Saturday, July 29, 2006

Man with a Pan

Find your earplugs ... I bought a steel pan in Trinidad. Yeah, that's steel pan as in musical instrument made from a 55-gallon oil drum and used to play calypso.

The steel pan originated in Trinidad and it seems like everyone down here knows how to play one. So what the hell, I figure I can learn how to play one, too.

That's Derrick, the official tuner at Gill's Steel Pan Shop in Tunapuna (my favorite Trini town name), polishing the pan I'll be lugging home with me. It's a tenor pan. I have no idea what that means, except that Merlin Gill, who owns the shop, told me I could I could master it in no time. Then he took my $500. That included $100 for a nifty naugahyde carrying case.

So here's my plan: I'm gonna learn how to play this thing, and when the BERMUDA SCHWARTZ tour comes along in February, I'm gonna take my steel pan on the road with me. In addition to making conch fritters or rum drinks at my book signings, I'll also play some island music. I'm not promising it will be music that anyone will actually wanna listen to. But I do promise it won't be Yellow Bird.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Palm Tree Connection

Palm trees play a significant role in my books. The hero, Zack Chasteen, inherited a palm tree nursery from his grandfather and makes his living selling specimen palms. In BERMUDA SCHWARTZ, due out in February, Zack heads to Bermuda to deliver some Bismarck palms and things go quickly to hell from there.

On my next-to-the-last evening in Trinidad, while having dinner at the very awesome Pax Guest House, the oldest guest house in the English-speaking Caribbean, I fell into conversation with the guy sitting at the table next to me. His name was Edward Cooper, an expat Brit, who used to live in South Africa where he used to own ... a palm tree nursery. He sold the place a few years ago, which has given him the wherewithal to spend the last few years roaming the globe and, among other things, seeking out rare and exotic palm trees.

We talked until late that evening and Edward shared with me a book called "Palm Trees of Trinidad and Tobago," written by Paul Comeau, a former Novia Scotian and ecology prof at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. As it turned out, Gerard, the ever-accommodating owner of Pax, is friends with Comeau, who lives just down the hill, and invited him to join us the next afternoon for tea -- a very proper British tea -- on the front verandah of the guest house.

For three hours, I sat and listened to a pair of palm tree experts discuss their exploits and share with me a glimpse of the oft-maniacal world of palm nuts. It was like listening to a pair of characters from my books. I took copious notes, foraged many ideas for TRINIDADDY-O.

Who could have imagined that I would travel all the way to Trinidad and just happen to bump into two people whose expertise dovetails with the hero of my books? Sometimes serendipity just happens...

(The shot above, of Jamaican Tall coconut palms, was taken on Trinidad's northeast coast, near the town of Toco...)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Betting on Birds

Driving along the sparsely settled northeast coast of Trinidad, I kept passing guys walking along the side of the road carrying birds in cages. Trinidad has the highest density of bird species in the world -- 424 species per 1,000 square miles, compared to Costa Rica, a distant second, with 45 species per etc. Birds are everywhere. Beautiful birds of every color, 17 species of hummingbirds alone.

I stopped and chatted with Randolph (above) who was snacking on a Zadaki mango and carrying a bull finch in the cage.

"Dis is for the da bird-whistling contest, mon."

The bird whistling contest?"

"Yah, mon. Dat's what folks do around here. Dey train a bird to sing and then they bet it can sing longer than anyone else's bird. Man can make a lot of money with a bird that can sing a long time."

Randolph paid the equivalent of $US 75 for his bull finch, but if it proves to be a champion singer, he expects to sell it for as much as $1,000. He trains it by playing it tapes of bird songs and by carrying it with him everywhere he goes so it will feel comfortable around people.

On weekends, men gather on the beach with their birds and place bets on whose bird can sing the longest. Then two birds square off against each other. The first bird who stops singing is the loser.

"When your bird sings long and loud, it make you feel so proud," says Randolph.

How long does such a contest last?

