I received a comment from someone in response to a video I posted about The Innocent Wife. It went something like, ‘Florida, of course. It’s always Florida.’ Then there was a little eye-roll emoji.
Until that moment I hadn’t even thought that people might read the synopsis of my book and think I was portraying Florida in a negative way, or that I was being exploitative of the state or its population. The book is set in Florida because, first and absolutely foremost: I love Florida. Deeply. It’s been two years since I was last there but I can still vividly recall the thickness of the air and the sounds of the insects in the bushes and the vastness of it, looking out over the landscape at all those stretches of green. It’s a place that feeds my imagination and it’s where I daydream about going back to when I have the chance.
But despite all this, it actually wasn’t the first place I thought about setting my book. I first planned to set The Innocent Wife in the Ozarks, around Missouri. I wanted there to be bears and long brutal winters and lives of relative isolation. The only thing was, I had never been to the Ozarks.
I knew that the book had to be set in America and it had to be in a state with a certain kind of penal system. To be on Death Row is to be completely segregated within the prison system. The books I had read by former Death Row inmates (Life After Death Row by Damien Echols and The Fear of Thirteen by Nick Yarris, for example) showed what an extreme kind of imprisonment the system is. If someone were on Death Row for several decades – like Dennis was – they would emerge from their cell into a world that was almost alien to them, as if from a time capsule.
Florida came to mind because of a section Nick Yarris’s book, in which he finds himself in the same prison as infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. Then, it seemed obvious; of course it should be Florida! I started to think about everything wonderful and rich about Florida’s landscape: swamps, alligators, and the often oppressive heat and humidity. I thought about the vastness again and the dense woodlands I’d seen that seemed like they could swallow a person up, never to be seen again. What a perfect stomping ground for a serial killer and what an amazing place to travel to in my mind every day while I sat typing in my drafty house in Wales.
I also started to think about sinkholes. I’d seen footage of whole houses being sucked into the earth. It gave the sense that you were never on solid ground and any wrong step could lead to oblivion.
Florida is a remarkable place which I don’t think has been explored enough in art and literature. It lends itself as well to light and colour as it does to darkness. It’s a serious place that hides behind a tropical façade, some of its terrain absolutely deadly, like the mangroves, as inhospitable as the dessert but smothered in a lush green and teeming with life. Now, I can’t imagine The Innocent Wife being set anywhere else.
Amy Lloyd is the author of The Innocent Wife, out now in paperback (£7.99). The Innocent Wife is also part of the current Richard and Judy WHSmith Book Club (available at all local WHSmiths).