Florida Writers

Tim Dorsey is a nut.  Tim Dorsey is a nice guy.  Tim Dorsey is an extremely hard-working writer.  Tim Dorsey is a man with enormous literary talent.  Just about everyone who knows him would agree with all of those statements. You'll find an interview I did with Tim a couple of years ago farther down the page.  It's just as interesting and crazy as Tim is.

This photo shows Tim in his writer's persona. Far below is another snap of Tim, one that is much more characteristic.  He's a family man first--everything else second.

                                               Interview with Tim Dorsey

                                                    By Steve Glassman

Glassman:  What fiction had you published before the appearance of your award-winning 1999 novel Florida Roadkill?  

Dorsey: Nothing.  Not a word.

Glassman:  What about nonfiction?

Dorsey: I  wrote for newspapers. 

Glassman:  How long did you write before you felt you were ready to look for an agent?

Dorsey:  Two different answers.  I wanted to write a novel since I was fifteen.  I mean my goal in life was to write a novel, I mean a satirical novel.  That is what I wanted to do.  Right from the beginning.  That goal never changed.  I went through periods when I thought it was a far fetched dream.  I thought at times I might need to have a backup plan.  I worked on the student newspaper in high school and college--with the same thoughts.  I got out of college and worked at newspapers for 16 years with the same thoughts.  I knew that would be the stepping stone to a career as novelist.  That it would be the passageway.  I will mention that although not having written any fiction, that at each juncture along the way I did write humor columns, in highschool, at college, and for both the papers I worked for.  At the Tampa Trib, two other guys and I put out a humor supplement.  We wrote the whole thing.  After a while it became quite a grind.

Glassman: Was that humor supplement good?

Dorsey--with impish grin: No.  The problem was we didnít have enough resources.  There were only three of us.  The quality wasnít steady.  It was a weekly thing.

Glassman:  What were you reading habits as a kid?

Dorsey:  Mad Magazine.

Glassman (suppressing a chuckle): I guess that should come as no surprise.

Dorsey: I didnít have good reading habits.  And I hated reading books in school.  The first book I picked up without pictures was Woody Allenís Without Feathers.  Then for class a teacher gave me Catch 22.  That changed my life.  In one fell swoop books went from a sharp stick in the eye to a blast.

Glassman:  What books did you seriously study?

Dorsey:  I didnít really come at this from a literary point of view.  My interest was a broader interest in modern American humor.  When I was a kid I watched Rowan and Martinís Laugh In, read Mad Magazine.  These are far from top shelf stuff.  Smothers Brothers, and other great comedians.  Then my interest in comedy transferred to the written word. Then it sequed into Woody Allen, Heller, Cather in the Rye, Kurt Vonnegut and all that stuff you go through if you are looking for irreverent material.  Then I went bonkers and got Naked Lunch.  I was about sixteen.  What an eyeful for a sixteen year old kid.

Glassman: You are anticipating my questions, which I think is good.  The next question I have on my list is how did you get twisted enough to write sick books?

Dorsey:  I write on the level I like.  I donít try to be more sophisticated than I am.  I donít write down to an audience.  I write exactly the book Iíd want to pull off the shelf and buy.  I guess itís a way of venting anger.  I donít like to get angry.  But there are enough people out there acting in such a way that I need a vent.  Irreverent dark satire is a way of dealing with them.  I like doing it.  Itís nice I can make a living doing this.

Glassman:  The next question is how do you infuse a sense of good humor into really degenerate material.  I think that is really the interesting thing about your work.  There is a lot of degenerate work out there, but there isnít very much good-humored degenerate work.  (Laughs).

Dorsey: I think you are right.  I guess I have the corner of funny degenerate stuff.  I guess  you need to start knowing how to write humorously and knowing how really good writers to do it.  For instance, in all of the columns I wrote for newspapers, there was no degenerate material at all.  And I was learning to write at a sprint.  Seven- hundred words at a burst.  You learn tightness.  You learn your timing.  Maybe why the other stuff isnít funny--and I have no one in mind--is that they start by being degenerate and then try to be funny.  I learned to be degenerate later on.  (Laughs).  Lets be funny. (Laughs again).

