by Susanna Daniel
Issue #134 • April 10, 2010•Buy Now!
Dennis stood beside the swimming pool in bathing trunks and goggles, snapping on a pair of bright yellow kitchen gloves. It was August 25th, the morning after the hurricane, and we’d spent hours tramping through the debris that littered our property. Our neighbor Mr. Costakis’s royal palm stretched across our backyard, the deck sagged with split planks, and the swimming pool churned with foliage. Our street was impassable, crowded with shredded trees and a felled telephone pole, and the canal at the back of the house teemed with window shutters, patio furniture, palm fronds: little rafts escaping for the sea. Among the unsinkable, our boat listed against its battered pier, crowded but unharmed. We’d lengthened the mooring lines and padded the hull with fenders, imagining a storm that would lift the boat aboveground, then recede in a breath. Upstairs, our daughter Margo and her new husband, Stuart slept in her childhood bed. They were living with us that month, house-hunting in lieu of honeymooning.
Susanna Daniel was a Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been published in Harcourt’s Best New American Voices Anthology, Epoch, and The Madison Review. “Stiltsville” is an excerpt from her novel, Stiltsville, forthcoming in August 2010 with Harper. Susanna lives with her husband and son in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is at work on a second novel. She was born and raised in Miami, Florida. Read more about Susanna Daniel and Stiltsville at www.susannadaniel.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
In this piece – which is the second-to-last chapter of my novel of the same name – the family is immediately preoccupied with Hurricane Andrew’s devastation and the daughter’s hasty marriage. They’re so caught up in this noise that they don’t realize what’s being drowned out.
Frances and Dennis and Margo had been characters in my life and work for about a year when I first wrote this chapter. I knew that they would have to live through Hurricane Andrew because it happened in the time line of the novel – they’d already lived through difficult moments in the local history, like the Mariel boatlift and the cocaine cowboys and the McDuffie riots.
If you live in Miami, regardless of what’s happening in your private life, public events intervene – like hurricanes or violence or riots or scandal. Miami is a place that brings its own plot to the table. This isn’t true everywhere.
At its peak in 1960, there were 27 buildings at Stiltsville. In the 1960s, fewer and fewer shacks remained, and the structures that were built to replace them looked more like real homes, with wraparound porches and bedrooms and working kitchens.
My own family’s stilt house, which we shared with three other families, was built by my grandfather in 1954. Before Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, it stood among 14 total houses; after Andrew, seven remained. Without going into too much detail, I’ll add that the houses are no longer owned privately. (It’s very difficult to watch YouTube videos of fraternity brothers getting drunk on stilt house docks that used to be private homes – but then again, it’s only fair that the public gets to sample what it’s like to be there.)
As a writer, it’s my job to describe a setting as distinctly as possible, to make it real in the reader’s mind. I do a great deal of work describing Stiltsville in the first chapter of the novel. But honestly nothing works as well to show Stiltsville as a photo. The isolation of Stiltsville, the oddness of it – it’s really best shown in photograph.
There’s a Miami photographer named Brian Call who does a great job capturing the solitude of the stilt houses as they stand now. Another photographer named Jason Fulford did a spread on Stiltsville for LIFE magazine in 1998 – one of his photos is on my novel’s jacket.
You look at these photos, and you want to go there, immediately if not sooner.
Florida writer Les Standiford said, “No one who chances upon the phenomenon of Stiltsville for the first time will ever forget the sight of homes that hover above the waters, miles from any shore, like structures from a dream.”
Hurricane Andrew was only one of dozens of storms that threatened to hit Miami while I lived there – but it was by far the most fierce during that time. The thing about hurricanes is that you always plan for them to hit – you buy bottled water and batteries, and tape up the windows, and gas up the cars – but most of the time they dissolve before causing much damage. Hurricane Andrew was the one, in my time, that made all the preparation worthwhile.
For Frances to look at Margo and be disappointed in her choices is to have a bit of selective amnesia. But in the end, the two marriages do not mature in the same way.
I’ve been told the novel reads as a love song to Miami, and in the end I think this is true.
After this chapter, there are about 80 more pages before the novel ends.
Again, I’m writing about marriage, but where STILTSVILLE is a primarily love story, the new novel – tentatively titled TOURING – is about compromise and loss as well as love. Like STILTSVILLE, a close-knit group of family members and friends functions as an emergency team during a crisis.
Also like STILTSVILLE, parenting plays a big role in the new novel, though there’s a lot more focus on what parenting means in a larger sense, the role it plays in the community and in the arc of an individual’s life.
As for novel writing specifically, I find myself often repeating E.L. Doctorow’s dictum: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For my part, I hope this is true.