My evening with Randy Wayne White
Early this year I had the opportunity to visit Randy Wayne White at his island home off the coast of Ft. Myers, Florida. The evening began across the street from his classic home at a terrific lodge with drinks and one of the best meals I had during the trip. After over three hours of talk about everything from writing to his love of baseball (look for his Wood Hole Film Festival, “Best of Fest -2002” winner Gift of the Game) we went back to his house and got down to a few questions. His candid answers and fishing guide charm are what follow:
Interview with Randy Wayne White – January 2004, Big Pine Island. Fl.
JS – Hello Randy. Let’s start with – where did you grow up?
RWW – “I was born in Ohio and my maternal family are all from North Carolina, many generations. My father was in the 101st Airborne, was at Fort Bragg and he met my North Carolina mother and hit it off. I grew up between Ohio, on a farm, and North Carolina, on a farm, but I’ve always thought of my home as North Carolina. That’s were all my relatives are. I spent every summer of my life there. Went to high school in Iowa. Spent three years in Davenport, Iowa and had a great time. Huge high school. Went from a little tiny farm town to this gigantic high school. So I guess you could say; all over.”
JS – At what point in your life did writing become your focus?
RWW – “As I said, I grew up on a farm and my mom had always taken me to this little farm town library. We didn’t have a TV. Even at that time I was not good in school. I always thought of myself as not being smart, as being slow or not equal, you know, and ah, but I discovered a book. And once I discovered that one book the other books just took off. I found such magic in books. I thought if I could write a book maybe I could be part of that magic. But, for many years it never seemed like a realistic goal. So, I’ve always wanted to write, at least from age twelve. “
JS – So, then you were near forty when you really sat down to write a novel?
RWW – I was thirty-seven. Actually, to be frank here I wrote eighteen novels under pen names prior to that, while I was a fishing guide.
JS – Wow!
RWW – Yes, eighteen. I wrote the first one 8 or 9 nine days; 56,000 words. Bad winter. I had a contract with New American Library. But, yes the first novel under my own name, I was thirty-seven.
JS – What about your characters, Doc Ford, Tomlinson, where did they come from?
RWW – I wrote my first book, Sanibel Flats, and that was not the original title. I was a fishing guide for many years, so my protagonist had to live on the water. I think we are all made up of two cerebral components. I can’t speak for all of us but I think one is pragmatic, mathematical, non-sympathetic, non-spiritual, rational and the other component is that wistfulness to be spiritual, intuitive and all those things which I am not. I made up those two things in confluence so I thought I would have one character who was purely pragmatic, non sympathetic, non-spiritual, a scientist, a marine biologist. And a secondary character who actually wouldn’t be secondary, who was this very intuitive, spiritual, former hippie. And that way I could say anything that I wanted to and get away with it. So that’s where the two characters came from.
Early on, before I even started the first book I wrote this very involved (we used to call them) dossiers. These two characters had this very lengthy interaction that the reader would never know about; unless the books went on to five or six or seven or eight or nine. I had no idea that would ever happen. Now its’ happened. So these two characters, Ford and Tomlinson have been in essentially a death dance for going on eleven books now.
JS – They’re wonderful characters. So, who is your favorite writer?
RWW – I love Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s Doc, Ed Ricketts was certainly a huge influence, in terms of writing about a marine biologist. And Steinbeck was very funny. People don’t remember that. He was a funny writer. I like funny books. Hopefully, in all my books there are some parts that are a little bit funny.
My buddy Peter Matthiessen. He is a brilliant writer. National Book Award winner. Founder of the Empiris Review. His work ethic is a big influence on me. He is a brilliant guy. A Harvard guy. Completely unlike me. He comes from wealthy background. But his amazing work ethic has been a big influence on me. You don’t wait for the muse. You don’t wait for a great editor to come along and save your ass. You do your work and you do it well. I think it’s important.
JS – Well, I’ll give you the kicker question. If you could have dinner with a historical figure, who would it be and why?
RWW – That’s not hard to answer for me. There are a number. Theodore Roosevelt would be the first one. His sense of obligation to state and country. I love that. And that kind of “I’m not the most athletic guy in the world, but I’m going to live an athletic life.” Because I’m not a great athlete and I like that spirit. And he was a very good writer. People don’t realize today that he made his living as a writer before he went into politics he wrote fifty-some books. He was a very, very good writer and that’s not true of the bulk of politicians. So he would be probably first.
Second, there is a great writer who is absolutely forgotten named H.M. Tomlinson. British writer. In terms of intellect he has to go off the scale. And as a stylist he equals Conrad. But has been forgotten.
JS – Wouldn’t have any connection to you using Tomlinson as your character.
RWW – Absolutely. He was an amazing writer. He wrote a book called The Sea and the Jungle that is just….each sentence, you go “oh my god,” but he’s forgotten.
JS – Randy, it has been a true pleasure…Thanks for having me into your home.