“In every epoch, Miami urges us to eat, drink and be merry. It is, always has been and may always be a fabulous party town, even when canals replace the freeways, and Miami truly does become ‘the Venice of the Americas.”’
TD Allman is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Vanity Fair, New Republic, and National Geographic. He is the author most recently of Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State. With the re-issue of his celebrated Miami: City of the Future, we touched base with him about how the city has changed, what he enjoys most about visiting, and the quirks and nuances of his own writing process.
University Press of Florida (UPF): When did you know that you wanted to write this book? What led you to this subject?
TD Allman (TDA): It happened way back in 1980. When the press, politicians and academics all started calling Miami “Paradise Lost,” I could smell the lazy reporting and sterile thinking all the way up in New York. I flew down to Miami and discovered that, far from being un-American, it was just about as American as it could be. Like Chicago in the ‘twenties, Miami was America, like or it not! Today you can buy drugs in every suburb, but new immigrants are also revitalizing America from top to bottom. Of course Miami never was a paradise, so I had to undo a compounded set of falsehoods. Fortunately Miami is so entertaining that the book turned out being fun to write and read too.
UPF: How is your day structured when you write? What’s your writing routine?
TDA: The muse never enters an empty studio. It is important to work every day, whether you feel inspired or not. A writer must know when to stop each day. Write an hour too long and it can take you two hours the next morning to undo the wrong you did. It’s like taking bad stitches out of a tapestry. Also I cannot overemphasize the importance of actually learning about your subject. Most books are sloppily written and most authors have not taken the trouble to conduct sufficient research — into their own prejudices and preconceptions, as well as into the subject matter. By the time one of my books gets published, I figure I have rewritten each sentence a dozen times.
For my latest book, Finding Florida, I purchased several hundred books in addition to those I consulted online and in libraries. Always listen to the average people when they are talking about the specifics of their own lives. Always be skeptical about what the “experts” tell you, while also remembering that behind every falsehood lies a truth worth discovering. Don’t limit yourself. Put in everything. Don’t edit yourself before the book is finished. It is vital to get everything in there that needs to be there. The cuts can come later. If you can write four hours a day innocent of the consequences, you’re on your way!
UPF: Which is more difficult to write, fiction or nonfiction?
TDA: There is no difference. You either write well or badly. The big problem is that too many writers don’t differentiate between fiction and fact. This is especially true these days in memoirs. I am appalled at the prevailing lack of distinction between fiction and fact in current writing. It’s lazy. It’s pernicious. Of course in Florida fiction always has prevailed, especially in supposedly factual accounts of what happens there. I have tried to redress these falsehoods in both my Florida books. That annoys some of the self-appointed custodians of the conventional wisdom, but makes many more people very happy — so happy they buy my books!
UPF: How do you feel the re-release of Miami complements the recent success of Finding Florida?
TDA: Miami is an allegory of the great changes remaking America and the world, while Florida holds up a mirror to them. As I point out in the new edition of Miami, it has gone from pariah to paradigm as the changes that once seemed to make Miami aberrant have become typical all over the country. Kansas today has more Hispanics than Miami did when Miami was first published. Finding Florida shows how America has become what it is. We have so much to learn from the past, going all the way back to the arrival of the first humans in Florida maybe 15,000 years ago. But we must cleanse our intellects of fakery in order to do that.
UPF:When you’re in Miami, what are your favorite places to visit?
TDA: My search for the perfect Cuban sandwich takes me everywhere, but my favorite place is the condo apartment where I stay in Miami. It’s like living on TV. You drive up in your yellow roadster. The valet unloads the groceries and brings them up to the 39th floor. In New York the doormen don’t even open doors. The terrace offers a view that never existed in nature. I can see sunrise over the Atlantic, sunset over the Everglades, with the whole of Miami Beach, Indian Creek, Biscayne Bay and the skyscrapers of downtown Miami in between. What makes the view so rewarding is considering all the different human dramas being acted out in Miami as twice each day, as the sun arrives and the sun departs, the swamps and swimming pools shimmer like costume jewelry, while the sky and water assure you that dreams really do come true.
