Childhood in Florida is a far cry from the rabbit hole wonderland of Disney, and these decidedly different experiences are what William McKeen preserves like Indian River grapefruit in his upcoming anthology.
Released in September, “Homegrown in Florida” is a collection of stories from creative individuals who came of age in the Sunshine State.
McKeen, an author and professor, will tell you about the beauties of living and teaching in Boston. He’ll describe approaching the city from the harbor, walking past steeples and sculptures that sing of history.
He’ll also tell you he never truly left Florida.
The anthology began taking shape about six years ago when McKeen, 57, and a friend were reminiscing about living there as children.
When I wrote that book on [Hunter S. Thompson], it kind of explained where he went when he disappeared for a few years, when he was in Key West.
Born into a military family, McKeen grew up in several states and countries. He spent three childhood years on an Air Force base north of the Florida Keys during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Two stories in the anthology are his, drawn from that time in his life.
The memories he shares are saturated with detail. He does his best to recall dinner-table discussion and the way his father smoked cigarettes, his Halloween costumes and the bright remains of patio parties.
He writes about being a child against the blurred backdrop of international conflict he didn’t understand, of the inner workings of a family he loved.
When collecting stories, McKeen didn’t seek out memories that reminded him of his own. He wanted diverse stories, he said, because Florida is shaped and styled by diversity. Families rooted there for generations live alongside immigrants who barely speak English.
The book’s stories are flavored differently, but themes run through them we can all relate to—feelings of displacement, of frustration. Of guilt and curiosity. The stories belie Florida’s postcard-perfect image.
Some tell of poverty and fear. Some are about death.
McKeen described how the book was originally to be titled “Paradise Recalled,” but that so many stories were laced with tragedy the title no longer fit.
“Homegrown in Florida” reveals a world of vivid memories and black and white photographs, of quiet towns and close families, of details that might easily have slipped through the cracks.
Pop culture icons, like Tom Petty, often become so universal that people forget they have hometowns and childhood memories. McKeen’s anthology features Petty’s story of how meeting Elvis Presley in a small Florida town changed his life.
Michael Connelly, Carl Hiaasen and other prominent people have stories in the book, too.
The stories are those people wouldn’t think to tell, wouldn’t get asked about. McKeen collected small moments, snapshots of the lives they led while still finding themselves as creators.
Almost reverently, McKeen talked about a friend’s house overlooking Escambia Bay. It’s the only place where he can truly relax, he said. While living on a small farm in Wacahoota as an adult, he used to sit outside and write, overcome by the nature around him.
Idyllic childhoods don’t really exist, he said. Not in Florida, not for anyone. But Florida seems to outsiders an idyllic childhood unto itself, a candied playground to which the rest of the country escapes.
People visit Boston merely to soak up the ambiance of the city, McKeen said. He wishes more people appreciated the beauty of Florida that exists apart from the artificial.
Florida’s character is elusive, its persona difficult to decipher. Even people who grew up there can’t quite convey its effect on them. Probably there aren’t words for it at all, at least not in this language.
And so McKeen lets the memories do the talking. He gathered stories so simple, so powerful that—on some frequency—they speak their truths to everyone.
You’ve written that you had a “nomadic childhood,” growing up in England, Germany and four states in the U.S. How did living in so many different places affect who you are as a writer?
I think it made me realize that friendships could be fleeting, that it wouldn’t last a long time because I think about every 18 months I had a whole new group of friends. Which I didn’t mind; I ended up really liking that. But I think it also made me … bond more with my family. It also made me probably a little bit more introspective, I think, because you always ended up being the new kid somewhere but you figured out ways to amuse yourself. And I think that’s why I started writing stories. … I would write 35-page books and turn them in to my teachers. I was always interested in writing and telling stories.
And when I think about that, most of the stories that I want to tell are about life in Florida. It was just a really unusual childhood growing up, you know, moving around and being part of that military lifestyle.
Indiana, you’ve written, is the place you generally call home, yet your upcoming book is about people growing up in Florida. So, why Florida?
Well, I’ve spent much of my life in Florida. I lived there three years as a child. … My first real job, I guess, because it was after college, was in Florida. And then I moved back in 1986 to teach there. So it’s where I’ve spent most of my life and I think I know it pretty well. I love where I live now; in fact today’s just one of those days where I’m just loving life so much. I came into work on a boat, and there’s nothing like approaching Boston from the water. And then I walked to my subway stop past Faneuil Hall and the statue of Sam Adams and I love all that, but I still sort of feel that Florida is always going to be a big part of my life. I came up with the idea of the book just because the writer Tim Dorsey was visiting one time; he was passing through on a book tour and I talked him into talking to the class. We were just sitting there before class, remembering what Florida used to be like when we were kids. Then about a week later, just by coincidence, Jeff Klinkenberg … sent me a DVD of his childhood that he had compiled from his mother’s home movies. So I thought, you know there’s something here we need to explore: what Florida was like growing up. … But rather than just stories from people of our generation, it really needed to be more widespread. I thought, Florida truly is a diverse place. You rarely run into someone who’s a native Floridian. But people who grew up there had interesting stories to tell, and that’s how it really started. I never really went out there and solicited stories from people. I would just tell people what I was doing and they’d say, “Oh, I got a story for you.”
