Today’s guest Mia Laurenzo, of the SoFlo Weird Show, is a curator of everything weird and wonderful about our most improbable state. The book she chose is nonfiction account about three men who journey through Florida on foot. It’s as nutty and delightful as it sounds.
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Books discussed in this episode:
In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida by Kent Russell
Weird Florida: Your Travel Guide to Florida’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets by Charlie Carlson
Miami International Book Fair
Walkin’ Lawton Chiles (Florida governor candidate who walked through Florida to meet voters)
Swamplandia by Karen Russell
Florida Congress on Racial Equality (CORE)
Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights by Tananarive Due and Patricia Stevens Due
Orange Blossom 2.0 by Cesar Becerra
Discussed in our Patreon Conversation:
(Note: If you shop using my affiliate links, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
.Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and on today’s episode, I talked to the ambassador of strange Florida tales, Mia Laurenzo. Mia is a native Floridian, a seasoned storyteller, and, according to her, a weirdo to the core. She’s a 36-year veteran of public television in Miami, and her experiences include producing series, specials, and historical documentaries. She’s the recipient of four regional Suncoast Emmy awards, and has a passion for telling Florida stories on her podcast, The SoFlo Weird Show. The book Mia chose to talk to me about today is the non-fiction account of three men walking the length of the state of Florida. You heard that correctly, and yes, it is just as bananas as you think it is. I had a blast talking to me about why “In the Land of Good Living” by Kent Russell is the Best Book Ever.
Whether they read a book a day or a book a year. I love asking people to tell me about their favorite books. And that includes you dear listener. What’s your all-time favorite? Your desert island classic? What about the childhood favorite that you still know by heart? The mystery that took you by surprise, the biography that changed your way of thinking, or the book club favorite that you can’t stop thinking about? I’m looking for guests from all walks of life to talk to me about it all kinds of books here on the show. Go to my website, Juliewroteabook.com and click on the button that says “Be a Guest on the Best Book Ever.” I’m really looking forward to talking to you! Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Mia, welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Mia Laurenzo: Thank you. Thank you so much.
JS: Mia. I’m so fascinated by your podcast and the work that you do exposing the wonderful weirdness of Florida. Can you tell me why you decided to start this podcast, The SoFlo Weird Show?
ML: My roots are in television. I’m a 36-year veteran of public media here in Miami at a station called WLRN. I did two successful travel documentaries called Weird Florida: Roads Less Traveled and Weird Florida: On the Road Again. It started ultimately with a book called Weird Florida. Actually how it all started, you know, when there were bookstores, I went to a bar. I used to love to get coffee and go to a Barnes and Noble. And in this particular Barnes and Noble, they had a section of Florida authors and Florida books. And I’m always on the hunt for a good story. I would go there and look. And when I saw this book called “Weird Florida,” just some sort of force or light bulb went off in my head and I went, wow, wouldn’t it be really, really cool if I could get paid and go travel the state of Florida doing this stuff. So when I looked at the back cover and I saw the author, who was Charlie Carlson, and he was dressed all in black and he just looked like a really cool character. He had this thick mustache and this black cowboy hat and this, you know, black vest in black jacket. I thought, Oh man, this guy’s really, really cool. If he can walk, chew gum and interview people, then I have got it made. So I pitched the idea to our television station. And I tried to run a test with him. You know, I kind of had to sell them on the idea. I called them up and I was like, has anybody ever done a television show with you or wanted to take your book and take it on the road? He said, well, a lot of people have offered, but nobody’s followed through. And I said, well, Mr. Carlson, if it’s one thing I do, I follow through. So I went and met him and just fell in love with him immediately. I fell in love with his dog. So I wanted to make the dog the cohost. I brought him down. He’s actually from central Florida. I brought him down to do a test shoot here at a place called Coral Castle, which is a really cool story in and of itself. And I put him in all these different situations where he would walk and talk. He would do stand up. He would do an interview with the person who does tours there, and then he would find a tourist for me to do an on-the-spot interview. So anyway, we got the go-ahead to do it, and it was really, really successful. It was distributed nationally to other