Inside the writer’s life
Four of this year’s Florida Book Award gold medalists tell the tale of the inspirations, challenges and rewards of practicing their craft
By Colette Bancroft
Fom Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston and John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen, Edwidge Danticat and Craig Pittman, Florida has long been a rich source of material for writers of all kinds.
The Florida Book Awards were founded in 2006 to honor the best of the many books about the state and by Florida authors. The 2019 field included more than 175 entries in 11 categories, and 23 winners were announced in March.
Four of the 2019 gold medalists talked with FORUM about the inspiration, challenges and joys of their work. Jaquira Diaz of Miami Beach won in the general nonfiction category for her debut book, the memoir Ordinary Girls. (Later in March, Diaz was named one of 10 winners of the Whiting Award for emerging writers, which carries a prize of $50,000.)
Fort Myers resident Trish Doller took the Florida Book Awards gold medal in the young adult category for her novel, Start Here. The gold for poetry went to Maureen Seaton of Coral Gables for Sweet World. Paul Wilborn of St. Petersburg received the top prize for general fiction for his short-story collection, Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto.
How important an influence has Florida been on your writing, and on your winning book in particular?
Florida, particularly Miami, made me the kind of writer I am. My work is always rooted in place, and Ordinary Girls is (in part) about growing up in Miami, about navigating the kind of girlhood that was specific to 1980s and 1990s Miami Beach. While writing Ordinary Girls, I was always thinking about Florida’s history and culture, thinking about what was happening in our community, in the larger world, and especially my place in Miami Beach, and in Florida. To say that Florida is a strange place is an understatement. There’s strange, and then there’s Florida strange. I always see it in the work of other Florida writers, this fierce, ridiculous love/hate of this beautiful, — up place we call home. Most of us who write in or about Florida share this weird understanding that there’s absolutely no place like it. Of course it’s important. How could it not be?
I’ve always found success writing about worlds I know. My first awards came from newspaper stories based on events in Tampa where I was based for the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. During my time at both papers I also had the luxury of roaming Florida and finding stories around the state. At that time, Carl Hiaasen was just starting to write his books and Florida books were very much NOT a thing. So I never thought of Florida writing as a genre. I just knew there were great stories out there.
While I was living it, I didn’t think about Ybor City and my days there from the late ‘70s to the end of the ‘80s as material. It was more of my social life, my artistic life, but it wasn’t something I wrote about as a journalist. Looking back I realized it was another one of those collisions. Old Ybor was fading and new Ybor, in the form of artists, writers, musicians, actors, etc., was moving in. I think every story in the book, at some point, makes reference to that collision of old and new. I used to think real writers lived in New York or San Francisco or Paris, but I’m very much at peace with the idea that Florida is my canvas. There’s no shortage of subjects. It’s a great place to be a writer today.
Florida has had a major influence on my writing. Nearly all of my books are either completely set in the state, or have a portion of the story take place in Florida. When I was mapping out the route that Willa and Taylor would take in Start Here, it made geographical sense to have Key West as their final destination. But when I wrote the last chapter, I realized Key West was the perfect place for their story to end.
I’ve written more than half of my poetry collections, both solo and collaborative, in South Florida. In fact, two of my three personal favorites seemed to come walking out of the Atlantic or the Gulf. Sweet World is one of them. Coming back to Miami after a year of cancer treatment in Colorado was one of the best feelings in the world. I’ve lived in Florida since 2002. Not a long time, I know, but I’ve written in and about it daily. I’ve collaborated with its artists and poets, my students, colleagues, and neighbors. Sweet World wouldn’t be possible without Floridians (from all over the world) who love me (and I them). I wrote most of it in Miami beside flame trees and banyans. How lucky am I!
What kind of reaction has your book received from readers?
I’ve gotten a lot of fan mail from readers who see themselves reflected in either Willa or Taylor — or both. Readers seem to like the focus on how complicated friendship between girls can be, and because there aren’t a lot of young adult novels set on boats, they also like the nautical twist on the classic road trip.
Sweet World has captured hearts, I think, because of its subject matter. So many of us have lost loved ones to cancer or dealt with it ourselves, and my book offers a kind of light in the midst of all of that. I know of poetry teachers who have included it in their courses at both FIU and Miami Dade College, and they’ve told me that their students relate well to it, which makes me both happy and terribly sad. There’s a lot of humor (I can’t help it when the joke seems to be on me and involves death and Western medicine) and there is also a lot of love in the book. My editor at CavanKerry Press, Joan Cusack Handler, insisted I take myself and cancer seriously at least in some of the poems, and I’m really glad I did. I think there’s the right mix of humor and heart because of Joan’s input. It was tricky for me, but my readers appreciate it.
The response has been gratifying in so many ways. My readings have been packed. The book was featured on the front page of the Floridian (section of the Tampa Bay Times), with an excerpt inside. How often does that happen? My publisher is very happy with our sales. Winning the gold medal was more than I ever imagined. My goal was just to get the book published. My fear was that people wouldn’t like it. That the reviews would be bad. But it’s been a positive experience in all ways.