When you were finding yourself as a writer, who were your inspirations?
Growing up, I really liked Kurt Vonnegut. … I grew up reading the usual kid stuff. I suppose I really fell in love with short story writers like John Cheever and Flannery O’Connor. Obviously being in journalism, Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe were big influences as well.
I don’t know how many natives there are in the book; I never really took a tally. But obviously Tom Petty is and Carl Hiaasen is, as is Zora Neale Hurston and probably a few others.
Your last two books, “Homegrown in Florida” and “Mile Marker Zero,” both feature Florida. Is this a temporary trend?
I think it just happened, that I just sort of found myself writing about Florida. The “Mile Marker Zero” book grew out of the one before that, which was “Outlaw Journalist.” … When I wrote that book on [Hunter S. Thompson], it kind of explained where he went when he disappeared for a few years, when he was in Key West. So that kind of led to the book on Key West and the book on writers.
When you set out to create this book, whom did you imagine as your audience?
I just think of all those wonderful, literate people in Florida who love the state, love its history and want to see it preserved. … I do hope people that read it are going to want to tell their stories. … When I got to thinking about this, I was thinking about the idyllic sort of childhood I had, which involves being frightened of instant annihilation from nuclear war. But some of the stories ended up being really, really dark. I’m thinking in particular about a story Jeff Klinkenberg wrote about watching a friend of his die when he was a teenager and how awful that was. We were originally going to call [the book] “Paradise Recalled,” but it was just so brutal that we couldn’t do that. The title just didn’t work. So the publisher actually came up with the title “Homegrown in Florida,” which has grown on me. I was not fond of it at first, but, you know, it’s grown on me. It’s very descriptive. I mean, that’s what these stories are about.
The stories in this book are written by very different people; a musician, best-selling authors, a professional wrestler, etc. How did you decide whose stories to include?
It really wasn’t who wrote the story or who told the story, but the nature of the story. And was it different; was it something we hadn’t had before. And I like the fact that we have such a broad range of contributors and different kinds of contributions. We have some serious poetry, we have song lyrics, we have an excerpt from an interview with Tom Petty, we have non-fiction, we have fiction, so it’s a variety. I’ve done other anthologies, and to me a good anthology is not just a collection of similar things; it’s a collection of things that are really different. I guess the underlying theme of this book is diversity; the diversity of experience in the state, the diversity of the people who live there, and then on another level, the diversity of contributions. Some of the stuff’s funny, some of it’s tragic. We have short stuff, long stuff. I think one of the things I like most in the book is from Michael Connelly. He is this unbelievably brilliant novelist, and when I mentioned the project to him, he thought he’d write something special for the book, about what made him interested in what he writes about; an experience he had as a child. And it doesn’t get any better than that, you know, to have Michael Connelly involved.
I call this story fiction because I’m not saying that every single word of dialogue is correct; it’s as correct as I can remember. I work in journalism; I can’t say this is fact, so I present it as fiction.
Is Connelly’s story your favorite?
No, I don’t really have a favorite. Like I said, the Klinkenberg thing—I don’t even know if when the book comes out I’ll be able to read that again because every time I’ve read it it’s just depressed me so much. But it’s so well done; it’s perfectly felt. … The childhood, it’s not the idyllic kind; it’s not always perfect. It’s not always Disney and Norman Rockwell. It’s often filled with terrible tragedies. … It’s over before you know it, and you regret it didn’t last longer. And I think childhood affects us into adulthood. We think, by God, I’m going to give my child the perfect childhood. And such a thing doesn’t exist. Looking back on my childhood, I certainly have my elements of tragedy, all these terrible things. I always would tell my mother—my father died when I was young—but I would always tell my mother, “Mom, I’m never going to show up on Jerry Springer. I’m not going to bitch about my childhood because I think you guys did a hell of a job.” And I think they sort of did it by not really trying very hard. And I think parents these days—and I include myself—I think we try too hard. It’s the times when you’re not trying to be a great parent that you might be the best parent. You just sort of are, and you try to silently pass on your values and your loves and your desires to your kids.
Why did you decide to create an anthology instead of interviewing people and writing their stories yourself?