PBS stations across the United States. You know, it was very, very successful. All the while, I had to bring him down here a few times. My mother met him and long story short, they wind up dating. And they wind up getting married. So what started out as a business venture turned into family. So we successfully do another, Weird Florida: On the Road Again, a few years later. And at this point, Charlie got sick. Charlie has multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the blood plasma or blood cells. There’s really no cure for it. And as he was going through treatment and everything, my mother’s looking on, Amazon. She sees a little podcast kit. Because every day, no matter how Charlie felt, he would go to the computer and write stories or thoughts or whatever. And she thought, maybe if I can get him to do a podcast, he doesn’t need to expend the energy of traveling and doing this, that and the other, but he could still get his stories out there. Well, sadly, that didn’t happen. And Charlie wound up passing away. And sorta to pay some kind of, you know, respect to Charlie and keep his name out there, this podcast, the So Flo Weird Show podcast, is a little bit of an offshoot of Weird Florida, and it’s really to honor him. He’s definitely a character. He’s a lot of fun. He’s a 10th generation folk historian. And he ran away with the circus. He was 27 years in the army, but he hated the army. He didn’t hate it. It was just sort of a job at that point, you know? He was just really, really, really wonderful, and a fantastic storyteller. Charlie is a historian first and foremost. And he had written several history books that didn’t nearly sell as much as when he would put a weird spin on it. Charlie was still telling Florida history, but he was tying it up and packaging it with a bow on top, under the guise of “weird.” And all of a sudden, now he sells like over a million copies. You know what I mean? So it was a way about, you know, learning history. Now in truth, my roots with WLRN, our tagline is South Florida Storyteller Station. So the station, in and of itself, has branded itself as telling Florida stories with national interest. So I was always on the hunt for Florida stories. And the thing I learned about Weird Florida, the minute I got in the car and we got out on the road and we did this 1500-mile venture through Florida with him and his dog, is that the first huge takeaway was once I leave my overpopulated ridiculous South Florida area, where everybody’s on top of everybody, there’s so much vast space out there in Florida is so diverse and so different. That was a huge eye opener for me. I was living in this little bubble in South Florida, and to explore it in all its weirdness has been just a wonderful journey.
JS: I was never really aware of the distinct regions of Florida. And I don’t know if this is just because I’m on the opposite coast of you, or if maybe this is sort of the general American perception of Florida, but I always think of Florida as: Miami Beach, Disney World, and the rest of Florida.
ML: And you are not alone. You are not alone.
JS: You really get this sense in the book of the regional differences, and the regional pride and how – I mean they’re almost like different States, these different counties within Florida, aren’t they?
ML: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they look completely different. Absolutely completely different. You could be in the Panhandle. You can be in central Florida, you know, it’s completely different wherever you go. We are both a red state and a blue state. We have two different time zones. That was another eye-opener. I was like, what do you mean we’re in a different time zone? You go in that Panhandle, you’re on Alabama time over there. Cause you’re literally South Alabama at that time point. But yes, it is. It is a completely different landscape. And I love it because it’s stories within stories. Obviously, Kent Russell, who’s the author of In The Land of Good Living, went out there and did it all on foot. And when you experience something like that, you experience it on a whole ‘nother level.
JS: So how did you come across this book?
ML: I came across this book by Ken because we have a fantastic event here every November in Miami called the Miami International Book Fair. They get the best of the best people in there. And the minute I read the description, I was like, Oh my gosh, this guy is the quintessential weirdo. I love him. And again, I like to connect with the author. Obviously, when you’re looking at a book, you’re either looking at the cover art, then you read the description. I also like to connect with the author, just like I did with the Weird Florida book. I flipped it over and I wanted to see what Charlie looked like. And when I saw this guy, this picture, and he’s rocking a mullet, you know, and just, just the look of him. And I’m like, Oh, this guy is fantastic. I loved it. And I love the way he crafted it. Because I also look at the art of the book, how a person puts it together, you know?
JS: So why don’t you describe what this book is about for our listeners who haven’t come across this?
