The Veins Of The Ocean Plumbs The Depths of Florida's Beauty, Pain and Sea

May 17, 2017

Patricia Engel's latest novel is out in paperback this week.
Credit Grove Atlantic

Patricia Engel has the extremely familiar story of having come to Miami for what she thought would be a year -- 13 years ago.

She came from New York (after growing up in New Jersey) for graduate school at Florida International University (FIU), and in the years that followed, South Florida took hold of her, something fierce. That's reflected in her latest novel, The Veins of the Ocean (Grove Atlantic), which came out this week in paperback. The book is steeped in the culture and complexity of Miami and the Keys, with themes that include water, invasive species, the Everglades, dolphins in captivity, Florida's death penalty ("the accident of geography," the story's narrator calls it), and immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean. Tomorrow (Thursday, May 18), she'll be discussing the novel at Books & Books in Coral Gables

You can listen to our interview here or read it below.

 I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that it opens with a really dramatic and tragic event that sets the stage for the rest of the story. 

I think we can we can say what it is without giving much away:  A baby is being tossed off a bridge into Biscayne Bay. And that all started with a little story that my mother told me once when we were driving together. Out of nowhere she pointed to a bridge, and she said, "Oh, a long time ago a man threw a baby off of that bridge." And I was just shaken by that. I couldn't believe it, but she didn't have any details -- what happened or why or what happened afterwards. She just knew that much.

Patricia Engel
Credit Nina Subin

And years after I heard that little anecdote, I wrote a short story called "The Bridge." So the story was published in 2009 or so by The Atlantic. And I went on to write other things. I published my first book, "Vida," and I published another novel called "It's Not Love, It's Just Paris," but that story always stayed with me in a way that other stories have not. And so I knew that I would have to come back to it and write the rest of that narrator's story. 

 I remember interviewing you shortly after your first book of short stories, "Vida," came out, and there were a couple of stories that were set in Miami, but this novel ... feels like it goes so much deeper into this place and into its complexities. Is that a function of you living here for a long time now? 

I think so. I moved to Florida 13 years ago from New York, and before that I was living in New Jersey, and I spent some time in Paris. Moving here and living so close to the ocean was entirely new for me, and I'm totally in love with the ocean and have a very romantic perspective of it probably, compared to people who've grown up beside the ocean all their lives. So ... I wanted to write about people who live all their lives by the sea, and how does that make them different? How does that inform their perspective on the world? 

 A lot of this story actually takes place under the water. Did you spend a lot of time underwater to write those sections, and did you do those freediving breathing exercises? 

I did. The sport of freediving, which is breath-hold diving or scuba without tanks, figures pretty prominently in the plot of the story. And I'd already been a scuba diver. I became a certified freediver as well, and I went through the whole thing of taking a boat out into the middle of nowhere in the ocean and just throwing myself in the water with nothing, holding my breath and trying to go as far down as I could. 

What did that feel like? 

It's kind of a mix of this astonishing solitude, but at the same time it's so comfortable. When you're out in the ocean you can't see land, you can't see anything, and you realize how alone you really are, right? How defenseless we really are in this world. But at the same time it's OK. 

 How long did you stay under for and how how deep did you go? 

I can't remember my numbers exactly, but I could probably hold my breath like three minutes or so. 

Wow. I'm getting a little out of breath listening to you describe that. ... There's a scene where there are some migrants who've come ashore and are making their way through mangroves. And you write: They probably weren't Cubans though, or the police wouldn't be trying to smoke them out of the park like this.  So you hit upon the "wet foot, dry foot" policy

Yes. Once, long before I lived here, when I was growing up, I was here on vacation and some migrants landed, and there was the whole thing with the helicopters circling overhead and the dogs, and I remember ... this hysteria. And I later found out that they were Haitians -- as opposed to other times when you've seen migrants show up on Florida's shores, and they're greeted with celebration. 

It [the novel] starts off in South Florida and then moves into the Florida Keys. There are forays into Cuba, where I spent a lot of time doing research, and also on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

And you have Colombian roots, right? 

Yes, both my parents are Colombian. My father migrated with most of his family, so I can't say that it was lonely, but there was always this sense of what was left behind. What was lost. And it's almost as if you're living a parallel life, this new life here, which roots are very shallow, and all the deeper roots have just been severed in the other country. 

When you first imagined writing this book, did you intend it to be so steeped in the experience of Miami and the Keys? 

Yes. I'm always writing for the people who know a place better than I do. And because I'm not from here -- well, I'm kind of from here now -- but I love South Florida so, so much that I just wanted to write it so that the people who know it better than I do could read it and think that maybe I got it right.