Q&A with Lynn Waddell
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like, ‘Don’t use my name because my relatives don’t know I’m into this.’” – Lynn Waddell
University Press of Florida (UPF): When did you know that you wanted to write this book? What led you to this subject?
Lynn Waddell (LW): It was a long evolution. More than 10 years ago an editor asked me what I wanted to write about and I told him people with extremely focused passions; interests that they obsessively pursued, be they collecting hand towels or building a multi-billion-dollar casino empire. There’s no such beat in most, if any, newspapers and perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t get the job.
Without realizing it, I began gathering string for this book not long after I decided to make my home in St. Petersburg, after graduate school in the late ‘90s. I wrote about a few of the book topics for a Tampa alternative newspaper. Since 2001 I’ve freelanced for a wide variety of national daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and travel publications, including Florida travel guides. During the course of my paying gigs, I stumbled across some amazingly interesting people whose stories never fit within the pieces I wrote. The idea for the book grew from that frustration. It wasn’t until I met then-University of Florida Press Editor Jon Byram at a travel writers’ conference that I realized it could become a reality. He showed great interest in the idea. I got serious and crafted a proposal.
UPF: How is your day structured when you write? What’s your writing routine?
LW: My work days vary widely depending on the type of writing I’m doing. I still juggle some freelance news assignments which disrupts my book work. News editors typically want stories the day before they assign them, so there’s little time to deconstruct a sentence or daydream about where to plant the petunias.
When it comes to long-term projects, I’m one of the world’s most unstructured working writers. I’m so skilled in procrastination that I’ve done taxes to avoid writing. But that’s no way to complete a book, and I’d sooner stand on my head for 10 years than fail to complete a committed project. With this my first book, I evolved to a state of time management just slightly better than a slug’s.
Having gained 20 pounds while working on Fringe Florida, I’m now incorporating exercise into my work day else I lose the ability to stand up.
UPF: Does Florida tend to lend itself to the fringe lifestyle more than other places? If so, why do you think that is?
LW: Most definitely. There are reasons unique to each lifestyle, but one common factor is the physical environment, the year ‘round mild weather and sunshine. Exotic animals thrive here, so people who want to be around them move here. You can ride a motorcycle here year ‘round and Florida has more motorcyclists per capita than any state outside California. Nudists can garden in the buff in Central to South Florida all year with only a few days of possible shrinkage. And on and on.
Florida is also the largest tourist destination in the world. Tourism hucksters have been selling it as a magical, exotic place to live your dreams for a century. People come here to reinvent themselves and be whatever they thought they couldn’t be in the cloudier place they are from. I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like, “Don’t use my name because my relatives don’t know I’m into this.”
You also have to consider that two-thirds of Floridians moved here from somewhere else, which I theorize makes them more risk-taking, daring, than people who have spent their whole lives in Peoria or even the Bronx. It takes a special constitution to leave the people and places you’ve grown up with far behind.
UPF: How did you choose which Florida subcultures to feature in your book? How did you find out about them?
LW: I established strict criteria for including each subculture. First, it had to have prominence as compared to its cousins in other states. Second, if it reflected a twist on iconic Florida such as the Holy Land Experience with theme parks and pony play with Ocala’s horse industry, even better. Third, each topic had to have a contemporary element and the ability to be experiential.
I came up with a list of about 20. Some didn’t pan out for various reasons. For instance, I spent a week in Miami trying to find an angle on drug culture. I ended up visiting a pill mill, which while interesting, didn’t fit within the tone of the book. I also probably over-researched the lifestyles that I did cover and ended up with such a wealth of material that I had enough for one book, if not a separate books on some topics. For the most part, I found the people through good old-fashioned reporting – going places and approaching them.
LW: My focus is more on people who are extremely passionate about unusual things. I must add that for the most part I discovered that those people are pretty conventional in other aspects of their lives.