ML: Kent Russell got this wacky idea with his friend that they would take this pedestrian journey through for Florida. It’s like a thousand-mile journey. I think they were drinking one night watching TV, kind of down and out. They’re like at a crossroads in their life, him and his friend, you know, not really happy where they’re at. And they were just kind of trying to think of a project or something to do. And taking from the book of an older Florida politician, a governor here in Florida, Lawton Chiles, who was a little-known candidate running for governor. What Lawton Chiles did was he decided to walk through the state of Florida this way. He could get to know people and really be able to connect with people by saying he really knows Florida because he’s walked in their shoes. So they kind of took the idea of that. It didn’t happen right away. I think it happened a little further down the line, and then they connected with another friend who thought that they would make a documentary out of it. So they decided to start at the state line and they just walked all through Florida. And the things that they uncovered and the people that they met along the way really proves how diverse this state is. What I really loved about the book too, is that it’s written like a history book, and it’s written like a novel, and yet it’s written like an actual screenplay. He describes this mile marker, this exterior daytime, shopping cart, shopping plaza. I found it to be just delightful to read because it had these multilayers of different ways of storytelling all within the book, but yet they flowed perfectly. And some of the characters they meet and the dangers they run across, you know, they’re getting run off properties. They’re looking at the barrel of a shotgun from some people. They were camping out on the sides of the road and they nearly got hit by oncoming cars because we are not a pedestrian state whatsoever. Anybody that’s ever been in Florida knows we drive awful. We’re probably – I haven’t looked at a list anywhere, but I think if you probably look at a list of worst places to drive, I’m sure we’re on there somewhere. We’re just, we’re just bad. We’re bad drivers. But, you know, I loved Kent’s style of storytelling because in one sense, he’s describing the scene and what’s happening and the characters in it, but then somewhere along the line you know, somewhere along his path, they become part of the story as well. He’s talking about his relationship with these two other guys where they’re sleeping in the same tent or sleeping, eating, living together. And obviously that can get ridiculously tense and they did this for like four months and documented it all. And, and it’s just, it’s a wonderful book that really gives you a true sense of what Florida really is. And it gives you a wonderful background and history to it as well. And I love it because it’s got that weird angle, which ties everything back into, into what I love.
JS: Going into it, I thought it’s going to be one of two things: It’s going to be an absolutely scathing mockery of the craziness of Florida, or it’s going to be this romantic, like, and then the sunset, and we learned that the real gift was our friends all along. You know? And what was amazing about this book is that it is sort of both and neither. I thought he had such a great eye for Florida, both the craziness of it, and also the beauty of it. And I was just so impressed that it was so clear-eyed about what he was really seeing and it managed to avoid sort of sentimentality, but it also was not cruel.
ML: It was very raw and it was very real. That probably goes back to ishis journalistic background. Not just an author, but like his journalistic background where he investigate stories looks for things like that. He doesn’t also seem the type. Because I interviewed him for the podcast. He doesn’t seem the type to be that sentimental. He describes himself as a loner, you know? Which is funny because he’s living with these two other guides for months on the road, you know, and I know things got tense. I think there was a fist fight in there, somewhere in the book. But you know it wasn’t about his personal journey to find himself or to do anything like that. It was about really his love of Florida and wanting to document it as well.
JS: That was my one regret from this book is that int the copy that I had, there were no pictures and I really wanted to see what they looked like out on the road. Cause they must have made a picture for a while. They were pushing a shopping cart. They put all their camera equipment into a shopping cart, and he had names for each one.
ML: Rolling Thunder. I forget what the second one was. I think the last one was Baby Thunder. I Cause he winds up getting a baby carriage off of Craigslist. Yeah, he’s very descriptive. I just love his writing. I’m obviously going to pick up more of his books and his sister’s book. His sister’s an author too. Who does Florida stories.
JS: Swamplandia! I couldn’t believe it when I found that out. What a talented family.
ML: I know. Right. And it’s all Florida, which is perfect.
JS: Do you lean toward Florida authors and Florida stories in your really reading life?
ML: Actually, to be honest with you, it’s just where I am in my life right now. So yes. I am amassing a collection of books from Florida authors, and I’m just doing a dive into it and just really, really enjoying it. But again, going back to my roots and television, a lot of the stuff that I’ve read in the past has to do with research or things, documentaries. There’s so many things that I’ve worked on over the course of so many years and reading is just part of the job, but I love it because I get so involved. I find out new things and then I get so excited. So, I mean, part of me loves that non-fiction thing of learning and uncovering some hidden story that’s true. That’s wild. But I’ve also enjoyed Heather Graham, like a little romance, novel, you know, crime things, James Patterson, things like that. But I think for the most part where my life has led me is to read stuff mostly through work. There was another book that I read that really sticks in my mind. Unfortunately I don’t have the book because it was the type of thing I checked out of the library and I was doing a story on Martin Luther King and his experiences here in Florida. And I was interviewing John and Patricia Due, who had a lot to do with civil rights back in the day. Patricia Due being with the Congress on Racial Equality. She and her group in college were doing the sit-ins diners and things like that. And John Due, and I think this is how they met his, his involvement with college was with NAACP. He was a pre law student was helping to get these people out of jail. So I pick up the book written by Patricia Due and her daughter to Tananarive Due who was a writer for our newspaper here, the Miami Herald,. What was so cool about that book was each chapter was one from the daughter, one from the mother, one from the daughter, one from the mother. And it was about their life growing up in this, in this culture from the mother’s point of view, at the height of the civil rights movement to, to Tananarive’s. experiences. And again, I love looking at the craft of how a writer puts it together. That’s what I really loved about Kent Russell’s book as well. Cause I told you it was like three different themes in one book. So to me that was a fascinating book to look at one generation and then another generation. It was just so clever. I love stuff like that.
