Bestselling author Randy Wayne White says, “People ask me, when are you going write another Doc Ford book? Well, I just came out with another one. People think they’re just for kids, but they’re for young adults and adults, too.
“I just take out the profanity and the sex. And there’s a lot less violence.”
The Sanibel writer has published 26 novels about Ford, a marine biologist and undercover government agent. The latest, Salt River, was published in 2020.
The Ford books for grownups combine evocative writing about Florida and its history with tense action and an often high body count. They might not seem likely to spin off a series of books for young readers.
But in 2020 White published Fins, the first in his Sharks Incorporated series, followed by Stingers in 2021 and this month by Crocs.
Crocs is not about the ugly shoes but about, among other things, American crocodiles, which White calls “sweethearts.” All three books recount the adventures of a trio of youngsters who go to work for Ford as a research team, tagging blacktip sharks. But things, of course, get complicated.
Luke is an Ohio farm boy who moved to Sanibel to stay with a relative and got a dramatic Florida welcome: He was struck by lightning, which might have left him with unusual powers.
Sisters Maribel and Sabina were raised in Cuba and escaped to Florida with their mother on a raft. Maribel, the older sister, is poised and sensible, Sabina quick-tempered and adventurous. (Kids at school think she might be a witch.)
They’ve become a good team, and Doc and his friend Hannah Smith give them a new assignment in Crocs: hunting for feral citrus trees on the scattered wild islands around Sanibel, trees whose seeds might have been planted by the Spanish five centuries ago.
It’s not just a search for history. There’s scientific opinion that such trees might be immune to citrus greening, the disease that has devastated Florida’s citrus industry in recent years. Grafting onto rootstock from the feral trees might be a solution.
The three kids find traces of a feral tree soon enough. On the same island, they also find what they first think is a really big alligator, until a closer look (not too close) reveals it’s an American crocodile, a mother guarding her brood of babies.
They also meet an eccentric older woman called Captain Pony, who tells them the mysterious and tragic story of a little girl who found a gold medallion buried in a shell mound, a medallion thought to have belonged to King Carlos, a Calusa leader.
Wild citrus, crocodiles, a missing medallion, maybe even ghosts — what kid could resist? Not Sabina, for sure, and she brings Maribel and Luke along in her wake.
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The Sharks Incorporated books are not the only spinoff from the Doc Ford series. Doc is also the namesake of four restaurants, one of them on St. Petersburg’s Pier. White will be signing books there on March 14, and at Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg on March 15.
We talked to White, 71, via Zoom from his home in Sanibel. The interview has been edited for length.
Congratulations on the new book. Are the books for kids easier to write than the ones for grownups?
I’d like to say they’ve been a delight to write, but it’s never gotten any easier for me. It’s still a pain in the rump. I labor over every sentence and paragraph. I strive for clarity, and one day maybe I’ll achieve it, I don’t know. I have enjoyed it.
I’m working with a different publisher, different people. I’m still moving the Doc Ford story along with his (relationship with Hannah) Smith. They have a child now. I’m a sap when it comes to kids. So it’s fun.
But they’re all difficult to write. Every book I’ve ever started, I tell myself this one is going to be simple, boom boom boom, plot, and I just go off on tangents, getting into all the research. It’s just one terrifying day after another.
Will the Sharks Incorporated series continue?
I have another book in the contract and I’m working on that now. It’s called Megalops. It’s about tarpon. I’ve written about tarpon before.
It was hard to convince the editors at Macmillan to use the word Megalops, but I finally convinced them. It’s a lovely word, isn’t it? Very dinosaurlike. Tarpons are dinosaurs, they’re very dinosaurlike.
Crocs begins with the three kids, ages 10, 11 and 13, out on their own in a small boat catching blacktip sharks. They’re definitely what’s sometimes called free-range kids. But a lot of parents today worry about their kids that age walking to the end of the block. The thought of them out in a boat alone would give the parents a heart attack. Were you thinking about that when you created these characters?
Free-range kids. Oh, I like that. It never crossed my mind, but by golly you’re right.
Walking to the end of the block, depending on where one lives, might be more dangerous than going out on a boat.
My sons grew up going out on boats by themselves, going camping. They knew what they were doing. Heck, they know a lot more than I do.
When I was working as a fishing guide, I took my sons on charters. Then I took them to Tasmania, Australia, Cuba, Costa Rica, South Africa. I’d assign each son — OK, you’re in charge of navigation, whatever. I’m always lost. They have a much better sense of direction.
