Florida is a place of extremes — extreme heat, extreme weather, extreme people. It’s hard to put into words what growing up there is like, but with her debut novel, Dizz Tate combines the intensity of the state with the dramatic, emotional turbulence of young adulthood. In Brutes, a group of teenagers bond over their obsession with Sammy, the local preacher’s daughter, who goes missing one day. In hypnotic, sharp prose that switches between when the group starts to look for her, and years later, when they have grown up, Tate paints a portrait of a state unlike any other — a car crash that’s impossible to look away from.
Our Culture sat down with Dizz Tate to discuss her debut, paradoxes of girlhood, and of course, Florida.
Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel to have a longer project out after publishing so many short stories?
I feel excited — I was working on a different Florida book before when I was about 20, and I think this one has taken me about 5 years. It’s been a really sustained project. I’d kind of take breaks to write short stories, but I’ve always been working full-time as a waitress for a long time, then I was working as a teaching assistant in schools in the UK. It’s always been this secret, weird part of my life, where I go home and be on my own for three hours in a row and make up stuff. Which I really enjoy doing! I still feel closer to that process than this one, of it coming out in the world. But I’m getting used to it and I’m excited for it to be out and available.
The tone and tense of the novel is what really gripped me at first: The majority of the book is told through the lens of a group of around 6 or 7 girls and Christian, the lone boy, only sometimes referring to each other as a singular person. Why did you want the story to be told this way?
I rewrote it a bunch of times — the first time, it was in first-person, then I did it in third-person, and then went back to first. I read this story in the New Yorker called “Our Lady of the Quarry” by Mariana Enriquez. It’s about a group of teenage girls who are obsessed with this older guy, and it’s all told in the ‘we’ voice. I read an interview she did about it, where she was talking about girls and she said something like ‘They’re a coven, they’re vulnerable, and they’re powerful, and this mix is so intriguing.’ And she says something about them being beauties and monsters, they’re always two things at once.
When I wrote it in first person, the narrator felt very nervous and insecure — which is very true to being a thirteen-year-old — but I thought that wasn’t the whole truth, because I remember being 13 and feeling invincible and quite fearless, like I didn’t know what was expected about being a girl or adult or anything. There was this amazing moment of experimentation and weirdness and obnoxiousness and a kind of secret language of humor that was only understood by each other, and completely alien to the rest of the world. I still see it now — when I’m on the bus, and you see groups of girls just cackling, and you can hear what they’re saying, but have no access to this kind of world. And I love that. So that felt true, once I hit the ‘we’ voice, there’s strength here.
When they’re young, they play into this mean-girl stereotype a little and adopt the label of ‘brutes’ that their mothers give them, but seem meek and timid around Mia and Sammy, who are one grade older than them and cool to them. Why did you want to have these separate facets of their personality?
With their lives, I don’t feel like they feel particularly loved in where they are. You know, when you’re young, and you’re insecure and you don’t feel loved, you don’t express your needs in a particularly gentle or easily understood way. So often, your words are spiky and mean, and it comes from a sad place inside you. For me, their cruelty is so performative that I find it really funny. It reminds me, especially, of being a teacher and seeing the sass of the kids. You walk into a group of year 9s and they directly destroy you, but then they come to you in floods of tears at break time because some kind of imagined slight. I think that mix, it just tugs on my heartstrings a little. I really feel it and remember that time and how lonely and the sort of longing I had of wanting friends and being loved and I just didn’t understand anything. It just feels true. I’m not going to have these girls talk in some intellectually philosophical way about love, they’re not gonna be gentle to each other. Their love is too fierce for that.
We also have these flash-forwards in time, to when the characters are a little bit older and they all have distinct personalities. Was it important for you to give some depth to these characters, instead of them being coagulated into this one entity?
I think those stories are the last bit I wrote, and I just really liked them all. I was just like, ‘I want to spend some time with you all,’ and I had a lot of fun writing them because there’s a sort of freedom in them being older. I was like, ‘How does attitude change as you get older?’ They’re still tough, they’re still navigating a world that seems slightly disappointing to them. They’re still trying to escape their own lives in whatever way is accessible to them. And it was important to me, as well, that they do manage to escape and do manage to build lives, but they’re not perfect. I wanted to show how they’re still themselves, but they’ve found a sort of forgiveness in themselves they wouldn’t find externally. So that felt like a release.
I like the difference between this skeletal, liminal writing that defines the childhood sections, versus the more detailed and background-oriented ones when they’re adults. Did you want to do this to kind of set in place the hazy feel of memories?