JS: Mia, what are you reading these days? Are you reading for pleasure right now? Or are you reading for research work?
ML: I am embarking on a big project with, a local historian here. An author who has just written a book. It’s going to come out. Miami is about to turn 125 years old. The anniversary is July 28th. That’s the day that Miami was incorporated back in 1896. Listeners that may not know Miami history, but if you were to Google it and two seconds on the internet, it’s going to tell you that Julia Tuttle is the mother of Miami. And she’s the only woman to ever found a major American city. Well, Cesar Becerra is going to turn it history on its head because he’s making the case for Mary Brickell, who he believes is one of the most marginalized women in history. They say that Julia Tuttle, after back-to-back freezes here in the state of Florida had sent orange blossoms because she’d been trying to entice railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler to his extend his railroad from St. Augustine down into Miami. So after back-to-back freezes, and I think Henry Flagler getting aggravated with her, going Julia again, leave me alone. She sends him orange blossom clippings to say, see the freeze didn’t affect us down here. I think you should bring your railroad down here. So. Google it, you can find that story. His book is called Orange Blossom 2.0. What he’s doing is saying reimagine the birth of Miami’s history, but with Mary Brickell. Mary Brickell came here 20 years earlier than Julia Tuttle. Mary Brickell had more lands than Julia Tuttle to get Flagler, to come from St. Augustine to Miami. They needed to go to Brickell lands along the new river in Fort Lauderdale. So all this stuff about Mary Brickell, but you can hardly find her in history. I’m totally attracted to that because here we’re just turning history on its head. I think, I think sometimes when, when history is being reported, it just gets researched. And if something’s wrong in history, it just, it’s just deemed to get repeated over and over and over and over again until you have somebody like Cesar who goes digging and he’s been researching it for 25 years and he’s actually gone into, into the Brickle’s footsteps all the way back to Australia, he’s actually journeyed back into their shoes, met their ancestors, everything and has amassed this collection that’s going to really confront this topic and put it out there. So that’s like a mission of ours now, is to get Mary in the history books in the classrooms, even. So that’s, that’s kind of where I am right now. So it’s not, it’s not so much for pleasure, but it is very pleasurable. It’s not like, Oh, I’m going to read this crime novel to escape. It’s pleasurable because I have like an end game.
JS: Do you have a sense of why Mary Brickell was pushed aside?
ML: Yes. Julia Tuttle was very outspoken. She was the hobnob, her, she was, she came here as a widow. I think she inherited her father’s land here. She was the type to be out there, you know, within groups and within people, the Brickles pretty much kept to themselves. You know, Mary was a very savvy business woman and there was a little riff between Flagler and the Brickles and truthfully,Mary winds up taking over a lot of the business dealings. They think that William Brickell may have suffered some kind of mental disorder. I mean, none of that is really proven, but like early signs of dementia or something like that. So even though they were, they were together in doing business, you can see Mary’s signature on all these documents. She kind of, she was really the spearhead behind everything. but they came here 20 years earlier. They were on the south bank of the Miami river. They built a trading post to trade with the Seminole Indians. They have more history here than Julia Tuttle did. And Julia Tuttle winds up passing away not long after Miami’s incorporation. So I feel like this short-lived period of Julia Tuttle, and yet she’s got all the, she’s got all the notoriety or, you know, all the, all the recognition rather.
JS: Well, I can’t wait to hear what you do with this. This is so interesting.
ML: Yeah. It’s going to be exciting. He’s also offering this time capsule. It’s a crate. It’s got authentic Miami memorabilia within the crate. It’s like a living time capsule right now.
JS: Becerra is doing that?
ML: Yes. Yeah, it’s a, it’s a whole event thing that we’re leading up to, to Miami’s 125th anniversary. So I’m kind of immersed in that and, and it’s fun. It promotes Florida and it gives it that little dig in the side. Like Miami history wasn’t quite what you thought it was.
