I think that even for those of us who spent a lot of time at Stiltsville, there was always the sense that it was a magical place. Here we were just miles from downtown Miami—we could see the skyline from the stilt house porch—and yet isolated in a very real way. As a young kid, I didn’t realize what a treasure it was, of course. I assumed that my whole life there would always be a place where my family could retreat, an island getaway (literally or figuratively). Of course that’s not true. As a teenager, I’m ashamed to say I resisted Stiltsville because it took me away from parties and friends, but as a younger kid I loved everything about it. Even the food—at Stiltsville, we ate things we never ate at home, like whitefish spread and artichokes with mayonnaise.
I’m fascinated by Stiltsville logistics: Was there a lot of socializing between houses or did families stick to one place? Did you spend nights there or just go for the day?
We always went for at least one or two nights, and sometimes came home early Monday in time for school. My family knew a lot of other Stiltsville families casually, but for the most part we didn’t socialize while we were out there. I think my parents considered Stiltsville a place to be together as a family. Maybe once a weekend there was a party at another house and we’d watch the boats pull up, and we could hear the music. But we didn’t host big parties ourselves. But my friends were always invited to come with us to spend the weekend, and most weekends we had one or two guests.
Is there anything left of your grandfather’s original stilt house?
Nothing. After Hurricane Andrew, there were still a few pilings, but there was no dock and no house. Now even the piling have been removed.
Why did you decide to set your novel in the past, and partially at Stiltsville?
Miami has changed a lot in the years since I’ve lived there. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t set a novel in Miami in the year 2010, but I wanted to write about what it was like to live there in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s— during the years when Miami was really growing into the city it is today. I wanted to write about the tumult and crisis and excitement of that period—this was the time of the Mariel boat lift and the McDuffie riots and the cocaine cowboys, and of course Hurricane Andrew.
As for Stiltsville, I knew I wanted to write a quiet family drama, a domestic story of a marriage—and Stiltsville is really the perfect location for fiction. You put your characters on an island and make them stay there, together, for any period of time, and something interesting is going to come out. I think the isolation of the place gives otherwise subtle family dynamics a little more urgency and heft.
You’ve lived in Florida and now call the Midwest home. What do you love and hate about each locale?
Well, what I love and hate about both places is the same: the weather. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, where the natural world is basically forced into submission for nine months of the year—and then for three months everything is so lush and verdant that really the city looks more like Miami than one might think. I don’t hate the winter, but it’s long, and every year when we have our first really cold day, I feel enormously sad for just a little while. Then I go walking on the frozen lake near my house, and light a fire in the fireplace, and settle in for the long season.
I will say that sometimes I feel more comfortable in Miami because it’s such a quick, vibrant, chaotic place, whereas Madison moves at a slower pace, and is more subdued in general. I don’t think it’s uncommon for a person who has moved to another part of the country to feel like a bit of an alien from time to time, but the people here in Madison are kind, thoughtful, and incredibly generous, and I’ve found a second home.
Describe your ideal day in Miami. What are the things you have to do when you are here?
I love going to the beach, though sometimes I think this might be more from nostalgia for my youth—and the days I spent at the beach as a teenager—than anything else. Now, I’m likely to fret about sunscreen, snacks for my kid, that sort of thing—for me, it’s a lot more difficult to relax as an adult than it used to be, though that doesn’t seem to be the case for other Miamians, who seem to live like life is a vacation—which is envious.
I often hear people say that “nobody is from Florida—everyone is a transplant from somewhere else.” Since you’re a native who’s since left, why do you think this is? Is Florida someplace you envision returning, or are you happy to have left?
It’s funny, because I don’t have a ton of friends from high school who still live in Miami, but I know quite a few people from college who have moved there. Where I live now, pretty much everyone is from nearby. But when I do tell people I’m from Miami, as often or not people say that they’ve never known anyone from there. Which is incredible to me, of course.
One thing about writing this book is realizing how many people out there, all around the country, have a strong connection to Miami, even if they don’t live there currently. I’ve heard from so many people who say they lived there for a short time, or traveled there frequently, or have relatives there and treasure their visits. It seems to me that Miami is a place that inspires people to talk about their time there, almost as if it’s gotten under their skin. I don’t think every city has that kind of pull and power, and I am proud to call myself a native.
Susanna, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. All of the above photos are from Susanna’s family—I think I would like to step back in time and live in all of them! Stiltsville is out now and can be found at your bookseller of choice. Locals, be sure to check out Susanna’s schedule, as she has several readings planned for the area.