Dave Barry is the author of Lessons from Lucy, Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys, Dave Barry Turns Forty, and Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up, among many other hilarious bestsellers. He is a former columnist for the Miami Herald and won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Here Shelf Awareness's Marilyn Dahl speaks with Barry about his new novel, Swamp Story ($27.99, 9781982191337), which appears on May 2.
In Swamp Story, there is such a mélange of many characters, brought together for a long and hilarious finale: Two very bad brothers, the owners of a bait shop, a drug lord, a craven lawyer, a politician, a swamp denizen, a heroine and hero., and more. Not to mention gold ingots, a wild boar, a python and of course an alligator. How do you keep all these balls in the air?
That's really the fun of writing this kind of novel—inventing a bunch of weird people, putting them into bizarre situations, and then figuring out a way to get them out (or, if they're bad weird people, a way to make them pay). It takes me quite a while to figure out how a given action sequence is going to go, but once I do, it's really fun writing it.
You are so great with the "who's on first" format, establishing a rhythm that produces laughs. It doesn't take long before "Glades Guy." "Glades Man." triggers a Pavlovian response. And the birthday party! Ten pages of choking laughter. I hesitate to ask the stupid "how do you do it?", but how do you do it?
I spent decades writing humor columns, which meant I developed a lot of techniques for getting readers to laugh. These are things like joke setups, repetition, vocabulary, timing—the nuts and bolts of humor. As a humor writer, I want the novel to be funny, but as a novelist I don't want the jokes to get in the way of telling the story. I want it to feel at least sort of real, not like a sitcom; I want the readers to care about the characters. So I look for places where opportunities for humor arise organically, as logical parts of the plot, then use my humor-columnist techniques to make them funny. But I still want those sequences to advance the story. The story's the most important thing.
In the midst of all the laughs, there is a poignant story about Phil, an alcoholic, and his daughter. Was it difficult to get serious here? Was it important to write this?
Phil's an important character for me. He's not me, but he is an old newspaper guy, and a dad, and I'm both of those things; also there has been alcoholism in my family, so I know what it can do. In the book, Phil represents the older generation—my generation—trying to understand and cope with a world where millions of people can't name the president of the United States but diligently follow random idiots on TikTok. So Phil's a big part of the humor in the book, but he's also a pathetic figure, and his efforts to redeem himself add—I hope—some weight to the story.
How many of the pieces of Swamp Story are real? The python infestation is true, and there must be swamp guys who live off the grid.
Many of the plot elements are real. The Python Challenge—in which the state of Florida invites the world to come down and kill snakes—is real. There may or may not be lost gold treasure out in the Everglades, but there are legends, and there are people who believe those legends. There really is a Skunk Ape Research headquarters on the Tamiami Trail. And there are definitely some sketchy individuals living out there in the swamp, keeping their distance from civilization for a variety of reasons.
The Everglades Melon Monster hoopla is summed up with "Florida. Just say Florida." You don't write a regular newspaper column now. With the current state of the state of Florida do you miss that platform?
Some days I do. Florida is a festival of weirdness—now more than ever—so it has always been a reliable source of column material. But I still get to write about it in my novels, which are all set in Florida. My good friend Carl Hiaasen says you don't need an imagination to write stories about Florida; you just need a newspaper subscription. I don't think there's anything in Swamp Story that couldn't actually happen in this insane state.