Tim Dorsey, “Hurricane Punch” author: Mr. Media Interview, Pt. 1

The first time I tried my hand at fiction in high school, it was a way of dealing with people and issues that I couldn’t handle in real life. My friends thought it was hysterical and that I was a little twisted.

In college, I again used fiction writing for my personal aims, this time to deal with my frustrating inability to get laid as a freshman at the University of Miami. I thought it might be a way of leveling the playing field. It didn’t change my virginal status, but as the manuscript was handed around the dormitory, I earned a different kind of reputation. I was the guy who remembered and chronicled all the stuff that happened when everyone else was falling-down drunk, and I was the guy who, if you messed with me, would get even with you at the typewriter.

My father once said to me, “Nothing bad will ever happen to you because you’ll just write about it and get even.”

And isn’t that what the power of the press is all about?

Twenty-five years later, I read the latest novel by Tim Dorsey. Hurricane Punch reminded me of, well, me. As I turned the pages and read about people being barbecued by military meals-ready-to-eat lasagna or being fried by the world’s most powerful guitar amp, I remembered the thrill of brutalizing the people I thought were idiots or who had done me wrong.

Dorsey, who’s joining us today (April 12, 2007), is a former journalist who made it out alive, having worked at the Tampa Tribune from 1987 until 1999.

Hurricane Punch, which was published in February 2007, is Dorsey’s ninth novel. It’s an all-too-funny story about life in the world’s emerging media capital, Tampa Bay, during hurricane season. It skewers the media left and right, which made it perfect for discussion here.

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BOB ANDELMAN: Tim, welcome to Mr. Media.

TIM DORSEY: Oh, thank you for having me.

ANDELMAN: Not to make your interview all about me, Tim, but am I the only one who thinks fiction writing is a great place for vengeance?

DORSEY: Umm, actually, I think maybe that’s the chord that I struck. It’s a lot broader than I think even my publisher or my agent thought. Originally, I guess it was presumed that these would be more of a cult or underground type thing, but just if you look at my Web site, the pictures of my audiences, they look the local neighborhood association. Well, I have a theory about that, and that is that even more so than your background and mine, I think out there there is this kind of untapped reservoir of this feeling that all the people that obey the rules and are good pillars of the community, there is a growing resentment that the people who are breaking the rules are winning. Maybe vicariously, through Serge and the books, they see these miscreants who are getting their just desserts.

ANDELMAN: I was kind of reminded of the Zach Braff character on “Scrubs” who is dealing with real life, and you always see what’s actually going on in his head and what he’d like to do and how he’d like to deal with the person. And that’s pretty much what Serge does. I mean, he just deals with it the way he wants to. He doesn’t seem to filter things like the rest of us do.

DORSEY: That’s the best part of doing this, it’s a matter of not censoring your imagination, and I think we all have this sort of stream of consciousness to one degree or another where, as we go through the day, we have this internal dialogue, and it’s basically, he is just externalizing our collective internal dialogue, I think. I don’t mean to be so heavy about it (laughs), but really, we all have these little voices and these little things going on as we drive around and curse at people on the highway, anyway…

ANDELMAN: Oh, absolutely. Well, I was going to ask you, I mean, it seems like there is a little passive-aggressive streak at work with the author here?

DORSEY: Oh, absolutely! It’s kind of funny. And I have a great temper, probably as a result of the books, but at the beginning, I guess,

maybe there was a lot of bottled-up frustration that ended up coming out as Serge’s violent streak. And then as my dreams came true and I got books published and sales started going up and royalties started going up, I became quite happy. People started complaining that Serge wasn’t killing enough people, and they were criticizing the books, so they pissed me off, and I killed more people.

ANDELMAN: A lot of what happens happens on the road in different places, and I got to wondering. I saw that you have done well over 800 personal appearances for the books over the years. Do you find yourself hatching up ways to kill people while you’re out traveling?

DORSEY: Yes. Actually, when I speak to writers’ groups, I explain that most of my best writing is — and I don’t mean to be glib here — but it’s done like in the shower or while driving. What I mean by that is, I don’t sit down at the computer and think of what I’m going to write. I already pretty much know what I’m going to write by the time I sit down, because I’ve kind of daydreamed it and turned it over and visualized it in my head while doing other stuff.

ANDELMAN: Did you ever think that Serge was going to become, I don’t know if alter ego, because, you know, hopefully you’re not quite like that, but did you think that you’d be living with him 10 years later?

DORSEY: You know, I guess it’s like young people. They don’t look for the future. You know, if you’re 18 or you’re 21, you never think of being 25. It’s like when I started, I just wanted to get one book published and just be able to hold a hardcover with my name on it in my hand, and that would have just been, you know, like winning the lottery, and I really didn’t think beyond that. But it just took off, and I ended up connecting on levels that my publisher and I didn’t necessarily expect.

ANDELMAN: You and I have never met or officially crossed paths, but I was actually at the Tampa Tribune in l986.

DORSEY: I came in 1987.

ANDELMAN: Right, and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine a couple of things while reading Hurricane Punch. One is, I guess by the time you were writing the book, you were a copy editor by then. You were no longer out working a beat. But I know that room that you were in, and I know what had been going on in the years leading up to that. I mean, you make reference in the novel a lot to “convergence,” and I can just imagine a copy editor sitting around daydreaming about other things. Am I wrong this was going on?

DORSEY: Doing anything but the work I was paid to do (laughs).

ANDELMAN: Exactly. Yes.