Readers have been so generous. I hear from a lot of readers, mostly women, who write just to say “Thank you,” to say that they felt seen. They’ve written to say that they lived through similar trauma, or with a parent who suffered from mental illness or addiction, or that they grew up poor, or that they didn’t have food at home and their only meal of the day was the free lunch they got at school, and that it’s life-affirming to read a book that depicts the kind of life they lived. Those are the ones that stay with me, the ones that write just to say, “Thank you,” because I wrote this book for them.
Who or what most shaped you as a writer?
My journalism career taught me so much about writing and researching. I loved to go inside people’s worlds and immerse myself there and come out with a truthful, well-told story. It wasn’t that much of a leap from making a real character vivid in a newspaper feature to bringing a fictional character to life. And the real characters I met along the way have informed the fictional ones I’m creating now.
The other thing that shaped me was reading. I’ve always been a reader and I read thinking about that writer staring at an empty page and bringing this world and these characters to life. Finally, I have to mention my father, Boyd Wilborn. He was never without a book – he generally went through three or four a week – and he was a good speaker and a good writer, though he didn’t do either as his career. He was a school administrator.
Black and brown and Latina women. Starting with my abuela, the black Puerto Rican woman who raised me, to every single one of my girls (the “ordinary girls” I wrote about in the book, the women who saved me), to the women writers who came before me, who paved the way. I am always aware that there would be no Ordinary Girls without all of the Puerto Rican writers writing in Spanish, in English, bilingual writers. I wouldn’t have this language if not for my abuela’s Español jíbaro. There would be no Jaquira Díaz if we’d never had Esmeralda Santiago, or Judith Ortíz Cofer, or Mayra Santos-Febres, or Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. I am indebted to them, and to all the Boricuas who came before me.
I don’t think I would have become a writer if I hadn’t been a reader first. My mom nurtured my early interest in reading and as I grew older, I fell in love with words. I started writing for myself, but working as a newspaper reporter gave me the confidence to write with an eye toward publication. Even after writing six novels, I always return to reading — especially outside my genre and comfort zone — as a way to grow and improve as a writer.
Oh my goodness. The hardest question. My Irish grandmother, the nuns, a million books, my two kids, and then, when I finally started writing poetry in my thirties after a surprise divorce, my three biggest contemporary influences were Marilyn Hacker, Ntozake Shange, and Robert Hass. My personal Holy Trinity of Poetry.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in writing your book?
Because Start Here is set aboard a boat, it was a challenge to figure out where Willa and Taylor would land at the end of each day. I had to factor how many hours it would take for them to get from one place to another, then research the locations for interesting or exciting things to do. I mapped out their route several times before I finally settled on the one that worked best.
Having confidence that I could write fiction. I loved the stories and the characters, but in the back of my mind I was fearful that others might not love them as much. I knew I could write non-fiction, but would my fiction be good enough? At one point I thought I might need to self-publish the book and I applied for a local grant for “emerging artists.” The grant panel – which included one writing professor – had nothing good to say about my early stories. At the same time, I was getting rejection notices for stories I’d submitted to literary contests and magazines. As I was grappling with all that I got an email that one of my stories had earned an “honorable mention” in a major contest. It didn’t win, but it had made the cut. That gave me the courage to move forward.
Poverty. I had to work full time to pay the bills while I was a college student, so it took me four years to get a two-year degree, and then another three years to get a bachelor’s, and then another three years to get an MFA. I couldn’t write full time because I had to support myself. This is one of the reasons the book took 12 years to finish. It’s only now, after all these years, that I can afford to write full time, but I still have to supplement my writing income with teaching and speaking gigs.
I’d have to say channeling my powerlessness over cancer into art. I’ve always written poems with the hope of lightening one hard thought or burden in someone who needs it, even just to find a way to relate, human to human. The last thing I wanted to write was a book about having cancer, believe me. But I couldn’t help it. And now, of course, I’m glad I did.
About the Florida Book Awards
The Florida Book Awards program is coordinated by the Florida State University Libraries and co-sponsored by the State Library and Archives of Florida, Florida Humanities, Florida Literary Arts Coalition, Florida Library Association, Friends of the Florida State University Libraries, Florida Writers Association and the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
The judges may award up to three medals (gold, silver, bronze) in each category. Eligible authors must be Florida residents, except in the nonfiction and visual arts categories, where the subject matter must focus on Florida. Find a complete list of 2019 winners at floridabookawards.lib.fsu.edu.
In the past, the state has honored the book award winners at a banquet in Tallahassee in April. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s banquet was cancelled, according to Hope Miller, communications director for the Florida Book Awards. “In order to fully acknowledge the winners of this year’s competition,” she wrote, “we are going to celebrate them during next year’s awards banquet by having a combined ceremony.”
Colette Bancroft has been on the staff of The Tampa Bay Times since 1997 and its book editor since 2007. She directs the annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Before joining the Times, she was a writer and editor at the Arizona Daily Star. She earned degrees in English from the University of South Florida and the University of Florida and taught at universities in Florida and Arizona. Bancroft grew up in Tampa and lives in St. Petersburg.
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