Growing up in tiny Big Bend, Wisconsin – the local kids lovingly referred to their hometown as “Large Lump” – Kris Radish was desperate for a way out. At the age of 12, she started crafting a plan. “I was an avid reader – and I was like ‘Oh my God, the world is bigger than Big Bend! How can I parlay my love of reading into the rest of my life?’” She was 15 when she left home.
Fiercely independent, she became the first member of the family to attend college, paying for it herself via a series of odd jobs, ultimately earning a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin. Five decades, an astonishingly varied career and 15 books later, Kris Radish is the co-owner of Wine Madonna, the boutique wine lounge in downtown St. Petersburg, where she also mentors up-and-coming writers, sponsors literary events and hosts book club meetings.
She titled her 2014 collection of autobiographical essays Gravel on the Side of the Road: True Stories from a Broad Who Has Been There.
Radish’s lengthy career as a writer, editor, bureau chief and columnist, much of it spent in Utah, was the gateway drug that led to her transition to fiction.
The 80-hour work weeks wore her down. The constant travel. Working undercover to infiltrate a white supremacy group, exposing the peculiar kind of corruption that exists in the Mormon church, going on one violent ride-along after another with the local cops, getting stalked, bullied, threatened. That sort of stuff will take its toll. Her marriage ended in divorce.
“When I first thought of leaving journalism, I was going to go to law school – because that’s what I was doing anyway,” Radish, 65, explains. “I was also teaching part-time at Brigham Young University, and then I taught at the University of Wisconsin.”
Briefly, she entertained a second career as a psychologist. “My job, my whole life, has been getting people to tell me the things they didn’t want to tell me. I could have gotten both of these degrees for free, because I was teaching.’”
But no. She was a writer.
“If any writer tells you they don’t want to write a novel, they’re lying through their teeth,” she says. “One day you’re sitting there thinking ‘My God – I went to Bosnia, I was almost killed, I hung out of airplanes, I held that dying girl’s hand at UCLA, I saw that little boy get killed by a train – and I had to knock on the door and ask the questions.’ You might have cried when you asked the questions, but you did your job.”
Her first book, 1992’s Run, Bambi, Run, was a true-crime narrative about a notorious Milwaukee murder. “But what about all that emotion you have, about loss and love and death? Not to mention the fact that I am a woman, and I write about what I know. So I decided I was going to finally get it all out and write these novels.”
Published by Random House, Radish’s first novel, The Elegant Gathering of White Snows, arrived in 2002.
Six years later, Radish and her partner Madonna Metcalf devised a plan of their own. “Madonna came into my life when my kids were younger, and helped me, and when the kids got into college it was her turn,” Radish explains. “And her dream had always been to open up a wine bar.”
The couple relocated to California, where Metcalf studied for and received certification by the Court of Masters as a Sommelier and a Wine Professional. That accomplished, they went looking for a place to open Wine Madonna.
“As a writer,” Radish smiles, “I can live anywhere.”
The weather, of course, attracted them to Florida. “You’d have to be half blind not to see that St. Petersburg was going to go crazy. We looked everywhere in this area – we looked at Ybor, we looked at Clearwater, we looked at downtown Tampa, we looked at Sarasota. St. Pete was just humming. We could tell.
“When we opened this bar there was nothing here – a few places here, a few there – now you can’t walk three feet without bumping into a restaurant or a bar.”
Concurrently, the publishing business was feeling the heat of the national recession; the book-business model was changing. Random House did not renew her contract.
From its opening day in 2010, Wine Madonna was also a literary hub. The literature group Wordier Than Thou is based out of the bar, which is also ground zero for Radish’s annual literary retreats (read about them here).
“I always say that Wine Madonna is a social service agency that sells wine,” she claims. “I talk with people all the time who are interested in writing, and want to write books. I’m honest, but I never want to discourage anyone. If that’s what your passion is, then you have to do it.”
Radish herself has “never stopped writing. And I’ve written four or five books since I’ve been here.” She publishes through SparkPress.
Both of her now-adult children eventually moved to the bay area, and both worked at Wine Madonna.
Rachel Carpenter, Radish’s daughter, is the co-founder and CEO of Intrinio, the successful St. Pete startup focused on the burgeoning fintech industry. Her brother, Andrew Carpenter, is the company’s COO.
Radish and Metcalf were legally married last March.
Radish’s next projects – two novels and another work of non-fiction – are in various stages, in between conception and completion.
And she’s getting that old journalist itch back again. Coming soon is a redesigned website and a return to news blogging, reporting and commentating. Today’s news just plain bugs her. “As someone who was a working journalist, who prided herself on accuracy, who would go to her death to protect the written word and truth, I’m depressed every day,” she says.
So Kris Radish continues to see every new day as a challenge, which she thrives on. “Some people are really terrified of change,” she says. “I embrace it.”
Kris Radish’s website is here.