Jack E. Davis says that he wrote his book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea for "the wider range of readers."
"I wanted people to see (the Gulf of Mexico) for all that it is," Davis says. "It’s not just an oil sump or a sunning beach or a hurricane alley. I wanted to write about its historical significance within the larger American narrative."
The book is likely to reach a very wide range: On Thursday night, it won the 2017 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction, a major literary award that brings winners $50,000. (For other winners, go to kirkusreviews.com/prize/.)
"I never expected it," Davis says by phone from Austin, Texas, where Kirkus Reviews, the publication that gives the awards, is headquartered. "I was happy just to be a finalist, to be in Austin for the ceremony, come out here and meet some interesting people.
Davis, 61, is a professor of history and sustainability studies at the University of Florida. He graduated from Largo High School in 1974, earned his master’s degree at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and his Ph.D. at Brandeis University.
Davis will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 11 at USFSP. He’ll speak at noon in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion. (Information at tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading/.)
The Gulf, a sweeping history of human interaction with the Gulf of Mexico from prehistory to the present, has been widely and positively reviewed, but Davis says he’s especially gratified by the response he’s received from readers.
"I’ve really been pleased to get fan email every week, from all over the country — not just the South but the West Coast, the Midwest, everywhere — and it’s been overwhelmingly positive and grateful. People say, thank you for writing this book."
As for the cash that comes with the Kirkus Prize, Davis says, "My plan first is to pay my mother’s property taxes. She lives in Largo. She’s 90 years old.
"Then I want to pick out a gulf restoration and conservation group in each of the five states (around the gulf) and make donations."
He is preparing a proposal for his next book, Davis says. "My working title is Bird of Paradox: How the Bald Eagle Saved the Soul of America.
"The thing with environmental writers is we’re always preaching to the choir. I think this subject can reach across the aisle. It’s the real red, white and blue. It’s a great comeback story. The American people did the right thing."
Davis is already gathering the kind of surprising facts that made The Gulf such a revelatory book. "Alaska blew away 100,000 of them," he says. "While it was still a territory, they paid a bounty for bald eagles, from 1917 to 1952. Now they have the largest population of bald eagles, and no place is more conservative than Alaska."
The Gulf is a winner, and for Davis it’s also a book close to his heart. "Living on the gulf is what inspired this book, having that intimate relationship with it. I just want everyone to know what it is, and what it has the potential to be."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.