Haunted : A Talk With Randy Wayne White

Photo credit: Wendy Webb

Randy Wayne White is a New York Times best-selling novelist of crime fiction and non-fiction and the writer of a television documentary. He's perhaps best known for his 21 Doc Ford novels, and his most recent Hannah Smith series. In Haunted, the third novel in the series, Hannah (who inherited her late uncle's private investigation business and also charters fishing expeditions) is hired to help stop a condo development. While working on this case, Hannah is confronted with dangers lurking in the Florida swamps and rivers, among them, human obsession.

Was it a challenge for you to write a series from a woman's point of view?

My editors at Putnam and Random House showed a great deal of confidence in me and thought I should give it a shot. I absolutely delighted in writing the Hannah books. My maternal family is from Rockingham, North Carolina, which is among the poorest counties in the state. My lovely, late mother, Georgia Wilson White, along with her six sisters and five brothers, would sit on the porch at night. As they talked, I would listen to these very smart, sharp, funny women go back-and-forth, telling ghost stories; and my uncles would tell them, too. I fell in love with that lyrical, strong, Southern female voice. Sometimes, I would tune out the words, and just listen to the rhythms -- the music of their speech. It was almost like a choral chanting, and that's stayed with me.

You seem to exemplify the old adage, "Write what you know" since your novels are set along the Gulf Coast of Florida and describe so beautifully, the flora and fauna of the region. This is especially true in Haunted.

For more than 13 years, I was a fishing guide on Sanibel Island at Tarpon Bay Marina. That was my full-time gig. I was on the water, in a small boat, for more than 300 days a year. I'd launch at first light. To spend that amount of time on the water in southwest Florida, where the social history is as interesting as the natural history, provides a wealth of material for a writer.

You left home at 16, skipped college and began leading a fascinating life. Tell us a bit about your own adventures.

It was nuts, but I was born under a blessed star. My father was a state trooper, so we moved around quite a bit. We ended up in Davenport, Iowa, where we lived for three years. My parents moved away during my junior year of high school. I had a job in a brass and iron foundry in downtown Davenport, and I worked as a lifeguard. I had my own money, and got my own apartment. It's not that I ran away from home; my parents moved away from me. But they did give me their address (laughter). They trusted me and there had been no problems at home.

You've been stabbed, shot at, and the hotel where you were staying was blown up by the Shining Path anarchists in Peru. Tell us about that.

I was visiting South America. There were conflicts there and you never knew who was shooting at you. I was in Peru, taking the highest train trip in the world. It was a "pig and chicken" train, where even the Indians were getting sick from the abrupt ascent in altitude. I didn't get sick; I just got very crabby. During that trip, the Shining Path anarchist movement attacked the small town where I was staying. Fifty-six people were killed, when a bomb went off and part of the hotel's roof was blown away. I'd been stabbed on the street an hour and a half before the attack.

I don't really know why, but guys walked up behind me very fast and stabbed me in the back. Luckily, I was wearing a cargo vest, which I still have with its blood stains on it. The knife mostly hit my notebook. Things didn't go very well from there. I'll leave it at that.

You were also involved in ferrying refugees from Cuba to the United States during the Mariel boatlift.

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. After Castro took over, he said, 'If you don't have revolution in your blood, get out of Cuba.' An enormous exodus of Cubans began. A Cuban-American friend of mine wanted to go to Cuba to pick up his aunt and grandmother. In the space of one week, more than a million Cubans agreed to leave Cuba and give up everything.

I borrowed a 55-foot riverboat, left Fort Meyers without a maritime chart, and three of us went to Mariel. When we arrived, we were told by the Cuban gunboat sailors not to go to Pier Two. Well, we went to Pier Two. When we got there, we saw acreage of concertina wire, some mango trees stripped of fruit and leaves and thousands of people being processed by Castro's soldiers. The people were ready to leave Cuba. I watched the Cuban guards go through the crowd. One of them tried to take the wedding ring from an old Cuban woman, who protested, and she was hit in the face with a rifle butt.

The soldiers loaded up our 55-foot boat with 147 people. On the trip to Florida, every refugee got sick on the stormy waters. But when we reached Key West, all 147 began chanting 'Libertad!' It was a very powerful experience.

Tell us about Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille on Sanibel Island.

Well, it's the kind of shameless commercial venture I've always wanted to be a part of (laughter). About 15 years ago, I started importing hot sauce from Colombia. I had $5,000 in the bank and spent every penny of it to buy all this hot sauce. With the help of some friends, I began selling the stuff, but then realized I made about three cents profit per bottle of sauce.

Then, these two wonderful guys and I became partners. We bought out a local restaurant that wasn't doing well. I'm the "trademark" name, while they actually run the restaurant. The concept was to have a sports bar, serving food made from original recipes; and we caught on. We now have three restaurants and they're the most popular ones in the area.

Getting back to your novels, what has surprised you most about writing?

The most surprising thing to me has been the impact my writing has had on people. I've received e-mails and letters -- always heartfelt and touching. Some of them say things like 'My husband had pancreatic cancer and spent the last three months of his life reading your books.' I've received letters from people who've gone through very hard times. I recently met a family whose 16-year-old son has lymphoma. Despite his illness, he devours my books.

It's so gratifying, because I sit alone in a room every day, seldom interact with other writers, and getting that kind of feedback makes me think I'm doing something good here.

You have an amazing output of novels. How do you spend your free time?

I need more free time (laughter), I write seven days a week. I go to Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille every morning. I started writing at two this morning, and finished around six. I used to play baseball, and I'm going to play senior league baseball again. A few years ago, I began surfboarding. There are three things in the world I want to do: the first is to keep writing my books; the second is to surf; and I'll leave the third to your imagination. (Laughter).

Which authors do you most enjoy reading?

I read almost exclusively non-fiction. I worry about lyrical sentence structure, if I read too many good writers. I've read Carl Hiassen -- he's brilliant. I've also read my dear, dear late friend, Peter Matthiessen; generally, it's almost all non-fiction.

Do you have much contact with other writers?
Carl Hiassen and I talk sometimes, but we're both quite private people. I'm friends with Tim Dorsey, Les Standiford, Thomas McGuane, and Loriann Hemingway. She's one of Hemingway's granddaughters.

Which authors were early influences on you?

I absolutely fell in love with Joseph Conrad's novels. And John Steinbeck's books, as well.

If you could have dinner with any five people -- living or dead -- who would they be?

First, would be Teddy Roosevelt. Then, John Steinbeck. I'd also love to dine with a little-known writer named H.M. Tomlinson, a British writer from the 1800s. Also, Moe Berg, the baseball catcher who was a spy for the U.S. And, then there's a singer-songwriter named Wendy Webb. Some years ago, she performed on television, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen in my life. I loved her music and her voice. They were angelic. I tried to think of ways to meet her and get her into bed. I must tell you, I stalked her on the Internet, and now she's my wife. She's incredibly talented and is now putting out CDs, and is still one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen.

What would you all be talking about at dinner?

I never learn anything with my mouth open, so I much prefer to listen and nudge conversation forward. One of the many things I learned from Peter Matthiessen is the importance of good conversation. I would sit back and listen, as he did, and try to bring out the best from the people at the table.

Congratulations on having written so many books, and much success with Haunted, the third Hannah Smith novel, It's a gripping mystery in a series that's deservedly very popular.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier.