Summertime, by Vanessa Lafaye

Summertime, by Vanessa Lafaye

Summertime. The year is 1935. In the small community of Heron Key, preparations are underway for the annual Fourth of July celebrations: a barbecue on the beach, followed by a firework display. It’s an event for everyone because, even though the coloureds must stay on their own side of the beach, ‘no one could partition the sky when those fireworks went up.’ Missy, a young coloured woman who works for a white family, is looking forward to the evening. As she bathes the baby in her care, and sits out the heat and oppression of the humid Florida afternoon, Missy thinks about her neighbours and her employers, and dreams of feeling cool again. But when she leaves the baby for a moment to run inside and swipe a piece of ice from the refrigerator, disaster strikes:

He was camouflaged by the mangrove’s shade at the water’s edge, almost the same green of the grass. He was big, bigger than any she had seen before. From his snout, clamped onto a corner of the basket, to the end of his dinosaur tail, the gator was probably fourteen feet long. Slowly he planted each of his giant clawed feet, and determinedly dragged the basket towards the water.

It makes for a dramatic opening, and one that plunges the reader straight into the the world of Heron Key, with its interdependent yet segregated inhabitants, small town gossip and rivalry, and the endless fight against the natural world. Baby Nathan is saved this time but, as the story unfolds over the following days, tensions rise alongside the growing threat of an imminent hurricane.

Labor Day hurricane 1935

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,


I read Summertime on a particularly blowy Saturday afternoon, the wind rattling at my windows to add a whole new level to my reading experience. By the time the hurricane struck, I was expecting my own roof to disappear. It was like one of those 4D films at Legoland when they spray water over the audience. You don’t need to wait on the weather, though. The atmosphere – both meteorologically and otherwise –  builds around you in a compelling surround-sound experience as the interwoven voices pull you into the heart of the storm.

Summertime is the story of a real-life hurricane. It’s also about love and betrayal, about life on both sides of the Jim Crow laws, and about growing up and following your dreams. Not least, it tells the story of the veterans who returned from World War One to be let down by their government in the most shameful way. Lafaye brings it all to life with a skilful and light hand. It’s a beautiful book. You should read it.

Vanessa Lafaye

A warm welcome to you, Vanessa, and thanks for coming on the blog. Summertime is set in Florida, where you grew up. How many of your own memories came into the description of place? And how did you feel emotionally about returning to your childhood home, as it were?

I didn’t grow up in the Keys, but in Tampa, on the west coast. I tapped into a huge store of memories which have laid unused for almost 30 years.  I never imagined that I would write about Florida, but once I started, the memories just flooded out.  It was like time travel, journeying in my mind to a place that I left when I was 18.  It brought back all the things that I love, and all the things that I was glad to leave behind.  The book is sort of a love letter to my home state, but an honest one. In researching the book, I learned a lot about Florida’s history, not all of it edifying.

There are many voices in the novel. Did you always know that you’d be speaking through them all, or did you start with one point of view and expand as the novel took on life? Which character was hardest to inhabit?

I quickly realized that I wanted to represent multiple viewpoints, but had never handled this before.  It was quite a challenge to switch between them without losing the reader, especially as the storm approaches and the tempo increases.  It took me a long time to smooth things out.  Going between male/female, black/white, rich/poor was great fun but also a real juggling act!  I wanted them to have distinctive speech and mannerisms. For example, the black characters call their mothers ‘mama’ and the white ones use ‘momma’.  I didn’t find any of them hard to inhabit, which may sound strange, considering that they lived a long time ago and had such a different existence to mine.  It may also sound strange to hear that I enjoyed writing the male characters more than the female.

The juggling really works: I always knew who was talking, just from the phrasing and voice. Didn’t pick up on the mama/momma thing, though – clever!  You’ve had a real year of it, with the cancer treatment, the book deals, publication. When you look back, which moments really stand out?

Starting in January, the phone call from Kate Mills at Orion saying that she loved the book.  I was on a work call, so it went to voicemail. I’ve saved the voicemail for posterity!  Then came my mammogram on 15 May, which changed everything for the worse.  And then there was my wedding aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean, with James, my partner of 15 years on 30th Sept.  Finally, there was the moment when the first hardback arrived, just before Christmas, and I finally held it in my hands.  There were so many ups and downs along the way, but the two things which kept me going were the wedding and the book.  It really was the best worst year of my life.

How do you feel that the events in the book are still reflected in questions of race and equality in the US today?

It’s incredibly sad that, even after all the changes in America, there are still some things which stay the same.  A lot of people saw Obama’s election as a sign that the country had moved on, and that certainly has some truth.  But he is generally seen as a disappointment, which isn’t entirely fair.  If some attitudes still haven’t changed after 200 years, you wonder if they ever will.  It’s very depressing.

Have you ever seen an alligator attack in real life?

No I haven’t! But everyone knows not to leave pets, children etc near the water in places inhabited by gators. And once a gator has found something tasty, it will keep returning to the same spot.  They have incredible navigation skills.  So gators which attack are either destroyed or penned in sanctuaries, because they can’t be released.

Thanks, Vanessa 🙂


You can find out more about Vanessa here and on Twitter @VanessaLafaye

Vanessa’s Amazon author page is here

Summertime is published by Orion. It’s also out in the US as Under a Dark Summer Sky.

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