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Wilborn’s ‘Florida Hustle’ walks on the wild – and very funny – side

Bill DeYoung



Paul Wilborn is executive director of the Palladium Theater. His second book, the novel "Florida Hustle," is published by St. Petersburg Press. "I’m not here to write for nobody to see it," he explains. "I think I write well, but it’s popular stuff, stuff that people will enjoy. I’m not trying to pander, but I really hope a lot of people will read it." Photo by Bill DeYoung.

With Florida Hustle, Paul Wilborn has written, as the British say, a ripping good yarn.

The novel is populated with people who are both dysfunctional and charismatic, freaky and fascinating, and therefore as magnetic as we want our fictional characters to be – as the story progresses, we find ourselves rooting for them and anticipating the next wacky turn of events.

“I feel like this is as good a book as I am capable of writing,” says the St. Petersburg-based Wilborn, whose day job is running the Palladium Theater. “Everything I do is like ‘Let’s try to do it the best we can, and see where it takes us.’ Writing is kind of what I want to do for the next phase of life, whatever that is.”

Wilborn’s first book, Cigar City, was a collection of short stories based on his experiences as a musician, event organizer and rabble rouser in 1980s Ybor City.

Florida Hustle is ostensibly the story of a troubled 17-year-old Palm Beach boy, Michael Donnelly, who’s obsessed with horror movies – and, more to the point, with a Scream Queen named Dawn Karston.

When he discovers she’s coming to Florida to shoot a new film in the Everglades, Michael decides to go on the lam, with money stolen from his wealthy father – and simply convince her she can do better. He’ll bring his own storyboards to show Dawn the kind of cinematic mountains she could climb.

Wilborn, a former St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune journalist, had turned that concept into an unfinished screenplay in the early 2000s, during a fruitless period of showbiz job-hunting in Los Angeles.

It was inspired, he says, by John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, as a twisted gesture of love for actress Jodie Foster, the object of Hinckley’s obsession.

But Michael, an aspiring filmmaker, doesn’t have sinister plans for Dawn Karston. He just wants her to know there are better movies to be made.

Fast forward to 2019. After Cigar City, Wilborn knew he wanted to keep writing. He remembered the screenplay. “I always loved the story,” he says, “but it needed a middle and it needed an end.

“I started re-writing it as prose, and it got so much better. The characters got deeper, the ideas got better.”

Along his low-rent version of the yellow brick road, Michael picks up a motley crew of eccentric acquaintances. Chief among them is Cavanaugh Reilly, a loquacious, white-haired 60-something who lives in a fleabag West Palm motel.

Cavanaugh is a silver-tongued devil. A lovable rogue.

“There was an actual Cavanaugh,” Wilborn explains. “He wrote me when I was a columnist, and he was that kind of a character. He was an older guy who loved women of all ages. And those things didn’t come exactly out of his mouth, but that’s how he would speak.”

The object of Cavanaugh’s affections in Florida Hustle is spunky Lola Fernandez Famosa, who’s supporting her struggling cleaning-supply business, and drug habit, by working as a prostitute.

The trio’s adventures take them, among other places, to the Cypress Knee Museum, to the thick of the Everglades and to a Seminole-owned motel on the edge of the cypress swamp, whose proprietor runs poker games in a back room and dreams of building a huge casino on his property.

As time passed, more characters popped into his head – Cavanaugh’s daughter looking for her long-lost father; the hard-nosed, lovelorn detective; the drug dealer who happens to be a neat freak.

That last one is a particular favorite of Wilborn’s. “I’ve always liked humor in my work, but I think it should come naturally,” he says. “I don’t write jokes. The humor should come out of the situation.”

As characters intersected and new plotlines emerged, Wilborn kept at it.

He’d like to say that his innate brilliance at outlining and plotting made the story hum.

He’d like to, but he can’t.

“I’m not that calculating. When you’re writing, your brain is free-associating. You’re pulling stuff in – things happen, and if you’re really writing you kind of open up to the cosmos. I look back at things and think ‘Where did that come from?’

“Nobody’s that smart. But I think if you set things in motion … for me, if I’m deep in the writing, good things happen.”

The Florida Book Awards honored Cigar City with a prestigious gold medal. It was a sort of validation, Wilborn confesses – hey, I can really do this! – and it set the bar a little higher for his first novel.

“With the Ybor book, I was there, but I’m not one of those people who remembers every detail and every conversation,” he offers. “I came up with nine story ideas about characters who should have been there. Except for the last story, none of them were exactly the characters in the book.

“I love the freedom now of fiction – but it’s got to be told in a truthful way. And it’s got to be believable. This story could have happened, in my opinion.”

The book was “finished” a year ago. With advice and encouragement from his weekly writers’ group and other friends, he came back to it and added another coat of polish. “It didn’t change the super structure of the book,” says Wilborn. “I went through and wrote every page as best I could, and it ended up deepening all the characters.”

With a cover design by St. Pete artist Chad Mize, Florida Hustle is available at Tombolo Books and other retailers, along with Amazon and from publisher St. Petersburg Press.

Wilborn will be at Seven C Music June 14 to discuss Florida Hustle with author Craig Pittman (tickets, through Tombolo, are here).

“You don’t get into this to be a rich guy,” he says with a laugh. “You don’t write books for the wealth and fame. But I want to go to places and give book talks. I like that world. It’s a fun world – and as much as it will open up to me, I’m happy to head there.

“I love my Palladium stuff, I’m really happy in my job, but I’m just having great fun doing this and we’ll see where it goes.”





























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