"Oh, it can go on all afternoon, mon. For hours and hours. You just hang the cages up in the tree, bet your money, drink a little rum, sit back and listen to the birds sing. "

Yes, this is why I love the islands ...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Day of the Mangoes

It’s mango season in Trinidad and I’ve been pigging out. Yesterday was total mango overload. Started out with a visit to the market in Chanaguas where Dilly (left) was selling green mangoes that had been sliced, drizzled with lime and sprinkled with salt and hot peppers. A bagful (30 cents) was breakfast.

Bought a bag of Julie mangoes, the sweetest of the sweet, from another vendor in the market (10 for $1.) Snacked on a couple of them on the ride up the coast, then stopped at a roadside stand where the vendor was selling all kinds of sliced and prepared mangoes—peppermint mangoes, mangoes preserved with molasses, spicy mangoes. Bought some of everything.

Later in the afternoon, I stopped at yet another stand where I picked up a bag of Zadaki mangoes, which are even sweeter than the Julies, plus some tiny little mangoes that no one knew the name of. I felt kinda sorry for them, so I bought them, too. They are a tad stringy but I don't hold that against them.

I’ve got all my mangoes sitting on the window sill of my hotel room. I’ll be flying home tomorrow and can’t bring them with me. So I am writing a little, then stopping to eat some mango, then writing some more. I am a happy man ...

Sunday, July 23, 2006


I've come to Trinidad to forage ideas for my next book, TRINIDADDY-O. So far, that's all I've got. The title. Only about 80,000 words to go ...

That's the same way it worked for my first three books. I came up with the names—BAHAMARAMA, JAMAICA ME DEAD, BERMUDA SCHWARTZ—then traveled to the place to see what revealed itself. From what I understand, this is backwards from the way most authors do it. But it's hard for me to work without a title, something to hang the whole project on. And I've met too many authors who have finished their books, then agonized over the titles (or worse, had their titles rejected by the publisher.)

Titles are way important. They are the billboards for my books. And they need to serve two purposes: 1) Let prospective readers know where the story will take place, and 2) Let readers know from the outset that the book in their hands is not some deep, dark psychological drama. If they laugh at the title, then all the better. The hero of these books, Zack Chasteen, is nothing if not a smart ass. So, with luck, the titles let the readers know exactly what they're in for.

The key to writing a good book is creating conflict from the get-go. And in my books, conflict is created when character meets place. Zack isn't exactly a fish--out-of-water in the Caribbean. He knows his way around. Still, wherever he goes he's an outsider. And that is automatic conflict.

What will happen to Zack Chasteen in Trinidad? I don't have a clue. I'm still in the early foraging stages of TRINIDADDY-O. I'll take in as much as possible, let it percolate and then hope for a rich brew. I visited Trinidad a few years ago and marched with the mas (masquerade) band, Barbarossa, during Carnival. Didn't sleep for three days. Wonderful, wild experience. And I'm still trying to decide whether TRINIDADDY-O will take place during Carnival.

Beyond that, I'm just waiting to see what reveals itself. So far, I have:

* Visited the Angostura bitters/rum factory. Its secret recipe is known by only five people and, when the company gathers for its annual dinner, these five cannot sit together or eat the same food out of fear that, if misfortune befalls them, the recipe will be in jeopardy.

* Listened to a folk tale about an evil female ghost who roams the backcountry and sucks the souls of men who try to seduce her.

* Heard a man talking about how he fights with his wife all the time, but he can't bear to leave her because "she's got such a sweet hand. " (Caribbean lingo for "she's a great cook.)

And in the days ahead, I will:

* Stay a couple of nights at Pax Guest House, the oldest guest house in the English-speaking Caribbean, founded by Benedictine monks. Once there were 40 monks at the monastery. But it's an aging order and only eight, most in their 70s, are left.

* Visit a steel-pan yard one night to listen to musicians practice the songs they will play at the next Carnival. There are only two seasons in Trinidad: Carnival. And Getting Ready for Carnival.

* Roam around the Asa Wright Preserve, home to something like 474 species of birds.

Rich, rich stuff. So many possible venues for mystery. Now, all I have to do is figure it out...

P.S. The photograph up top was taken from a lookout point in the mountains along the north coast, looking down on Maracas Bay, the most popular beach in Trinidad.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Breakfast with Miz Bern

Things got off to an excellent start this morning when I stopped in at the Breakfast Shed, an open-air pavilion on the Port-of-Spain waterfront where a dozen or so vendors, most all of them women, implore you to try their wares.

