Photo by Cherie Diez.
By Julie Garisto, AliveTampaBay Correspondent
Journalist and author Craig Pittman is among a handful of esteemed local scribes who put us in touch with our inner Floridian. Going on two decades as staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times, he won the Waldo Proffitt Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism in Florida for his series on Florida’s vanishing wetlands, which he wrote with Matthew Waite.
A St. Petersburg resident and Troy University grad recognized early on by the school newspaper for his muckraking tenacity, Pittman is married and has two sons traveling with him on many a one-tank trip throughout the state.
When the Pensacola native is not calling attention to endangered wildlife or the neglect and exploitation of Florida’s natural sources, he writes Florida-centric nonfiction such as The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid (2012); Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species (2010, “an essential read for all Floridians,” says the Florida Humanities Council), and, co-written with Waite, Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and the Failure of No Net Loss (2009).
Pittman’s latest book, Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, released last month, is substantive and enjoyable. AliveTampaBay recently engaged Pittman in a Q&A to pore through his encyclopedic brain.
Q: I’m sure everyone asks you to pick a favorite tale in Oh, Florida! Could you tell me about a favorite personal memory associated with how you came about one of the tales in the book, of a storyteller, the circumstances around when you learned it or read it?
A: I went to Gulfport to interview a respected scientist about the oil spill’s lingering effects, and when I mentioned how much I liked his house, he told me a story about it that was so great I included it as the centerpiece of my epilogue. I thought it made the point that Florida is a place of magic and mystery as well as mayhem, and you can’t have one without the other. One of my favorite stories in the book is one that I stumbled across on a visit to Cedar Key. I picked up a little book on the history of the island, and it mentioned in passing the story of a mayor who was deposed by a military coup. I read that twice to make sure I had read it right. The book treated it like it was no big deal, happens all the time, etc., which of course it is not. Wanting more details, or at least some confirmation that it had occurred, I looked around in their history museum for a display about the incident, and saw nothing. I thought maybe the book was wrong — but when I did some research I discovered that yes, this actually happened, and it was enough of a big deal that The New York Times covered it. That really made my day.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the challenges and a-ha moments you had corralling so many pieces of information into a nonfiction book that’s unique and readable?
A: There were two really hard parts. One was getting a publisher interested. Fifteen rejected it for being “too regional” in interest. Finally, St. Martin’s said yes. The other hard part was that the original manuscript was way too long, too packed with stories, so I had to cut about 100 pages. Out went the guy who had a love affair with a dolphin, the man who was shot by his own dog and dozens of other doozies.
Q: What was the most rewarding environmental muckraking story you’ve worked on?
A: The most rewarding one was probably the springs series I did in 2010, which led to the governor and Legislature suddenly throwing a lot of money at springs cleanup. The most disappointing would have to be one I did 10 years ago about how the DOT and its consultants were using bogus numbers to pass the legally required financial test to proceed with new toll roads like the Suncoast Parkway, planting the seeds of urban sprawl in previously undeveloped areas. The Legislature responded by loosening the test requirements. But that was a good lesson for me. My job isn’t to change things. My job is to tell the voters and taxpayers how the government is performing, and whether it’s keeping its promise to protect the environment. What they do about it is up to them.
Q: Was there ever a time you felt like defecting from Florida? Where would you have lived or would live if you had a choice to live somewhere else?
A: Oh, good Lord, no. Florida is the most interesting state in the union. I wouldn’t want to live some place else — that would be boring. Besides, I can’t be more than 15 minutes from the beach. It’s an addiction.
Q: What’s your favorite old roadside attraction that’s still around and you’ve taken your kids to?
A: It’s this quaint little place, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called the Magic Kingdom. It’s surrounded by bigger, louder, flashier theme parks, but there’s just something about seeing your kids’ eyes bug out on meeting a real live cartoon rat that can’t help but be charming. I also enjoy watching the people there. I will always remember the time an actual squirrel scampered out of the bushes in Frontierland and all the tourists oohed and ahhhed and took its picture.
Attend a reading and book signing with Pittman at Safety Harbor Public Library, 101 Second St. N., Safety Harbor, on Thursday, Sept. 1, at 6:30 p.m. Visit cityofsafetyharbor.com/60/Library for more info.