Interview: Q & A with Tim Dorsey, author of ‘Shark Skin Suite’

Tim Dorsey, author of ‘Shark Skin Suite.’
Tim Dorsey, author of ‘Shark Skin Suite.’

You don’t have to look hard in Tim Dorsey’s latest novel to find references to prime Florida weirdness. The voracious African land snails and the aggressive iguanas and the elusive Burmese pythons and the terrifying barracudas that launch themselves out of the water into your boat are right there in chapter one. Even the giant eyeball that washed ashore makes an appearance (if you are reading this and do not live in this state, just Google “giant Florida eyeball” and you’ll see what I mean).

This is the way it should be. Dorsey’s 18th novel, Shark Skin Suite (Morrow, $26.99), carries on the author’s tradition of building an outrageous novel on the bedrock of crime, corruption and mayhem, viewed through the murderous but not entirely unjust eyes of madman and Florida history buff Serge A. Storms.

In Shark Skin Suite, Dorsey, a former reporter and editor at The Tampa Tribune, takes on the state’s mortgage crisis, unscrupulous lawyers and the battered newspaper industry (where overworked reporters can’t do their jobs because management keeps making them go to meetings about how they need to get better at their jobs — stop me if this sounds familiar). The action boomerangs all over the state from the mosquito-drenched mangroves of Flamingo to Paynes Prairie near Gainesville (where a predatory and deeply unlucky soul encounters death by buffalo) to Key West, where Fantasy Fest is in full swing.

You might think that after 18 books, Dorsey, 54, would be running out of local settings, but he’s not even close to the end of where he wants to go.

“I’ve got a list of places I need to get into books on my computer,” says Dorsey, who lives in Tampa. “It grows as I add to it, then shrinks with each new book.”

As for the weird Florida stuff, that’s not hard to find: You can read the newspapers or follow Florida Man on Twitter. The crazy drops into your lap unbidden. That giant eyeball, for example? Dorsey’s agent saw the story and sent the author a link and told him to check it out.

“I wrote back, ‘It’s already in the book,’” Dorsey says, laughing. “I just drop these things in there. You don’t have to write five chapters on the giant eyeball. You just have to have Serge step over it.”

Q: Has it gotten harder or easier to write the books since you published Florida Roadkill in 1999?

A: What’s gotten harder is family life. It’s expanding as the kids grow and get involved in activities. In the beginning I only had one child. Then came the second one. ... and now there’s so much going on. With the actual books I’ve learned not to sweat it. If I can get the first draft down, I can polish and tighten, and I’m never worried.

Q: Are people outside Florida still surprised by the weird things that happen here?

A: In the beginning people were asking, ‘Where do you get these crazy ideas?’ But after they follow the books they realize I’m basically just riffing from the headlines and having Serge wander this landscape that is legitimately weird.

Q: You visit all the places in Florida that you write about. What are some of your favorites?

A: Nothing can touch the Dry Tortugas. If you go, organize a camping trip, but remember the planes are weight-conscious. The first time I went I flew on a seaplane and I took tons of stuff, a cooler with a giant block of ice, a tent, a mesh bag of snorkel gear, all for $180. Try that today! Now people take the giant catamarans that go out and overrun it for an hour or so, but back in the day, when I was going out there, that wasn’t really happening. It was tranquil, with just a few people. They dropped me off and came back the next day. I remember that wonderful nature experience so vividly.

Q: Shark Skin Suite is a comedy, of course, but the main storyline concerns the housing and foreclosure crisis that hit the state hard. Why did you inject such a serious subject into a funny book?

A: I try to incorporate current events into my books as a way of getting a little journalism in there. You can do that in fiction, tell a subjective story that everybody’s talking about. You let people know what’s going on. Everybody talks like the home buyers were at fault for buying sub-prime loans. Bullsh--! First time I bought a house I was green as heck. I thought, “They’re not going to loan me more than I can afford.”

Q: What’s it like, being in the head of a lunatic like Serge?

A: I have to confess, it’s my head, too. If you acted on every thought that came into your head, with your thoughts ping-ponging around … When I write, I don’t filter that. If I just let my brain become an open spigot and free associate, that’s where Serge comes from. All the things he thinks about Florida and loves about it that started striking a chord with people, I kind of let that run wild. I don’t know how I could get that level of passion for the state without that character being my mouthpiece.

That said, each book has an ensemble cast and multiple plot threads. … Serge is in a minority of each book if you do a page count. It’s like a bowl of chili. You just put in a few drops of super-hot hot sauce, and it seems like it’s everywhere.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

Meet the author

Tim Dorsey appears:

▪ 7 p.m. Tuesday, Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach;

▪  6:30 p.m. Thursday, Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables;