This weekend, I had the absolute honor of reading a book by Florida State University professor, Dr. JR Harding.
JR is a hell of a man, with quite the story to tell. I recommend it to anyone.
Lee Corso from ESPN called it “a great read and story about a determined young man. An inspiration to us all. A MUST READ when your feeling sorry for yourself.”
You can order it here and learn how his life changed tragically at 16 and so much more.
I have been reading at a higher clip than normal (for obvious reasons), as I am sure most of you have.
JR’s story was a nice break from the Star Wars-CJ BOX-Cussler run I have been on. I’d love to say I’ve been reading Nietzsche, Twain, Poe, etc., not so much, just lots of entertaining stories from writers I enjoy.
However, JR’s book was a reminder that there are writers all over Florida with interesting stories to tell; they could use our support.
Time for the Sunshine State literary tour, and if I were a full-time writer, I would jump in the car and start my journey in the Keys. But this week, it’s not in the cards.
So, we will keep our stops virtual and see where it leads us.
We have all heard of Florida writers Jimmy Buffet and Elmore Leonard, I’ve read their works.
But do you remember “Alas Babylon” by Pat Frank?
It’s one of the first post-apocalypse novels — before the genre became huge. If you have not read it, dive in. It’s also set in Florida in the fictional town of Fort Repose and written in 1959.
Did you know Jack Kerouac wrote a book — “The Dharma Bums” — while living in Orlando?
Florida is so ripe with such a huge army of novelists and writers, so for the meat and potatoes of this column, we will focus on one of the superstars.
Have you read the works of Jeff VanderMeer? He is a New York Times bestselling author who the New Yorker calls “the weird Thoreau.”
Jeff published his first short story at age 14, and his book, Annihilation, was made into a movie by Paramount in 2018. I saw it; it’s wild.
They live in Tallahassee with their cat NEO (who apparently is famous too), so I thought I would reach out and see what Jeff, one of our state’s greatest writers, is up to via a virtual sit down.
What got you into writing?
I was into bird watching growing up in Fiji as a kid and eventually found some of Aesop’s fables about birds and wanted to tell my own. Family life wasn’t always great, so I think I also started writing stories and poems as an escape — and as a way of processing growing up overseas. As I got older, I found I really had to write fiction. I love to tell stories, and I love to get immersed in the characters and settings I’m creating.
What was your proudest career achievement?
Great question. I don’t know. I always just wanted to at least see my book in bookstores. I used to joke that once I saw my book remaindered in a bookstore, I’d know I’d at least been in the game. But probably the biggest achievement, the one that set up everything else, was being persistent trying to get my novels set in the fantastical city of Ambergris published. It was a long road, and I went from self-published, to published by small presses, to published by large commercial and now prestige NY publishing houses. So at least recently, seeing Farrar, Straus and Giroux reprint all the Ambergris books in one massive hardcover volume was very special.
What was the experience of Hollywood like with Annihilation?
No comment? Heh. Well, I sure learned a lot about the process, and I’m happily applying that to working with AMC on the Borne novel adaptations and with Netflix on adapting the forthcoming novel Hummingbird Salamander. I guess, as with anything else, unless you’ve been through it once, you can’t really figure out how to be of use or where and when to provide input. But I was happy so many people who saw the movie first liked the book, too.
What do you love about living in Florida?
We are blessed with amazing wilderness, even within city limits, and I hope we all value that enough to preserve it for future generations. I don’t know if we realize how special North Florida is and how we have so much wildlife and birds and outdoor resources that a lot of other places don’t. We also have a lot of passionate, wonderful, creative people living here, and I feel very fortunate to know many of them. I guess if I had to say just one thing I love … one of my favorite things is walking under the live oaks in certain neighborhoods or in Elinor-Phipps Park. That’s pretty special.
It was very cool of Jeff to spend some time with us as he works on his next bestseller and TV projects. I’m looking forward to diving into more of Jeff’s work in the coming weeks, as I have learned a lot about him, and there are lots of interesting topics to explore in his novels.
I think I’ll give Sally Bradshaw at Midtown Reader (the best bookstore in Florida) a ring and see if they have Jeff’s novel, Borne, in stock.
We have so many writers here in Florida, getting to support someone by reading what they have created is cool, whether it is Jeff, JR, perhaps my friend Jay Revell and his Golf Book, or satire by my friend Gary Yordon.
The world of books never is too busy for you. When you are ready, you can jump in any time, and these authors in our state are amazing. And, as JR says in his book: When life gets ugly, play to win, always.
Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies, a columnist for several organizations, husband of Jeanne the Fantastic, and host of the Biz & Tech podcast. You can reach him at email@example.com.