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Florida state of mind: A new book from storyteller Craig Pittman

Bill DeYoung

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Craig Pittman

Streamed via the Catalyst, with a new episode each Tuesday, the Welcome to Florida podcast features journalist Craig Pittman, with co-host Chadd Scott, talking to a different figure from the state’s past, present … and yes, future.

“The whole setup of it is: Nine hundred new people are moving to Florida every day, and nobody tells them what they’ve gotten into,” Pittman explains. “So we figure, that’s our job. This is what you need to know about pythons, and nudists, and Cuban sandwiches and seashells.”

Pittman himself is a Florida jewel, one of those rare scribes who is as much storyteller, raconteur and character as reporter.

Those distinctive talents served him well for the 30 years he spent at the Tampa Bay Times, where he not only reported the news but cut an idiosyncratic profile as someone who could turn almost anything into a fascinating read.

His just-published sixth book, The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women and Other Wildlife (University Press of Florida) is an anthology of favorite Times articles and columns, plus others Pittman penned for magazines both before and after he parted company with the paper in March, 2020.

Like Welcome to Florida, his earlier books and the environmental pieces he regularly contributes to the Florida Phoenix online, The State You’re In is laced with humor. Laughter is Pittman’s calling card – Florida is, after all, the birthing ground of some of the strangest stories in the contemporary news cycle.

While there are yuks aplenty in this new volume – how ‘bout that woman arrested for shoplifting while dressed as a turkey? – what shouts the loudest are the stories about social unrest, wildlife and the environment.

Like the adventure-trail yarn about the discovery of a giant salamander, the reticulated siren (“To me, that kind of epitomizes Florida,” Pittman says). Or the one about non-indigenous rhesus macaque monkeys and how they came to roam freely (and cause havoc) throughout the state. Or the bloody, statewide bear hunt. Or iguanas turning up in toilets.

He profiles late, great writers who lived and worked in Florida – John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Donald J. Sobol, the creator of beloved boy sleuth Encyclopedia Brown.

“Basically,” says Pittman, “I’m a storyteller. And these are some of my favorite stories over the years. You write them for a newspaper or a magazine, and they’re there for a while – maybe they linger online, and maybe they don’t – but you put ‘em in a book and people have access to ‘em maybe a little longer than that.”

There’s a sweet remembrance of Pittman’s Uncle Carlyle Stewart, “A great Florida storyteller.”

“There were some that I knew right off the bat that I wanted to be in there, like the story on the Tyrone Lewis shooting,” the writer says. “Which took about a year, to pull that one together. And unless I wrote a whole book on racial unrest in St. Petersburg, that was not going to show up anywhere else. But I really wanted to put that in there to show people ‘This is how things work, and how things don’t work.’

“The Arcadia story is one that I’ve always been very proud of; it’s sort of like showing how history is still with us today in Florida, in some places. And things are playing out that played out once before – only now, it’s in a somewhat different way.”

Pittman, who was named a Florida Literary Legend by the Florida Heritage Book Festival in 2020, started his journalistic career, as so many do, as a beat reporter.

“I had a great editor named John Cutter, when I first got to the Times,” he says. “He worked in the Palm Harbor bureau. He taught us: Stories are all around you. Just keep your eyes open. Keep your ears open.

“Before that, I’d been one of those guys, ‘I have to go to this government meeting to get a story’ or ‘I have to go look through the mayor’s mailbox to get a story.’

“John was right. In Palm Harbor, we were covering an area that didn’t have a lot of government. A lot of it was unincorporated, and we got some great stories out of that. It was a really good lesson.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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