Doc Ford never gets lost.
He’s smarter than me.
Maybe some parents will read the first page and say, this will give Johnny a … well, who cares, I don’t give a crap. More parents should read these books. You need to lighten up. The internet’s scary enough. I think kids should be more free range.
My parents moved away when I was in high school and I got my own apartment. We got along. I was still in high school and just didn’t want to move. It’s not like they didn’t tell me where they were moving.
As in all of your books, one of the most appealing things about Crocs is your vivid, knowledgeable use of the Florida setting. Can you talk about that?
In the Ford novels the only place I’ve ever used as a setting where I had not spent a lot of time, not spent any time, is Disney World. That’s the only place I’ve never been that I ever wrote about.
Every other place I’ve spent time in, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Africa, Colombia, much time in Cuba.
And I’ve lived in Florida for years. I had a great deal of fun with various elements in this book, like looking for archaic Spanish citrus, which I’ve not only done, but I found it. I got a patent on my own Seduced archaic rootstock.
It went through all the state exams and tests, jumped all those hoops. Now it’s out in the field being grafted, and we’ll see what happens.
Is it called Seduced because the feral citrus is also an element in your Hannah Smith book by that title?
I was talking to Jeff Carter (a son of former President Jimmy Carter), who is an expert on this, and he said that if the Spanish had planted a citrus tree in the 1500s in an isolated spot, where it had not cross-pollinated, and it had dropped fruit, that would produce a clone of the original tree.
I was thinking maybe that would be immune to the flies. So I went through the same process Hannah did. I actually did it.
On remnants of what I see as shell pyramids but most people call shell mounds, you can still find feral citrus, oranges, grapefruits, perhaps from seeds brought over by the Spanish in 1500s. I love that linkage.
I love bringing in all this history. It’s true here and certainly where you are (in St. Petersburg), so much history of the Tocobaga and Timucuan people.
Also the gold medallion, which I owned for many years. That’s based on the true story of a child who found it and tragically died not long after. I donated it to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
How about that crocodile?
Years ago my buddy Peter Matthiessen and I went out with Frank Mazzotti, the United States’ leading crocodilian expert. He’s in the book. Peter and I actually did crocodile tagging with Frank. He’s the one who called saltwater crocodiles the sweethearts of the crocodilian world.
I wanted to use that, so I asked him. I said, “Can I use your real name? I’ll say you’re good-looking.”
How were your life and your writing affected by the pandemic?
I had far fewer excuses not to write.
We’re involved in the restaurants, of course. I own the franchise and I’ve got two partners who own and run the restaurants. So we were closed for six weeks. I go to the restaurants. I haven’t traveled outside of the country at all. I’ve spent much of my life traveling to terrible places, but those days are over, I hope.
It affected me personally in that I worried about people. People were afraid.
It’s been a troubling five or six years.
I avoid politics like the plague. But I get cubbyholed as an ultra right winger. I get cubbyholed as an ultra left winger because of Tomlinson (Doc Ford’s best friend). I don’t give a s--t. But what I don’t understand is the animus.
I lived an unusual earlier life, and I learned that a plane without two wings is going to crash.
Will the pandemic show up in your future books?
Not a chance. I avoid things that tie the books to any particular time period.
Does that solve the problem of whether to age Doc Ford?
I don’t know how old he is. At one time Tomlinson thought he was using steroids. I was giving a talk once and I told them I was going to break a story about Florida writers using steroids.
I’m not going to name Carl Hiaasen, but you have to wonder about performance-enhancing drugs. He’s way too good-looking.
What kind of reaction do you get from kids who read your books?
I hear from them usually at the restaurants. A child will come up and say, or his parents will say, he loves the books, he loves the characters. Kids don’t tend to write reviews, and I don’t blame them.
Kids are smarter than I think we remember. I don’t try to write down.
Will there be another Doc Ford for grownups soon?
Yes, there will. I’m going to write at least two more. In one, Doc Ford and his uncle, Tucker Gatrell, an old cow hunter, trace Florida history from the cow-hunting days around Punta Rassa to Disney World.
I’ve got some stuff here that’s done better than I ever fathomed, and I think I’m going to do just what I want to do.
By Randy Wayne White
Roaring Brook Press, 272 pages, $16.99
Meet the author
Randy Wayne White will be signing his books from noon to 3 p.m. March 14 at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, 610 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg, and at 6 p.m. March 15 at Tombolo Books, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg.