Hybrid Interview: Tyler Gillespie
Essay by Sam Risak •
“Florida man arrested for calling 911 after kitten denied entry into strip club.” “Florida man once arrested for fighting drag queen with tiki torch runs for mayor.” “Florida man killed by alligator while hiding from cops.” Florida Man. Florida Man. Florida Man. How does one state inspire so much insanity? Does it have something to do with all the alligators? A Disney World–brainwashing scheme? Overexposure to citrus trees?
The Florida Man is one of many Sunshine State spectacles nonfiction writer and poet Tyler Gillespie discusses in The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State. The book not only provides readers with the origin stories behind such strange phenomena (origins which, in the case of the Florida Man, sadly have more to do with transparency of the news than any alligator cult: Florida’s laws make it easy for journalists to access reports, including “police reports that could be turned into click-bait headlines”), it also shows how they evolve into the oddities the state has become so well known for.
On the surface, many of Gillespie’s topics appear lighthearted, perhaps even trivial. That’s the beauty of the book. He takes subjects that do not often warrant a second thought and illustrates why they deserve our attention. Rather than the “Florida Woman [Who] Repeatedly Slapped her Grandmother for Rejecting her Friend Request on Facebook,” we meet Rachel Hayes; rather than an eye-catching blurb or tweet, we read her story; and rather than laugh at a mugshot, we see how easily it could have been us in her place.
Raised in Florida myself, I only realized the necessity for Gillespie’s contextualization when I moved outside the state. I would say where I was from; again and again I would be met with raised eyebrows, jokes about how strange the place is, and, later, sent links to stories about these crazy Florida Men. I laughed along. I never felt defensive, or even fond of Florida when I lived there. I found its climate too humid, its politics too conservative, and its environment too full of mosquitoes. But I never thought of it as “crazy” or even particularly “wacky”—at least not any more than what I would expect of any state. After a while of listening to these comments, I began to take a closer look at the faces so many were sharing in these viral Florida Man posts, and what I saw was discomfitingly familiar. I know the people in these photos. Maybe I don’t know the person specifically, but I know people whose faces could be swapped for theirs. People who suffer from poverty. From substance abuse. From lack of healthcare. These are some of the people closest to me, and it pains me to think they have become nothing more than a joke.
I want them to be heard, to have a platform to speak for themselves, and that is precisely what The Thing About Florida does. Chapter after chapter, we meet snake hunters and alligator wrestlers, nudist campers and cowboy ranchers, reptile vendors and hateful street preachers, and while some of these individuals certainly turn out to be more deserving of our empathy than others, all of them get the chance to tell their story. And the best part? We get to listen to them all through Gillespie’s highly engaging and personable voice. There is no distant observer or objective third person; Gillespie is his own character, and if he puts anyone up on the petri dish for analysis, he climbs right on in after them.
What The Thing About Florida makes most clear is that there is no one thing about Florida. A state full of paradoxes, it is home to the country’s oldest city and some of its most rapid urban development; a state where the farther north you go, the further South you are; a state where ranchers can be environmentalists and pet smugglers can be animal rights activists. All that’s to say, Florida is not an easy place to characterize; in this interview, I talked with Gillespie over Zoom to find out how he did it. How does a writer construct a window for readers when the environment is larger than life?
Sam Risak: Your latest nonfiction book The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State (2021) is not the first time you’ve published work on the state; you also have a poetry collection titled Florida Man: Poems and a podcast called A Florida Thing. I think it’s safe to say you’re interested in the state, but would you consider yourself a Florida writer? I ask because many authors take issue when they or their works are labeled as regional, particularly when that region is the South where the stereotypes tend to be more prevalent and less flattering.
Tyler Gillespie: As someone who’s from Florida and writes about the state, I definitely identify as a Florida writer, although it’s honestly something I haven’t thought much about. I think of labels more in terms of being a gay poet. But it’s true that all of them frame what a reader expects from you and your work, which means a modifier of anything could feel limiting.
But I don’t think we have to write exclusively about where we’re from or different aspects of our identity. I identify as a Florida writer because there are so many great Florida writers, and I want to be in that sphere. Also, I’m a fifth-generation Floridian and owning it has worked for me. Still, I don’t think there’s any one way to be a Florida writer because there are so many different approaches you can take to embody that in your work. For me, it means to think about the landscape and the different complicated histories of the state. And it means defending your state and where you’re from because that’s ingrained in how you see and learn yourself, your childhood, all of that.
That’s why, rather than writing as a Florida writer, I thought more about what it means to write for other Floridians. They know their stuff, and they will defend it. And so, in the book, I talk about this being my version, and the things in it are the things that I find interesting. There’s no one way to be any kind of writer, but especially when you write about a place that’s misunderstood, people are going to want to defend it. And I support that. I just had to think about what my blend of the state would be.
SR: Do you feel pressure now to continue writing about Florida?
TG: I’m still interested in Florida. I recently finished a draft of a poetry book that’s more about technology and discourse theory, but I’m also currently working on a book about Florida. It’s more focused on LGBTQIA+ history throughout the state because there are so many stories, and I would like to be able to tell them if I can.
SR: As you said, you’re a fifth-generation Floridian, but you lived in Chicago and attended school in New Orleans. How did that distance affect your perception of Florida?
TG: I didn’t realize Florida had the reputation of being the weird state until I moved to Chicago and people started asking me about it. And then when I moved to New Orleans, which has a very beautifully unique and multifaceted weirdness to it as a city, I was sitting in a bar when someone from Texas—a state with its own regional misconceptions—asked me: “What’s up with Florida?” At that moment I was like, What is up with Florida? If a Texan and New Orleanian are asking me, maybe that’s something I should try to figure out. And while it’s not something I write about, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how certain places have their weirdness celebrated—there’s that slogan keep whatever weird—but Florida and other states don’t get that, and I think there may be some socioeconomic and historic reasons for why.
SR: You can be weird if you live in Austin and can afford to shop at Urban Outfitters, but maybe less so if you live in middle-of-nowhere Florida.
SR: On that note, one of those “weird” Florida figures you open your book with is Florida Man, although the person you interview is actually Florida Woman Rachel Hayes. In the chapter, you illustrate the inaccuracy of her headlines as well as their lasting effects on Rachel’s life, but before you do, you reveal your own history with the law and how you had been arrested for driving under the influence, even describing yourself as a “textbook alcoholic who hails from a long line of addicts.” Substance abuse is a topic that is also close to me and my family, and I am wondering how and why you decided to be so open about it in your book?
TG: Rachel was hesitant to talk to people, specifically because her story had been blown out of proportion when all these posts about her went viral, and when I shared my history with her, it opened up the door for us to have communication. And so, craft-wise, I included it because it influenced the narrative and how I was able to get her story. I also felt it was important to include because I had a similar situation that could have gone viral had things been different, but here I am able to tell my narrative when she didn’t get to tell hers. So, I felt like I owed it to her as well as the reader.
And it was an interesting process because a few times in the book, I wrote something personal that I didn’t think was personal at the time, and then in a moment like this, I realize it is very personal. While I’ve been writing about sobriety for a while, it’s still not something I feel super comfortable doing because it can change very quickly. It’s not something that has an end point.
After I wrote about it in my poetry book, what people wanted to talk to me about the most at the readings were two things: alligators—a lot about alligators—and recovery. There’s a huge community of people in various stages of recovery, or who have been affected by it in various ways, and I think it’s important for those who want to talk about it to have a way to do so in a way that feels comfortable to them. And although the way I talked about it in this book didn’t feel comfortable, it felt necessary for the story.
SR: I appreciated your vulnerability. There’s a lot of people like Rachel who don’t get the opportunity to tell their narrative, and when you shared yours, you at least gave one face to humanize the issue of addiction.
TG: I appreciate that. And I think a lot of the narratives about addiction and recovery are changing. It’s no longer just about being sober. I mean, that’s one narrative, but there needs to be many more because a lot of people, especially in the pandemic, are reevaluating their relationship to substances, and the more narratives there are, the better the chances are that they can help somebody.
SR: I hope you’re right. A lot of people seem to associate writing with drinking. I once even had a classmate in my MFA tell me you had to drink to be a writer.
TG: The glamorization of drinking is real, but no, you don’t have to drink to be a writer. I’ve been sober for nine years, and I’ve been so much more productive with writing. When you’re a working-class writer, you only have a certain amount of time, and if you spend your whole weekend hungover, you’re not getting any writing done, are you? It’s true though, there is a drinking culture in the literary community, and when I quit drinking, I worried it would affect my writing. Because there is that trope of the tortured artist. But I definitely would not have been able to write this book with all the research I had to do. I had to concentrate. There’s no way.
SR: One of the aspects that impressed me most about your book is the balance you strike in the tone. It’s not hard to picture a version of this book coming across as defensive, and yet I never felt that way reading it. As opposed to denying the state’s strangeness, you contextualize it, and even recognize in the introduction how a lot of the bad things people say about Florida are true. How do you decide where the line is between recognizing some of the problematic components of the state and not further perpetuating the negative stereotypes?
TG: I try to tell the reader the wild story without telling them it’s wild. The reader understands it’s over-the-top; you don’t need to tell them that. Beyond that, I try to present different angles without saying which is right or wrong, and that was especially true when I was writing about the Civil War reenactors because that was a moment where I still don’t know how I feel about what they were doing. But I don’t think that matters. I don’t think I need to 100% know how I feel about something to write about it. Because that can all be written into the text. And it gives nuance and different angles. So sometimes I think it’s better for me to not go in thinking, Oh, I’m going to defend this because I have a strong point of view on something. (Though, in other chapters that’s exactly what I do.) It can be very generative to admit you don’t know how you feel about a topic. Or maybe you do know how you feel about it, but you’re reconsidering it. I try not to tell the reader how I feel as much as present the story to them and let them make up their own mind.
Although there are obviously certain topics, like slavery or enslaved people, that you have to say are specifically not okay. I mean, we have to talk about racism and the intersectionality of all these different things, and that’s why I came to learn a lot from writing that chapter. The reenactors were doing something similar to me: they had a long history and ties to Florida, and we were both grappling with our past—even if we did that in different ways, it might have been for similar reasons. That’s how I found a little bit of commonality through their discussion of Florida because so many of them would do research. They were fifth-, sixth-generation Floridians, sometimes more than that, and they had family members who were in the Civil War. None of my family members that I know of were in the Civil War, but it was a “whoa” moment to think that, as a Floridian born during that time period, I could have been fighting for the Confederacy. What does that mean for me now? How do I reconcile that past? And how does that legacy affect present day Florida?
SR: It’s hard to write with such ambiguity and still leave the reader satisfied, but the lack of resolution in that chapter is exactly what makes it one of the most compelling parts of the book. Still, I am curious if you had any doubts or second thoughts about including it. Did you worry you might be giving attention to the wrong people? Or feel like you should have taken a more definitive and condemnatory stance?
TG: Of course, as writers, we have to ask ourselves: What are we giving airtime to? Who are we giving a platform? What ideas are we putting out there? And in this case, I think it would have been easier for me to not put something like that in there. At the same time, what I was trying to do is acknowledge the role Florida had in the Civil War that most people don’t know about. And I could have written about it in another way, I’m sure. But a reenactor told me they could lose their jobs because of how photos circulate on the internet and lose context (like the Florida Man headlines) and some people think their participation as a Confederate reenactor means they support slavery. According to them, the Union reenactors don’t have to worry about it in the same way, and that makes me compelled to know why the Confederate reenactors still do it.
Recently, I was giving a reading, and somebody asked me how the chapter connected to the ongoing conversation about Confederate monuments and the changing of school names that had been connected to Robert E. Lee. These are ongoing conversations that are still happening in Florida, and I’ve heard that because of COVID-19 and the changing political landscape, they may not be doing that specific reenactment in the future. So, it’s timely to be writing about it during a moment of racial tension and unrest, even though that’s been going on forever in the United States.
SR: It is tricky, but I see why you would want to draw attention to it. I moved to Florida when I was very young, and I did not expect to see the amount of Confederate flags I did. They were everywhere. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. They were treated like a fashion statement, and that’s not something we can continue to ignore.
As for the other topics you cover, they’re pretty wide-ranging—everything from pet smugglers to cattle ranchers—and I’m curious: did these change at all during your research process? Were there any subjects you found more interesting than you’d expected to or any that you wanted to talk about, but didn’t think that you were the right person to cover?
TG: I never thought I’d be so obsessed with cattle that I’d have a whole chapter about cows and cowboys. But that’s the thing that’s so interesting about Florida: You can find agriculture and tourism on the same street in Orlando. These juxtapositions appear all over the place, and cattle also happened to connect to the Civil War because that was Florida’s main contribution. I never knew that. And that’s kind of how the structure of the book developed as well. I’d hear something while I was reporting or writing about another topic that I’d want to carry over into the next chapter and explore further.
The final chapter is something else I didn’t expect to include in the book. It was added after the first final draft when a reader told me they thought it would be interesting to end in Disney World or something like that. And I told them, “I don’t have an essay about Disney World, but I do have an essay about the Holy Land Experience in Orlando.” It’s a Bible-based theme park, which I was already obsessed with. I used to go to it when I was younger, and then I started thinking about how it related to growing up as a gay Christian.
Was there anything that I wanted to write that I didn’t feel personally able to? That’s something I’m thinking about with the project I’m working on right now because I am writing about a lesbian community in Florida. They used to run a magazine, and anyone who identified or presented as male wasn’t allowed in the pages. So, as I’m writing, I’m asking myself if it is ethical for me to be reading or writing about this when I am someone who was meant to be excluded from it. But then I worry if I only write about the identity I embody or things that I feel comfortable about, then I’m not going to be giving airtime to these other communities, and I’m potentially marginalizing other groups that should be represented in the text.