With very little digging and looking through a different lens, I’m sure you can find fringe anywhere in Florida. Fringe doesn’t respect city boundaries or state lines for that matter. I just argue that Florida has larger concentrations of it than most other states.
UPF: What was the craziest thing that happened during your explorations and research for Fringe Florida?
LW: Without spoiling the book, I’ll just say the pool scene at Swing Fest. Although I tried to prepare myself for it, there really is no way for a Vanilla to prepare for such things.
UPF: You were a research assistant on the movie Showgirls. Was that experience part of what got you interested in the offbeat and unconventional topics you gravitate toward covering?
LW: That certainly increased my interest and prepped me for exploring Tampa’s adult entertainment industry, but upon reflection, my interest in unusual characters and lifestyles probably drew me to Las Vegas, which, like Florida, has no shortage of fringe. I did learn quite a bit from working with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Watching him hang out with and smoothly guide conversations with dancers that I had already interviewed was reaffirming because I’m also not a confrontational interviewer. Despite Joe’s reputation as a hard-nosed reporter and sometimes difficult screenwriter, he was very disarming and fluid with his interview subjects. I also had a front row, and sometimes uncomfortable seat to the power plays in movie making, but that’s a whole other story.
UPF: What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
LW: I hope that they not only have fun experiencing the unconventional side of Florida and getting to know people who do things that they may never do, but also enjoy learning the history of how these lifestyles grew here. Most of all, I hope that their awareness evolves with mine, that people aren’t always who they seem. Real people not so different than them live behind the late night punch lines.
UPF: What are you currently reading?
LW: I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road as part of a great citywide book club called “Keep St. Pete Lit.” Kerouac lived and died in St. Petersburg. On the suggestion of a friend, I’m also reading something totally outside my normal library: Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.
UPF: Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
LW: I’m a big fan of Tom Wolfe, his fiction and non-fiction. He brilliantly captures personalities and situations representative of broader social phenomena. He’s so spot-on in his fiction that I’ve woken my husband to read him passages and say, “I know this person!” I wouldn’t embarrass myself by attempting to mimic his style, but I read everything he writes in hopes that some of his talent magically dusts off on me.
Being a child of the South, I’m a naturally big fan of Southern novelists. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book. I can dine on the irony of O. Henry.
I have no aspirations of being another Hunter S. Thompson or David Foster Wallace and would never compare my work to theirs, but I’m working on loosening my writing and find reading theirs helpful.
At the beginning of my research on Fringe Florida I read Evan Wright’s Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut’s War Against the Gap, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America, and Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip to the Heart of Fan Mania (I am guilty of being an Alabama football fan). I found both particularly helpful in introducing first person without being intrusive and mocking of those they wrote about. I struggled greatly at the beginning of writing Fringe Florida with allowing myself to be in the book and on how to introduce humor without coming across judgmental of the people I had encountered. Rammer Jammer was an especially enjoyable example of how to accomplish the later.
UPF: What are you working on next?
LW: I’m revising a Las Vegas mystery/parody novel that I wrote a few years ago called Desert Fish. It’s about a young, Southern, female casino beat reporter who investigates the murder of a casino executive and uncovers the biggest story of her fledging career. It’s actually not as autobiographical as it sounds.
UPF: Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?
LW: Marry someone who loves and believes in you enough to feed you meat on a stick while you write and not complain about it.
UPF: Were you tempted to adopt any of the lifestyles in Fringe Florida?
LW: Mentally and even emotionally, sometimes I could follow people down the rabbit hole and get a peek at things through their eyes. It’s intellectually intoxicating but not to the point that I couldn’t leave.
I’m not a joiner by nature. However, as I spent more time with the ladies of Leather & Lace Motorcycle Club there were moments when I forgot that I can hardly ride a bicycle and wished I could be a part of their tribe. But I can’t deal with regular meetings and must-do anything, except for my writing.
Lynn Waddell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the Daily Beast, Budget Travel, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @FringeFlorida