I don’t know; that thought had never occurred to me. I thought, I have a couple of stories that I wanted to tell. One of them is a story I’d written before the idea of the book came along, and the other one—once I decide to do the book I thought, I want to write about this. In fact, I’ve often thought about just writing a whole bunch of stories that wouldn’t be about Florida or anything but stories about my childhood, the moving around so much. And when I think about that, most of the stories that I want to tell are about life in Florida. It was just a really unusual childhood growing up, you know, moving around and being part of that military lifestyle. But it never occurred to me to do the whole book because I thought, what am I? I’m not a representative Floridian but I know a bunch of people who did grow up here. It’s interesting; the two guys that really helped the idea solidify in the head—Tim Dorsey was born in Indiana, grew up in Florida, and Jeff Klinkenberg was born in Chicago and grew up in Florida. So we’re transplants. I don’t know how many natives there are in the book; I never really took a tally. But obviously Tom Petty is and Carl Hiaasen is, as is Zora Neale Hurston and probably a few others. I did want a few more historical pieces in the book; I wanted older things.
There’s a beautiful state park in the panhandle called Grayton Beach; I like that. I like my friend’s home in Pensacola and actually I like Key West, but that’s not a place you can go and not spend a lot of money.…
It’s interesting that you chose to add Zora Neale Hurston’s voice to the anthology, despite the fact that she died in 1960. Why did you include her?
Robb White is also dead. I had to have Robb White in there because his book “The Lion’s Paw” is kind of the perfect book about growing up.
When you were writing your two stories, how easily did the memories come back?
It’s kind of funny. I think we all have these stories in us; it’s just getting them out. The first one, which I wrote some time ago, I had no trouble. But the second one—you know, what I could remember about the Cuban Missile Crisis was the fear; I remembered how I felt. I call this story fiction because I’m not saying that every single word of dialogue is correct; it’s as correct as I can remember. I work in journalism; I can’t say this is fact, so I present it as fiction. What I did for that story is I ended up doing an awful lot of research, more than I thought I would for something I’m writing about that happened to my family. But I wanted to research about the time and the chronology and all that, and then I talked to both my mother and my brother in great detail. My mother would remind me of something, and oh, it was like opening a door. I remembered that moment. So writing that particular story, “Arsenal,” was a lot of fun because it meant talking to my family about things, you know. Because we don’t go home and say, “Remember that time…” and just go off on a story. It’s kind of nice, having the purpose of writing the story. You really need everyone to focus. So I wouldn’t say I interviewed my mother, but I would talk to them and say, “Here’s what I’m working on; what do you remember?” So we’d talk and then a couple of weeks later we’d talk again, and my mother would say, “You know, I remembered something else.” And so it’s as accurate as it can be. I’d say it’s a true story, but I call it fiction.
From the time you began this book to the time you finished, had your perception of Florida changed?
Good question—I know don’t. I was thinking about this this morning when I was walking in. … It’s like Florida tries too hard. Florida builds all of these amusements to attract people, when if Florida would just be Florida—it’s a darn beautiful place. And this is no offense to Disney and all of those other places. I have seven children; I’ve had so much pleasure in my life associated with things like that. But that’s not what I think [are] the beauties of Florida. I think about when I lived there; I lived on a beautiful farm between Gainesville and Ocala, in a little community called Wacahoota. And I used to just—when I was writing I would take my laptop and sit out on a picnic table and feel the breeze and hear the sounds of the country and all that. You know, sometimes I was just so overcome with the beauty of the place I couldn’t stand it. There are other places in Florida; I always enjoyed going to Cedar Key, because that was kind of my place to just go and do nothing. I have a friend—in fact he wrote a story in the book—who lives on a bluff overlooking Escambia Bay in Pensacola, and that’s probably one of the only places in the world where I am capable of truly relaxing. It’s the only place in the world where I feel like I’m taking a nap in the daytime. You can look out at the bay and just fall asleep. And so it’s those places; that’s what I think of when I think of Florida. Every year I would take the kids to Disney world; that was something we looked forward to. And then I would get there, and I’d be among this crowd, being pushed and jostled around, and we’re all looking at this stuff that’s beautiful but ultimately fake. I’d just say, “What the hell was I thinking? Why did I come here?” And again, I’d end up having a nice time, God bless those people and so forth, but that’s not what I think is best about Florida by a long shot. And it just occurred to me today that Florida tries too hard. I think if Florida just allowed itself to come out, instead of putting on this false mustache or coming up with a fake personality… There’s just so much of Florida that’s great. I’m not talking about the bugs or the oppressive heat, but there’s just so much about it that’s great. … It just struck me this morning when I was thinking about this, because I was walking through Boston and it’s such a beautiful city. They don’t have to go out of their way; they don’t have to create anything. People just come here because of what it is. And I thought, well, it’s too bad more people don’t go to Florida just to admire it for what it is, for the natural beauty and the splendor of it all.
If you had a friend who had never been to Florida and you could take that friend to one place in the state, where would you take them?
I might take them to my old farm. … It was just so beautiful there. … There are so many nice places that are still relatively unspoiled in the panhandle. When I’d get away, when I had a long weekend or something and wanted to go somewhere, I’d head west. There’s a beautiful state park in the panhandle called Grayton Beach; I like that. I like my friend’s home in Pensacola and actually I like Key West, but that’s not a place you can go and not spend a lot of money.… There’s a lot of places—a lot of secret little places—and if I told you, then I’d have to kill you.