"You lookin' hungry, dahlin'. You need to let me feed you."

It's a tough choice. Everything looks so good. And the women are all so darn hospitable. I finally succumbed to Miz Bern (above), who said she made the best saltfish bake in all of Trinidad. The saltfish (salted cod) is flaked and cooked with onions and peppers and tomato, then stuffed between the "bake," two pieces of fried bread, like a johnnycake. Then slices of avocado are laid out on on top. It's the best two-dollar breakfast on the planet.

Reserved for everyone

Spotted this sign outside of a supermarket in Port of Spain, Trinidad's muy kinetic capital. It marked one of those "handicapped" spots, but I think it applies to all of us, doesn't it?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mandatory dolphins

Arrived in Trinidad on Thursday just in time to check into the hotel and then take a late afternoon boat cruise out to the western islands. Came across a pod of 40-50 dolphins leaping and frolicking -- it's mating season. The photo doesn't nearly do it justice. No matter how many times I see dolphins, I never get tired of watching them. Several of these got some major air -- 10-12 feet out of the water. But I just wasn't quick enough on the camera to shoot it.

That's Venezuela in the background. Just seeing it makes me want to go roam around South America.

Big morning ahead -- touring the Angostura bitters/rum factory..

Rum before noon. Life is good ...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The bean smuggler

One downside of traveling in the Caribbean—it can be damn tough finding a decent cup of coffee. Too often what you wind up with is Nescafe and, as every confirmed caffeinoholic will agree, that just don't get it. It's a guaranteed mid-morning headache. Even if you can manage to down a cup of the stuff.

So I travel with my own mini French press and a bag of ground Kenya AA from my pal's at Palmano's. But there's a downside to this, too. On my last two trips to the islands, in St. Martin and Barbados, I've been waylaid by custom agents who've come across the coffee in my bag. They have taken me into tiny rooms where they have proceeded to check out me and my luggage from stem to stern, stopping just short of the ol' finger probe.

From my trip to Barbados:

Customs agent: "What you doing with this coffee, mon?"
Me: "I'm planning on drinking it."
Customs agent: "Restaurants here got coffee, you know that?"
Me: "Yeah, but I like to make my own coffee."
Customs agent (studying me with a new level of suspicion): "You sure you going to drink this coffee?"
Me: "Well, there's not enough for me to bathe in it..."

After this incident, I started asking around and it turns out that smugglers often put ground coffee in their bags to mask the smell of cocaine from the dope-sniffing dogs. Who knew?

So as I pack for my trip to Trinidad to research the next book, I'm trying to decide if it's really worth it. A full-body and bag search at the airport? Or a week without decent coffee?

No-brainer. I'm smuggling ...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Vald the Bookseller

So. You're Carl Hiaasen. You're on tour for your latest book, Striptease, and you show up at a bookstore for a signing. But instead of plopping you down behind a desk in the New Fiction section, the store owner (yes, this is an Indie!) sets you up in the store's front window. With a stripper. Who dances while you sign books.

Knowing Carl, who is much more buttoned down than most of his characters, this likely induced a state just short of apoplexy. Still, you gotta love a bookseller who will do anything -- and I mean anything -- to support an author and get readers into a store.

And you gotta love the prospect of Vald Svekis getting back into business. He recently signed a 15-year lease on a 35,000 square-foot space in Boca Raton's Mizner Park with plans to open an as-yet-to-be-named bookstore-to-end-all-bookstores in October 2007. It's the same location where Svekis launched his much-beloved Liberties Fine Books & Music in 1990. In addition to hiring a stripper for Hiaasen, Svekis came up with a boatload of other promotional antics. When Madonna's SEX book came out, he invited customers to preview the book in private booths for $1 minute.

"We raised almost $2,000 doing that and donated it to a local AIDS center," said Svekis when I spoke with him the other day.

