Exploring the Writing Life in the Sunshine State
“I work everywhere, but I work best here.”
—Tennessee Williams (about South Beach, Key West, Florida)
For me, Florida was never the first place to come to mind when thinking about literature. And apparently, I’m not the only one who thought that way. Comedian George Carlin summed up the general consensus: “l like Florida. Everything is in the 80's. The temperatures, the ages and the IQ's.” However, taking the advice of Ernest Hemingway ("As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.") I began to probe deeper. I’ve now learned that my new resident state has been and remains home to some iconic authors. Some were born in the Sunshine State and others were drawn to live and work here. Here are a few of them.
African-American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston moved to Eatonville, Florida, a rural town north of Orlando, in 1894 at the age of three. She later used it as the setting for many of her stories about racial struggles. Her most notable book was Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In 2005, Time magazine included it on its list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. That same year, Oprah Winfrey served as executive producer of the made-for-TV adaptation of the book. In 2011, the novel was adapted as a radio play for BBC World Drama.
Pulitzer Prize winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings bought an orange grove in Cross Creek near rural Hawthorne, Florida in 1928. She wrote about life among “Crackers” in the remote wilderness that was North Central Florida. Her best-known work is the Young Adult novel, The Yearling (1938). It was made into a film in 1946 and is commonly included on teen reading lists.
Lois Lenski,a Newbery medal-winning author and illustrator of picture books and children’s literature began to spend winters in Florida for the sake of her health in the early 1940s. Her book, Strawberry Girl (1945), told the story of a family from North Carolina who migrated to Florida at the turn of the twentieth century and their interactions with the region's “Cracker" culture. In 1951, she and her husband built a house at Tarpon Springs, Florida, where they spent half of each year. After his death in 1960, Lois moved permanently to Florida, continuing to write, publishing her last picture book Debbie and her Pets (1971) and her autobiography (1972).
Carl Hiassen, longtime columnist of the Miami Herald, has had at least nineteen of his novels on the New York Times bestseller lists. Like his first, Tourist Season, his books are humorous crime fiction and often feature themes of environmentalism and political corruption in his native state. He was born and raised in Plantation, Florida then a rural suburb of Fort Lauderdale. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Among his numerous awards is a 2003 Newbery Honor for Hoot.
Dave Barry, a nationally-syndicated Miami Herald columnist (1983-2005), won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary (1988) for "his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” He has also written dozens of books, both fiction (e.g. Big Trouble which was adapted into a film in 2002), and non-fiction (e.g. Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland).
Elmore Leonard, an Edgar award-winning crime novelist, lived part-time in Palm Beach County, Florida from the 1990s till 2009. He set many of his stories there (e.g. Rum Punch)—everywhere from the glitz of Palm Beach to the backstreets grit of West Palm and the Glades. Many of his novels were made into films (e.g. Get Shorty) or were adapted for television (e.g.Justified).
The name Marjory Stoneman Douglas made the news in 2018 because of a tragic school shooting spree. But the woman the school is named after was an American journalist, author, women's suffrage advocate, and conservationist known for her staunch defense of the Florida Everglades and against efforts to drain it and reclaim land for development. Marjory moved to Miami, Florida in 1915 and began working for the Miami Herald. Her most influential work was the 1947 classic The Everglades: River of Grass, which redefined the popular conception of the Everglades as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp. Its impact has been compared to that of Rachel Carson's influential book Silent Spring.
Kate DiCamillo, an author who writes for children as well as adults, was raised in Clermont, Florida which is west of Orlando. She is another University of Florida graduate. She said her book Because of Winn-Dixie was written in Minnesota during the worst winter on record while she was cold and lonely and homesick for Florida. She is one of six people to win two Newbery Medals. They recognized her novels The Tale of Despereaux and Flora & Ulysses. She was the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature appointed by the Library of Congress (2014 and 2015).
Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer who was born in Miami, Florida. She’s known for writing a best-selling series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner. Her books (e.g. Postmortem which received the 1991 Edgar Award for Best First Novel) have sold more than 100 million copies.
Tami Hoag is an American novelist best known for her work in the romance and thriller genres. More than 22 million copies of her books (e.g. Kill the Messenger) are in print. She currently lives part-time in Wellington, Florida in western Palm Beach County.
James Patterson is a prolific author of thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels who lives in Palm, Beach, Florida. His books (e.g. Along Came A Spider, first in the Alex Cross series) have sold more than 300 million copies and he was the first person to sell 1 million e-books. In November 2015, he received the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation which cited him as a "passionate campaigner to make books and reading a national priority. Patterson has donated millions of dollars in grants and scholarships with the purpose of encouraging Americans of all ages to read more books. His awards include the Edgar Award, the BCA Mystery Guild's Thriller of the Year award, the International Thriller of the Year award, and the Children's Choice Book Award for Author of the Year.
Writer and filmmaker Ransom Riggs grew up in Florida, where he attended Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey near Sarasota. He is best known for the book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2011) which made The New York Times Best Seller List and was adapted into the 2016 film of the same name.
Karen Russell is an American novelist and short story writer from Coral Gables, FlorIda near Miami. In 2009 the National Book Foundation named her a 5 under 35 honoree. Her debut novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She was also the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2013.
Lauren Groff, who currently lives in Gainesville, Florida, was named by Granta Magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists of her generation in 2017. In 2018, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in Fiction. Her fifth book, a short story collection titled Florida, was released in June 2018 and was the winner of The Story Prize for short story collections published that year. It was also a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction.
Edward Bloor, a novelist and playwright who lives in Winter Garden, Florida has won numerous awards. His novel Tangerine alone won several. It was a "Horn Book" Fanfare Book and a 1998 Edgar nominee for Best Young Adult Novel. It also made the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults in 1997.
Then there is Key West, Florida which has often attracted eminent authors to live and write there. Notables include Ernest Hemingway (Pulitzer Prize 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea and Nobel Prize for Literature 1954), John Hersey (Pulitzer Prize 1945 for A Bell for Adano), Tennessee Williams (Pulitzer Prize 1948 for the play A Streetcar Named Desire), and Judy Blume ( 2004 National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters and Time magazine’s list of the top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923 for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret).
Key West has also been a sometime home to poets like Richard Wilbur (Second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and two Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry in 1957 and 1989), Robert Frost (four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry in 1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943), Elizabeth Bishop (Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress 1949-1950, Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry 1956, National Book Award winner 1970, and Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1976), and Wallace Stevens (Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1955).
To its credit, in 1984 Florida became the first state to establish an affiliate of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Located at the Broward County main library in Fort Lauderdale, the Florida Center for the Book strives to bring enriching literary experiences to readers throughout Florida through various avenues, including linking networks of individuals and organizations interested in books as well as developing and presenting a wide range of literary programs.
Author John Updike said, “The Florida sun seems not much a single thing overhead but a set of klieg lights that pursue you everywhere with an even white illumination.” Perhaps that illumination is the enlightenment that has inspired so many writers.