People often ask me about Florida's exploding literary scene and if I have any idea what caused it. Just look around- everywhere there are book fairs, reading festivals, author signings, lecture series featuring celebrities like Cokie Roberts. Barnes and Noble is a home away from home for many of us. (Boy, are those armchairs comfortable; if B&N had any sense they'd sell them.) And there are so many writers here you can hardly shake a stick at them. Just yesterday I had lunch at The Oaks (the country club, not the barbecue joint) and who should be sitting at the very next table but Leslie Glass, creator of April Woo!
I try and be modest, but I do find it interesting that things really started to "take off" good writing-wise about 1985, which happens to be the year I moved here. Coincidence? Or a case of "follow the leader?" I'll let you decide.
Of course, I couldn't presume to take all the credit. Luckily there's plenty to spread around. Take Stuart Kaminsky, for instance. You can't believe how many books he's written-more than 50. I would never do such a thing, as I believe in restricting the supply, which, I have found, serves to make my books all the more precious. Stuart has no such qualms. I saw him in action at the recent Sarasota Reading Festival, and it seemed that everybody in the audience knew the names of all the characters and the details of all the plots. I found this highly unusual, as people in my audience rarely know the names of my books, and there are only two of them.
Stuart, of course, is the nephew of Ida Kaminsky, the great star of the Yiddish theater. In fact, it was Aunt Ida who was largely responsible for young Stuart becoming a writer. He would visit her backstage as she passed through his hometown of Chicago, touring in such classics as "Yetta, the Bialy Girl" and "A Whole Lot of Tsuris." So enthralled was the young lad by the magic of words that he decided to become a writer, right then and there, during the second act of "Just For a Nosh."
If Stuart is the "grand old man" of area writers-always looking professorial in his tweeds, brogues and checks-than I guess you would call Tim Dorsey the Young Turk. Every writer starting off needs a mentor, and I'm sure that Tim would be the first to admit that I was his. As you may know, he also writes articles for this magazine (yes, my idea) and many is the night I have worked late into the wee hours of the morning, delighting in Tim's stimulating prose and trying to wrestle it into good enough shape for publication. True, I was a little surprised at the Florida Magazine Association dinner, where he was named Writer of the Year or some such claptrap, and he did not mention me by name during his acceptance speech. He probably had a lot on his mind, as it is difficult to hold all those trophies and still look graceful. And as for all his comic-noir New Florida crime books- "Hammerhead Ranch Motel," "Orange Crush"-isn't it just amazing how those things just continue to sell and sell? Why, I was on a plane recently and, just to make conversation, I asked the woman next to me what she was reading. It was "Hammerhead Ranch Motel." "I just love him," she exclaimed. "Isn't he great?"
"Yeah, yeah," I replied. "Did you know he drinks?"
Speaking of which, this might be a good time to mention another Sarasota writer, certainly one of the oddest, namely David Warner. David has a very unusual background. He's like the anti-Rick Bragg. Colorful, certainly, with a swagger in his walk and dripping Southern.charm is not really the right word. But instead of coming from a dirt-poor family, he comes from a filthy rich one. His father has a famous art collection. They built their own lake. They are able to do this because they make all the paper bags you see in the supermarkets. You know that offensive odor that pervades much of the South, that sour smell that emanates from paper mills? Well, that's David and his family!
David has a new book out; and I am quite taken with it, as it mentions me several times. It's called "Vanishing Florida," though a better title might be "Vanishing Bars of Florida." Chapter One begins "I'm drinking a beer in Pete's Bar in Neptune Beach"; and if there's a way to get a bar into the story, David figures it out. Actually, it turns out that this is an excellent way to organize the material David has to work with, dealing, as it does, with the Past -childhood vacations in Ponte Vedra Beach, great-grandfathers who were rural sheriffs in the mists of the state's early history, visits to towns that have hardly changed in the past 100 years.
The book also has many chapters on Florida writers. Some are personal reminiscences about authors David has known-John D. MacDonald and Borden Deal, for example; and some are homage-like visits to places important to Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book deals with the movie theater David bought in Sarasota back in 1980. He thought he was going to show art films, but the town just wasn't ready. It was ready for a porno theater, though, and thus the South Trail XXX Cinema was born. By a strange twist of fate, this is where Pee-wee Herman was arrested in 1990, thus making it the most famous porno theater in the United States. Typically, David was in New Mexico at the time, camping in the desert and waiting for a UFO to appear and didn't even find out about it until two weeks later.
For all you old girlfriends of David (and you'd be amazed at how many local women, now well into middle age, David has dated at one time or another) here's the big news-he's found somebody. She's an art dealer and she often appears on "Antiques Roadshow," appraising works of art. She recently found a painting worth millions and was on the "Today" show. Do I think we'll be hearing wedding bells? Who knows? I just hope she likes bars.
And finally, there's the most colorful Sarasota writer of all. I refer, of course, to Lary Crews, or, as he is now known, Lari Crews. I'm sure many of you remember Lary from 10 years ago, when he penned a series of mysteries that took place in Tampa and Sarasota. Many local people and places put in an appearance in Lary's books, and he also wrote for all the local publications. Well, Lary is now living in Burbank, California, where he has a new career-he performs a magic act while dressed as a woman, complete with makeup and heels. He recently got a wonderful gig, doing tricks for people while they stand in line waiting to get into the Jay Leno show. Which just goes to show the big problem when it comes to writing fiction. No matter what you come up with, the truth is always stranger.