Glassman:  My next question was going to ask whether you consciously tried to write like Hubert Selby, William Burroughs, and company.  You have already told us you read Burroughs.  Did you pay much attention to those other American degenerate writers?

Dorsey:  William Burroughs, I remember being shocked by his degenerate stuff.  But what I pulled out of it, what I was taken with was a sort of surreal anarchism, an irrelevance to social norms.  He takes on societyís rules and does it with good writing and nice turns of phrase.

Glassman:  All right, letís go from there to this one--advice to young writers.  Or all writers really.  

Dorsey:  What worked for me was learning to get it down in short distances.  So you get the fundamental building blocks in, word selection, show not tell,  describe by carefully selecting nouns and verbs, editing yourself down.  And polish, polish, polish.  It is all in the rewriting.  Iím fairly fast and sloppy on the first draft.  I just want to get the plot and ideas and overall framework down.

Glassman:  How may drafts do you take generally. 

Dorsey:  Probably before I sent in Roadkill,  four.  Hammerhead Ranch Motel required a lot more drafts.  I was never happy with it.  That second novel was written under contract deadline and I never had a chance to step back and look at it.  It was draft after draft.  Maybe ten drafts.  Maybe four before I sent it to my agent, and then Iíd pull it back.  Actually I didnít pull it back.  The editor would start reading it and a week later, heíd get another draft and next week another draft.  It drove him nuts.

Glassman:  How long did it take you to do the first draft of your novels.

Dorsey: Florida Roadkill took about two months.  I knocked out Hammerhead Ranch in about six weeks.  Orange Crush was about six weeks.

Glassman:  Two months--wow.  When you write you donít waste any time.

Dorsey:  The key to that is that I know what I want to say when i sit down.  I have a somewhat detailed outline and I will have visualized the scene and know what I want to do. I think through the scenes.

Glassman:  How long do you spend on thinking through as you say.

Dorsey:  Well on Roadkill, I decided to write the book at the beginning of August.  And at the end of October I started writing.

Glassman:  Do you know anyone else who quit his job at the age of 39 and became a writer.  I mean know personally.

Dorsey:  Well, I have met people.  Dennis LeHane is, like,  thirty-four and I think he just hit the New York Times bestseller list.  Heís really rocking.  I guess it is a personís nature.  People have different comfort levels of risk.  Iíd squirm more if I didnít take the risk.  I mean you get out of college and think you are going to write the great American novel in three years.  Sixteen years later I get my crack at it, and Iím going to go for it.

Glassman:  Is that why you take promotional efforts so seriously?

Dorsey:  I take promotional efforts so seriously because that is my job.  As I do my job, if I see an opportunity and I donít take it, Iím goofing off on my job.  Its like opening a restaurant.  Most restaurants fail.

Glassman (laughting):  And so do most writers.

Dorsey:  But every restaurant that makes it thinks itís going to make it.  Maybe they donít.  Some will fall by the way side but you have to believe in yourself.  I go to events  to work.  I go there to support my family, and do what Iím doing and this road leads to my dream, writing books.  So I  do everything in my power to do what i have to.

Glassman:  Am I right in saying you enjoy meeting people?  That you get off promoting your books?

Dorsey:  Yes, for nine years I was squirreled away in the night room of the newspaper.  Basically, you have this little team of gnome-like people including myself working on a newspaper.  Going out meeting people is like landing on another planet.  It has changed my personality.  Well, my professional personality has changed.

Glassman:  Really.

Dorsey: That is what my wife told me a week after the first signing.  At first I was the exact same person as at work.  I was low key and conservative.  With friends, Iím most comfortable being the quiet one.  Iím more relaxed that way.  The job [of promoting] requires that you give of yourself and you entertain people.  I enjoy that.  But it isnít in my nature.  I thrive on the aspect of furthering my ability to write books.  And enjoy it.

Glassman:  Why choose to work in the crime fiction field?  I know you have said you were not a great crime fiction fan beforehand.

