Randy Wayne White: Fishing Guide To Crime Writer

Florida's southwest coast is home to both the author and his protagonist, Doc Ford, a marine biologist and former government agent. This encore presentation of the "Crime in the City" series revisits those islands and shoals. This piece initially aired July 24, 2009, on Morning Edition.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Steve Inskeep has been in Hillsborough County in Florida the past few days talking with voters. Political analysts consider it a must win swing county, which is why candidates spend so much time there, as then-candidate Obama did in 2008. And many of them stop at Jim Meeks' market for a strawberry milkshake.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How much advance notice do you get?

JIM MEEKS: When Obama came here I didn't get any. The guys come out here and they said we want to bring somebody here in about 30 minutes and I said you can bring anybody you want to here. I didn't know who it was until he walked in. But I did make a milkshake for him and I told him if he didn't drink it he would not be elected. And he laughed and he said, well, give me one.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We'll have more from Hillsborough in the coming days. Now, to the southern-most Gulf Coast of Florida.

WERTHEIMER: That's home to mystery writer Randy Wayne White and his protagonist Doc Ford, a marine biologist and former government agent.

MONTAGNE: In today's encore presentation of our summer series Crime in the City, we visit the islands and shoals where this one-time fishing guide sets his novels. NPR's Greg Allen met up with the writer in 2009.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Randy Wayne White's books are mysteries, but often they're also about Florida history. In some books he writes about the Calusa Indians, who lived here thousands of years ago, building villages on huge mounds of shells.

RANDY WAYNE WHITE: These are the shells these mounds of made of. You can see.

ALLEN: White has a yard that's built on top of one of the prehistoric shell mounds. In his side yard researchers from the University of Florida have begun an excavation.

WHITE: There are billions of big whelks, big conchs, tulip shells, olive shells. You can see the archaeologists have been doing a dig here and they've been filtering the shells to see what they can find. And right up here, see where the white string is? That's what they drop down in the burial. There's a woman buried there. Dates back 1,400 years.

ALLEN: For many visitors, Florida is a land of beaches, theme parks and resorts. Since moving here in the early 1970s, White has been fascinated by another Florida - an older place where life still moves to the natural rhythms of current and tide. He's lived in this house Pine Island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico since 1974. Now he stays here just part time. Fans of his novels stop by too often to allow him to work undisturbed. But he says he still loves the house and its location.

WHITE: We're sitting in what would be called an old cracker house, which was built in the late 1800s on the remnants of a shell pyramid. And I love that, that precisely where we're sitting now - out on the porch, the wind blowing off the bay - precisely where we're sitting and where I write, this spatial intersection, people have been telling stories for 3,000 years. And that's a fact.

ALLEN: White's stories revolve around Doc Ford, a marine biologist and occasional government operative and his eccentric post-'60s countercultural friend Tomlinson. While their adventures take them all over the hemisphere, the action often begins and ends in a marina - Dinkins Bay, where Doc Ford lives in a stilt house built out over the water.

It's a mythical place but one much like Tarpon Bay, the marina on Sanibel Island where White worked as a fishing guide. In the coastal Florida communities he writes about, White says even the people are shaped by their surroundings.

WHITE: Their trapezoid muscles, the males, the trapezoid muscles tend to be larger because they've been pulling pods and nuts. Their hands have been abused by the sun and the saltwater and monofilament fishing line. That's an obvious example.

ALLEN: Unique Florida characters populate White's novels. At the center is the bespectacled hero Doc Ford who spends much of his time studying bull sharks. It's a fascination author Randy White shares. Bull sharks, he says, are an intriguing predator and in some ways a metaphor for his protagonist.

WHITE: There are similarities in behavior. You know, he's traveled far flung places, far up river, you know, the dark water and dark places and as the character Tomlinson says in the book I'm writing now, you know, Ford does not have a dazzling intellect. He doesn't have great physical gifts. But he is the most competent man I know.

ALLEN: Randy White is rarely far from the water. Across the narrow coastal road from his home on Pine Island, we step out on his dock and survey the Gulf and nearby islands. Much of the action in his books takes place on the water. In his writing, White says he works hard to capture the sights and sounds of first light and sunset as the wind comes up on the Gulf or the Caribbean.

Looking out on the water he spent years on, White says while others might see a flat blue plane, he sees geography.

WHITE: I look out here and I see some potholes out here but that I know they're rocks. There are grouper there very close. I look out this way, I see oyster bars. You can't see them, but if you're in a boat, you would stop abruptly if you went over them. There are rivers back in here that go way back up into the back country, and it's an incredible area.

ALLEN: In "Hunter's Moon" Doc Ford is in a canoe. There's thick fog. It's midnight and he's approaching an island off the Florida Coast. Here's how White describes it: Water drizzled from leaves. The yowl of raccoons, creak of trees, then another muffled exchange. Two men, maybe three. During thunderstorms, people retreat in clusters, voices hushed. The same is true of the slow, silent storm that is fog.

Men were out there in the gloom - foreigners in a Florida backwater. Why? Randy White travels a lot; he recently returned from a month in Cartagena, Colombia. He also is a regular visitor to Cuba. He travels under a Treasury Department license for writers and often takes along baseball equipment for kids on the island. When he's home, though, you can often find him with his laptop at Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

ALLEN: There are actually two Doc Ford restaurants - one in Sanibel and this one on the marina in Ford Meyers. White is one of the owners.

WHITE: The tough thing about writing is you go into a room alone, you close the door and you do your work. And so to be able to come out to a place like this afterwards, or - and I actually do a lot of writing here before hours or sometimes after hours - it's terrific.

ALLEN: For Randy Wayne White, this spot brings him full circle. Across the harbor from his new restaurant, behind the shrimp boats, is a ramshackle stilt house. That's where he once lived when he was still working as a fishing guide. Out on the docks behind the restaurant, a manatee surfaces and takes a breath before lazily flipping up its tail and vanishing from sight.

WHITE: The water is alive. It is alive. If we could get a mask and fins and drop down off these docks, we'd see snook and redfish and probably goliath grouper. And it's an amazing world unto itself and a very thin demarcation between one world and the other. You know, the distance of the water surface.

ALLEN: It's that unseen world, just below the surface, that intrigues White. After 20 years as a mystery writer, he still has the eye of a fishing guide. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: And when our series Crime in the City resumes on Monday, we'll be in Atlanta. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

WERTHEIMER: And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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