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    Tallahassee bunch creates literary life

    By MARGO HAMMOND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Tallahassee may be best known for its tailgate parties and smoke-filled back rooms of political intrigue, but football players and politicians are not the only famous denizens of the state capital.

    Tallahassee and its environs are awash in top-notch writers.

    Some have come here to find a quiet place to write. Many have come to teach in the creative writing program at Florida State University. Some came as students in that program and simply stayed on. A few were actually born here. They are all Florida writers now, but don't look for their work in anthologies of "orange pulp," the kind of crime and mayhem fiction that has put South Florida on the national map. These poets, novelists, playwrights and authors of creative non-fiction congregating in North Florida have something far more literary in mind.

    The area even may be nurturing its own Bloomsbury group.

    "We all know each other -- or get around to it eventually," says Diane Roberts, chuckling approvingly at the notion that the famous and at times infamous group of like-minded authors who met regularly in London's Bloomsbury district in the early part of the 20th century might have a Tallahassee counterpart.

    Roberts, a former Times editorial writer who has written books on William Faulkner and the myth of race, is now a professor of English at the University of Alabama, but her writer's heart is in her native city. She thinks nothing of driving from Tuscaloosa to Tallahassee for a fellow writer's dinner party. Her own annual Faulkner party to celebrate the writer's birthday, held at her family's home on one of the city's famed canopy roads, is legendary.

    In Tallahassee, food and writers are inextricably linked.

    Three years ago author Connie May Fowler and her photographer husband, Mika Fowler, moved to the area after enduring one too many hurricanes in their beachhouse on Alligator Point. Now they live with their four dogs and two outdoor cats in a grand 1859 farmhouse with a scalloped picket fence in Lloyd, just outside of Tallahassee. The house was bought with Oprah money, says Connie (Her prize-winning novel Before Women Had Wings was made into a TV movie starring Oprah Winfrey). And now the Fowlers' evening spreads set on the house's sprawling porches amid glowing candles are one of the area's most coveted literary invitations.

    When Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, and his wife, Elizabeth Dewberry, a novelist and playwright arrived last fall to teach at Florida State, the Fowlers naturally invited them -- and a half a dozen other writers -- for a dinner of cream of avocado soup, grouper a la russe and witty conversation.

    The Butlers had moved into a 19th century dwelling of their own, an 1840 Greek revival plantation house up the road in Monticello known as Rosewood. Now evenings at Rosewood, with its 11-foot wooden dining table set up in the entrance hall, its kitchen lined with the Butlers' massive collection of hot sauces, and its art-filled sitting rooms, have been added to the literary dinner circuit and everyone calls them Betsy and Bob.

    Food is even being used to lure students to the FSU writing program. Splashy ads in such writerly publications as The Writer's Chronicle and Poets & Writers first extol the area's oysters, BBQ and smoked mullet before bragging about a writing program whose faculty includes winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and the author of the "most-adopted creative writing text in the world."

    The man responsible for the aggressive recruitment campaign is Mark Winegardner, director of the program. Seated in his cluttered office at the university, decorated with a lamp with antlers for a base, Winegardner looks more like a retired linebacker than an English professor.

    "English departments are notoriously known for having complicated and treacherous politics, but FSU is blessed with having the most serene politics I have ever heard of," says Winegardner whose next novel, Crooked River Burning is Harcourt Brace's lead title for January. The typical fight between poets and writers, between scholars and writers, doesn't exist, he says. There's even a published writer in the school's linguistics department who regularly lends a hand in reading students' Ph.D. theses. (Roberto Fernandez's novel, Holy Radishes!, appropriately enough, features characters who work in a radish-processing plant in the Florida Everglades)

    Even writers who do not work at FSU are part of Tallahassee's version of the Bloomsbury crowd. They all do gossip about each other -- shamelessly -- but they also critique each other's manuscripts, participate in charity benefits together (Connie's Women With Wings Foundation for Battered Women is a favorite), lend each other moral and emotional support, and, of course, invite each other over for dinner.

    "David Kirby and Janet Burroway are terrific cooks and hosts," says Winegardner, referring to two veterans of the FSU writing program. Kirby is one of the published poets on staff, along with Virgil Suarez, Barbara Hamby (Kirby's wife) and newcomer James Kimbrell. Burroway is the author of that "most-adopted creative writing text in the world" noted in the ad. Her Writing Fiction is a classic, used in more than 300 colleges and universities.

