Month: January 2020

Author Interviews: Journalist talks Florida panther at Midtown Reader

Craig Pittman has what he calls the greatest job in American journalism: writing about the environment for The Tampa Bay Times.

“I get paid to go out on a boat,” he enthused. “And Florida has no end to the wacky, weird environmental stuff…”

Known for his “Oh, Florida!” column and a book by the same name, Pittman is a collector of strange stories — the stranger the better.

And typical of his truths-wilder-than-fiction storytelling is the narrative captured in his latest book, “Cat Tale,” about how the Florida panther was brought back from the very brink of extinction.

Pittman will talk and sign his new book at 6 p.m. Friday at Midtown Reader.

“I’ve been writing this book since 1998, but it needed a good ending,” Pittman told me. “That didn’t happen until 2017.”

For the uninitiated, the panther is the official state animal of Florida. Also known as a mountain lion, cougar and puma, the animal has been on the endangered species list since the late 1960s, and for decades scientists (and concerned citizens) watched the population dwindle to about 20 in 1995.

Their return, said Pittman, is probably the greatest endangered species success story, thanks to a Hail Mary attempt by an extraordinarily determined group of people.

“This isn’t just a nature book about big cats,” he explained to me. “This is also about the people — the grizzled old Texas tracker, the veterinarian from the Northwest, the school children who voted to make the panther the state animal.”

In a story that celebrates the twists and turns of the panther’s remarkable recovery and the people who made it possible, Pittman’s love for his state and its wonderful weirdness rings clear. “Cat Tale” is worth the read for the nature, for the history, for the people.

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Author Interview: ‘Running Against the Devil’ author Rick Wilson talks politics at Midtown Reader

The bad boy of Florida’s Republican Party is back, with another fascinating read on politics… although this one could also be characterized as a self-help book for Democrats running in the 2020 Presidential Primary. Rick Wilson, author of “Running Against the Devil,” is hoping his newest book will be seen as a strategic plan for pushing back against the current Republican presidential campaign machine.

“The thing that has surprised me the most is how many Democrats have been receptive to the book,” Wilson told me. “It’s been a shock to me, and kind of a delight.”

Florida politicos know Wilson by name and reputation; he’s been involved in politics for decades, often serving as a hard-hitting consultant for Republican candidates. His somewhat recent foray into writing has allowed him to come out from behind the curtain, in his own words.

“I appreciate being able to be myself,” he said. “I made the decision three years ago to stand by my principles, and ever since then I’ve had an incredibly positive experience.”

He did not, he joked, turn to writing for the money, something his former colleagues sometimes rib him about. But he likes playing the role of teacher and explainer, being able to educate people about the political systems behind the scenes. His first book, “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” was more exposé than instruction manual, which he said was successful because he wasn’t afraid to be a smartass (the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list). “Running” is more about tough love.

“You want to help them,” he mused. “I’m not here to give anyone participation trophies.”

One of the greatest challenges Wilson has faced while writing his books is the struggle to keep them current as publishing deadlines loom and events of significance keep unfolding. For example, the vote to begin the impeachment process against the president happened just after “Running” had already been finalized, and Wilson worked hard (and successfully) to include mention of the monumental development in the final version.

“I always wish I could make one more change, one last edit,” he said. “But then you have to let it be.”

It’s advice which, frankly, probably applies to political campaigns as well.

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.

Author Interview: Author Cassandra King Conroy visits Midtown Reader to talk on ‘My Life with Pat Conroy’

When I told my mom I was interviewing Cassandra King Conroy, wife of the late Pat Conroy, she was jealous, and a little starstruck.

“Oh, honey,” she said on the phone. “How cool!”

(This is how I knew she was starstruck. My mom is not normally so… succinct.)

I was a little dazzled myself, so much so that I called her Ms. King in my email to coordinate the interview. Cue instant mortification.

I apologized profusely when we talked and she laughed it off. Turns out she usually goes by Cassandra King, but her publisher wanted her to add Conroy to her byline for her recent memoir to appeal to her husband’s fans as well as her own.

But Cassandra King Conroy needs no force multiplier; her grace and charm are irresistible, and her talent for storytelling is natural. As a child, she wrote her own stories because she could make them turn out the way she wanted. Her writing career, however, was a little bit less direct.

“Being a writer was something I dreamed of as I was growing up, but I majored in English,” said King Conroy. “We didn’t feel like we had choices; it was not the time when we could be anything we wanted.”

She paused, and then chuckled.

“My mother said, ‘Oh no, young lady, you get a teaching certificate,’” she said. “She told me I needed something to fall back on in case something happened to my husband… I had no husband! But I got the certificate.”

King Conroy used that teaching certificate and raised a family, waiting until her children were older to seriously approach writing. The first piece she was ever paid to publish was a religious poem, although she said she’s a terrible poet. Six successful novels later, she embarked on a project far more personal — “Tell Me A Story,” a memoir of her life with her husband Pat.

The hardest part about writing “Tell Me A Story,” she said, was putting herself in it. Her editor sent the first draft back praising the writing but saying she didn’t feel like she knew King Conroy any better  after reading it.

“I figured that was what she would say, and it’s a valid criticism of a memoir,” King Conroy said. “I’m a very private person, not normally the kind to tell my stories. But if you look at a memoir as a story about what you learned and how your memories affected you, it has to be a little more personal.”

Writing is King Conroy’s form of expression, her way of trying to understand herself and the world. It’s similar, she said, to the way musicians are compelled to make music.

“I can’t not write,” she said emphatically. “It’s so much a part of me, who I am.”

And if that’s your calling she said, you’ll find a way to do it. Even if it takes a little time or a more circuitous route.

This article was first published in the Tallahassee Democrat.