Books

Florida Men Craig Pittman and Tyler Gillespie on the Environment, Religious Cults, and Overblown Narratives

Craig Pittman (left) and Tyler Gillespie
Craig Pittman (left) and Tyler Gillespie Photo courtesy of Craig Pittman/Photo by Elizabeth Lynch
On November 16, two Florida Men will engage in an in-depth conversation about their latest books.

If you found that sentence lacking in catharsis, you are not alone. When used as an adjective, the word "Florida" typically sets the scene for a story that could usually be described as (a) cruel, (b) kinky, (c) quirky, or (d) all of the above.

In an attempt to unpack this phenomenon, Florida-grown authors Craig Pittman and Tyler Gillespie are coming to the Miami Book Fair, where they'll promote their newly released books exploring some bizarre facet of the Sunshine State.

"If you grow up in Florida, you'll never suffer from an irony deficiency, 'cause it's all around you," Pittman tells New Times. "It's a storyteller's paradise. It's really been that way for decades."

Pittman would know a good Florida story when he sees one. The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife, Pittman's latest book, is a collection of stories he's written in his 40-plus years as an investigative journalist. He spent roughly 28 of those years covering the environment for the Tampa Bay Times, a gig he discusses with the same pride as a high-schooler who snuck his bearded dragon into class.

"Covering the Florida environment is the greatest beat in American journalism," Pittman says. "Because number one: They pay you to run around on a boat now. And again, number two: You get to cover some of the wild, wacky stuff that goes on in Florida. Alligators battling pythons. A religious cult that smuggled giant African land snails into Florida cause they thought drinking the mucus would make you healthy."

Pittman's stories have an urgency to them, especially in regard to protecting Florida's rich, if hostile environment. His stories try to make sense of Florida to Floridians. Gillespie, on the other hand, writes about Florida's place on the national stage. Particularly Florida Man, the common headline that has become something of an American folk legend.

"Each chapter kind of looks at something similar, something that's either misunderstood or that I'm personally afraid of," Gillespie says. "For writing my book, I looked at different things that I thought were misunderstood about Florida, and I started with the misconception of Florida Man and all of that and looking into the history of that and then my own personal experiences and interviewing someone who was a Florida Man headline or Florida Woman."

In The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State, Gillespie takes a Florida story that went viral — "Florida Woman Slaps 72-Year-Old Who Denied Her Facebook Request" — and tries to uncover what happened both before and after the story hit.

"I'm super-interested in what happens before and after these headlines and just stories in general, because we get these soundbite headlines of Florida," Gillespie says. "There's just so much information and just how the internet circulates these stories, and so I'm really interested in what happened next to this person."

Upon doing the journalistic legwork, Gillespie found that the story was more nuanced than initially presented. The incident was characteristic of a Florida story in that the media made it easily digestible. He tracked down and interviewed the Florida Woman in question, finding a young lady plagued with substance-abuse issues.

"I interviewed her and her mom about what happened that night, and it turns out it was a more complicated story and that it was all of these family disputes," Gillespie says. "Not to downplay — there was a physical altercation, but it wasn't a slap over a Facebook friend request."

Ultimately, this tragic episode of a woman's life went through the life cycle of a 24-hour news story. Unfortunately, the fact that the story was forgotten on a macro scale doesn't mean that the people in her hometown will forget.

"It was brought up at her job, and she basically got bullied at her job because of it and lost her job," Gillespie notes. "There are financial implications a lot of the time too, which can be difficult for people to deal with."

While the two authors are Florida Men through and through, they have a different relationship with how their home state is perceived worldwide.

For many years Gillespie, a fifth-generation Floridian, struggled when mentioning his heritage. When he moved to Chicago in 2010, he realized he was a little embarrassed by the Sunshine State's reputation.

"That's when people would start asking me, 'What's up with Florida?'" Gillespie remembers. "So there would be times where I would lead people to believe that I was not from the state."

It wasn't until he moved to New Orleans to earn a master's in creative writing that Gillespie had his come-to-Florida moment. He was sitting in a bar with a fellow student from his program, a Texas gal who went to New Orleans to write about Americana and the poetry of country singers.

"I'm, like, talking about Florida, and she's like, 'Oh yeah, Texas has its own reputation,'" he recalls. "I just really respected how she owned Texas mythology and its own kind of weirdness in a way that I really thought was badass."

Pittman, on the other hand, doubles down on his home state's absurdity.

"I tell people, 'You should let your Florida freak flag fly,' because I think all of the conditions that make these weird stories occur are the same things that stir our creativity and help us to do the things and cause the events that influence the rest of the country," Pittman says. "Be proud of that fact."

In Conversation: On the State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife and The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State. Noon Tuesday, November 16, livestreamed via miamibookfaironline.com. Admission is free.
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Nicholas Olivera is a South Florida-based journalist who graduated with a degree in broadcast media from Florida International University. He claims to be from Miami Lakes, but really it's Hialeah.
Contact: Nicholas Olivera