There are all sorts of stories flying around about what Tim Dorsey was doing on that June night in 1992 when he ended up in jail. One involved a drunk Dorsey breaking into someone's house, stripping down to his underpants and passing out on the sofa, where the occupants found him and called the cops to cart him away.
The real story, at least the way Dorsey tells it in his wholesome, self-deprecating way, is somewhat less tawdry. "It was the night of a thousand idiots, and all of them were me," he says.
The 41-year-old former newspaper reporter and editor is now a full-time author whose fourth novel, Triggerfish Twist, will hit bookstores May 1. His books are distributed in Germany, France, Japan and England, as well as the U.S., and have gotten favorable notices in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald.
Though he's now a successful novelist, at the time of his arrest, Dorsey was night metro editor at The Tampa Tribune, working nights and weekends, with days off in the middle of the week, when everyone else is at work.
On one of his midweek nights off, he went out barhopping alone. "I was taking a cab and talking to the cabbie about working late hours ... and not being able to find much open late," says Dorsey. "He took me to a bottle club."
Dorsey had been drinking beer, but all they were pouring at the club was scotch, and it hit him pretty hard. He remembers talking to a stranger and hitching a ride from him.
"I fell asleep in the car," says Dorsey. "He must have kept asking me where I lived, and when he couldn't wake me, the guy just put me out of his car. I walked up onto a porch and just fell asleep."
But before falling asleep, Dorsey apparently tried to enter the house, maybe thinking he was home because he somehow managed to poke out a screen. He was arrested and charged with Burglary of a Dwelling, a Class 2 felony, and spent the rest of the night and the next day in jail. "It was horrible," says Dorsey, "but I knew I was gonna get out, and so I kinda dug it. It was research."
The charge was reduced to trespassing, and Dorsey was sentenced to perform 20 hours of community service. He worked out a deal to do his penance at the downtown Tampa library, cataloging the incredible historic photographic collection by the Burgert Brothers. "I'd commit crimes to have access to those photos," says Dorsey, who grew up in Riviera Beach, about an hour north of Miami.
The Burgert Brothers collection is the kind of thing Dorsey's fiendish main character, the psychopathic genius and Floridaphile Serge Storms, would be mad about. In fact, it's the kind of thing Serge might drive across the state in the middle of the night and break into the library just to see.
Dorsey and Storms share a manic love for and an encyclopedic knowledge of Florida history and trivia, as well as a collection of Florida memorabilia, much of which has its origins in that weird schedule he worked at the Tribune before he was married. "It wrecked my social life," he says, "so I just scheduled road trips and went alone."
On his trips, he collected matchbooks, swizzle sticks, brochures and other odds and ends. He searched out obscure locations featured in his favorite Florida movies and in books set in Florida, which he also collected with a somewhat obsessive fervor. He found them first in dusty bookshops and later on the Internet. "It was like a free supply of crack," he says of his discovery of rare books on the Internet, where he refined his collection of first editions and signed copies by the likes of Thomas McGuane, John D. McDonald, Edna Buchanan and Randy Wayne White, among others.
Dorsey's work is clearly inspired by Florida authors, and his knowledge of them came in handy after he wrote his first book, Florida Roadkill. He started writing it at the end of 1997, finished it four months later and immediately set out to find an agent who already understood the Florida fiction genre. He decided to try the agent who represented James Hall, whom he describes as "another Florida author who wrote about Florida with a dark sense of humor."
Hall's agent signed Dorsey immediately and within a month and a half landed a two-book deal with William Morrow and Avon Books. By the time Florida Roadkill came out, Dorsey had four additional contracts with foreign publishers. He quit his job at the Tribune; his last day in August of 1999 was the day his first book hit the bookstores. "I had to quit," he says, explaining that writing and promoting books is a full-time business. "At first it was really pushing a rock uphill." With one hardcover book to his name, his only readers were older female mystery fans and Florida fiction aficionados. It wasn't till his books came out in softcover, he says, that he started to reach a broader audience.