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Jeff Klinkenberg talks about his new book, 'Son of Real Florida'

Published Mar. 14, 2018

Jeff Klinkenberg still isn't tired of writing about Florida.

For almost four decades, he wrote the Real Florida column for the Tampa Bay Times, rich portraits of the people and places that make the state unique.

Klinkenberg left the Times in 2014. This year, his work has garnered two awards: In early January, he was named one of three 2018 winners of the Florida Folk Heritage Awards, and at the end of January he received the Florida Humanities Council's 2018 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.

"It's been pretty amazing," Klinkenberg said during an interview at his home in St. Petersburg.

And that's not all the good news. The University Press of Florida just published his seventh book, Son of Real Florida: Stories From My Life. (That count doesn't include Davey Crockett and the Alligator, which he wrote and illustrated at age 6 and still has.)

Klinkenberg's earlier books have gathered versions of his Real Florida columns. This one includes some of those as well as pieces he has written for other publications. There's one striking difference in this book: Some of its chapters are about the author's own life, especially his childhood in Miami. All of them, personal and otherwise, reverberate with his deep knowledge of and love for Florida.

Klinkenberg and his wife, Susan King, have a home in downtown St. Petersburg, but they also spend time (particularly during hurricane season) at their house near Waynesville, N.C., just outside Great Smoky Mountain National Park. "You do get all the critters — bears, elk, snakes," he says. "But we're also 30 miles from Asheville." He likes the area for biking, too — at age 68, he rides about 100 miles a week.

At a recent lunch at his sunny, art-filled home, Klinkenberg served a hearty dish he has written about many times, his late mother Beatrice Mary Grace O'Donnell Klinkenberg's recipe for "American spaghetti." Afterward, he talked about his book, the inspirations for and subjects of Real Florida, and what he's working on now.

When you came to the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, you were an outdoors writer. How did Real Florida come to be?

There was a writer named Al Burt. He went to the University of Florida, wrote for the Miami Herald. He was a foreign correspondent, and in the 1960s he was wounded in friendly fire in the Dominican Republic.

It took him four or five years to recover, but he came back and started writing a column called Al Burt's Florida. I just loved those columns. Very elegant writing. He couldn't do much reporting — his wife had to drive him around — but he had this wonderful voice. I wanted to be him in the '80s.

So I made the pitch to (then-St. Petersburg Times editor Gene) Patterson, who was still there. He let me do it, with the travel for reporting. I always had pushback from editors who thought I should be doing something else.

Burt was tremendously supportive. Marjory Stoneman Douglas was, too. I had never met her then, but I used to send her stuff I thought she'd be interested in about the Everglades. Once in a while I would get a note in this scratchy handwriting. When I first met her, she was 102. I wrote a big profile of her.

Later I was inspired by other writers, too, like John McPhee and Joseph Mitchell. McPhee does that immersion reporting, and I liked the kinds of things he was writing about. Mitchell wrote about clammers and the Bowery and the Don't-Swear Man.

They're my heroes. I still read them. I don't read many books on my phone or my tablet, but I do have them, so I can always dip in.

Do you miss daily journalism?

It's been four years, and I still miss that newsroom. There's nothing like a newsroom.

I had a great readership. Some of them were newcomers who were starting over and wanted to know, where am I living? Then there were the old-timers who wanted to see if I got it right.

How did it feel to find out you had received the lifetime achievement award from the Florida Humanities Council?

I won't exactly say I'm not surprised, because I am surprised. There are lots of really great writers in Florida who are very deserving. But you can be deserving and never get it.

I'd love to see the award go to (Florida poet laureate) Peter Meinke. Florida has always been in his work. Randy Wayne White is another one.

The book is coming out, I win these two awards. My youngest daughter is getting married in May, in Tuscany. I want to enjoy it all.

I do feel a sense of time, a sense of mortality. This book means a lot to me. Those awards mean a lot to me. It's nice to have some kind of lasting recognition.

Your new book is more personal than your earlier ones, and some of the pieces about your childhood deal with harrowing memories. Why did you decide to include those?

I loved my parents, and they loved their kids, but a lot of the time they didn't know what they were doing. That's true of everybody, but they had a lot of baggage. I was pretty angry for a long time, but the time came for me to let it go. I wrote about it for the Times, and it helped me. And I think it helped a lot of readers.

How did you choose the other stories in the book, and how much did you change them?

It's mostly stuff from the last five or six years. I really tweaked these stories, changed the verb tense. I wanted to make them more personal, give them more of a voice. The book has some of my favorite profiles of all time, like Nathan Martin.

There's some music stuff, like the Beatles story (about people who encountered the band during their Miami visit in 1964) and the one about my dad and Liberace. I love food culture, so there are stories about Joe's Stone Crab and Robert Is Here (a popular produce stand in Homestead).

The longest piece is the one about tomato scientists I wrote for the University of Florida. When I turned in the draft, there was also a very long one about a shark attack specialist, but UPF decided it was just too much.

You've been writing quite a bit since you left the Times. What are you working on now?

I'm working on a project for the city of Tampa about Roberts City. Hardly anyone remembers it. It was across the river from downtown, from where the performing arts center is. It was founded as Ellinger in 1893, then named Roberts City in 1907.

Cubans, Italians, African-Americans all lived there side by side. It had cigar factories with lectors, fishing docks. Phillips Field was there, where Tampa Prep is now.

But post-World War II, the interstate and urban renewal wiped it out. Most of the people who remember it are very old.

I've been interviewing two of them. One guy is 89, one is 90. They've been friends since they were in kindergarten. They're both African-American. They've been telling me all these Huck Finn adventures they had, about bolita, and the chickens and goats and cattle in the neighborhood. They would find Seminole arrowheads all over the place, but instead of taking them to a museum, they made their own arrows with them and shot at each other.

Back then blacks couldn't shop in the stores downtown. If a mother wanted to buy her child a pair of shoes, they couldn't go in and try them on, because black people weren't allowed to try on anything. The mom would have to trace the kid's foot on a piece of paper and present that.

Do you see other journalists doing the kind of work you did in Real Florida?

Mike Wilson (one of Klinkenberg's editors at the Times, to whom he dedicated the book) always told me, just go out and find something. But nobody's doing that any more. You can go up and down the coast of Florida where people used to write these stories, and it's all gone. It's part of what's happening to newspapers, and it's the sensibility. If someone gets attacked by an alligator, it gets in the paper. But the flesh and blood stories don't.

I was able to use Florida to write about everything. Murder, food, music, anything. I tell young reporters about the Emersonian idea of genius — that something you have that nobody else has. Find that, and sell it to an editor.

Things that seem a little bit small — there's a whole universe in them.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.
Follow @colettemb.

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