It takes a brave man to write a frank nonfiction book about the retirement center that has been home to his mother and many of her friends.
It takes another shot of courage to go back to the place and face all those friends at a book signing.
But Dudley Clendinen's just-published book, A Place Called Canterbury: Tales From the New Old Age, gets a glowing review from one of its main (and most tart-tongued) characters, Sarah Jane Rubio. She says, with a saucy grin, "I thought he got everybody just right — except me."
Clendinen got a warm welcome when he read from the book recently at Canterbury Towers, a luxury retirement facility on Bayshore Boulevard. Noting that his relationship with its residents (whose average age is 86) and staff has lasted longer than some marriages, he got them laughing by telling them why he chose "my sexiest photo" for the book's jacket flap.
"It all started with The Perfect Storm," Clendinen says in a deep voice softened by a Southern accent. "Sebastian Junger had this incredibly sexy author photo on the back cover. The book sold 3-million copies, bought mostly by women who were not previously known to be interested in fishing boats."
Before he got around to choosing that author photo, Clendinen, who lives in Baltimore, spent more than 400 days and nights at Canterbury Tower over more than a decade.
His visits began when his mother, Bobbie, moved there in 1994, after his father died. A lifelong Tampa resident, Bobbie felt comfortable about the move because so many of her friends were there.
After she suffered several devastating strokes a few years later (she died in 2007), her son spent more time there and grew closer to many residents and staff members.
Over breakfast at Hugo's in Hyde Park (he brings along a jar of guava jelly for the Cuban toast), Clendinen says, "I just find these people fascinating. They're so full of life."
He was also struck by what he calls the "new old age" — people are living longer than they ever have, and no one is quite sure how to navigate that. "When we were young, we drove our parents crazy. Now, these people are driving their children crazy. It's only fair."
Clendinen, 63, was born into storytelling. His father, James Clendinen, was the longtime editorial page editor of the Tampa Tribune; his mother edited its food, society and women's pages.
"I grew up lucky. I grew up in a land of stories," he says.
The Tampa of his youth, and his parents' youth, plays a big role in A Place Called Canterbury. "It's what I know. And this is a book about character, and character comes out of context."
It was a richly interesting place to grow up, he says. While he was a student at Plant High School, one of his girlfriends lived down the street from a Mafia don. His father told stories of covering elections when the city was so corrupt that men with machine guns guarded the polling places.
Clendinen followed in the family footsteps, working as a reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times, the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications.
He wrote and edited several books along the way. The last one he came to Tampa to promote, he says, was Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, which he co-wrote in 1999 with New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney.
"I would tell people here in Tampa that the book was a history of the gay rights movement, and they would say, 'That's nice.' " Pause. "Then they'd say, 'How about those Bucs?' "
Writing that book, he says, was such a big and complex project that he wanted his next book to be "something dear and fond and funny to me, something personal. Out for Good was personal in a way, of course, but it was history."
He found that fond and funny subject in Canterbury Tower. An excerpt from the book-in-progress was published by the New York Times in 2002 to considerable acclaim. He thought he had finished the book last year, and then his mother died. "She gave me the final chapter," he says of the deeply moving account of her death.
That is not, however, the end of the story. He plans a trilogy of books about Canterbury.
He wants to write more about the facility's staff, especially the caretakers who deal with the disabled and demented with remarkable patience and grace. He wrote about some of them in the book, but, he says, "I would like to go into their lives more.
"We live in such a banal, greedy, celebrity-worshipping, morally degraded culture that we don't give people any credit for nobility."
He also expects to write more about the characters who inhabit this book, such as Martha Sweet, a Canterbury resident who opened her home to him. At the book signing, Sweet said, "He was such a good friend to me after my husband died and I was so lonesome. Who knew he'd go and write a g------ book?"
Sweet laughed ruefully about one tale that features her and a suitor: "Remember the guy with the wooden leg?"
She also dished a little about Clendinen, describing a visit with him in Baltimore. "I went into the bathroom, and there was a life-size copy of Gainsborough's Blue Boy, with Dudley's face."
After a round of signings in the Tampa Bay area, Clendinen is heading north to continue the book tour in Baltimore, New York and other cities.
For the last several years, Clendinen says, he has worked full-time on A Place Called Canterbury, and he hopes to do the same for the sequels. It's all a fond and personal story, but it also addresses issues about aging and family relationships that touch almost everyone.
He writes to make a difference, Clendinen says. "I'm dead broke, but I've never been happier."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.