BROOKE GLADSTONE: Republicans held their convention in the swing state of Florida this week. The convention in Tampa was a scripted, predictable affair, but if press coverage is any guide, the State of Florida is anything but. It’s a museum of the weird that just happens to have a lot of electoral votes. There’s the report of a medical examiner who got behind on her autopsies and decided to store human remains in a storage unit. There’s the owner of a creationist-themed amusement park who claimed he didn’t have to pay taxes because God was his employer. This month, a recently released inmate was re-arrested for trying to steal a car in the jail parking lot.
Reporter Will Greenlee covers the crime beat for Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers in Florida and writes the Off the Beat blog for the papers, a compendium of the odd.
WILL GREENLEE: Florida does have the reputation for being a home for misfits, but I also think that a lot of it is due to the open records laws in Florida. They’re very liberal. It’s very easy to get access to arrest affidavits and police reports, and it’s part of my job.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s assume that Florida has laid itself bare, where other states haven’t. What about the preponderance of stories that I saw on your site about people who were putting different meat products down their pants?
WILL GREENLEE: I’ve written about Delmonico’s steaks and pork tenderloin, tuna, salmon, shrimp, all kinds of shellfish in people’s pants. A woman was being questioned by the police and they had found cocaine in her pants pockets, and she said, well, you know, I just bought these pants at Walmart. It must have been in there when I bought the pants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you love your job?
WILL GREENLEE: I do. It’s very fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know who else loves your job?
WILL GREENLEE: Who?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Stewart. He said so this week. He was speaking to Marco Rubio on The Daily Show, which was filming in Tampa.
JON STEWART: Well, I read the Florida papers, mostly, mostly -
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Yeah, well I do read some of ‘em anyway.
JON STEWART: I only read them for the police blotter. It’s just – a python. It attacked. Like, I’ve – stuff I’ve never –
SEN MARCO RUBIO: No! Hey, come on –
JON STEWART: An alligator dragged two cows –
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: We’ve got plenty of papers that have won Pulitzer Prizes –
JON STEWART: Oh –
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: - for investigative reporting and — about good stuff.
JON STEWART: Yeah, about cat disappearances. [LAUGHS]
WILL GREENLEE: I don’t know. I’ve never been a crime reporter anywhere else, but I don’t think I would like to be one anywhere else. The stuff here is just too good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thanks again.
WILL GREENLEE: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Greenlee covers the crime beat for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers.
Karen Russell is a native Floridian. Her novel, “Swamplandia!” tells the story of a family of alligator wrestlers whose park is threatened by the appearance of a new corporate competitor, the World of Darkness Park. In 2012, “Swamplandia!” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Karen is here to talk about her mythic home state. Welcome to the show.
KAREN RUSSELL: I’m happy to. I love talking about weird Florida.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
KAREN RUSSELL: It’s like my favorite thing to do. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] So how do you go about writing fiction about a place that seems at times like a fiction?
KAREN RUSSELL: This is a real tricky challenge, I think. Things come in over the AP that are much stranger and more troubling –
- than [LAUGHING] anything you could invent in fiction. So I think one of the advantages of setting fiction there is that readers arrive to the state already prepared to suspend all disbelief.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And are they able to tell what you’re deriving from the reality and what you’ve made up in your head?
KAREN RUSSELL: What was so interesting about doing a book tour of this particular book was the different kind of regional responses. So I would go to California, say, you know, and they’d be like, oh, what a lushly imagined, etc.
Whereas in Florida the feeling I often had was an anxiety that I had like maybe inadvertently plagiarized someone’s true life –
- and it was gonna go to court. You know, like I was - there’s gonna be litigation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, in your view, why is Florida so strange?
KAREN RUSSELL: That’s a question for the ages. Like in the Northeast, everybody cycles through the seasons. That must be doing some important – psychological action for people [LAUGHING]
- because in Florida you’re just bathed in sort of this unchanging summer like all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Californians have pretty consistent weather.
KAREN RUSSELL: Well, look at that state, huh?
I mean [LAUGHS], exactly.
I think you’ve just proven my point. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also, you grew up in Miami-Dade, a fairly recently staked territory, isn’t it?
KAREN RUSSELL: I think in the 1900s there were like eight people on Miami-ade’s county rolls or something. I mean, it was a real frontier, which I think people forget, ‘cause you think that the West, you know, the Manifest Destiny, that was our pioneer frontier. There’s also this real elasticity that comes from a community of people that are pretty recent arrivals. I mean, Florida, it’s just that – the shape of it too, it’s like a – a lot of strangeness just travel down the spine of the country and seems to land there. [LAUGHS] Like, I think there’s some physics to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, talk a little bit about the peninsularity of Florida.
KAREN RUSSELL: I also, you know, had no sense that this was particularly a strange place to grow up as a kid because all of our travels were road trips, and Florida’s so long that you can never escape it.
It’s sort of like a B horror movie state, where you drive for eight hours and you’re still in Florida, impossibly. So we’d like make it up to Tallahassee, I’m like, yep, everything checks out, pretty normal, like [LAUGHS] –
I really didn’t have a lot of reference points. We used to also go on these field trips to – the Miami Museum of Science.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm?
KAREN RUSSELL: And they had kind of like a wilderness area. You go outside and you can see spiders and lizards and snakes. And it was [LAUGHS] always completely unclear what was part of the exhibit -
- and it was just kind of chilling on a trash can. And like, I’d be like, is that tarantula --
[LAUGHS] The exhibit or just kind of around? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So, what’s your favorite real weird story about Florida?
KAREN RUSSELL: There was this field trip. A bunch of Broward kids were going to do a fake archaeological dig. And they’re real cute. They’re like seventh graders and they’re wearing Indiana Jones hats, and they have little shovels and stuff. And we go out to this marshy area to do their pretend archaeological dig [LAUGHS], and like some of the kids found a toe, which led to a real human body.
So I think something about that, all of Florida is somehow captured there, where it’s like a fake archaeological dig that leads to the discovery and exhumation –
- of a true body.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so Florida got a lot of coverage this week. It’s going to be getting a lot more over the next few months. Most of it will be election stories, but I know that some national news outlets will take time to give us the latest weird Florida news. So when that happens, will you be embarrassed?
KAREN RUSSELL: I think it’s the way you feel about your family, where sure – I mean, you wish, you know, you wish your uncle was wearing pants, or whatever. [LAUGHING]
I mean, you’re a little embarrassed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ugh, I know. I hate when that happens!
KAREN RUSSELL: Or you [LAUGHS] - you, you feel a lot of love and affection, at the same time, for the very eccentric things that are likely to be repugnant or frightening to [LAUGHS] –
- non-family members.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen, thank you very much.
KAREN RUSSELL: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen Russell is the author of “Swamplandia!”
Coming up, more stuff you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, believe, especially Nigerian scams. But yet, strangely, you still do. This is On the Media.