Craig Pittman did not expect to be named a Florida Literary Legend.
“I have this T-shirt that says, ‘Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.’ They’re the legends. I’m the guy that buys the T-shirt.”
The board of the Florida Heritage Book Festival begs to differ. They named Pittman, the award-winning environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the author of five books, their 2020 Florida Literary Legend on Oct. 6. He’ll receive the award on Feb. 21 at a ceremony in St. Augustine.
He’s in some pretty high-flying company. Other Florida Literary Legends include Edna Buchanan, Michael Connelly, Harry Crews, Tim Dorsey, Michael Gannon, Carl Hiaasen, Stetson Kennedy, Peter Matthiessen, Patrick Smith and Randy Wayne White.
Pittman says he’s honored. “But I can think of other people who deserve it,” he says, like novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat and children’s author Judy Blume. “She doesn’t write much any more, but she has a bookstore in Key West.”
This is far from the first honor for Pittman, 58. He has been the Times’ environmental reporter since 1998; his work has won the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida four times and twice won the top investigative reporting award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
His most recent book, Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, won the gold medal for Florida nonfiction in the 2016 Florida Book Awards. He’s also the author of Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss (co-written with Matthew Waite), Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species and The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid.
His fifth book, Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther, will be published in January.
Pittman, a Pensacola native, lives with his family in St. Petersburg. In a release from the Florida Heritage Book Festival, he said, “I’ve been blessed to have some excellent editors over the years, including my wife, who does the first read on every book I write. And, I thank God every day that I was born here in Florida, the most interesting state, which guarantees I’ll never run out of good stories to write about.”
We talked to Pittman about achieving legendary status.
As an environmental reporter and in your books, you’ve written about Florida in terms of Red Tide, invasive species, disappearing habitats, bizarre behavior and political malfeasance. In short, you’ve made a career of saying bad things about Florida, and now it’s named you a Literary Legend. What does that tell you about Florida?
But I say good things about it, too. In Oh, Florida! I wrote about the beautiful beaches and the cotton candy sunsets. I wrote about people who did good things, not just the crazy ones. A lot of the time I’m just following in the footsteps of Carl Hiaasen, but I look for happy endings. I waited until I could find a happy ending to write Manatee Insanity, or at least a hopeful ending. In Paving Paradise, Matt and I made suggestions about how to fix the problems. Nobody did it, but ... Scent of Scandal was just fun.
Who are some of the Florida legends who inspired you?
I always have to credit John D. MacDonald, because his books, introduced to me by my chain-smoking great-aunt, showed me that not all crime happens in New York and L.A. I learned that some of the places I went camping with my Boy Scout troop, and went hunting and fishing with my dad, were where some crimes were committed, and the connections between those crimes and the loss of environmental habitat.
There’s Zora Neale Hurston, whose Their Eyes Were Watching God is such a great book. That and (MacDonald’s) Condominium are really scary books about hurricanes. Ray Hinst at Haslam’s told me that Condominium was the book MacDonald toured most heavily with, because he wanted people to know about (hurricane effects).
Then there’s Klink (former Tampa Bay Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg). His columns had some of the really wild stuff about Florida, but also the humanity in it.
How did you choose the subject of your next book, Cat Tale?
I had wanted to write about Florida panthers for at least a dozen years, maybe more. It’s such a compelling story. People just had to pull out all the stops to save them. Their habitat was disappearing because of junk science.
It’s a human story, too. There was a biologist who tried to save a panther with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
There’s this grizzled old Texas hunter, Roy McBride, who used to hunt mountain lions that were killing sheep. Then he decided he liked the mountain lions better. At one point the Florida panther was declared extinct; they said there were no more of them. The World Wildlife Fund hired Roy to come to Florida and look for them. He found one. When they decided to breed the Florida cats with Texas cougars to try to save them, he was the one who went to Texas and caught them and brought them here. It’s a hysterically funny story. He’s a legend in the Southwest.
It’s just a great yarn with fascinating characters, a story that hasn’t really been told. Parts of it have been reported, but it’s never been put together. A few years ago, I finally got the hopeful ending. The first signing will be Jan. 19 at Haslam’s. I always start (book tours) at Haslam’s.
How has being named a Florida Literary Legend changed your life?
Well, I’m still waiting for the big endorsement deals and the special parking place and, of course, the paparazzi. I think I did add two Twitter followers, though.
If, as a legend, you could pick a superpower, what would it be?
Flying, so I could soar over the traffic jams on I-4. Faster than a flying cockroach!