Dorsey:  Iím a great Florida detective fictiion fan.  Iím first drawn to books with Florida as a locale.  Because of whatís going on in the market right now, a lot of that is crime fiction.  I wouldnít be drawn to just crime fiction.  Originally I resisted it because it is intimidating.  There are a lot of well known writers out there doing a fine job.  But I realized you had to go head to head with the big guns.  You were going to be compared and it was going to be a tough comparison.  I worked in the newspaper field, and I have 12 years in Florida.  I worked the night beat.  Where there is a lot of crime.  I knew how these people behaved.  I just knew the terrain.

Glassman:  In other words you lived in Florida.  Crime and Florida for a while were synonymous.  Thankfully, it is not as bad now.

Dorsey:  Yes, they were.  I realized I was avoiding my experience.  It ends up being crime fiction.  I donít have any detectives.  I have a few reporters.  In order so my colleagues wouldnít think I was picking on them I made them TV reporters. (Laughs.)  We hate TV people and vice versa. 

Glassman:  Why do you think Florida because such a crime fiction mecca.

Dorsey:  I think there are several reasons. I think Florida is rightly viewed as the modern Wild West, and what makes that even more attractive--from a crime writerís point of view--is that it is subtropical.  It is sort of romanticized.  Glamourous is the word I was looking for.  Itís the gunslinger old west with palm trees.  Also, I think success spurs imitation.  First there was Miami Vice, and some of Hiassenís early work even predated Miami Vice, and then cocaine loads began hitting the coasts.  It was like a furnace of crime there for a while.

Glassman:  Which Floirda crime writers do you admire and have influenced your work.  Hiassen is outrageous and a newspaperman and so are you.  Why are you laughing?

Dorsey:  Definitely Hiassen, mainly, Chas. Willeford, James Hall, letís see who else? John D. Macdonald. 

Glassman: Is Florida crime fiction a literary subgenre unto itself?

 Dorsey:  I think it has become a legitimate one .  Or itís on its way.  The 800 pound guerilla was John MacDonaold.  McGuane in the 70s has sort of been skipped over.  Heís an expatriate now, living in Montana. 

 Glassman:  Elmore Leonard and Willeford came along in the 80s as a fresh gust.  Then I thought the field had played itself out when you and others took the subgenre to another level.  What do you think of Hiassen?

 Dorsey:  Iím amazed by him.  He can do everything great.  Heís an extraordinaryily powerful investigative reporter.  Also, heís incredibly industrious.  He still writes the column.  He does that because of his passion and his drive.  Newspapering is in his blood.  He invented the genre.

Glassman:  Do you think of yourself in the Hiassen genre.

Dorsey:  Iíd think so.  If it wasnít because of Hiassen, Iíd still be working at the newspaper.  I understand he was cutting the trail with the machete.  It took a while for others to see what he was doing. 

Glassman:  Anyone else of that stature?

Dorsey:  James Hall is fundamentally a poet.  He was very into the language.  Heís fundamentally a very strong writer.  Randy Wayne White is a fabulous writer.

Glassman:  Say I am the mother of a teenager.  What is the socially redeeming value of your work?

Dorsey:  That it will get kids to read because it is fun.  Iím not being facetious.  There are other things in there as well.  I think a lot of kids could get hooked on reading.  You have readers and nonreaders--and that is the great divide.  We all know where those paths lead.  Having Beowulf force fed to me and hating it and then finding this other stuff I loved made all the difference to me.  I have talked to some teachers and classes.  The other thing is that kids are sharp.  I want to make the books entertaining.  Everyone would like to be a literary icon, but the reality is that literature now is often a fancy way of saying hard to read.  I want to be entertaining first of all.  I donít just have a degenerate point unless it is funny.  I donít make a point unless itís funny.  But past that my books provide a constructive questioning of authority.  Not just skinhead stuff.  But you have to go through a naive idealistic phase.  It is healthy.  Thatís why Vonnegut is good. He taps into that vein of naive idealistic outrage we all have to feel at some point in our lives.  I try to harpoon hypocrisy--but only if it is funny.  Otherwise, Iíll tell a degenerate joke instead.

 

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