For decades, it was a cliché built on truth: every ink-stained wretch on a newspaper had the dream of quitting the business to write the Great American Novel.
But how many people can do that? How many writers can support themselves just from writing? Here and there we have a Stephen King or a Michael Connelly or a Danielle Steel. But most writers have day jobs teaching, or working for magazines, or — in the case of William Faulkner — being a security guard.
Tim Dorsey left the Tampa Tribune 10 years ago and hasn't looked back. He's published 11 books, all of which are devoted to the adventures of Serge Storms, his lovable serial killer. Before Jeff Lindsay discovered Dexter Morgan and before those books turned that lovable serial killer into a Showtime staple, Dorsey was there first with Serge.
He's a lovable killer because — like Dexter — he only offs the bad guys, who are already loathsome vermin fit only for extermination. Serge finishes the job everyone wants to start.
Nuclear Jellyfish is Dorsey's 11th novel. Like any well-written series with a continuing character, Dorsey makes it possible to jump in at any time. Hell, the books aren't even in chronological order.
Serge started off playing a supporting role in Dorsey's first book, Florida Roadkill, but during the writing, the author made an intriguing discovery. "He was just going to be a villain," Dorsey says of Serge. "I knew I wanted him to be larger than life. I was fleshing out his back story. I had him killing people, and it turned out to be all of those scumbags who'd done things that made me mad when I was an editor at the Tribune."
Another key element of Serge's character came out halfway through the writing of Florida Roadkill. From somewhere deep in Dorsey's subconscious, Serge launched into a tirade about all of the spoilers of Florida. "I had him go into a psychotic rant," Dorsey says. "And I thought, 'O.K., now I've got it.'" He started over and hasn't really looked back.
But there's a lot more to writing books than just writing. Since quitting the Tribune, Dorsey has done — by his count — 1,125 "events." It might not sound like a big deal to do a reading-and-signing at a bookstore, but for Dorsey these are high-energy events ... performances. On the Nuclear Jellyfish tour, Dorsey has been doing two or three events a day.
Driving between those gigs — in Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Marathon, Coral Springs — Dorsey reaches new levels of exhaustion during his six weeks away from home. "It's fascinating," Dorsey says, clearly sleep-deprived. "The human body is saying one thing and yet, once I go in and see these people, it gives me a shot of adrenalin. I'm so tired that I don't think I can do it. But then I walk in, see those people and I'm off and running."
Dorsey's readers cut a wide demographic path. "It's an utterly eclectic group," he says. "They go anywhere from law-abiding senior citizens to the opposite end of the spectrum. I discovered a while back that I have a large readership in prisons. I've been writing long enough that some of the guys who started reading me while they were doing time have gotten out and now they're coming to my signings." Some of the prison readers suggest new schemes for Serge and for his trusty dope-addled sidekick, Coleman. "I did a signing in Starke once, at the library," he says. "Virtually everyone who came was a prison guard or a relative of a guard." Dorsey pleases readers on both sides of the bars.
And he pleases them well beyond the state line. There are enclaves of fans in Minnesota, South Dakota, New England... all points north. "A lot of my readers are in fairly cold environs, so maybe the books are escapes."
And who hasn't spent a dreary winter afternoon dreaming of escaping the 9-to-5 to become a lovable serial killer?
Dorsey's books are like virtual vacations, so it's only natural that Serge's latest cover job is writing for a travel Web site. One of the things we learn in Nuclear Jellyfish — and we always learn some amazing new factoid about Florida in his books — is the name and location of the bar that inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps," that classic rock song about a young man trying to escape an ass-kicking from the man whose girlfriend he just tried to pick up.
Dorsey read about the bar — The Pastime in Jacksonville — in an interview with Gary Rossington of the band. Dorsey tracked it down and wrote it into the plot of Nuclear Jellyfish. He hit it off so well with the owners and the biker clientele that he held one of his book signings at a table in the front room.
Dorsey once wondered if he was crazy to step into the quicksand of full-time writing. Now he's not only afloat, but prospering — with his grueling, self-inflicted tour schedule one of the reasons for his success. Starting this week he's off for Milwaukee, Chicago and other cold northern climes; he'll be back in mid-March for gigs in Sarasota and Dunedin.
But once he's back in Tampa with his family, things will go back to normal. "When I'm home, I'm home."
And he's got his 12th Serge Storms novel to write.