What era would you choose to tell a story about the City Beautiful? In the beginning, 1838, when Fort Gatlin was built? Right before the turn of the 20th century as Orlando was officially established and served as the focal point for Florida’s citrus industry? Maybe between 1963 with the founding of the University of Central Florida and 1971 with the opening of Walt Disney World?
Any of these options would be rife with good stories that set an identity for Orlando. For Nathan Holic, who bought a house right before the Great Recession, the summer of 2009 was the right period for his second full-length novel, and his first published by Orlando’s Burrow Press.
“Bright Lights, Medium-sized City” starts with a choose-your-own-adventure story, letting readers control the actions of house-flipper Marc Turner as he processes his dire financial straits at a Lake Eola wine bar.
“I bought a house right before the crash,” said Holic, who moved to Central Florida around the turn of the century to attend college. “I finally started to feel like a part of Orlando after never really living anywhere more than five years before that.”
Holic says seeing for sale and foreclosure signs up and down the streets of his neighborhood made him wonder if the city could recover. At the same time, he was, like many fans, following every move of the NBA Finals–bound Magic.
“It felt very precarious,” Holic said. “And yet, at the same time, we have the coolest team in the NBA. The future might have fallen out when it comes to the housing market, but we were all very behind that team.”
Holic says he set out to create a city novel in the style of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe and “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney. A human story with the urban setting fleshed out just as much as any character.
“There’s an article Tom Wolfe wrote in Harper’s called “Stalking the billion-footed beast,” a manifesto where he challenges American novelists to focus on American cities,” Holic said, citing another source of inspiration. “Write big books looking at how people move through conflicts that are involved in living in a city and working in the city. I thought that was interesting, and I took up that call.”
To write an Orlando book, Holic wanted to touch on very specific details, not just the surface level attributes people easily associate with Orlando. So while Lake Eola, the Magic, Dwight Howard and Disney make appearances, so do settings like Mills Avenue, the Social, Bithlo and Beefy King.
“That was how I approached the book,” Holic said. “I’m going to populate it with so much real Orlando, that Orlando becomes a real place.”
Burrow Press publisher Ryan Rivas, who also served as the editor for the book, agrees.
“The Orlando-centricness of the project was what drew me to it in the first place, so no there was never too much Orlando,” he said.
Burrow Press is an independent publisher in Orlando and one of only a few literary publishers in Florida. Along with “Bright Lights,” it also released “Venus in Retrograde” by Orlando Poet Laureate Susan Lilley earlier this year.
“This has been our most Florida year in terms of print books,” Rivas said. “Our third book is a post-apocalytpic surrealist mashup set in Tampa. But we publish Florida-focused work year-round in order to hopefully expand the boundaries of what Florida literature can be.”
Holic, who also teaches writing courses at UCF, is on board for more stories from the sunshine state.
“I think people will start to realize that this area has a lot of inherent conflict in it,” Holic said. “We can write another book or set another TV show in New York, but most of those stories have been told already.”
The entertainment industry seems to be coming to that conclusion as well.
“Fresh Off the Boat,” a sitcom about a Taiwanese-American family who moves to Orlando and struggles with its identity, debuted in 2015 and continues to air on ABC. “The Florida Project,” a movie that focuses on Kissimmee residents and their lives outside of the happiest place on earth, was released in 2017 to critical praise and accolades. And “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is a dark comedy about a minimum wage employee conning her way into a pyramid scheme empire. That show premiered in August on Showtime.
While very different in subject matter, the stories share more than Orlando as a common setting.
“I think Florida, in general, is ripe for fiction because of its extreme dichotomies,” Rivas said. “Rich and poor, natural and manmade, permanence and impermanence, fantasy and reality. And no matter who your characters are, the land is always creeping in one way or another, imposing itself on the story.”
You can preorder “Bright Lights, Medium-sized City” at burrowpress.com. It comes out on December 10th, 2019.