I think it’s difficult, and it’s something that, as a white writer, I’m thinking a lot about because I don’t want to only privilege white perspectives. Or male perspectives. That being said, I generally don’t feel comfortable writing about indigenous populations in a very nuanced way, but I wrote about the Seminole tribe of Florida because they’re Floridian and their history is a part of Florida. So it was really difficult to figure out the best way to do it. And I’m not sure that I figured out the best way, but I at least tried to be respectful, and I think that it’s important to have as many perspectives as I possibly can. And for those who are trying to navigate these boundaries, something that works for me is letting other folks check my work when I’m writing about them.
SR: You mentioned that your last chapter on the Holy Land Experience—which I am so happy you wrote about in place of Disney World—started out as an essay. How did you figure out how to develop and connect it to the book?
TG: I had been working on that essay for years and couldn’t figure out how to tie all of its threads together or hone in on how to talk about being a queer Christian. It’s still controversial for queer people to be Christian. Or, I don’t know if it’s controversial, but I will still have gay people say, Oh, you can’t be a Christian if you’re gay, because of the trauma, or because of their theological understandings of the text. And, of course, you have the church and certain church members saying, You can’t be gay and a Christian. But my faith is important to me and thinking about a higher power helped me get more in contact with my faith and my childhood, which connects me to Florida.
I had no idea how to talk about any of this, but I started to see some threads through Holy Land and some of the reporting I did on the street preachers in Ybor City. Then, when I was writing the book, the folks at the University Press of Florida, who’ve read a lot about Florida, told me the state had a very long history in the Creationist Movement and its science texts and curriculum. I didn’t know that, and it wasn’t mentioned in any of the first drafts, but when my editor mentioned that they had published a book about Florida’s connection to the Creationist Movement, I wanted to look at it because that adds a layer that I didn’t know was there.
The press was helpful like that throughout the text. My editor helped a lot with the Civil War in terms of providing me sources and context so that I felt really supported and could take the chapter to where it needed to go. That specific content knowledge was a benefit of writing for a university press. And the Seminole War was another topic where I had someone who had done a lot of research on it talk me through its history. The United States calls the Seminole Wars three different wars, but their tribe recognizes it as one continuous war. So even calling it three separate wars is a colonial way to discuss it. Finding out things like that made me really grateful to have the readers I did.
Because of them, the book also evolved to have more first-person accounts. The earlier drafts were all more reporting-based, but the press said we like the voice. We like the humor. Maybe don’t mention Nancy Grace as much (because I was really obsessed with Nancy Grace for a while because she was obsessed with Casey Anthony, and my grandmother used to think Casey Anthony lived in our neighborhood, which she didn’t, but it was one of those things your family says that gets stuck in your head). So they’d maybe tell me to cut back on that, but otherwise they were totally supportive of my voice. And since it is a university press, the book went through a peer review process, which is especially helpful when you’re writing about place. Everybody has such strong opinions on where they’re from or where they live, and if you get something wrong, it can really affect your credibility even though so much of how we think about where we’re from is based on our own perspective and experiences.
SR: Now that you’ve talked some about how your writing of the book evolved, I am hoping you will end our talk by describing how you went about structuring it. The variety of topics make it seem like they could have appeared in multiple different orders, but especially with your background as a poet, I imagine you had some sort of organization in mind.
TG: While I think there’s something great about essay collections that you can dip in and out of, I wanted to have a narrative thread, which meant that any facts that I gave in one chapter were expanded upon in the next. This is similar to how I think about organizing a poetry collection where I always ask myself: What information does the reader need to know now for it to make sense? Even if poems are very different, readers come to a certain one that will inform how they read the next poem, or, in the case of the book, the next chapter. And I wanted this book to be something where the reader could sit down and read it from start to finish and have a satisfying narrative experience.
SR: Well, I think you achieved that. Different as your subjects may have been, they all felt like stops on the same trip I got to take with you.
TYLER GILLESPIE is a poet and award-winning journalist published in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, GQ, Salon, Playboy, and elsewhere. He is the author of The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State (UPF, 2021), Florida Man: Poems (Red Flag Poetry, 2018). His website is TylerMTG.com.
SAM RISAK is the Editorial Assistant for Interviews at CRAFT as well as a reader/reviewer for TAB: The Journal in Poetry & Poetics. She has work published or forthcoming in Writer’s Digest, Lit Hub, AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Terrain.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, Barrelhouse, and the Crab Orchard Review.