The news from Tallahassee was good this week – St. Petersburg’s Paul Wilborn was awarded a gold medal in General Fiction by the Florida Book Awards, for his short story collection Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto.
Each chapter in the Runyon-esque collection originated with a photograph taken in Ybor City during that turbulent decade, when Wilborn was playing piano in pop bands, promoting shows and events, and getting into mischief on a regular basis. It’s bohemia, Florida style. On a Cuban roll.
Wilborn, executive director of St. Petersburg College’s Palladium Theatre, is also a former journalist. Although the stories are based in (his) reality, Cigar City is Wilborn’s first work of fiction.
“I didn’t really do it with publishing in mind as much as I wanted to do the project,” he says. “I thought it was an important project, and I was excited to do it.”
He had no experience with the literary publishing business. “I’d sent some stories out for some magazine competitions, and I submitted to a local grant panel. I was thinking that if I could get a couple thousand bucks, if I have to publish this myself at least it’ll help me.
“And the grant panel just trashed it. They didn’t get it – ‘what is this? is this fiction?’ – and I almost abandoned the project after that.
“Just then, I got a notice from one of the competitions that I’d gotten an Honorable Mention. I didn’t win, I got an Honorable Mention. And I suddenly thought ‘OK, well maybe it doesn’t suck after all.’”
Just as the nascent author was pondering his next move, he was approached by Joe Hamilton, co-founder of The St. Petersburg Group (and publisher of the St. Pete Catalyst).
Hamilton was starting a new venture, St. Petersburg Press, and he was impressed with the Cigar City manuscript. In April 2019, Cigar City became the first book published under the new imprint.
“We started St. Petersburg Press because we were sitting on a pile of talent that needed a conduit to readers,” says Hamilton. “That Paul delivers a gold medal book as our very first release is validation of St. Pete’s literary moxie.”
For six months, every entertaining promotional “book talk,” where Wilborn was almost always accompanied by photographer David Audet, was Standing Room Only. “I was selling 50, 75 books at a pop,” Wilborn marvels. “It’s taken on a life beyond what I ever imagined.”
The Florida Book Awards – a division of the Florida State University library system – received more than 175 eligible publications across 11 categories for 2019 books.
Wilborn, who’s currently working on a full novel, also set in Florida, will travel to Tallahassee in early April to be wined, dined and celebrated along with the other statewide winners.
“My goal was not to quit my day job,” he laughs, “but to get the book out there, to be invited to book fairs, to maybe get some of the enjoyment of being an author. And this seems to open that door even wider.”