It was a short run. Svekis sold Liberties in 1994 and it subsequently closed. But against all prevailing wisdom — the American Booksellers Association, which does not include the big-box brands, reports it now loses an average of 250-300 members each year — Svekis is wildly enthusiastic about giving it another shot. He's got the space. He's got the backing of local politicians and Chamber of Commerce types. Now all he needs is investors who are willing to stake him to the tune of $3 million.

While he's trolling for money guys, Svekis is busy brainstorming. Among the plans on the drawing board for the new bookstore:

* A wine/jazz room. "I see it as a place where you can plop down with a glass of wine and a pile of books and lose yourself in the moment," says Svekis.
* A 100-seat cinema that will show foreign/indie films and be used for author appearances.
* A "really interesting cafe" that will include its own bakery and a demo kitchen where cookbook authors and visiting chefs can do their thing.
* Two performance stages with a daily schedule of events, including everything from poetry slams to a Hyde Park-style soapbox where anyone can opine on politics and current events.
* A teahouse and an on-site ice cream shop that makes its own ice cream. "I'm experimenting with some alcohol-based flavors right now," says Svekis.
* A publishing center where store clerks will help prospective authors create their own books -- everything from personal memoirs and family biographies to fiction. But rather than just printing up a bunch of copies, Svekis plans to take it another step. "We'll put their self-published books right on our shelves and sell them. It's all about the thrill of seeing your book in a bookstore," he says. "And who knows, we might even sell a few of them."
* And Svekis is ultimately shooting for a 24/7 bookstore that will offer curbside pickup of books, food, drinks -- you know, just like Outback.

The most out-there idea involves private "mood environments," cubicles that authors can use to inspire their writing. Explains Svekis: "You want a dark and stormy night? We'll create a dark and stormy night. We can control everything from sound and images to aromas."

Is Svekis at all daunted by the dismal fortunes facing most independent booksellers?

"Hell, no," he says. "The Barnes & Noble near me is doing $13 million a year and they don't do nearly the number of cool things that I plan to do."

Go, Vald, go ...

Friday, July 14, 2006

About the name

My pal J.D. Rhoades, master of redneck noir and the best legal mind in Carthage, N.C., posits that this blog takes its name from the fact that I am "one of them Floridians." Well, yes, I am. And sure, it does. I have a peninsular POV.

But it's also a humble homage to one of my favorite books, written by the late John Keasler, columnist for the Miami News. Published way back in 1958, "Surrounded on Three Sides" is the tale of Flat City, FL, a place that wants no part of so-called progress in the form of the unbridled development that has come to plague the state. And its hero, Paul Higgings, a former NY p.r. guy, comes up with the "hard unsell," a way to discourage tourists, investors, developers and all others who would mess with the place he calls home. Later, John D. MacDonald took his own riff on the same theme and it surely inspired Carl Hiaasen's most wonderful "Tourist Season." Thanks to the University Press of Florida the book is still in print.

Buy it, read it, rage on...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Free rum

The first three visitors to post comments here will receive free mini-bottles of Special Edition Appleton Estates Jamaica Me Dead Rum.

Hmm, it just now occurred to me that this might be illegal. OK, you have to promise me that you are 21. And that you won't tell federal authorities if I send it to you through the US Mail.

Beyond that, I suggest drinking it neat with a slice of lime...

And don't worry, Kristy,you've already won your rum...


Just received the cover for the paperback of JAMAICA ME DEAD, due out in October. It looks pretty hot, huh?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Cranking Up

Thanks for checking in with SURROUNDED ON THREE SIDES, a blog that has been a work-in-progress for way too long. Actually, I've felt guilty about cranking up this blog until my next book, BERMUDA SCHWARTZ, was submitted to Marc Resnick, my way-awesome editor at St. Martin's.

But B.S. is done -- say Hallelujah! I'm expecting FedEx to deliver me the copy-edited manuscript today for review. And now I figure I can fritter away a little time while I learn how this blog thang works. It can't be too hard if guys like Dusty Rhoades and Joe Konrath have learned how to do it. (I would provide a link to their sites right here, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet..)

So hang in here with me while I muddle along. I hope to be fully up-and-running by July 20 when I set out for Trinidad for research on the fourth book in the Zack Chasteen series -- TRINIDADDY-O.