One for the books
Florida Book Award winners talk about inspiration, our state, and publishing in a pandemic
By Colette Bancroft
Featured image: “This book was inspired by one of the patients in my therapy practice from many years ago. She was one of my favorites, but I only knew her as a young child. I wanted to sit with her as she grew up, became a teenager, fell in love, etc..” – Stacie Ramey, Richard E. Rice gold medal in young adult books
For the book publishing world, as it was for everyone, 2020 was a very strange year.
Starting in March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic closed bookstores, cancelled author tours and scrambled publication schedules.
But as people stayed home and found more time to read, it eventually proved to be a boom year for book sales. Bookstores filled mail orders, and authors mastered the art of the Zoom interview.
In Florida, our state’s wealth of authors continued to write and publish, and the Florida Book Awards continued the tradition it began in 2006 of honoring their books.
In mid-April, the Florida Book Awards, coordinated by Florida State University Libraries, announced it had awarded gold, silver or bronze medals to 24 books in 10 categories that were published in 2020.
We asked four of the gold medal winners to talk about being a writer in Florida and writing and publishing during a pandemic.
Ward Larsen received the gold medal in popular fiction for Assassin’s Strike, a global political thriller. A former Air Force and airline pilot and federal law enforcement officer, he is the author of 12 books, seven of them Florida Book award winners. He lives in Sarasota.
Silvia López won the Gwen P. Reichart gold medal for young children’s literature for her book Queen of Tejano Music: Selena. Her previous books include Florida Book Award winner Just Right Family and My Little Golden Book About Frida Kahlo. She lives in Miami.
Gerald Posner received the gold medal in general nonfiction for Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America. He is the author of 13 books, 12 of them nonfiction on a wide range of topics. Many of them have been bestsellers, and his book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. Posner lives in Miami.
Stacey Ramey received the Richard E. Rice gold medal for young adult book for her novel It’s My Life. Her other award-winning YA books include The Sister Pact and The Homecoming. She lives in Wellington.
Here are our questions and their answers.
What was the inspiration or spark that led you to write your award-winning book?
LARSEN: My book is part of an ongoing series. I try very hard to keep up with international events, and with the rise of China I’ve been steering the series to project what conflicts might arise in U.S.-Sino relations.
LÓPEZ: I was commissioned to write the book by the publisher, who contacted my agent and asked her to recommend an author. I was thrilled. It was a great opportunity to research and learn more about this performer (Tejano singer Selena), who became an icon to the Latino community and who overcame obstacles to achieve success.
POSNER: An investigative history of the American drug industry was something I had on my writing ‘to do’ list since the late 1990s. As with many potentially good book ideas, however, it took a long time to bring to fruition. I did not turn to it full time until I completed my 2015 history of the finances of the Vatican (God’s Bankers). And it was only when I began the research and reporting in earnest that I discovered it was a far more daunting project than I had envisioned. Its scope and complexity at times seemed insurmountable. There were several “I will never finish this” moments. Pharma is the proof that those bouts of self-doubt and second guessing were misplaced.
RAMEY: This book was inspired by one of the patients in my therapy practice from many years ago. She was one of my favorites, but I only knew her as a young child. I wanted to sit with her as she grew up, became a teenager, fell in love, etc. It’s My Life was the closest I could get to this reality.
As a writer living in Florida, what impact does the state have on your work?
RAMEY: I’ve lived in Florida for the last 36 years. Growing up in Maryland, I always dreamed of living in Florida. Now that it’s a reality for me, I, of course, try to capture the essence of the state in my books. It’s My Life is not set in Florida, but there are scenes from when Jenna’s family visited family here.
POSNER: My wife, author Patricia Posner (The Pharmacist of Auschwitz), and I work together on all research for our books. We like operating in full immersion on a single project at a time. That means we often put on blinders that shut out the rest of the world, becoming quite unsocial and locking ourselves into what we call ‘our book cave’ (our apartment). When we moved from Manhattan to South Florida in 2003, there was an unexpected bit of unanticipated good fortune. When we were in the middle of crashing away on a project in New York, there were days when it was particularly difficult to stay inside our home and stay focused on work. Those were usually the first days of spring, after a long and torturous winter, when there was glorious sunshine and temperatures breaking into the 70s. And the same was true in late autumn, the last few days of decent weather before cold and snow returned. It was always tempting simply to enjoy the good weather outdoors and temporarily forget about the book. In South Florida, all that angst and anxiety about ‘are we missing the few days of best weather’ disappeared. Those worries evaporated in the land of eternal sunshine. The pace and beauty of South Florida is a tonic for our deep dives on book projects.
