Swimsuit models and the mafia define L.L. Kirchner's debut novel Florida Girls | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Swimsuit models and the mafia define L.L. Kirchner's debut novel Florida Girls

click to enlarge Swimsuit models and the mafia define L.L. Kirchner's debut novel Florida Girls
Photo: Courtesy of L.L. Kirchner
Florida Girls author L.L. Kirchner
L.L. Kirchner was raised in Pittsburgh but now lives in Florida, a state that has already influenced her writing. The author, who previously published two memoirs, recently released her debut novel Florida Girls (Lila Books). The story was inspired by an old newspaper photo featuring two lines of women — one from California, the other Floridians — dressed in vintage 1940s bathing suits. An accompanying article noted that the Florida women were from St. Petersburg, where Kirchner now resides, and were sponsored by a drugstore owner from the Sunshine State.

“Basically, he hired these teenagers to model fashions in a drugstore, he said, to combat juvenile delinquency,” Kirchner tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “Officially they were called the eight luckiest and loveliest high school girls in the world.”

From that image sprung Florida Girls, a more nuanced and decidedly less creepy story than its source. Kirchner crafts a wickedly inventive novel that is both comic and manic, as a group of young women, led by 18-year-old Thelma Miles, tours the country on a liberty bond tour as World War II winds down. Kathleen Young shepherds the troupe across the country, intending to get her ill, mob-connected, drugstore-owning husband to the healing weather of California. 

One of the elements that gives Florida Girls a veneer of authenticity is its dialogue. There’s a sense that any audiobook version would sound like a scene between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart from one of their vintage films.

The book’s language was partially inspired by Kirchner’s late grandmother, whose voice she channeled while writing. She also relied on material about jazz musicians and their apparent penchant for a particular four-syllable expletive — "motherfucker," to be precise — which is uttered in a club during the tour.

“Jazz musicians used that word well before this era,” she says, “even though that wouldn’t have been a common word.”

Kirchner had about 30,000 words written when she changed the story's direction.

“I was writing it from the point of view of the men, not the women,” she says. “I was thinking about this person who would run this drugstore and the political deals he would make. I had a pretty good start on a completely different book.”

In the first narrative, when D-Day occurred, Kirchner wrote a section from Kathleen’s point of view. The tenor of the book irrevocably changed.

“I started writing from the perspective of other people, and I realized this is where the story is,” Kirchner says. “And it’s not about the war and the men who did this and this and that and the other.”

Her writing career, and ability to pivot, is a byproduct of keen observations and a life of adjusting career objectives. Kirchner once served as the marketing director for the Carnegie Mellon University Qatar campus, where she noticed how the aroma from a Starbucks clashed with ceremonial incense and the oddity of a Victoria’s Secret store being passed by women clothed from head to toe.

After moving to New York City to pursue a career in print journalism, Kirchner instead wrote several one-woman shows and plays that were staged in the city, and wrote and acted in a short film, My Dinner with Steve.

While writing Florida Girls over the pandemic, Kirchner focused on the women characters, who proved to be more interesting and compelling. The story gradually expanded from a stand-alone to a forthcoming three-book series called The Queenpin Chronicles.

“I realized at the end … there’s more to say because it really deals with issues, I think, that are happening today between women’s rights, between corruption and government,” Kirchner says.