When people think of Panama City, they conjure up vacation postcards. College kids getting wasted on spring break. Tanorexic girls squeezing Jello shots into their mouths. Packs of fratheads roaming beachside bars, all decked in the standard uniform: Teva sandals, puka shell necklaces, a t-shirt from a hotel gift shop: "One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor."
Hunt's Oyster Bar
Driving along the I-10 West, I passed billboards in empty fields: pictures of unborn babies, fireworks and gun shows, Bible verses and vasectomy ads. I wasn't sure what to expect. I wanted to se the real Panama City. I knew the Gulf Coast kept its secrets tucked away, just like my hometown, Miami, and all southern cities. I wanted to meet its pirates and ghosts.
Brianna, my tour guide, had invited me to speak at Books Alive Youth, a literary festival sponsored by Florida State University. Brianna (http://brimeetsbooks.com/) is one of my favorite book bloggers (and the first to review Total Constant Order). She showed me a park in the middle of the night.
"You have to see the tree with four trunks," she told me.
The palm tree glowed like a holy shrine, like someone forming the number four with their fingers. Later I found more secrets: St. Andrews Park, where pinecones dot the sand beside the docks, and dolphins swim to the fishermen, tame as puppies. A shuttle boat took me to Shell Island. I climbed boulders scattered like beads on a chain, took pictures of seagull caligraphy in the surf.
In the morning, I taught workshops for teachers and students. No matter how many times I teach a class, I always feel like I'm learning something, too. The kids ran up to me, all talking at once. They ripped pages out of their notebooks and asked me to sign them.
"Are you going to sell this on eBay?" I asked.
This is what they taught me: Fantasy books are cool, "but they better have something different" (a twist on the usual vampire/werewolf/fairytale plot). They like books with pictures floating between the paragraphs ("like manga"). They're desperate for darker stories and imperfect characters. In other words, people they can relate to.
"It doesn't have to have a happy ending," said a girl in the front row, igniting a round of nods.
I couldn't agree more.
At the Bay County Public Library, I was honored to meet Julianna Baggott (who co-founded Kids in Need - Books in Deed, a nonprofit that gives books to underprivileged kids in the state of Florida), Kerry Madden (sporting black-and-white Chucks under her gypsy skirt), and Adrian Fogelin (whose feather-soft voice reminds me of radio talk shows).
We answered questions from the audience and talked about the path to publication. Julianna (the ANYBODIES trilogy) writes every single day (even on Christmas). Kerry's husband (who grew up with 13 brothers and sisters) was the inspiration for her Maggie Valley mountain stories. Adrian (CROSSING JORDAN) mentioned that "this business is tough" but you can't give up. If you keep sending stuff out, you're going to grow stronger and wiser. Just because you're published...doesn't mean it gets easier.
dolphin near the docks
On the way home, I watched the billboards and fish shacks fade away. I was thinking about all the kids I'd met...how so many said, "I can't wait to get out." They can't wait to leave high school, leave home, leave the place where they grew up. But that's where the real stories come from.
Only you can tell them.