By Rick Pullen
The New Yorker editor reached Randy Wayne White at his historic waterfront home high atop a historic Indian mound on Pine Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“We’d like you to write a story about the Everglades for us,” she told him over the phone.
Randy was in a foul mood. The Outside magazine columnist was also a fishing guide working out of Tarpon Bay Marina on Sanibel Island, just across the bay and salt flats from his home, and it was the height of fishing season.
“I’d been fishing something like 48 days straight,” he says. “So much has been written about the Everglades, I don’t know of anything else to write.” He told her thanks, but no thanks.
He went on with his business: by day guiding his fishing clients to the best underwater neighborhoods in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the early morning hours writing columns and feature stories that give you sunburn. The New Yorker editor did her equivalent: attending Manhattan literary parties, chumming for talent and telling editors: “Randy White’s pretty good, if you can get him.”
In economics there’s supply and demand. Where those two curves meet is your price point. Randy was the supply, and his demand curve—now driven by the mystique of the literary party circuit—had risen sharply. He was already making—and this was in the late 1980s—$13,000 a month for a 1,000-word column in Outside magazine. Thanks to word of mouth and the cache of Outside magazine, other magazines started calling.
But even with his experience as a back-country fishing guide, he was determined to never write a feature on fishing. “I didn’t want to become known as a fishing writer.” Randy had a thing for the written word as well as for managing his career, which lead him into the world of writing books, but not immediately.
“I fell in love with books at an early age,” he says. “I thought if I could write one, I could come upon the magic I found in books.”
But first, this Southwest Floridian had to make a living. One of his first jobs was as a telephone linesman climbing poles, which made it possible to call anywhere in nation for free while dangling 30 feet above the ground.
“I called the News-Press from a pole and it was cold.” He had no experience and no education in journalism, but the Fort Myers, Florida newspaper—which had just been purchased by Gannett and was expanding—hired him. There, he honed his craft, first as a reporter traveling to small towns to write features and then as a daily columnist.
He later became a fishing guide, but never gave up writing. He would rise at 4 a.m., write for a few hours, and then meet his clients at the marina for a day’s fishing on the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1977 he sent an unsolicited story to Outside magazine’s Editor Terry McDonald. The story was rejected but McDonald was so impressed by his writing he hired him as a freelancer, which later turned into his regular monthly column.
“When I started writing for them, it was harder to get a major assignment from Outside than it was to publish a book.” And as he would quickly learn, magazines also paid better.
In the early 1980s an editor with New American Library was looking for writers to contribute to a new thriller series and asked if he would be interested in writing books under contract. The protagonist had to be blond, work in Key West, be freakishly strong, well-hung and had to know Hemingway.
“I wrote the entire book on iced tea and Red Man chewing tobacco in nine days,” he says. “As I recollect there were some nice sentences in it, and I was excited when I got the first copy.”
The Key West Connection by Randy Striker was published in 1981.
“I think the other fishing guides were impressed.”
New American Library was so happy with his speed that the editor asked if Randy could do it again. When he said yes, the editor fired three other writers she’d hired to contribute to the series and left if solely in Randy’s hands.
He wrote six more novels under contract for $5,000 each, always using a pen name. “They were awful,” he says, “and riddled with clichés. But the writing has held up, apparently. All of them are still in print and selling remarkably well.”
“I should have been writing my own books. I felt such self-contempt, but it was a good learning experience.”
Randy is a big man with massive biceps and a shaved head, something that appears more appropriate for the World Wrestling Federation than the literary world. There is no bullshit about him. He’s straightforward and candid, especially about himself. He talks about those in the business who piss him off and is open about his own ego, strong will and work ethic. While it’s the perfect mix of self-awareness and discipline for a writer, it’s unusual to talk with someone who so genuine speaking with a stranger.
“I’m driven. Actually driven,” he admits.
He is also beloved. We met at Doc Ford’s Run Bar and Grill, his restaurant named after his famed protagonist and located on Sanibel Island. It is one of four restaurants owned and operated by his partners (Randy owns the franchise.). He lives on the island in seclusion. He became so popular that his home on Pine Island, which he still owns, was overrun by tourists. During our two-hour conversation he is constantly interrupted by fans seeking his autograph. He graciously complies.
Randy is not the type to fall prey to his public image as a famous author, which brings up his experience with the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. First, Randy makes clear they were acquaintances, not close friends.
He first met Thompson in 1970 when Thompson was running for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado and Randy was a contract phone installer and lineman. Years later, when he was a well-known author, Randy dropped by Thompson’s home in Woody Creek. Thompson’s first words on seeing Randy’s hulking presence after so many years was, “Jesus Christ, you’re even scarier looking than people say.” They spent the evening talking. From then until he committed suicide in 2005, Hunter would call Randy at home in the middle of the night, always with questions about Florida. They still have many mutual friends.
“He was a funny, delightful guy. Clearly brilliant,” Randy says. “Tragically, he just got involved in his own caricature.”
As a magazine writer Randy recalls, “One of the best gigs was Playboy. They’d call me if they had a ‘Playmate of the Year’ in Florida. I’d sit down with her and write the hand-written page and photo captions.” He also wrote feature stories for the magazine.
