I got to know Lynn Waddell a decade ago when we worked together at Weekly Planet, Creative Loafing's former incarnation. On staff as a news writer, she was that and much more — ready, willing to do anything and insatiably curious, wading knee deep in swampy muck, going out all hours to turn to strip clubs to provide her readers a kaleidoscopic view of our region's subcultures.
In her new book, Fringe Florida, Waddell ventures out statewide in a compendium of adventures during and after her days at the Tampa alt-newsweekly. No humans or animals were harmed — well, except for, perhaps, Waddell and her travel companion/hubby/good sport, James Harvey, who find themselves in a couple of truly awkward situations — one especially memorable encounter took place at a swingers' event.
Undaunted, Waddell navigates Florida’s countercultural terrain in entertainingly titled chapters like “Radical Rednecks,” “Alien Riviera” or “Spirits, Fairies and a Blow-Up Mary” — scenarios so well drawn that Fringe Florida has garnered heaps of favorable press, fresh off the presses.
The book even earned Waddell this year’s Best of the Bay award for “Best journey into Florida’s underbelly.” Editor David Warner credits Waddell for being “an engaged, curious observer, who without condescension or cheap shots, sheds new light on everything from the Mons Venus to the Holy Land Experience.”
Meet the St. Pete-based author and have her sign your new copy of Fringe Florida at a book release party on Sat., Oct. 5, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Beak’s St. Pete in downtown St. Pete — the kitschy-perfect venue to host the celebration. Word is that Joe Redner himself is scheduled to make an appearance!
Other appearances include Tues., Oct. 8, 7-9 p.m., at Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa.
I caught up with Waddell before her upcoming slate of book signings to find out about the huge task of capturing Fringe Florida.
Having worked with you and copy-edited your stories at Weekly Planet, some of the tales were a fond trip down memory lane for me. How did you combine your reporting for those stories with updated info? Did you keep really organized files of notes that you revisited later? What advice would you give to reporter revisiting older stories to gather research for a new book?
As messy as I am, I’m also a packrat. I did have paper files and electronic copies of stories that I had written about some of the topics. Before I toss notebooks, I go through them and pull out phone numbers which is why I have so many notebooks piled in my office. I file business cards and attempt to put phone numbers and email addresses into Gmail contacts and/or excel spreadsheet about a specific topic. I also put phone numbers in my doc files of notes. Gmail is excellent for storing such information because it saves space and also allows you to add notes about the people to jog your memory about how you encountered them.
What would say was your biggest surprise — a situation where you went into a situation, expecting it to have a completely different outcome?
Gosh, with every chapter I had my preconceived ideas turned upside down. I think ultimately what shocked me most was how normal people were in other aspects of their lives. Doing the book helped me grow psychologically and spiritually in accepting people who do things I might never consider doing.
Your husband, James, took some time to help you out. How did the dynamic between you two facilitate him being a research partner?
I’m a very lucky woman to have a husband who is not only the love of my life, but is also extremely supportive of my work and my closest confidante. Initially he went along with me on some of my reporting because it involved travel and we wanted to spend the time together. He took a week of vacation time when I researched in South Florida and a lot of the events in which he tagged along were on weekends. He was a little put out that I wouldn’t let him go to Mons with me. He joked to his friends, “Yeah, my wife went to Mons Venus and left me home to watch a Lifetime movie.”
I wasn’t opposed to him going because of insecurity about him seeing a bunch of nude women. But generally I find it more productive to research alone because having another person there changes the dynamic; people may not open up as much, particularly women in a strip club. Also, there’s a tendency to cling to your comfort zone and not interact with other people when a friend is along.
But there were some places, particularly Swing Fest, where he felt really uncomfortable about me going alone. I’m sure I would have had a different experience had been by myself there, but when I got there I was very thankful to have him by my side for obvious reasons. I also found it helpful to have another set of eyes and ears. For that chapter I equipped him with a small notebook and we both occasionally ducked inside the restrooms to jot down notes. (The convention operator had warned me that he would kick me out if he saw me with my notebook out because it might make convention customers there uncomfortable. There was precedence; reporters had been kicked off the trade show floor at a prior convention.)
When it came to writing the book I felt I had to include James to be honest about the experiences. Although he was initially a little uncomfortable, he’s a good sport. We discussed the experiences a lot, commiserating in fear sometimes before the excursions and laughing at ourselves afterwards. Being able to have these shared experiences strengthened our relationship.
I can't help but wonder what some people might have thought about being in your book and how they were featured. Did you get any feedback from people you wrote about? If so, who?
I know that several people in the book have a copy, and so far I haven’t received any negative feedback. In fact, a couple of people featured in the book are coming to the book party this weekend and a couple of others have invited me to drop in on them the next time I pass through their town.
Angye Fox is bringing some of her Canvass Cleavage paintings and will speak about them and some of the things she's involved in. Lynda Gale, who runs the masturbation swinger club, and Angye both told me they loved the book.
Have you considered a sequel and are there fringe factions out there you still wish to explore? If so, which ones?
I know better than to never say “never,” but the thought of doing a sequel makes me (and James) nauseous just because of all of the work, time, stress, and money that I put into doing this one. At best, I may recoup enough money to pay for my travel expenses in researching and promoting the book. I also had to turn down a lot paying gigs to the point I fell off the radar of some of my freelance clients. In hindsight, considering how I obsessively research, I was overly ambitious in my time frame. Initially I thought I could do it in year. Ha! Writing about 10 disparate topics was extremely time-consuming because I felt I had to know everything about the subject even if I didn’t include it (a lot was omitted or cut) just so that I could fairly characterize an aspect of the subculture. In some cases I researched for days just to be comfortable with one sentence.
But getting back to your question, yes, there are fringe subcultures I’d still like to explore. I’d rather not reveal them at this point. I’d rather first write about them in the form of magazine articles so that I can get paid for my research up front and have the benefit of having the work edited, proofed, and legally reviewed on someone else’s dime. My best girlfriend, Laura Keane, was generous in editing the book, but I couldn’t ask her to do that again.
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