UPF: For someone who has never been to Miami before, what should they absolutely see on their first trip?
TDA: More than any particular place I love the rhythm of Miami– when you get there there’s always a there there! Go to Publix, and observe how all the different ethnicities intermingle, and how their foods do too. White, black, brown, Anglophone, Hispanophone, Creole, so many others now too — I get a kick out of mingling with them all. I don’t know the politically correct word for it, but there is also a place in this assemblage for mentally challenged or “slow” people. They collect and return the shopping carts. I would urge both residents and visitors to go to one of the state or local parks where the mangrove swamps are preserved. This is the Florida that so far has stymied every conqueror. Chances are even the ground upon which you trod in Miami is fake ground, gouged out of the swamps in little more than one hundred years. Nature wants it back and, because of global warming, our arbitrary human separation of Florida’s natural morass into land and water, that is to say real estate, may become undone sooner than once seemed imaginable. What to do about all this? In every epoch, Miami urges us to eat, drink and be merry. It is, always has been and may always be a fabulous party town, even when canals replace the freeways, and Miami truly does become “the Venice of the Americas.”
UPF: What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
TDA: The satisfaction, for once, of having someone tell them the truth. You know, people respect it when you don’t feed them little fables — when you recognize they are grown-up enough to be told it straight. Correction: My aim is not to purvey enjoyment. It is to help people disabuse themselves of misinformation, and understand both present and past more accurately, but why not have some fun while you’re at it?
It certainly would be nice if people who really like Walt Whitman were kind enough to appreciate my book. In its post-modern way Miami sweeps across you like Whitman’s invocations of America’s human vastness, and I think I capture some of that in the book. Or Byron. There are wonderful descriptions of Europe’s great cities in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He could have written some most amusing — and perspicacious — verse about Miami and its sights. Maybe John Waters, and his movies. I would like to think I get Miami as right as he gets Baltimore.
UPF: What are you currently reading?
TDA: Theophile LaVallee, Histoire des Francais sous les Valois 1328-1589 [1865 edition]; Patrice Brassier, Chronologie de l’histoire de Lauzerte Des origines a 1798 . The decline of feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie and nationalism, with buckets of blood and truly depraved palace intrigues; the survival and periodic self-reinvention of the French village where I live.
UPF: Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
TDA: Edith Wharton has paragraphs so stunning they make me shiver with astonishment. Balzac does not shirk from portraying human nature as it is. Somerset Maughm is greatly underrated. I cannot read Hemingway. His prose is so artificial. I was privileged to have as friends Marguerite Yourcenar and I.B. Singer. The only direct influence of which I am aware, and it was an extremely important one, is the “Dick and Jane” primers I was forced to read in grade school. Right from second grade I knew I could write better books than that. I’ve never been able to get into the Iliad — too violent for this long-time war correspondent — but I appreciate Gilgimesh. I detest Proust and don’t respect Dante. Life must be about love, not about retribution. It should not be wasted perpetually agonizing over the petty details of life, including one’s sentimental fluctuations, though heaven knows I have tendencies in that direction.
UPF: What are you working on next?
TDA: That’s for me to know and you to find out I will you tell you it most definitely is not going be a great big long history book. Actually I’m writing two books. We’ll have to see if one twin strangles the other, or they both grow up amicably together.
UPF: Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?
TDA: Become a dental technician. The pay is better and the insides of people’s mouths are generally more salubrious that the human situations a serious writer has no recourse but to explore.
UPF: How is your success as an author different from your work as a foreign correspondent?
TDA: I never imagined I’d be better known, at least for the moment, for my writing on Florida than for my work as a foreign correspondent in places like Laos and Cambodia. The reason, I think, is that there is a hunger to escape the PR version of Florida. People keep telling me, “You showed us as we are. Thank you.” Thank you, Miami! Thank you, Florida! You have a given me two of the most precious gifts a writer can receive — fabulous, fascinating subject matter, and an intelligent, open-minded audience.