JS: Now, let me ask: How do you battle the crocodiles? Because there was a lot of crocodile talk in this book. I’ve only been to Florida once. I stayed in port St. Lucie, my husband was on a business trip and at the time my son was an infant and I would just drive around during the day and look for manatees. And I went to visit my husband at the office where he was working that week. And there was a little sort of pond behind the office. And I was standing there holding my baby and looking into the water and going, Oh, look at the little fishies, you know what you do with babies. And then this man came up to me and said, you need to back up. And there was a sign that said, you know, you could die. I’ve always had this sense that at any time in Florida, something could just jump out and seize your leg.
ML: Yeah. I mean, I know they they’ve eaten little dogs and stuff, but, I don’t know what the statistic is. But you keep saying crocodile, we were one state that has crocodile and alligator. So yeah, we’re actually both, but if you go down to the Everglades you just see them walk by, they just lumber on by. I’ve seen them walk across golf courses, you know, huge ones. You just let them go about your way.
JS: That’s bananas.
ML: It’s really funny to watch because you look like you’re almost watching some leftover prehistoric creature and it just lumbers by. Cause they get really, really big. I’ll tell you what’s crazy here: like just like living here in my house, in my neighborhood, in my backyard. It’s not just alligators. We have these gigantic, ugly iguanas and they’ll scurry across the roof of my house. Cause he used to have, back before we cut it down, used to be a tree that used to hang over the roof of the house and you know, we’re so hurricane prone, I had to cut that back. But they would jump from the tree limb, boom, on your house and scurry.
JS: That sounds terrifying.
ML: They crawl up the light poles. Growing up, I remember seeing little lizards. I’m like, when did the lizards get to be gigantic? I don’t know what happened. Unless as a kid you’re not paying attention, you know, you’re just running around, riding your bike, skinning your knees, doing whatever. But, uh, yeah, it is, it is insane, but it is after you’ve seen an alligator, you can safely say, okay, that’s it. That’s my Florida calling card right there. Part of the problem is that we have built so much. And we built so far out west. We are actually in their territory. Weare living in their backyard. Let’s face it. I know there are people who make a business here out of capturing them or relocating them. I don’t know where they’re relocating them to, but it’s a whole business down here.
JS: Since reading this book, I have such a sense of the state as there’s such an individualism there. Despite all of these things that are telling you not to live there, like the hurricanes and the gigantic reptiles…
ML: … and the heat and the mosquitoes,
JS: Most rational people would go, this is not a great place to live. And that was the great thing about this book is you get a sense of a population that goes, goddammit. I do what I want.
ML: Yeah, and now that you’re mentioning that it, that way you can certainly have a deep appreciation for the people who did build up Florida, because you literally built it on top of a swamp, like Carl Fisher who builds Miami Beach. This humongous bridge from the mainland over to the Bay, how impossible does that seem? It’s amazing. You have to have this dream and then you have to make that dream a reality. And some people who have come here have gone bankrupt, trying to make that dream come true. So it’s truly amazing. And another thing I love about Florida, that I’ve, that I’ve interviewed people, it does give you a sense of place for people that have may have moved around a lot. You know they can come to South Florida and realize that a lot of people are in the same boat here and they can create their own, they feel more at home because within their own community and their own people. We have little Haiti. We have little Havana here. We have like all these different places and cultures that can make you feel home, even though you’re not in your original Homeland. I love this state. I will always love the state. Like Kent Russell says he loves and loathes the state. I kind of feel the same way. You have a love/hate relationship going on.
JS: Why don’t you share where my listeners can find your work and your wonderful podcast, which I delight in?
ML: I’m on every major platform, wherever you get your podcasts, you can listen to the SoFloWeird show, or you can go straight to my website, where I’ve got other interesting Florida stories. You can look at all kinds of stuff on there. If you want to find us on social media, you can find @SoFloWeird on Instagram. We have a SoFloWeirdos Facebook group, and we share stories every other day about Florida.
JS: Mia. I want to thank you for introducing me to this book. It was so fun to read. And I want to thank you for joining me today.
ML: It’s just been a delight talking to you, Julie. Thank you so much. You’re a great conversationalist.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. Remember, whenever you are book shopping, help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop. Their mission is to support local, independent bookstores, nd if you shop using my link, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase at no extra expense to you.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.