He says he hasn’t written a word in two years, but he’s not done, not by a long shot.
Last spring, St. Petersburg’s most beloved author, Jeff Klinkenberg, moved lock, stock, barrel and art collection to a log home in the middle of the woods in Western North Carolina. He and wife Susan had been spending summers there, 15 miles from the nearest town (Waynesville), for decades.
“Our home is on the east border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Klinkenberg says. “In the last few months we’ve seen bears, elk, deer and coyotes in our yard, not to mention a variety of bird life including owls. I love living in such a wild place.”
He’ll be back in his adopted hometown for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, on the St. Pete campus of the University of South Florida. More than 50 authors will speak (here’s the schedule) and sign books.
“What I love the most about the reading festival is that, yes, it draws in people who love to read,” he explains. “That’s why I’m doing a favorite talk, ‘Books That Floridians Should Read.’ It’s grown and changed over the years, and I get such a kick doing it.”
For just about 40 years, Klinkenberg’s work appeared in the St. Petersburg Times and its successor, the Tampa Bay Times. In the beginning, he was employed as an “outdoor writer,” covering fishing tournaments and sailboat regattas. In time, he discovered his real calling: As a roving chronicler of “Real Florida,” profiling the little-heralded people, places and things that give our state such richness of character. He eventually filled seven bestselling books with his collected musings.
Last year, the Florida Humanities Council gave him its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing. And the Florida Folk Heritage Award.
“Nobody writes about the real Florida with as much insight and affection as Jeff Klinkenberg,” Carl Hiaasen famously said. “His essays – spanning the length and breadth of this intoxicating, infuriating state – are pure gems.”
Gems or not, Klinkenberg left the Times in 2014 when he was unceremoniously offered a buyout deal, and has concentrated since on freelance work.
There aren’t too many cypress swamp dwellers in North Carolina, or seven-foot mullet giggers or alligators that bellow and blow in B-flat. But Klinkenberg, at 70, says he’s happy playing mountain man.
“I wear overalls regularly and I use a bunch of tools, from shovels, clippers and a chain saw, to keep my place from being consumed. While I love Florida’s subtle seasons, I’ve also enjoyed the dramatic changes here, from leaves to snow to the arrival of hummingbirds.”
He’s conceptualizing a series of short fictional stories “based on growing up in 1950s- and early 1960s-era Miami. A lot happened, from Civil Rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis to other personal stuff.” Fiction, he explains, has always been near the top of the list of things he’s wanted to try.
You can take the boy out of the state, but you simply cannot extract the state from the boy. “I miss the best of Florida,” Klinkenberg says, “and will continue my relationship with the state as long as I am able.”
His talk is at 2:15 Saturday afternoon, in Room 105 of the Poynter Institute.
Listen to a 2018 St. Pete Catalyst interview with Jeff Klinkenberg here.
For the casual reader, as opposed to the literature-obsessed, there are a couple of “marquee” names on this year’s Festival of Reading roster – including R.L. Stine, who turned the world of kid-lit upside down with his horror series Goosebumps and Fear Street (four million sold and counting), novelist Meg Cabot (most famous for The Princess Diaries), Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry and Haiti-born poet and short story writer Edwidge Danticat, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
With the exception of Stine, the “headlining” authors reside in Florida.
There’s a reason for that, explains Colette Bancroft, who’s been the Times’ book editor for 13 years.
“We get a lot of Florida writers, in addition to local writers, partly because they’re nearby and they’re more likely to be able to come to the festival,” she says. “But also because our readers are interested in them. They’re interested in the subjects Florida writers write about.
“But we don’t want to be just a Florida festival. We do try to bring a range of authors from other parts of the county, and authors that are well-known everywhere, as well as the local and regional ones.”
For the 2019 festival, preparations began last January with a wish list.
“We work in cooperation with publishers for those authors who aren’t specifically Florida authors, who are going to have to travel from New York or wherever they live,” Bancroft says. “We start with a list of authors who will have new books coming out around this time of year, because that’s when they’re most likely to be out on book tours. And if we say ‘Will you send them to our book festival’? the publishers are willing to say ‘yes.’
“It’s not the same as saying ‘Here’s a list of the 10 people we want,’ and then we get those 10 people. I wish it were that easy. To get 10 national authors, we invite 30.”
The Festival of Reading began 27 years ago, the brainchild of the Times’ then-book editor Margo Hammond. It outgrew its original location, Eckerd College, and is already starting to split the seams at USF, where author events take place in ballrooms, auditoriums, student centers, classrooms and the neighboring Poynter Institute.
Since the day-long event is free, and there’s no single gate to enter through, Bancroft has never been able to get a reliably accurate head count. She and her staff estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors circulate between the campus buildings during festival day.
“And almost every author, in those venues during the course of the day, gets a full house,” she says. “So we have as many people as we can fit, most of the time.”
Raymond Arsenault (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice; Arthur Ashe: A Life)
Lori Roy (Bent Road; Gone Too Long)
Lisa Unger (In the Blood; The Stranger Inside)
John Cinchett (Historic Tampa Churches)
Roy Peter Clark (Writing Tools; Murder Your Darlings And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser)
Cheryl Hollon (Down in Flames)
Paul Wilborn (Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto)
Bill DeYoung (Skyway; I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews)
Gregory Byrd (Where Shadow Meets Water; The Name for the God Who Speaks)
Rob Sanders (Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution)
Kristen Hare (100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay Before You Die)
Art Levy (Made in Florida: Artists, Celebrities, Activists, Educators and Other Icons in the Sunshine State)
Erin Mauldin (Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South)
Steven Murawski (Scenarios and Responses to Future Deep Oil Spills: Fighting the Next War)
Steph Post (A Tree Born Crooked; Holding Smoke)
Gianna Russo (One House Down; Moonflower)
James Swain (Wild Card; No Good Deed)