LÓPEZ: Florida’s history began with Spain, and to this day a broad range of Hispanic cultures are found throughout the state. Living in this state has kept me close to my roots, which are a big part of my writing.
LARSEN: I grew up in Florida, which allowed me to spend a lot of time outdoors. My father was a scuba diver and I became certified myself at an early age, and also spent time sailing the Southwest Florida coast and Keys. All these adventures seem to find their way into my books, and the opportunity to pursue them might not have been available had I not been raised in such a richly diverse state.
What was it like to have your award-winning book published during the coronavirus pandemic, and how did the pandemic affect your writing process during 2020? Do you think that you will write about the pandemic in future books?
LÓPEZ: Selena was going to be featured in several book and literary events, particularly in Texas and Arizona. It would have been the first time I was being invited for presentations out of state. When everything was cancelled, I just kept working on several projects already underway. I think that’s what most writers do. We have been fortunate in our country, in comparison with so many other places in the world, that, despite difficulties, most people have had access to food, shelter, and medical care. Personally, I don’t foresee writing about the pandemic. There are several excellent children’s authors who have done so, and I know there will be more stories told.
POSNER: Publishing into the pandemic was no fun. Pharma was released on March 10. The next day, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. My publisher had to cancel the national book tour it had planned. Some events went virtual in those early days, and others, such as a talk at the Harvard bookstore, were never rescheduled. There was good news and bad news about Pharma and the pandemic. My penultimate chapter is titled “The Coming Pandemic.” It meant the book was on the news radar. The bad news was that bookstores across the country had closed in early March and large online outlets like Amazon prioritized masks and cleaning products, so book deliveries lagged up to several weeks behind orders. I am not certain whether I will write about some aspect of the pandemic in the future.
I normally like to move on to some completely different topic for my next book, so the odds are that if I return to the pandemic, it will be in a long-form magazine piece.
LARSEN: The pandemic had effects both good and bad. The ability to attend book signings and conferences was curtailed, meaning I didn’t have the chance to interact personally with readers. On the other hand, it gave me a lot of free time to sit and write. In one year I wrote two books and a novella — a personal best! I think (my) future books will reflect the pandemic, but I don’t see it being a specific focus in the plots.
RAMEY: There is no question that the events of 2020 have affected my writing in many ways. I’ve lost seminal friends in 2020, and I am sure their spirits will be captured in future books, already in my imagination. I’m not certain about writing about the pandemic in future books, but if I do, it will likely be represented metaphorically.
Who is your favorite Florida writer, or what is your favorite Florida book?
POSNER: It is impossible to pick my favorite Florida author because there are too many good ones. There is an incredibly talented range of established and emerging writers in serious nonfiction to history to novels to poetry. However, I can pick my favorite two books set in Florida, or at least the ones that had an early impact on me. In both Charles Willeford’s masterful Miami Blues and Carl Hiaasen’s farcical Tourist Season, Florida itself was very much the dysfunctional central character. The splendid dark humor of those books hit a chord with Trisha and me. They were why we made our first trip to Florida in the late 1980s and fell in love with the then gritty and slowly gentrifying world of South Beach.
LARSEN: My favorite Florida book would have to be A Land Remembered (by Patrick Smith). A true history lesson on a state that was vastly different a hundred years ago.
LÓPEZ: Rob Sanders, Ruth Vander Zee, and my friend and fellow FBA winner Marta Magellan write wonderful books for younger children. For middle grades and older readers, I’ve always loved books by Cuban-American Cristina Diaz Gonzalez, Carl Hiaasen, and Kate DiCamillo, whose book Because of Winn Dixie is set in Florida.
RAMEY: There are so many talented writers in Florida, it would be impossible to pick just one!
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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