When his editor at Playboy was about to take the helm of Men’s Health magazine, Peter Moore wined and dined him and made him an exclusive financial offer that was even better than his monthly column at Outside. Seeing a promising opportunity, Randy reluctantly jumped ship and started writing a man’s-man column called “Guys Like Us” for Men’s Health. The editors were blown away by the positive reader response.
“We’ve never had a reaction like this. Keep doing what you’re doing,” they told him.
Unfortunately, he too soon was blown away—by their repeated meddling in his writing. His column became “a diluted, corporate-crafted mess.”
“I had a one-year contract. Peter Moore told me later, ‘I’m the one who drove you out of the magazine business—you should thank me,’” Randy says, “Peter was right, and I still like him a lot. The others involved were well-intended amateurs. A columnist can’t write by committee.”
Throughout his writing career, he says, the Men’s Health episode was “the only unpleasant writing experience I’ve had.” Elsewhere, he says, “I’ve had some incredible editors—particularly at Outside and Men’s Journal—who saved my ass more than once.”
As soon as his contract expired, he quit and walked away from an unhealthy, but substantial, part of his income.
And then the unthinkable happened. The federal government decided to close Tarpon Bay to powerboat traffic. Overnight, White was facing a future with no income and a family to feed.
With two young sons, he did the one thing he knew how to do—write. This time, he would try a novel under his own name. “It had to be good. I wanted the book to be lyrical, even literary, but appeal to the commercial market. Failure wasn’t an option.”
He’d traveled to Central and South America for various magazine stories and fishing outings. Using that knowledge and his background as a fishing guide, he created a realistic story with his protagonist Doc Ford, a marine biologist who lives—where else—on the water in a marina on a fictionalized Tarpon Bay (Dinkin’s Bay in Randy’s novels.)
“Much of it is accurate in terms or description and the plot line—and certainly one of the bad guys,” he says.
He worked day and night and completed Sanibel Flats in seven months. He mailed a paper copy to Robin Johnson, an aspiring agent in New York, who was the daughter of one of his charter clients. Within two weeks, she called back with an offer from St. Martin’s Press for a three-book deal at $5,000 a book.
“I told her I make more than that on magazine stories.” But he signed the contract anyway. He needed the money.
Sanibel Flats was published in 1990. Randy was 39 and finally, a book with his name on the cover was sitting on bookstore shelves and did nothing else.
“It got incredible reviews, but it didn’t sell worth a flip.” So, he found another gig as a fishing guide to shore up his income. Sadly, his next two books suffered the same fate as his first: great reviews, piddling sales.
Still, St. Martin’s offered him another three-book deal. But at about the same time, Neil Nyren, Editor-in-Chief at Putnam, called out of the blue after reading one of his novels and signed him to a three-book deal over the phone and guaranteed him $80,000 a book. Shortly after, he signed with mega-agent, Esther Newberg, vice president of ICM Partners.
“I thought I was rich. I had no clue I’d just caught a damn-near perfect wave.”
Since then he has been a regular on the New York Times bestseller list. In 2001 the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association named Sanibel Flats one of the “100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century.”
Randy has also received the Conch Republic Prize for Literature and the John D. Macdonald Award for Literary Excellency.
His PBS documentary, “The Gift of the Game,” which he wrote and narrated about bringing baseball to Cuba, won the 2002 Woods Hole Film Festival “Best of Festival” award. A catcher since high school, Randy played senior league baseball in Florida on teams that included several ex-Major League players. “I’ve caught a lot of great pitchers,” he says, “including three Hall of Famers.”
During his career he has written dozens of novels and non-fiction books and is working on his third in his “Sharks Incorporated” series, which targets young adults. He’s written for National Geographic Adventure and is still an editor-at-large at Outside magazine.
“The wonderful thing about writing…editors don’t care if you went to college or not. (Randy didn’t.) Or if you’re a man or woman…You don’t apply for a job as novelist. You don’t do interviews. You don’t have to take a test. It’s a pure free market. It’s all about what the individual can do.”
He writes six hours a day, seven days a week. When he comes to the end of a manuscript, he has a long-standing tradition with his two sons, Lee and Rogan. Since they were children, he’s let them come up with the final two words of each manuscript and type them on his aging Underwood. At the end of each author’s note in his novels he thanks them for helping him finish the book. This is the one time he doesn’t mind someone meddling with his copy. It goes without saying, he likes these editors. Maybe they’ve saved his ass too.
This time he’s happy to give them the last word.
Start to Finish: Seven months
I want to be a writer: 11 years old
Decided to write a novel: 1989
Experience: Magazine columnist, feature writer, fishing guide, adventurer, contract novel writer
Agents Contacted: One
Agent Rejections: None
Agent Submission: One
Time to Sell Novel: 10 days
First Novel Agent: Robin Johnson
First Novel Editor: Sally Richardson
First Novel Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Age when published: 39
Inspiration: Joseph Conrad
Advice to Writers:Be relentless. Be absolutely relentless. For me learning the craft was a very slow learning curve. Learn to be merciless as an editor.
Like this? Read the chapter on Tom Straw.