by Art Levy
Updated 4 weeks ago
Writing’s a pain in the ass. Every day, it’s hard. Never had an easy day.
Absurdities make me laugh. My friend (former Boston Red Sox pitcher) Bill Lee makes me laugh a lot.
I worked at the Fort Myers News-Press, which was just a great education. Very positive people. I had no qualifications whatsoever. I was a terrible speller. They put me on the copy desk, which was a bad choice, but I worked very hard at it. It was a morning paper — I worked from about 3 p.m. to 1 in the morning — so during the day I’d go out and write feature stories, which they didn’t pay me for. But what an opportunity. I owe much to the News-Press.
My success, I’m stunned by it. I’m freaking stunned. It’s truly dream-like.
In baseball, I was a catcher. I’m in the High School Hall of Fame in Iowa. I had a couple of college scholarship offers, but my grades were such that I got rejected. Later, I had a legitimate tryout with the Quad City professional team. The guy who ran the tryout took me aside and said: ‘Son, in professional baseball there are five skills you have to have, and you don’t have any of them. You’ve got good hands, and you can handle pitchers, but this ain’t going to work.’ And he was right.
Particularly when it comes to local politics, I find it heartbreaking and also frightening that respected newspapers are disappearing.
I love Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. I don’t know why people don’t like it. It’s nice and cool. Good hot dogs.
Probably the greatest influence in terms of me becoming a writer was just boredom. My brother’s five years older. My sister’s five years younger. The nearest kid my age was probably seven miles by bicycle. And so I started reading books; fell in love with books. I thought in those early years if I could write a book, maybe I could become part of the magic that I found in books. But I never thought I was smart enough.
The first time I swam across Tampa Bay, it was with (late Tampa Bay Times writer) Terry Tomalin. It was on my 50th birthday. We just swam across the bay, and it was illegal then. That’s bull shark country, man.
It took me awhile to become aware of this, but, if I say something, it’s given a lot more credence and credibility than, frankly, I deserve. That means I have to be really careful about what I say — unlike when I’m talking with my baseball buddies. They already know I’m an idiot.
I got stabbed for real. I went down to Peru for Outside magazine to write about taking the highest train trip in the world. The trip went 16,000 feet up into the Andes. There’s this little village, a little silver mining town, where I got off the train, walked around, and some kid helped me in some way, and I gave him some money. When I got to the hotel, I thought: ‘Christ, I only gave him 3 cents,’ so I went out to find him. It had just gotten dark, and I was in the little town square, and there’s music playing, and I’m standing there, and these two guys come up and embrace me. One looks at me and spits right on my boot. I went: ‘You could not have possibly meant to do that.’ But he did. I said: ‘OK, your town,’ and I took off walking down the street. I don’t know if it was the same two guys, but I hear two guys behind me. I look back. They’re moving faster, so I move over. One of them walked up behind me and just stabbed me right in the back. I was wearing a cargo vest, which I still have with blood stains on it. I had a notebook in the back of the vest, and the knife went clear through the notebook. I hit him. I hit him hard. I knocked him to the street, and he looked up at me like I was Superman.
Florida has always been a carny state and, to a degree, a con man state.
I’m occasionally funny. I’m no Dave Barry. I’m no Carl Hiaasen. Carl’s a wonderful guy, but way too good-looking and way too smart.
My partners own the Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille restaurants, and I own the franchise. I’ll throw in a word or two, but they’re the smart ones at running the restaurants. I did have something to do with getting the Yucatan shrimp on the menu early on.
In 1987, I wrote a book called Sanibel Flats. It got incredible reviews but didn’t sell for crap. That was the first Doc Ford novel. I’m working on No. 26 right now.
I sit alone in a room all day. That sucks. So I’m pretty happy to go to one of the restaurants and meet people. It’s so sweet, the impact of the written word. It’s a clean, pure conduit. If you connect with like-minded people, there really is a bond.
My closest confidant for many years was Peter Matthiessen. He was just off the chart intellectually and a stunning prose stylist. Pete and I would talk, but rarely about writing. When he wrote Killing Mr. Watson, he sent me a first draft, and I made notes on it. He trusted my eye in terms of feel, particularly when it had to do with Southern characters.
Early on, I learned I had no control over my intellect or my antecedents or my qualifications, but I was in complete control of my work ethic.
I hear and continue to hear some of the most outrageous stories about me. It’s just mind-boggling, the things I’ve supposedly done or said. I have no idea where these things come from because I’m generally a nice guy.
Read more in Florida Trend's October issue.
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