I think for me, with the present tense section, with you’re 13, you’re literally experiencing things for the first time. For me, that’s where my memory starts. Childhood is sort of a stranger to me, but I remember being 13 so physically being in that body and how that person metamorphosed into me now. I think those present tense sections, I wanted it to almost seem like they didn’t have any memory. It was just like, ‘Experience, experience, experience, happening, happening, happening.’ It’s very accelerative, and they’re not comparing it to anything else. In the older sections, things are slowed down and there’s a bit more understanding.
So, let’s talk about Florida.
As a fellow Floridian, I totally understood what you were going for — these days drenched with heat and your whole person being so sweaty it feels like you can’t even move. Why did you want the novel to be so connected to this place?
I think for me, also growing up there as someone who moved from London — we were there on temporary visas — I was there for 10 years, but never felt super stable, and felt like an outsider looking in. When I left, it became a slightly idealized cinematic place in my mind. And it’s true — it’s this place of such huge extremes. I sort of had two twin obsessions — girlhood and Florida. These twin obsessions happened to work really well together. In Florida, especially Orlando, you have this sense of ‘manicuring the swamp.’ Like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna dress up these girls to look pretty,’ but they’re also burning their own feet on the sidewalk. There’s sort of this natural inclination towards a tough, wildness that surrounds them. Florida so beautifully represents fragility in the face of ancient wildness. There’s always an alligator in the lake, watching you, there’s always snakes crawling up the pipes of the rich houses. It’s this great equalizer, in a way, and you do feel like the apocalypse is just hovering and everyone, instead of approaching it in any kind of logical way, freak out and put up theme parks. That’s just their natural response. Which I kind of love.
Totally. It sets the tone for what the state becomes. I literally had an alligator in the lake behind my old house. We couldn’t let our tiny dog out — he’d get snapped up. But that’s interesting you mention ‘paving up the swamp’ as a metaphor, when that’s literally what Florida does. It takes these swaths of land and puts housing complexes there. The tone of the book matched perfectly with the atmosphere.
I felt so lucky getting to grow up there and just happening to see these things commingle. I feel like everyone who is from Florida has this relationship with it, almost like a math problem that you can’t figure out. You get kind of obsessed with it, I think. And there’s always this time limit to it, like it always feels like it’s on the way out because of the flooding and the storms, the people kind of clinging on. It’s fascinating and scary and the only place like it.
That’s totally true — it’s probably the place that gets the biggest reaction, when you let people know where you’re from. They ask, ‘Oh, tell me about that!’ as if I was from Pluto or something.
And they’re also a bit suspicious. Like, ‘What is it like down there?’
You said it correctly — there’s literally no place like it. So the central story takes place after Sammy, the preacher’s daughter, goes missing, and the group of girls make it their mission to find her. Why do you think the kids are so invested in where she is?
I think they see her as these two twin personalities — Mia’s kind of the more outgoing, this all-American ideal of beauty. Sammy was a bit more rebellious against that, and more constrained. She shaves her head, and none of the others would ever dare to do that. They’re kind of figuring out which one to love, and I think at that time they’re open to love everything, everything can be an obsession. I found Sammy interesting because she’s mysterious and she doesn’t give anything away. The girls are very emotional, and maybe looking at someone who is a bit more attached, they find that appealing. They think she’s cool, and from the wealthy area, which is so fascinating to them.
While all of this is going on, Mia’s mother hosts “Star Search”, an America’s Got Talent-esque show that promises instant fame if the town produces a young superstar. Talk a little bit about why the girls are so attracted to this and the idea of escaping one’s small home town.
For me, I really remember being 12 or 13, and not having an idea yet of life. Your life is so constrained — you can’t drive, you’re very stuck in your landscape and I think these girls in the apartment complex, they can walk to Walmart on the highway, or the pool, and that’s it. You’ve got these long summers, where you’re just dreaming of a new life. For them, the idea is that the only way that we’re gonna get any life is to either be beautiful or famous. That’s the only way they see out, because they’re like, ‘Maybe we’re not special in another way.’ And there’s something very tragic in that. It’s quite familiar to girls and boys, this idea that when you’re young, beauty is so important and kind of takes precedence over everything else if you’re not the smartest kid in the class, or you don’t have money. And you see it now, they’re making videos and they’re like, ‘This is my ticket.’ They’re grabbing at that idea and believing in it in the way one would do with a miracle. Or the other escape would be believing in God, like, this is their sort of revelation. I think there’s a tragedy in that, because you know it’s not gonna happen, but there’s a sort of beauty to believing in something as well.
Finally, what is next for your writing? Do you want to do more short stories or do you have another novel in the works?
I’m working on another novel, which I’m really excited about. It’s about an 18-year-old girl, who is a waitress, my other subject. It’s a fun age to write about because it’s a similar transition. When you’re in high school, you set up your patterns, and then when you’re 18, you’re pushed into the world again and made new. I’m really interested in those ages — there’s a lot to unpack there.