When I first saw Colette Bancroft, it was in the newsroom of what is now the Tampa Bay Times. Back in the day, in a typical newsroom you could see the desks of reporters and editors, each space festooned with professional and personal effects. At a glance, you could distinguish the food writer from the TV critic.
In the case of Colette, she did not appear to be sitting at a desk or in a pod at all. From a distance, it appeared that she was seated upon a throne — a paper one, a Throne of Books. And why not? She was a book editor, a writer who writes about the writings of writers.
And then there was her name: Colette Bancroft. It was a perfect name for a book editor, a classy byline. Colette was the single name of a famous French author and actress. The only other Bancroft I knew was Anne Bancroft, world famous as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, and married to Mel Brooks.
Together, the two names — Colette Bancroft — had the feel of someone who hung around with Humphrey Bogart, an understudy for Lauren Bacall. I was slightly intimidated as I approached her space, surrounded by books sent to her by publishers with high hopes of earning a review.
I have been reading Bancroft ever since. What would I do without her page in the Sunday Floridian? What would we all do?
For her contributions to literacy, community, culture and democracy, I am honored to announce that Bancroft is the first winner of an award named after, well, me.
The Roy Peter Clark Literary Award.
Though this prize is scheduled for presentation on April Fools’ Day at a local literary festival, this is no joke.
About three years ago, Joe Hamilton and the other good folks at The Catalyst newsletter and the St. Petersburg Press approached me about lending my name to a literary award. My first thought was that there are many awards and prizes named after people — the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Lombardi Trophy — but all of them happen to be dead.
After checking my pulse, I agreed — with as much modesty as I could muster. Then came the pandemic. Along with many other ceremonies, the RPC Award was put on hold until now. The first person who deserved such an honor, I thought, was Bancroft. And now it’s a real thing. I could not be happier for her, for her family, her friends and admirers. I’m proud to have my name associated with hers.
For those of you who may not know the person behind the writer, Bancroft describes herself as the kid whose mother always said, “Put down that book, go outside and play.” She grew up in Tampa, earned degrees in English at University of South Florida and University of Florida, and taught literature and writing for more than a decade.
She switched to journalism and began her career at the Arizona Daily Star, where she remains a Tucson legend. In 1997, she returned home to the Times, where she became one of the most versatile writers at the paper. She would excel at book reviews, author profiles and trend stories, giving special attention to writers from Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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By 2007, she became book editor, a responsibility that involved leadership of the Times Festival of Reading, a great day of celebration of the written word, attracting thousands of book lovers, readers of the newspaper, and dozens of authors. During the pandemic, she helped keep the festival going with digital interviews and presentations by authors from all over the world.
She is serving her third term on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
If all that were not enough, get this: Bancroft served as editor of the 2020 crime fiction anthology Tampa Bay Noir. But wait. There’s more! The short story she wrote for that book, The Bite, won the Mystery Writers of America’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best short story by a previously unpublished American author.
Bancroft is not the only RPC honoree. Also recognized as finalists were:
- Eric Deggans, former Times writer and columnist who is now the first full-time television critic in the history of National Public Radio. A book author, he is one of America’s most prominent writers on matters of media, culture and race. He is a musician of some renown.
- Alsace Walentine and Candice Anderson, the literary power couple in St. Pete, who have created, in an amazingly short time, Tombolo Books. It is one of the most interesting and progressive bookstores in America. The space they have made for readers and writers has helped fill the vacuum created when Haslam’s Bookstore closed up shop at the beginning of the pandemic.
- Holly Slaughter may be the most important and influential teacher in Pinellas County when it comes to teaching our youngest children how to read and write. As the elementary school language arts administrator, and an author on how to teach kids to be better writers, Holly has served children and other teachers with the kind of energy, good humor and creativity required to face the terrible disruptions caused by the pandemic.
I praise all of these champions of the written word.