Randy Wayne White, 2019 Lifetime Literary Award Winner
Randy Wayne White’s
This former fishing guide rides the changing tide to
literary success with best-selling Doc Ford crime novels
Randy Wayne White spent 13 years working as a full-time fishing guide out of Tarpon Bay Marina on Sanibel. He was on the water 300 days a year and had more than 3,000 paid charters when it all came to a sudden halt.
It was 1987 and government regulators closed Tarpon Bay to power boats. White found himself suddenly out of work, with a wife and young kids to support. “So I wrote a novel,” he says. “It was a great, yet terrifying opportunity.”
And one that would change his life.
White had already written numerous freelance articles for national publications and cranked out 18 crime novels in his spare time, all of them quickie books-for-hire under pen names. “The longest any of these books took me to write — on an old Underwood typewriter — was four weeks, always at night before charters,” he recalls. “It was frustrating. I wanted to write books that would sell, but were also literate and literary.”
Three years after the marina closed, White published Sanibel Flats, featuring Doc Ford, a former government agent turned biologist living on Sanibel.
It was a hit. White would go on to write 24 more Doc Ford crime novels. His books have not only been New York Times best-sellers but widely praised for their vivid descriptions of Florida. He has been called “a wonderful writer” by the writer Paul Theroux and “a fine storyteller” by Peter Matthiessen, the noted Florida author and fellow fishing guide. White has won the John D. MacDonald Award for Literary Excellence, and the Conch Republic Prize for Literature.
And now White is co-recipient of the Florida Humanities Council’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award. “It still hasn’t hit me, the enormity of it,” says White, 69. “My grandchildren will know it’s a big deal. I’m very honored.”
White grew up in Ohio and was working as a lineman and phone installer in the Midwest in the early 1970s when he decided he wanted to be a reporter. He started calling newspapers in the South. “No respectable newspaper would hire someone with no experience or credentials,” he says. “I didn’t go to college at all. I had nothing.”
Somehow he talked his way into a job as a copy editor at the Fort Myers News-Press, even though he was (and still is, he says) a “terrible speller.” He started writing feature stories for the paper in his spare time and soon was given his own column. He started working part-time as a fishing guide and eventually quit the newspaper to be a guide full time.
He kept writing, though, and one day submitted an unsolicited story to Outside magazine about a canoe trip from Pine Island to Key West. The story was rejected, but the editor liked it enough to ask him to write about “backcountry Florida, the Everglades to the Keys.” He would go on to become a contributing editor for Outside.
His magazine writing has taken him all over the world, but Florida remains a source of endless fascination. “Florida is just rich and alive,” White says. “I love roaming the backcountry areas of Florida and trying to record that original Florida voice …. If I lived to be 300 I would never run out
White started writing while living in an old house on Pine Island, just north of Sanibel, on land where Calusa Indians once lived, “a remote place with an uninterrupted sense of history that reaches back thousands of years…I would remind myself that in that precise intersection people have been telling stories for at least 4,000 years,” he says.
He still owns the house and visits often, but his success draws fans who want to see the cracker house where the famous writer lives. So he now lives in nearby Sanibel with his singer-songwriter wife, Wendy Webb. He has two grown sons, Lee and Rogan.
By now he has written 50 books and countless magazine pieces for national publications and has launched a new series of young adult fiction. But it’s still a battle every time he sits down to write. “It never gets easier,” he says. “It’s just one terrifying freaking day after another.” Still, he writes every day. “Seven days a week, no matter where I am,” he says. “Once you get a hold of a storyline, if you take a break for three or four days you’re in trouble.”
An idea for a story usually starts with a place and grows from there. “I wish I could do outlines,” he says. “Rarely do I know an ending.” His stories feature adventure, exploration, history and spirituality. And finely etched, often quirky characters. “I write lengthy bios of all the characters,” he says. “I want to know them better than any reader will ever know them.” And White is his toughest critic. He once threw away 33,000 words of a Doc Ford novel.
He’s also an adventurer. During the Mariel boatlift of 1980, White piloted a 55-foot boat to Cuba. He had planned to pick up the aunt of a Cuban-American friend but wound up returning with 147 refugees, jammed elbow to elbow. Another time, he was on an assignment in Colombia when he met some pepper growers. He wound up buying peppers they couldn’t sell to make his own line of Doc Ford’s hot sauce. The hot sauce led to another venture: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill, a seafood restaurant first in Sanibel and now with locations in Fort Myers Beach and Captiva. He figured getting involved in a restaurant would be a good way to sell hot sauce. Soon a fourth location will open in downtown St. Petersburg. “I have yet to make a cent on the hot sauce,” he says with a laugh.
With his long sense of history, White is optimistic about Florida’s future. “Florida is a liquid creature and it’s a very tough place, very resilient,” he says. “I think the state of Florida is going to be just fine. I don’t share the apocalyptic view of many people. Florida has survived human habitation and manipulation for 12,000 years. Florida is a survivor.”
So is White. He has survived every terrifying day of writing and returned the next day for more. He’s now working on his 26th Doc Ford mystery. It is set in Sanibel.
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