Award-Winning Writer Craig Pittman on Sarasota, the Environment and His New Book
You’ve written a number of books, and one of them grew out of a story you did for Sarasota. Tell us about that story and that book.
"The Scent of Scandal" was about a criminal case involving Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. I covered the case for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) and then when it was over I wrote a long piece about it for Sarasota magazine. The story intrigued me because Selby Gardens is known far and wide as a beautiful place full of flowers, and it amazed me that all this strange and ugly human behavior occurred because of one orchid that was brought to Selby for identification. I always like to point out, by the way, that "The Scent of Scandal" is, as far as I know, the only book ever classified as "True Crime/Gardening."
What inspired you to write your new book, Oh, Florida: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country?
Ever since 2000, every time there's a presidential election, the nation gives Florida some serious side-eye, wondering what we're going to do. We are the swingingest of swing states, with 29 electoral votes that are up for grabs. We went for Obama twice, and for Rick Scott twice, and how do you reconcile those two things? So I wanted to write a book that tries to explain Florida to the rest of the country, one that says yes, we're The Punchline State, where lots of weird behavior occurs. But we're also a place where people have done some things that have affected your life, probably without you even realizing it. And along the way I'm hoping to educate some Floridians so they appreciate what a wild, wonderful place this is.
The New York Times just reviewed your book very favorably and praised you as an example of “ the wry newshound whose knowledge of place used to be indispensable to America’s major dailies,” and called the book a “celebration of journalism as well as Florida.” What attracted you to journalism and what do you still love about it today, even in an era when many newspapers are under siege?
I wanted to go into journalism for two reasons. One was that I wanted to learn how to write well, and this seemed like a job where I'd get a lot of practice. The other was because I am always curious about how and why things happen, and reporters get to ask those kinds of nosy questions all the time, particularly of politicians and bureaucrats. I once followed a popular Florida politician into a men's room after a speech to ask him a question he didn't like. That was one of the most satisfying days of my career.
You are an award-winning environmental journalist in a state where the environment seems constantly at risk. What keeps you up at night about that? What would you like politicians and officials to understand about the environment in our state?
I have the greatest beat in American journalism, because I get paid to go out and ride around on boats, tromp through swamps and hike through forests. Nothing keeps me up at night. I'm too tired from chasing after all the questions I have to ever suffer from insomnia. Covering the environment in Florida is like being given access to a dessert bar that stretches to infinity. You've got lots of choices and you have to make them count--today Key lime pie, tomorrow tiramisu and so forth. I guess the thing that a lot of people have figured out, but not all the politicians, is that in Florida the environment IS the economy. You screw up one of them and it's going to screw up the other. Just ask the folks who were running hotels and charter fishing businesses along the Panhandle coast during the 2010 oil spill, or the marinas and other waterfront businesses in Stuart during the 2016 toxic algae bloom.
Your Facebook and Twitter feeds are so much fun and so informative, too. How do you view those platforms and how have they changed the way you do journalism?
I have different goals with those. Facebook is my daily writing exercise, where I take a little slice out of what I saw and did that day, and try to make it something people will find mildly amusing. My Twitter feed, though, is more ambitious. I'm trying to convey the daily reality of life in Florida by building it up out of all the various stories going on that day. I really enjoy the back-and-forth with my Facebook friends. It's like a good dinner party where everyone's got something witty to contribute. Twitter is more like having a bullhorn and being in a boat. Sometimes you're yelling into the fog. Sometimes you hear back from someone in another boat. Sometimes you just get an echo. But both of them are important for an author trying to spread the word about his or her work these days. When the New York Times review came out, a dozen different people Tweeted about it, and others posted it on their Facebook pages.
Any anecdotes from the book that involve Sarasota?
My wife is from Sarasota, so it gets a shout out in the chapter on growing up here. Sarasota writer John D. MacDonald gets a cameo in the gambling chapter, and Katherine Harris is in the chapter on politics, of course. There's a mention of Mote Marine and the Ringling Clown College. And in the chapter on the beach, I had to include the Giant Lego Man who washed ashore here. The one really wacky story is about the guy who robbed a convenience store by making his hand into a gun shape and pointing it at the clerk. It worked, by the way.
Florida has changed tremendously during the course of your lifetime. What do you still love about the state? Can you recommend three Florida experiences that every resident should have?
I really enjoy visiting our award-winning state parks, as well as cruising through some of the more picturesque preserves and small towns. Everyone should go see the massive dunes at Topsail Hill State Park, for instance. Everyone should take a swamp walk through the Big Cypress Preserve with photographer Clyde Butcher. Everyone should go eat seafood and stroll around Cedar Key. Everyone should canoe the Hillsborough River and visit the beach on Captiva Island -- but not while I'm there, of course. I want it all to myself.
Oh, Florida!, published by St. Martin’s Press, LLC, costs $26.99. For information on buying the book, click here.