Q&A with Susanna Daniel

In Sea Creatures, author Susanna Daniel explores the joys and compromises of marriage and motherhood in a sunny Miami setting
By Marisa Spyker

The follow-up novel to Susanna Daniel’s PEN/Bingham Prize-winning Stiltsville, Sea Creatures transports us back to the real-life Stiltsville community—a group of seven homes perched on wooden stilts in Miami’s Biscayne Bay—to tell the story of sweet, strong-willed Georgia and her husband Graham, who, after an embarrassing debacle related to Graham’s severe sleep disorder, decide to flee from their Midwest home and take up residence on a dilapidated houseboat in Miami. Here, Georgia struggles with the realities of her far-from-perfect marriage, a young son who refuses to speak, and new, unexpected feelings for an older, eccentric artist who lives alone in Stiltsville. We caught up with Susanna to hear about the themes and inspirations behind Sea Creatures, and how her own hometown of Miami became its magical setting.

Tell us what inspired you to write Sea Creatures.
SD: I was compelled almost against my will to return to Stiltsville, which is the setting of my first book of the same name. I had a yen to explore the life of a man who is mentioned only briefly in that book: the Hermit, a character loosely based on a man who lived at Stitsville full-time during my childhood. I didn’t concern myself much with the hermit when I was a kid—his stilt house was the closest one to my family’s, and my parents used to spy on him through binoculars—but after Hurricane Andrew, I remember wondering: Where did he go? And what was his story, anyway?

My narrator, Georgia is a thirty-six year-old mother with a 3-year-old son—which describes me during the year I wrote this book. Otherwise, we are similar only in that I invented her to answer questions I hope never to have to answer myself: What would it be like to be married to someone with an extreme sleep disorder? Also, what if my child never starts to speak? Georgia is the embodiment of both of those questions and anxieties. She rises ably to her challenges, I think.

Two main characters in the book suffer from forms of insomnia. Why did you choose to write about sleep disorders?
SD: I’ve had insomnia since I was 20 years old, and it’s the kind of thing that a person can cope with pretty sufficiently, but still it’s always lurking, threatening an outbreak or decline. When will it come back, and what if it gets much, much worse (as so many illnesses, mental and physical, tend to)?

Georgia is an insomniac and visits a sleep clinic with the naive hope that she might one day sleep well. There, she meets Graham, whose sleep disorder is much more pervasive and debilitating than her own. She sympathizes with him, and she understands him. But this all happens—their meeting and falling in love -- before Sea Creatures starts.

This is your second book that has been set in the community of Stiltsville over Biscayne Bay. What is your personal connection to Stiltsville and why is it meaningful to you?
SD: My grandfather built a stilt house in 1964, and I grew up spending weekends there with my family. It’s a terrific setting for fiction because it’s basically an island, and when you strand your characters on an island, they do this amazing thing that doesn’t always happen when you put them in a school or a house or a car: they talk to each other. And then they hurt, love, fight, resist, seek out each other in a more intense way. Stiltsville is also this physical place that is at once solid and vulnerable (think: hurricanes), like the institutions of marriage and family, which are the main concerns of both of my novels.

What kind of research did you have to do in order to write Sea Creatures?
SD: Unlike Stiltsville, which spans three decades and includes a lot of South Floridian history, Sea Creatures takes place in three months: the summer of 1992. This was the summer of Hurricane Andrew, so I did some research into the storm itself, including the path of the storm, the media coverage, the evacuations. I also researched parasomnia and mutism, which afflict Graham and Frankie, respectively. This was interesting because neither affliction is particularly well understood; parasomnia, in particular, is sort of an umbrella diagnosis for anyone who does pretty much anything out of the ordinary during sleep.

Mostly I read about how real people cope with parasomnia, how couples sleep in separate bedrooms, often behind locked doors, and how many parasomniacs sleep with physical restraints. There’s no certain cure, and many parasomniacs eventually become drug-addicted or suicidal. And, as Georgia knows even at the start of Sea Creatures, parasomnia is very, very hard on a marriage.

What was it like growing up in Miami? What do you love about the area?
SD: For the most part growing up in Miami was like growing up anywhere else: I rode my bike to school, fought with my brother, rebelled against my parents, and so on. I also grew up thinking that El Diablo was Fidel Castro’s actual nickname (which it kind of is, in Miami) and that there was no appeal to places where you couldn’t go to the beach in mid-January. I no longer feel that way. I love Miami still, but it’s changed in the ways that most cities have changed in the last thirty years: Better shopping, worse traffic. Better restaurants, worse schools. And so on.

What are some of your favorite restaurants/shops/areas in Miami?
SD: I grew up in Coral Gables and South Miami and spent most of my time there and in Coconut Grove, and I still love those parts of town—for one thing, these parts of Miami are so lush and beautiful that it’s a pleasure just to drive down a banyan-lined street. I was married at the Barnacle, which is an historic home on the water in Coconut Grove and has a definite Old Florida vibe about it; it’s a great place to spend a few hours. Miami has become a serious food city, which is great, but when I visit, I tend toward my sentimental favorites. And I never miss a chance to go for frozen yogurt at the Whip n’ Dip on Sunset Drive!