When Tim Dorsey started writing his first novel, Florida Roadkill, in about 1997, it had a bad guy named Serge Storms. In the first draft, the plan was to kill him off.
Then Dorsey had a change of heart, and legions of readers are glad he did.
Mermaid Confidential, Dorsey’s 25th novel about Serge, lover of all things Florida and occasional killer, was published this week.
This book finds the brilliant and hyperactive Serge and his self-sedated pal, Coleman, living in a condo called Pelican Bay on Islamorada in the Florida Keys — a switch from their usual frantic road trips. But they still cross paths with Colombian drug lords, a gang of vicious robbers with a treasure map and (shiver) condo culture.
A reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune before he became a full-time novelist, Dorsey was a longtime Tampa resident before moving to the Keys a couple of years ago.
Dorsey is famous in his beloved Florida for his multistop book tours, but for Mermaid Confidential things are different. “My car’s not loaded up. I’m home watching TV, just emailing with my publisher.”
He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his writing career, Serge’s origins and his sometimes startlingly diverse fan base. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Where are you now?
I’m in Islamorada.
Have you been there for the whole pandemic?
Pretty much. I got here and it started right away.
Are you living in Pelican Bay?
I don’t want to say too much, but I am.
When did you start writing your first book, Florida Roadkill?
I had snippets, little false starts, probably starting in about 1990, about nine years before Florida Roadkill came out.
I always wanted to write a novel, and I knew I wanted to have Florida in the novel. I went back and looked and I had some really usable sections, so I pulled some sections out of those early attempts.
I finally got on track with the plot in October or November of ‘97. Once I got started and had the framework, I had the first draft in about two months. I got an agent in spring of ‘98, he sold the book and it came out in 1999.
So there was a long period of nothing, then once it got started it all clicked.
When Florida Roadkill was published, did you think, someday I’ll be publishing the 25th book in this series?
No. All I was thinking was how excited I was to have that first book out. But by the time I got to book three I was like, wow. And it just kept rolling along.
Where did Serge come from? Did you have him in mind all along?
Serge showed up about a third or halfway through the first draft (of Florida Roadkill). I had a villain and some good characters, and I was going to work up to a confrontation between these people.
I always liked James Bond villains, you know, these really smart people who are borderline insane. So I thought, to make the confrontation that much better, I’m going to really supersize this villain. I also wanted to cram in as much Floridiana as possible, but I had way too much.
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So Serge went on his first rant. I thought, I’m going to show how nuts he is. So of course the rant is about Florida. Then he went on another rant, about Florida again. I thought I was going to be too indulgent, putting all this Florida stuff in. But when he did it, it was character building.
After his second rant, it was a revelation: This is the main character. I could see where I needed to go, adjust my coordinates. So in the second draft I made him the main guy.
He was just going to be in that one book. He was killed off in the first one originally. Luckily, I said to myself, don’t kill him off. You’re going to need this guy.
What was Coleman’s genesis?
Coleman was based on a friend I know. The material I got for these books just knowing him over the years was priceless. Other friends, little pieces of them, are in there, too.
Serge is really intelligent. He has a large vocabulary, he knows science and history. I needed a foil. Writing the dialogue is easier if some dumb self-sedated guy is always asking questions and making idiotic comments in response.
Also, Serge is exhausting to be around. The only person who could take long-term road trips with him would be someone who’s self-sedated.
When did you first come up with the road trip as a structural device for the books?
That started in the outlining of Florida Roadkill. I thought, there’s going to be a chase over money. It can start in Tampa Bay, because I was living there, but where does it need to go? I listed all the places I wanted him to go. It was the only way to get in all the Florida places I wanted to include as sort of characters in the books.
How long did you work at the Tampa Tribune while writing the books?
I wrote the first one while I was there. Then my agent got me a two-book contract, but they wanted the second one early, so I wrote that while I was there. The day Florida Roadkill went on sale was my last day at the Tribune. So there was a one-day overlap between working at the Trib and publishing my first book.
People ask me, weren’t you nervous to take a chance, give up a career? No, I would have been far more nervous not giving it a shot. How many times does it even happen once that you get a chance like that? So I just said, damn the torpedoes. I would do as many events and as much marketing as I could to get it started.
I didn’t know how nervous I should have been. I had a series locked in before I figured out how unlocked in it really was.
You became kind of famous for your book tours. What were they like?
I could gauge how much older I was getting. I averaged 100 events a year, on the same template. I learned to put them together to get the most events in the least time My record was four in one day, Sarasota, Bradenton, St. Pete, Largo. That got to the edge.
Have you been surprised by reader reaction to Serge? I’ve been to your events and seen folks with Serge tattoos.
I didn’t know what to think. It was rather eclectic. There are always some young people, the ones getting tattoos. Lot of retirees. Laughter isn’t voluntary. You can’t manufacture a laugh. People laughing at the books ran the spectrum. What surprised me was how diverse, how extremely diverse the audience was.
The books have been out long enough that I have people come to my events and say, “I started reading your books in prison. You wouldn’t believe how many people pass them around.”
Do readers make suggestions for Serge?
All the time. You need Serge to go visit this place, and I’ve actually done that. Usually it’s a place I’m either familiar with but hadn’t been there or been there but hadn’t thought about it.
One of my favorite things is to uncover something not in the guidebooks. You have to talk to the locals. For Mermaid Confidential, there’s these little outback trails, like on Boca Chica Key. You’ve got to really want to get there and know where you’re going. This guy built an illegal house on the beach over the years, out of limestone and coral and driftwood. It’s still there. He’s deceased, but the locals put a plaque on it.
People tell me, I keep thinking, this one Tim made up, but they go online and find pictures of the place.
There’s no road trip in Mermaid Confidential. What made you keep Serge and Coleman in one place?
I’ve done the Keys before, and usually it’s got to be Key West, and the lower Keys. This time the book really concentrates on the upper Keys. I came through so many times and never really unwound one of the books in the area. So I thought, why not let him rent a condo, get out and around, discover the area? Also, it gives him a chance to interact with the condo culture.
Are you writing the next book? And will Serge and Coleman be dealing with the pandemic?
I got that question when I was already writing this book. For this one, I decided not to change it; I wanted entertainment.
The next one is going to start off with the pandemic hitting, and I’m going to get through the first arc of it pretty quick. Everybody gets their double dose, and they get to last summer, when it looked like we’d gotten through it, masks off, stores opening. Then suddenly it ramped up again.
That’s where I’m leaving it. I can’t keep rewriting parts of the book if it’s spiking, if it’s leaving, because we don’t know where it’s going.
I felt like I have to include it. It’s affected our lives so long you can’t not mention it.
How many more books about Serge do you plan to write?
Florida just keeps happening and happening and happening. You don’t have to worry about that.
By Tim Dorsey
William Morrow, 368 pages, $28.99