December 22, 2014
Patrick Smith is a 'Florida Icon'

Photo: Norma Lopez Molina

Death doesn't scare me. I've been hit so hard by what's got me in this bed that I'm not afraid anymore.

Florida Trend's 'Icon' Series

Patrick Smith is a 'Florida Icon'

Author, Merritt Island; age 85

Art Levy | 9/16/2013

» Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings — I wrote my master’s thesis in college on her — she was a tremendous writer, but her novels usually covered one year and that’s it. I wrote ‘A Land Remembered’ because I wanted to try to picture life here in Florida over a long period of time. I don’t think anyone else had attempted a novel that covered more than 100 years of Florida.

» I was what was called a moonlight writer. That’s some guy who works all day and then writes at night. It’s a hard way to write. You give up a lot. You have to have the urge.

» If I could get out of this bed, I’d like to write a novel about the Indian River Lagoon. It’s a waterway that they say is dying. If it would actually die, it would affect not just the wildlife, not just the fish, but everyone.

» I met James Meredith a long time ago. I was working for the University of Mississippi in public relations, and he was the first black student. I escorted him to class for the first two or three weeks until things settled down. It was an unusual time. I’ll say that. My main duty was just to keep the reporters from following him, trying to interview him or go in the classroom. There were a lot of unpleasant things that happened, and I just prefer not to dwell on it or even try to remember it.

» To me, accuracy is the most important part of writing. A lot of writers, accuracy doesn’t bother them very much. If they make a big mistake, they just say, ‘oh, this is fiction,’ but I always tried to write accurately and create a picture of life as it really is and people and things as they really are.

» The canal behind my house is a playground for manatees.

» That’s one of the things that young people who have read ‘A Land Remembered’ question me about: Why does everybody have to die? They don’t ever want anyone to die! But people die, especially in pioneer Florida.

» In the last 20 years, people have become much more conscious in Florida about the environment. It’s not rampant destruction like it used to be. Thank goodness.

» I went down through the Big Cypress Swamp one time and saw all these little chickee huts. It’s very unusual to see people living that way. I had an idea I wanted to write something set down there close to the Everglades, so I was just looking around. That turned into my novel ‘Forever Island.’

» I’ve got a copy right here of a Carl Hiaasen book that he wrote not too long ago. I don’t have anything bad at all to say about Carl’s writing or any of the others, but some of them you know are satire. And when people want to read writing about real people, they want something different from satire.

» Buddy Ebsen was a big fan of ‘A Land Remembered.’ We talked by telephone about it several times, and then one day he just flew here from California, landed in Orlando, rented a car and drove over here. He wanted to talk about everything in it. My wife, Iris, took a picture of him, but she cut off the top of his head.

» We had a 19-foot fleetwing boat we kept behind the house here in that canal. We used to go out in the ocean in that thing and up and down the Indian River. I loved it.

» Researching the book, I had to read about a dozen books I guess about specific things that happened in Florida, like that great freeze of 1895. You can’t just dream that up, you know. I had a lot of old-timers, old pioneer people, tell me stories. I’d sit down and talk to them. They’d tell me about living through those swarms of mosquitos and alligators and all kinds of things. ‘A Land Remembered’ is not based on a real family. It’s based on a dozen real families.

» Down in Lake Wales, I love that Chalet Suzanne. Every time I got to that part of the state, I went by there and spent the night.

» An article in the Miami Herald got me interested in migrant workers. They had arrested one of these independent contractors for enslaving people, and no one would testify against him in court. When I was researching ‘Angel City,’ the novel I wrote about a migrant family, I went down to Homestead and posed as a migrant and lived in the camps. I picked tomatoes and squash and all that kind of stuff. I had to know what it was like.

» In the pioneer days, family was everything. Nothing mattered but family. Everybody wanted to do their part of the work. It’s not that way anymore.

» Right here in Brevard County, up there next to NASA, there’s that 140,000-acre Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. And that’s being done more and more in places around Florida, taking endangered lands and making them wildlife sanctuaries.

» They were supposed to give me that Great Floridian award in Tallahassee, but I couldn’t get up there, so the governor came here. It’s not every day you have the governor walk in your house.

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