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Fiction in the kitchen

From an odd setting at home, Tim Dorsey works on a crime novel sprinkled with familiar places and recognizable characters.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 25, 2002


VIRGINIA PARK -- There's something not quite right about Tim Dorsey's office.

Perhaps it's the toaster. Or the fridge. Or the rack of spoons and spatulas dripping dry beside the sink.

Perhaps it's that most of Dorsey's personal effects -- copies of his novels, autographs from his idols Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller -- are in storage while his house is being renovated.

His beaten-up chair sits not in a proper office, but in the kitchen he shares with his wife and two children.

"I could write under any conditions as long as I've got a computer in front of me," Dorsey said, illuminated by the glow of his IBM Aptiva. "When you start writing, you see nothing but the screen."

The way Dorsey has been churning out novels lately, you would never know he competes for elbow room with his daughter's jump-rope.

Since 1999, he has been Tampa's resident journalist-turned-crime-caper-novelist -- a formula that has yielded bestselling results for Florida writer Carl Hiaasen.

"The thing about Florida books is, mystery lovers will like mysteries," Dorsey said. "But the Florida books are enjoyed by non-mystery readers or non-crime book readers because of the sense of place and the sense of humor."

Whereas the Hiaasens and Elmore Leonards of the world set novels in the Florida Keys or Everglades, Dorsey has set several in Hillsborough County.

Among the Tampa locales in his latest, Triggerfish Twist, are Busch Gardens' Montu roller coaster, the Tiny Tap Tavern in Hyde Park and a host of familiar street names.

"I wanted for people outside to like the story as it was," he said, "but for people who live here to get extra satisfaction in recognizing some of the things that are in the book."

But he doesn't stop there. Many of his characters are based upon real-life friends and acquaintances.

In fact, one of the items up for auction at this year's Pavilion XVII cocktail party -- annually one of Tampa's ritziest, glitziest affairs -- is the chance to be immortalized as a character in Dorsey's upcoming novel, The Stingray Shuffle.

"If people are interested enough to want to bid on something like that, it helps charity, and it's a fun thing," he said.

Dorsey grew up in Riviera Beach, a small community near West Palm Beach. Because he had an interest in journalism, he always figured he would end up writing for his hometown Palm Beach Post.

But college took him to Auburn, Ala., and he stayed to write for a now-defunct newspaper in nearby Montgomery.

In 1987, he came back to Florida as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune. For a dozen years he covered everything from police to politics, winding up as an editor on the night news desk.

Still, he longed to write his Great American Novel.

In the autumn of 1997, Dorsey made a decision. "Just write it," he told himself. "Write a book. Go from start to finish so you can at least have one and see the process."

No one knew what Dorsey was doing, not even his wife, Janine.

"I didn't really know what he was up to," Janine said. "He wouldn't let me see any pages of it or anything. If I walked up to the computer while he was working on it, he would shield the screen. He really didn't let me know until it was finished."

He worked at the Tribune during the evening and on his novel straight through till sunrise. It took him two solid months.

He had never written fiction before, but he landed a publishing deal for Florida Roadkill within months. He left the newspaper in 1999 and has been writing a book a year since.

As any Florida native will tell you, Dorsey said, there is no shortage of real-life material from which to draw inspiration.

His books are chock-full of Hiaasenlike wackos, from dim-witted coke dealers to a Republican governor born into a family of wealthy politicians.

"Fiction practically writes itself," he said. "Out-of-state people aren't familiar; they say, 'Oh, what an imagination.' In-state, they'll say, 'Oh, you wrote a nonfiction book.' "

Dorsey's two daughters, Erin and Kelly, are too young to enjoy their father's books about crime, but he said they've been supportive.

"When the girls were younger, they thought what I did for a living was I signed books," he said. "I didn't write them. I would just go in stores, and people would like me to write my name in books."

As Dorsey's oeuvre grows, he'll be writing his name in books for years to come.

"I'm putting in more time, but I'm simultaneously enjoying it immensely," he said. "I thought this was a long shot, but it was a dream."

-- Staff writer Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

Tim Dorsey

  • AGE: 41
  • FAMILY: Wife, Janine; daughters Erin, 5, and Kelly, 3.
  • PETS: Stinkerbell and Slippy, two cats
  • BOOKS: Florida Roadkill (1999), Hammerhead Ranch Motel (2000), Orange Crush (2001), Triggerfish Twist (2002), The Stingray Shuffle (2003)
  • FAVORITE BOOK: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. "That was a book that inspired me to become a writer. It also inspired me to become a reader."
  • FAVORITE AUTHORS: Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson
  • TOOLS OF THE TRADE: He writes on an IBM Aptiva and carries a notepad everywhere he goes.
  • WEB SITE: www.timdorsey.com

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