Good news, Dave Barry fans.
Everyone’s favorite Florida Man has a new novel, “Swamp Story,” and it’s got everything fans could want: an engaging young woman trying to escape her clueless, reality TV-obsessed boyfriend; a pair of ex-convict brothers hunting for a buried stash of Confederate gold bars; a laid-off journalist on his way to becoming a TikTok star playing a swamp monster in a giant Dora the Explorer head; and a big finale involving a preening politician, the Python Challenge and a snake hunter named Skeeter Toobs and his emotional support boar.
Barry, 75, beloved and bestselling author of more than 50 books for adults and kids and a longtime Miami Herald columnist, talked to the Tampa Bay Times about “Swamp Story,” his next book and how he divvies up the richly weird vein of material that is Florida with his friend Carl Hiaasen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Most of your books have been nonfiction, and your most recent novel for adults, “Insane City,” was published 10 years ago. What moved you to write another novel?
I do mostly nonfiction, but every now and then I switch to fiction. I always have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head
A while ago I wrote this book, a nonfiction book, called “Best. State. Ever.” To research it I went to all these tourist attractions, but not the big ones, the little roadside attractions. I went to this one, the Skunk Ape museum, and it just sort of stuck in my mind.
I was walking around out in the Everglades with this guy, Dave Shealey. He’s the guy who saw the Skunk Ape and is selling the T-shirts.
I just kept thinking about this whole society existing out in the Everglades with this mythical monster out there. It just kept bouncing around in my mind as something you could write a story about.
Have you heard about the abandoned airstrip out there? I’ve actually seen it.
It’s very large, just out in the middle of the Everglades. They were going to build an airport out there, and it’s big enough that it could easily land an airliner, or a space shuttle. Just surrounded by alligators.
Sooner or later, somebody will try to revive it.
You’d have to bribe the right Dade County politicians. They take Venmo, I think.
Besides the plot thread involving a Skunk Ape-style cryptid called the Melon Monster, what else inspired “Swamp Story”?
I always wanted to do something with the Python Challenge.
It’s so Florida, so totally weird and totally ineffective. It’s just crazy and in its own way harmless, except to the pythons. I’m not feeling all that sorry for the pythons, to be honest
And then I like Miami. Every now and then I like to remind everybody that Miami is a very strange city.
The question was how to blend those into a plot. I never have any important message to communicate to the world, I’m just trying to entertain people.
The novel begins with your main character, Jesse, protecting her baby daughter from a prowling python at their cabin in the Everglades. Her devastatingly handsome but clueless boyfriend, Slater, gets mad at her because she fends off the snake before his buddy can get there with a video camera, because their dream is to create a reality TV show called “Glades Man.” Who inspired Slater?
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There are a lot of Slater-like guys in Miami. There are large sections, a whole community of people who are all about looks, about appearance. Looks are very important in this town.
So he’s just the distilled essence of a million guys walking around admiring their own beauty
That’s the essence of Slater — to the people who are into reality TV, nothing is as important to them as this fake thing, reality TV, and now TikTok as well. They never experience anything for itself, it’s always, how can I use this to get myself on the internet, on people’s phones?
For Slater, that’s way ahead of the woman he got pregnant and his own child.
It turns out that reality TV is left in the dust by TikTok.
They’re a little bit clueless about that.
I got a lot of that from my daughter, Sophie, who’s now 23. She’s a thoughtful, intelligent person with a job and finds it very funny, but she’s super aware of what’s going on on TikTok. She’d show me things and say, 19 million people follow this person.
The idea that anybody with a phone and just the right circumstances would become better known than most world leaders just like that overnight — it’s a strange and random process.
These guys are so into reality TV that they don’t see the tidal wave of TikTok overwhelms that project. But it helps them because some random DJ in Brooklyn plays a little bit of what they did on TikTok, and it goes viral.
My daughter told me about these — they’re called duets. I said, so we’re watching a person watch a thing, and that’s something 37 million people have watched?
You retired from writing your newspaper column a while back. Do you ever miss writing in reaction to the news?
Sometimes, but I did it a long time, and I felt so much freer when I didn’t have to do it. I do still write the Year in Review. I keep saying I’m not going to do it anymore, because it’s a lot of work. But it’s a way I can comment on the news without writing a weekly column.
Are you working on your next book yet?
I am writing a memoir.
I felt a little awkward about that, because I’m not that guy. I don’t want to look like I’m trying to be ponderous and wise, but I don’t want to write one long joke memoir, which would be my usual MO.
I talked with my editor, Priscilla Painton at Simon & Schuster, who I like a lot and respect. I wrote a beginning and she liked it, so I’m in the thick of it.
Your 2019 book, “Lessons From Lucy,” was a memoir, though, about your daughter Sophie’s sudden illness and your dog, Lucy.
It was much more reflective than any book I’ve ever written.
Lucy is lying here on the floor while we speak. Lucy’s doing good.
Sophie is doing well. She’s in New York, working for Michael Kors. She’s a working person with dental insurance, and she graduated from Duke on time.
Do you ever think of leaving Miami?
No. My wife, Michelle Kaufman, is Cuban and Jewish, so we can’t leave. If you look at the Venn diagram of those things, she’s basically related to everybody here.
I like Miami. I’ve never felt like I wanted to go anywhere else, except when there’s a hurricane.
It’s insane, the traffic’s horrible, there’s a lot of craziness, but it’s home.
And it’s an endless source of material for you.
As Carl Hiaasen, my good friend and the best Florida writer, is always saying, you can’t make anything up in this weirder-than-reality state.
Originally this book was going to be much snakier. Then I had breakfast with Carl, and he had just finished writing “Squeeze Me.”
I said, what’s it about? And he said, it’s in Palm Beach and there are pythons. I said, are there a lot of pythons in it? And he said yes.
So in “Swamp Story” the missing Confederate gold treasure buried in the Everglades sort of replaced the pythons in the plot.
By Dave Barry
Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $27.99