“Inspiring and compelling. These stories resonate with life lessons that we all should read and ponder: the importance of hard work, the value of rejection, and a genuine affection for the Sunshine State.”—Gary R. Mormino, author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida
“Levy has a penchant for asking provocative questions that reveal the fullness of his subjects—their personal struggles, their personalities, and their relationships to Florida. An enjoyable compilation of profiles that weaves a colorful human tapestry and illuminates the contemporary history of one of America’s most diverse and wondrous states. Made in Florida is a must-read.”—Lynn Waddell, author of Fringe Florida: Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles
“Reading these interviews is the armchair version of flitting from table to table at a dinner party filled with Florida’s most spectacular Floridians.”—Cathy Salustri, author of Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida
“Everyone in Florida who cares about the state’s modern history and culture needs to read this book. Art Levy is a masterful interviewer, and the people whose lives and thoughts he has chosen to highlight really come to life.”—Craig Pittman, author of Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country
Discover some of Florida’s most fascinating personalities in this entertaining kaleidoscope of interviews. Made in Florida: Artists, Celebrities, Activists, Educators, and Other Icons in the Sunshine State showcases a colorful lineup of notable people who got their start in the state and who have helped make it the unique, diverse place it is today. Hear from Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry about their weirdest writing inspirations. Discover why Shaquille O’Neal never complains. Find out what happens when Burt Reynolds goes to Costco. Listen to Theresa Manuel’s experiences as one of the first black women to compete in the Olympics. Learn about the lives of Seminole Tribe elder Louise Gopher, pop art painter Romero Britto, NASA senior executive JoAnn Morgan, circus daredevil Bello Nock, football coach Steve Spurrier, state CFO Alex Sink, and Muhammad Ali’s “fight doctor” Ferdie Pacheco. In addition to the widely celebrated, Art Levy introduces many unsung individuals. Meet innovative industrialists like “Chainsaw Al” and dedicated naturalists like “The Shark Lady.” Mingle with a legendary rancher, a civil rights historian, and a commercial fisherman. Marvel at an anticrime crusader, a space skydiver, and a snake-venom enthusiast.
These and other stars—many of whom rarely give such extensive interviews—talk family and work, joys and worries, failures and triumphs, dislikes and desires. Levy has thoughtfully selected their words from ten years of conversations. Each person tells a different story of Florida from a perspective all their own. Read on and get ready to laugh and lament, to be surprised and inspired.
Art Levy is an award-winning journalist. He is associate editor of Florida Trend magazine. He has also written for the St. Petersburg Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
In this interview, Art Levy talks about his new book and about interviewing prominent Floridians.
You are currently associate editor of Florida Trend and have previously written for the St. Petersburg Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Were you always interested in going into journalism?
When I was young, I stuttered severely, so the idea of being a writer was attractive. It was always easier for me to communicate through writing than through talking. When I became a newspaper reporter, though, I realized that journalists have to talk a lot! It’s not just all the questions you have to ask. It’s also having to talk people into talking to you in the first place. But I’ve loved being a journalist and I’m privileged to have been one for 35 years. The talking thing also worked out. Eventually, I gained more confidence in my speech and, although I still consider myself a stutterer, I get by pretty well now. Some people can’t even tell I have a speech impediment.
With such a diverse range of people interviewed in your book, what qualities do they all possess that make them icons?
First, they’re all interesting people. That’s really why I picked them. They’re also accomplished, and they’ve had an impact on Florida. It’s also worth noting that none of them approached me first. They all had to be convinced. For some, it took years.
Florida is the third most populous state in the nation, and an estimated 1,000 people are moving to the Sunshine State every day. In such a crowded field, how can people stand out as accomplished individuals?
Some people stand out because they’re just really good people. Greg Asbed, the co-founder if the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Bud Adams, a rancher who died in 2017, are two examples of that. Really talented people stand out, too. James Rosenquist, the pop artist who lived in Aripeka, was intimidating to interview, but he was an important artist. I think focus is important, too. The accomplished people I’ve spoken to tend to focus on what they’re good at and work really hard at it, rather than wasting time on seeking attention and recognition.
Who are some young, up-and-coming Floridians you think will be widely recognized for their work in the future?
That’s a tough one. Can I say my son, Andy Levy, who is studying biology at New College of Florida? He wants to be an entomologist. My younger son, Zach, goes to high school and he wants to be an architect. I’m proud of my kids!
In your interviews, which single question tends to give you the most insight into your subject?
There are a couple of questions that I ask everyone, but the questions that seem to elicit the most telling responses are based on the research I do beforehand. Often, questions about childhood years—growing up where they did, early influences, family dynamics, the sort of kid they were—result in interesting answers.
Florida Trend’s interview format, described by one of your interviewees as similar to “dropping in from time to time on a conversation while wandering through a party,” is an unconventional one. In your opinion, what makes it more successful than the standard, back-and-forth session?
When I read a question-and-answer formatted interview, I’m usually amazed because people don’t talk that way to me. My interviewees are often all over the place, stopping mid-sentence, changing the subject, talking and talking but not answering the question. I usually have to ask questions multiple ways to get a true answer. The magazine’s Florida Icon format allows me to pick out the best stuff and arrange it in a way that best tells the story.
If you could speak with a famous Floridian from any time period, who would it be and why?
When I interviewed novelist Harry Crews in 2012, it was a disaster—the most awkward and difficult interview I’ve ever had. Crews was sick when I met him at his home in Gainesville and he was mostly incoherent. He was the only person I ever interviewed, for example, who sat across from me naked from the waist down. About a half hour in, I told him I’d come back another day, when he felt better, but he died before a second interview could be arranged. Another interview that I regret not doing was with television pitchman Billy Mays, who died in 2009, less than a week before our scheduled interview. My dad was a salesman, so I really wanted to talk to Mays about the art of selling. On the other side of the death equation, I interviewed Sam Gibbons, a former congressman and D-Day vet—and someone everyone who cares about Florida should learn about—just three days before he died. I was lucky to meet him.
What advice would you give to journalism students or other individuals who are interested in conducting interviews not simply to gather information, but to really learn about people and what makes them tick?
Originally, I thought the book should be called “Listening Tour,” because, really, the most important thing I do is listen. It’s crucial to research your subject, which allows for good questions, but I have to remind myself constantly to listen to the answers, really focus on what they’re saying, and don’t interrupt. Interviews aren’t about the interviewer. They’re about the interviewee.
What do you hope readers will enjoy most about Made in Florida?
I really think all of the interviews are interesting and fun to read. Some of them are kind of funny and some are sad. There are lessons to be learned from each of these people. Many overcame incredible adversity. Many did incredible things, like Joe Kittinger, who literally parachuted to Earth from space. There are surprises. The interviews will make you think about your own life.
What are you working on next?
I’m still an associate editor at Florida Trend, so I’ll continue interviewing prominent Floridians for the magazine. The book includes 90, but the number of interviews I’ve done for Trend is now up to 100 and rising. There are many interviews still to do.