Raymond Arsenault, Randy Wayne White win Florida Humanities Council’s Lifetime Achievement award

Arsenault, an eminent civil rights historian, and White, a bestselling crime fiction writer, both find inspiration in Florida’s unique history.
Published February 12

The winners of the Florida Humanities Council’s 2019 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing are Raymond Arsenault and Randy Wayne White.

That’s “winners” plural, for the first time in the award’s 10-year history. A panel of five judges (I was one) chose, from a field of 24 nominees, two distinguished Florida authors who write in very different fields — but who both find inspiration in Florida’s history.

After they were notified on Monday that they had received the award, Arsenault said, “I’m particularly honored to get it the same year as Randy Wayne White. I’m a big fan of his books. We’re so eager to meet him — that’s what my wife is really excited about.” White, for his part, said of Arsenault, “I’ve certainly heard a lot about his work, and I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

Arsenault and White talked to the Times by phone. The interviews are edited for length.

Raymond Arsenault

Arsenault, 71, is the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he co-founded the Florida studies program. He has published nine books about the history of the South and the civil rights movement, most recently the acclaimed biography Arthur Ashe: A Life. A documentary based on his 2006 book Freedom Riders won several Emmy awards. He lives in St. Petersburg.

How do you feel about receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing?

I’m thrilled. It’s a wild week — I’m giving four talks on the Ashe book and two talks at the World Affairs Conference (at USFSP).

How long have you been on the USF faculty?

I’ve been at USF since 1980, for 39 years, all at St. Petersburg. When I arrived I’m not sure I knew how much difference it would make to be here and not in Tampa. This campus, I just really love it. And St. Petersburg, too.

You worked for almost a decade on the Arthur Ashe biography. What has life been like since it was published?

It’s been great. The book debuted on Aug. 21 at the U.S. Open. I did a PBS News Hour interview, and they gave me a press pass, so I could wander around on the courts. It was really fun.

The book got just a great reaction. Toure wrote a wonderful review in the New York Times, and they named it an Editor’s Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books. It was on best books lists in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, NPR, USA Today. And it was one of President Obama’s favorite 11 books of the summer. I was so happy to hear he had actually read it.

It was nominated for some of the big prizes, the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer. But it’s just been great to see the reaction to Arthur Ashe, to the empowering parts of his story. People know him as a tennis star, but I think his real greatness is in his activism.

I see my last three books (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice; The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America; Arthur Ashe) as a trilogy of civil rights stories that were somehow missed. They’re about the cultural aspect of the civil rights struggle rather than the political. Artists, athletes — they really made cracks in the mold of Jim Crow culture.

Does Florida play a part in Ashe’s story?

Oh yes, there’s a big Florida line of interest in the book. He spent several months every year at Doral. (Ashe was tennis director at the Doral Resort and Country Club in Miami.) His first big break as a 15-year-old was at the Orange Bowl, where he played a white South African. There was a lot of tension, not between them but in the audience.

How did USFSP’s graduate-level Florida studies program begin?

It grew out of my friendship with Gary Mormino (another USFSP history professor, who won the same award in 2015). We’ve been friends for 35 years. In 1996 we started a book series for the University Press of Florida, the Florida History and Culture Series. We looked for all kinds of books, memoirs, monographs, environmental writing. By any standard it was a success. It published 50 books by the time Gary retired in 2013.

We were interested in Florida as its own regional culture, so we started the Florida studies program in 2003. It came out of the book series. Florida is more than a state. It’s the borderlands between the Caribbean and the Confederacy.

What’s your next project, after the 784-page Ashe biography?

My Marian Anderson book is being made into an episode of American Masters, a two-hour documentary, so I’ve been doing interviews for that. There’s also strong interest in a feature film based on the Ashe book, but I can’t talk about the details yet.

I’m also talking to Oxford University Press about writing a real little book for their Very Short Introductions series. I might do one about Martin Luther King Jr., about 140 pages. I think that’s about all I’ve got left in me.

Randy Wayne White

White, 69, is the author of 29 bestselling crime fiction novels, four collections of nonfiction and two cookbooks. Best known for his 25-book series about Sanibel Island marine biologist and investigator Doc Ford (the most recent is Caribbean Rim), White is a former journalist and fishing guide and now also a restaurateur. His fourth Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill is scheduled to open near the Pier in St. Petersburg later this year. He lives in Sanibel.

How do you feel about receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing?

I’d like to think I’m not old enough. But if I can do something to impress my wife, I couldn’t be happier.

Florida has been so incredibly good to me. To be honored this way, I’m just taken aback.

A hallmark of your fiction is your vivid descriptions of Florida and its natural and human history. How has the state shaped your writing?

I had the great good fortune in the 1970s, when I was working as a fishing guide, to discover this beautiful little fishing village on Pine Island. It’s a national archaeological district now. (The site was first occupied by people of the Caloosahatchee culture several thousand years ago.) When I first saw those shell mounds and pyramids, those courtyards and canals, I was struck to the bone.

In my travels around Florida I’ve learned that we live in an ancient, ancient space. It’s a delicate, sometimes dangerous, beautiful place. Florida is just a stellar character. I’ve been so lucky to see places that are still untouched and pure, even after human habitation in this place for more than 7,000 years.

When I wrote the first Doc Ford novel in my house on Pine Island (next to the archaeological site), I worked on the porch. It might seem fanciful, but I realized that, at that precise intersection of space, people have been telling stories for thousands of years.

You’re getting ready to open a Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg soon. How is that going?

It’s very exciting. My partners are going at it hammer and tongs. The mayor’s office could not be nicer, Mayor Kriseman. And Kanika Tomalin has been great.

We’ll be right next to the St. Petersburg Museum of History. What a pearl that place is, what a gem.

What are you writing next?

My next book will be the first in a middle-grade YA series. Doc Ford and Hannah Smith (the main character in four of his novels) are both central characters, but it’s about three children. They work for Doc, tagging sharks. There are two sisters who came over from Cuba on a raft. And there’s a slow-thinking farm boy. If you think that sounds like me, you’re right.

The series (to be published by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan) is Sharks Incorporated. The first one is called Fins. The writing demands are quite different, clarity and such. I’m finishing the edits. I’m not sure when it will be out — summer or fall.

Then I’m doing another Doc Ford for Putnam’s for next year. For four years I was writing two books a year, and it was too much. I gained weight. I need to get fit, and I need to have some fun.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.