Key Biscayne when I was growing up. We shared it with a couple other families.In the summer we might go out and stay there once a month. Usually it was a long weekend.
Most of us living in Miami now look at Stiltsville as this mysterious place off on the horizon - it's amazing you spent so much time out there.
That's funny, because everyone I knew went there when I was growing up. I still have so many friends who are reading the book now and remembering so much about that place.
Then in 1992 Andrew blew down most of the houses. We went out and there were just four pilings left standing of our place. I took a picture of my brother just sitting there.
It was cost prohibitive to rebuild at that point. The leases were going to sunset in 1999 anyway, so we only had another seven years left. It was very sad because it was a big part of my father's childhood and my childhood. He lost a big chunk of what he loved about Miami.
In hindsight, did it dawn on you how unusual this place really was?
Some people have cabins in the mountains, and ours was out in the water. From what I gather people still have events out there, as a party place sometimes, right? But it's obviously not the same. Back then it was you, your family, and a friend. You had these long empty hours of walking on the porch, surrounded by water.
For a family, it's a special thing to be able to cordon off your family and make everyone be together for a whole weekend. You were marooned together. It was a really special time for my family. I really enjoyed it as a child. Of course, later on I was raging against my parents and hated losing a whole weekend, so I'd fight them on going out there. It's such a regret of mine of that I missed so many trips that way.
When did you decide that Stiltsville was a natural setting for a novel?
It came out of a short story I had written that's not in the book. That story has been anthologized, and it paved my way to my fellowship (at the Iowa Writers Workshop). Stiltsville is such a great setting for a family drama, because you're basically able to put them on an island where they're forced to interact.
So I wrote this story, and I was sitting with agent in Iowa and she said, 'You should write more about these characters.' I said, 'Maybe I should.' Then I started to conceive of this longer narrative.
How long a process was it to turn this into a novel?
(Laughs.) You may not have seen it, but I actually just had an article published in Slate on that question. It's about my 10 years of novel writing, from conceiving a book and writing the first stories to finally finishing it.(ed: the article is called 'The Quiet Hell of 10 Years of Novel Writing.' Highly recommended reading for other writers.)
Wow. I'll look up the story, but why did it take a decade?
It's a personal essay, but I don't go into the really personal parts, because I don't want to be seen as making excuses. But I essentially lost focus for a long period of time. Sometimes I read a book, and I feel like the author was watching TV while writing. I knew I had to have utter focus to do this and I just couldn't. I just didn't have it in me. My mother was dying, and I couldn't even think clearly. That's just an excuse, and there are plenty of people who make it happen anyway, but that was my story.
Stiltsville tells the story of Francis Ellerby, a young woman from Georgia, who falls for Dennis DuVal, a Stiltsville resident. How much of that narrative comes from your own family?
Frances isn't my mother, but she has a lot of my mother in her. My mother moved to Miami in the 1960s to be with my father from a small town in Texas, and Miami was totally outside of her experience. My father, being a born and bred Miamian, has never considered leaving. Miami is in his blood in the way it's in Dennis' blood. Frances knew, like my mother, either I take this leap or lose this family I could have. It was very brave of her to make that leap.
You set Stiltsville from the late '60s to the '90s - why did you pick that era in Miami's history as a backdrop?
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For me, the Miami of the 1980s and 90s is still very prominent in my memory. One reviewer said I'd concentrated on Miami's 'coming of age' as a city. I don't think while we were living through it we knew it was such a transformative time, but it really does seem like Miami has evolved into this completely different city in that period. Those are the years of Miami's introduction to the rest of the country.
And I continue to admire Miami's willingness to not care what the rest of the country thinks of it. Miami has this history of pioneerism, when people were leading the first trains to swampland that no one else thought was habitable. Stiltsville is a real symbol of that spirit. A couple generations later, people took that idea a step father. They felt like they'd gotten crowded in and so they went farther and kept going out into the water. That's in Miami's blood, to search for new ground and peace and beauty. Miami is one of those cities where people really care that they live in a beautiful pace.
Have you been back to Stiltsville recently?
No, I haven't. My father actually doesn't even own a boat anymore. He gave it up a few years ago. I only make it to Miami a few times a year and our schedule is always so full that I haven't made it back.