DORSEY: Actually, it’s interesting. As I was working on the very first book, which was Florida Roadkill, I wasn’t going to have violence or crime or anything in the books, I was just going to have satires on Florida because I felt that would be a crutch, but it’s been a great crutch. I finally had an epiphany that basically the crime and all of the news stories I’ve covered either as a reporter or an editor, it’s what I know, and I had a large tank of material to tap into. Literally the day the first book got published is when I left the Tribune, but while I was working on that first book, I was writing it at home, but as you know, when you write something, it’s constantly, even though you have an outline, it changes as you go along.

Each shift at the paper, whatever my imagination might have thought up, quite often reality would trump it. Something would come over the AP wire, or the cop reporter would come over and tell me something, an arrest report he just picked up, and I would slide open my drawer and get my note pad and make a note for the next chapter.

ANDELMAN: So you didn’t actually write this at work? I’m very disappointed to hear that.

DORSEY: Oh, Hurricane Punch?

ANDELMAN: No, I mean Florida Roadkill. I was really hoping to hear that you wrote it in between stories at the Tribune.

DORSEY: Oh, no, no. Actually, I really didn’t. I would take shorthand notes if I saw a news story come across that I thought I could use, but no, I did this… And I worked the night desk, so I would think about it at work, but I would come home and write late into the night after the night shift or get up early. It was one of those sorts of med student residency crucibles that you have to survive, pulling a double shift like that, but…. Nobody has time to write a book. You just have to do it while juggling the other job.

ANDELMAN: You used up an awful lot of pop culture and Florida news references in this book. I was amazed. It seemed like every time I turned a page, it was like, oh, right, there’s Terry Sciavo… Did you use too many? Did you really have enough for the next book?

DORSEY: I’ll tell you, I have a stack of newspapers right next to me here in my office, and it’s like a conveyor belt. You never use it up. Remember the Lucille Ball episode with the cream pies coming down? You’re never going to run out of weird news stories in Florida. There will always be… You can’t get enough books out, frankly.

ANDELMAN: You must get asked about this a lot. What is it about Florida? We certainly have this whole Florida fiction genre now. Yourself and Carl Hiaasen and others, and then there’s things like my friend Chuck Shepherd who does the “News of the Weird” column. There is so much that happens in Florida on a regular basis, he does a whole separate thing called “The F State.”

DORSEY: Well, I think first as far as the genre, and this goes to another question that people ask as far as what is it with the journalists so heavily populating that school of writing? The question answers itself there that the ones who read the news, especially the little stuff on the wires that doesn’t necessarily make the paper, all those little tidbits, that’s responsible for the genre of basically the journalists. And then the other part as far as why it’s so odd, I just think it’s a combination of the weather and the lack of control of the state. There is a robust business in the economy, but nobody’s really running things in the overall sense. Everything is up for grabs, and there is such growth and transiency of population that people just pass each other. It’s very easy for somebody who’s on the lam or doing no good to sort of blend in or hide in the cracks.

ANDELMAN: Serge certainly does that. I mean, that’s amazing. Is the character today, is he different than the way he started 10 years ago? You said you didn’t plan on all the violence and mayhem that way, but are there other aspects of him that are different, or is he pretty consistent 10 years out?

DORSEY: I think he’s probably a lot different, and not by plan or anything but simply unconsciously as, if you write over the course, I mean, if I look back over a nine-year span of when I was working for newspapers and I took clips that I wrote at the beginning and clips at the end, there is a difference in writing, and I just think just the inevitable, unconscious changes in your writing as you go along will affect the characters.

ANDELMAN: Hurricane Punch in particular is as much about Serge as it is about the media, the Tampa Bay media in particular. Was that aspect of it too easy to write in parody?

DORSEY: The media part?

ANDELMAN: Yeah.

DORSEY: That’s the thing as far as this book, it was one of the easiest to write, and therefore one of the most fun, and I think that helped the book. I think if it’s work and you are not enjoying it, I think that will show up in the final product. But no, this was a blast.

ANDELMAN: It seemed like Jeff McSwirley, and I love that name, who’s the journalist in the book and one of the protagonists, he works for not the Tampa Tribune or the St. Pete Times but a third Tampa Bay daily, but I mean, it seemed to me that Tampa Bay Today, as it’s called in the book, it really reminded me of the Tampa Tribune under Doyle Harville. There was a period of, oh, all the convergence, we’re going to do the Internet here, and we brought the TV station in, and we’re going to do news. Am I wrong?

DORSEY: I think time line-wise, it was a little later, but no, I mean, you’re accurate in that it was an industry-wide movement, and the Tribune was part of it, but one thing I wanted to stress by having a fictitious third party newspaper is that there are places where I have taken it to the extreme, and I didn’t want to say that it was the Tribune, because it’s not. But my experience is that the media has got to be there. Frankly, this is what I intended to do all along, but I really loved working at the Tribune, and I have so many friends there. They’ve gotten a kick out of this, because they are all in the media, and they have seen what’s happened… Hopefully, it’s enjoyed on a broad level, but I think journalists in particular kind of smile at a lot of the references.

ANDELMAN: It did seem more to me reflective of the Tribune than in any way, really, the St. Pete Times, and I just assumed that that was mostly because, well, of course, you worked at the Tribune

DORSEY: Oh sure. Absolutely. I mean, if I’m going to describe a newsroom or one of the news meetings or this or that, it’s going to be either consciously or subconsciously from the memories of where I worked. So yeah, absolutely, and my knowledge of the Times is much less.

© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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