Larry Baker returns to the Final Thursday Reading Series as the February featured reader. Baker is the author of seven novels, including his latest, Wyman and the Florida Knights (Ice Cube Press). A former member of the Iowa City Council, he is also an honoree on the Iowa Literary Walk of Fame in Iowa City.
This month’s Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on February 24 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person open mic starts at 7 p.m. Baker’s featured reading starts at 7:30. The featured reading can also be streamed live on Zoom. Click HERE for a link.
This interview was conducted by Hannah McConkey.
Hannah McConkey: A number of your books—A Good Man, The Flamingo Rising, Love and Other Delusions, and now Wyman and the Florida Knights—are set in Florida. Aside from it being a good place to visit during long Iowa winters, what draws you back to writing about that state?
Larry Baker: I lived in Florida for three years, enough time to accumulate a ton of material for fiction. It’s a unique state. In the early 1800’s it was the least “American” of all the other states. Part of that was its Spanish background, but the single most important distinction was its natural environment. No other state in the Union was comparable. Today, science and capitalism have destroyed that original environment. Today, Florida might be the “most American” state, a hot mess, the worst of what America is becoming. In the first few pages of Wyman, Thomas Knight goes to Florida in 1866 to establish his New Church of God. Taken into the interior, led by a black Egyptian guide named Pythagoras Jones, Knight confronts foliage and animals totally alien to his northern experience. Knight thinks in Biblical terms, comparing the land around him to a garden. Jones corrects him. Florida, he says, is not a garden. It is a jungle. Confusing the two can be fatal. And that was the core of my story: human vanity thinking it can cultivate a Edenic garden when in reality it is in a hostile jungle. The beasts in that jungle, literal and metaphorical, are not subservient to men like Knight. They were there first and will not relinquish their own dominion. A hundred and fifty years after Thomas Knight went to Florida, his descendant Norton Knight is a dying man with dark secrets. He asks the artist Peter Wyman to paint his portrait. The result is a portrait that puts Knight back into the jungle that his ancestors first encountered. With the “jungle” as a literal and psychological theme (thanks to Henry James for some influence here too), the Florida of 2016 is the perfect setting. Politics, family dynamics, law and order…all are a jungle. You either adapt and survive, or you die.
HM: Setting is a huge part of Wyman and the Florida Knights. Why did you place so much importance on it, and why did you choose this town in Florida specifically?
LB: Answer above might cover most of this, but the important thing to remember is that I did not “choose” the town. I created it. You might also go back and consider two other fictional towns in American culture—the towns of Sheriff Andy Taylor and lawyer Atticus Finch: two versions of mythical rural America. Knightville is neither, but each shapes a character’s perceptions in Wyman.
HM: With each new character you introduce, you discuss their morality and belief systems. This was an interesting approach. Why did you choose to focus so much on this element of your characters?
LB: If I can say that I have any strength as a writer, it would be shown in the characters I create. As in Wyman, all people are individuals with their own histories and baggage, but a “story,” just like life itself, requires that individuals interact with other individuals…morals and beliefs meshing or clashing—that is the narrative plot—an old Greek truism—“Character is Fate”—each of these character's internal “character” determines their actions—and actions have consequences—In the end, who comes through that final door (last page of Wyman) of your life is a consequence of your character.
HM: Throughout the book, you comment on topics such as racial relations, sexuality, and violence towards women. Did you discuss these topics in order to get more into the different characters’ moralities and mindsets, or was there another reason for this?
LB: Race and sex have always been elements/themes in my novels. Wyman is just much more overt in how I illustrate them. And those are not issues external to, or separate from, a character or a real person. They shape us, black and white, male and female. Unless those issues are embodied in the life of a person, they do not exist. They are merely textbook subjects. The issue of “violence toward women” is much more complicated in Wyman. A husband murders his wife. The wife killed her sister. A man slaps his wife, but then slaps another woman who makes it clear that if he does it again he will be a dead man. Indeed, for me, the two most interesting characters in the story are two very different women, each equally strong and independent in her own way. And, remember, any violence against a woman in the story is eventually punished.
HM: Wyman and the Florida Knights is your seventh novel, which is an impressive achievement. What are you working on now?
LB: A ghost story, seriously. An old taxi driver is lured into a haunted theatre and meets the ghosts of whomever performed on that stage in the past. They are all trapped there in some sort of entertainment limbo/purgatory. He doesn’t know it, but he himself might be the key they need to be finally set free. The ghosts also offer him the only chance to be re-united with the lost great love of his life. So, imagine Marilyn Monroe, Will Rogers, Harry Houdini, Patsy Cline, Mark Twain, et al, being major characters.