    Much of the credit for the love feast among Tallahassee's literati though goes to Winegardner's predecessor, Jerome Stern. Stern, who died in 1996, was nationally known for the mini-essays he read on National Public Radio. Locally, he is remembered for starting the Tuesday night readings in the back room at the Warehouse, a bar on Gaines Street, and the World's Best Short Short Contest (the winner gets a bushel of Florida oranges), two literary traditions that continue.

    But among Tallahassee's men and women of letters, he is best remembered for his great parties, soirees that helped develop an important sense of community among the writers, scholars and English teachers in the area. At his home, you could have met a history professor who sports a ponytail and rides a Harley (Peter Ripley's ninth book, Conversations With Cuba, questions his life-time romance with revolution) or a bespectacled English professor who writes experimental fiction (Ralph Berry, who calls his latest work "enactments of radical undoing," heads up a fiction collective, FC2, that publishes innovative works). Or perhaps a local writer struggling for recognition.

    Winegardner doesn't throw parties (he doesn't cook), but he does try "hard to be a good guest," he says. He has, however, convinced a notorious local cook (who also happens to be a prize-winning author) to join the creative writing faculty. Bob Shacochis, who won the National Book Award for his collection of short stories Easy on the Islands, was for years a rather unorthodox food columnist for GQ magazine. In Domesticity: A Gastronomic Interpretation of Love, a collection of essays about sex, food and writing, Shacochis, who works (and cooks) at home while his common-law wife goes off to work, writes obsessively about the "amorous properties of potatoes."

    Why all this emphasis on eating? "Fiction writers never know when their novels are finished," explains Pam Ball, who was a student under Stern who stayed on in Tallahassee. "You just keep writing and writing. A meal, on the other hand, has a beginning, middle and end. It's complete. That's very satisfying." The Hawaii-born Ball set her first novel, Lava, in Hawaii. Her current novel, due out next year, is set in Tasmania, Australia.

    Ball, a finely sculpted woman, is talking on the Fowlers' porch along with another lanky woman, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Stuckey-French is another newcomer to the creative writing program faculty and this is her first invitation to the Fowlers. Her collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, described by one critic as full of "lush melancholies and sweet quirks of corn-fed domesticity," was just published by Doubleday. Both Pam and Elizabeth have come with their husbands, who are teachers.

    In the Fowlers' large farmhouse kitchen, Betsy and Connie are preparing the evening's banquet. Blonde look-a-likes, the two writers joke that they really are "Siamese twins separated at birth and our mother didn't tell us." When Connie pulls out a large blue porcelain bowl to hold the evening's pasta, she tells us it is her "Inez Temple bowl," referring to a character in her first novel, Sugar Cage. The bowl, like everything around these writers, has a story. The Fowlers bought it from Inez Temple, a large black woman with a crying eye. "We all got something," explains Connie. The woman charged them $200 for the bowl, the cost of the operation to fix her eye. "And I got a name and a character for my novel."

    Some of the best stories are about the writers' houses. The Fowlers spotted theirs from the train while passing through Lloyd during one of Connie's book tours. The Butlers put $5,000 down on theirs months before they knew Bob would be chosen for the FSU job. "It's not Tara," jokes Betsy. "The lines are clean, simple, but we fell in love with it." Ironically, Rosewood was once owned by Asa May, one of Connie's ancestors. When the contents of the old plantation house was put up for sale, the Fowlers bought some of the furniture and lawn ornaments.

    Over dinner more stories spill out, some deliciously embellished as the well-fed, well-lubricated group warms up to the task. In a horror story about a local hospital, for example, officials nearly amputate rather than just examine the wrong leg of a prominent journalist, who has checked in complaining of pains. Many of these tales obviously have been told and retold during other soirees. The next evening at the Butlers, for example, when Bob and Betsy regale a visitor with eerie tales of unexplained knocks at their front door and doors slamming in the middle of the night, you can see by the looks on the Fowlers' faces that they've heard it all before. "During our dinner parties, when Connie and I are in the kitchen and we hear knocking," laughs Betsy, "we always know it's Bob telling the ghost story again."

    Bloomsbury in Tallahassee? Certainly these writers with their devotion to the arts, their witty conversation, their liberal leanings and their elaborate parties have a lot in common with their London doubles. As an observer of the Bloomsbury set in 1909 put it, "It is a very fascinating, queer, self-absorbed, fantastic set of people."

    Meet the Tallahassee authors

    A panel discussion on Literary Tallahassee at the Times Festival of Reading Saturday will feature Tallahassee writers Pamela Ball, Robert Olen Butler, Connie May Fowler, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and R.M. Berry. Diane Roberts will moderate.

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