Warming to the Task

Photo: Phil Coale

Something happens to a lot of reporters when they turn 30. The daily excitement of front-page journalism turns into the deadline drudgery of trying to massage a new angle out of the same old stuff. If an insurance man like Tom Clancy or a schoolteacher like J.K. Rowling can chuck it all and write novels, the maturing reporter muses, why can't a trained wordsmith?

A little more than six years ago, Shirish Dáte, '85, decided to go for it. The Orlando Sentinel reporter quit his job, sold his little Mazda Miata, hooked his secondhand Compaq laptop to the electricity inverter aboard the 31-foot cutter Sounion and set sail for the Greek isles with his fiancée, Mary Beth Elston.

Dáte (pronounced "DAH-tay") says he grew up thinking sailing would be a good way to see the world, "riding around in your home." From modest beginnings on Lake Lagunita in a freshman phys ed course, he went on to purchase Sounion--named for a cape near Athens--10 years later. It took a year to make the round-trip crossing and crank out Final Orbit (Avon Books), a space whodunit, drawn from his experiences as the Sentinel's Cape Canaveral reporter in the early 1990s. Dáte and Elston scrimped by on personal savings.

Sailing the Atlantic and writing a first novel turned out to have something in common. In both cases, Dáte observes, you take an incremental approach and try not to hit any doldrums. "It's mind-numbing to think you're going to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a boat 31 feet long," he says. "But you're not. You're going to do 100 miles a day, and that's doable. If you string together 30 of those, you're across." Similarly, he wrote at least one 700-word page a day at sea and in port except during bad weather. "And by the end of the year, I had more than 300 pages," Dáte says.

Sounion got as far as the Balearic Islands, in the Spanish Mediterranean, before gales kept it in port at Minorca. On the way back, Dáte and Elston sailed via the Canary and Cape Verde islands, the Windwards and Leewards, and the Bahamas. The experience convinced them that if they could live within 31 feet of each other for a year, they were ready for marriage. Dáte also decided that he'd have to find time, despite deadline reporting, to write what he calls "the Florida novel."

"There's a definite subgenre," says Dáte. "I don't know how much of it is Florida or how much is Florida as people outside see us, but there really are bizarre things that seem to happen here."

The paperback Final Orbit came out in 1997 and produced respectable sales of 40,000 for Avon Books. Dáte followed it in 1999 with Speed Week, a whimsical tale of greed and mayhem loosely drawn from the druggies, beach bums, topless dancers, lonely old folks and rowdy bikers he covered on the Sentinel's Daytona Beach beat. Only 2,500 copies of Speed Week, a hardback (Putnam Publishing Group), were sold, but Dáte had gained the attention of editor Neil Nyren at G.P. Putnam's Sons. Nyren, now publisher for the company, has also edited books by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen, probably the best-known author of the Florida novel. Hiassen calls Speed Week "good, twisted fun, cheerfully subversive."

Dáte, now Tallahassee bureau chief of the Palm Beach Post, has a third book, Smokeout, published on November 6 by Putnam. This one is a wildly and amusingly distorted adaptation of the 1996 Florida Senate showdown that changed liability laws and touched off the current wave of multibillion-dollar lawsuits against Big Tobacco. At the end of Florida's 1994 legislative session, Gov. Lawton Chiles had sneaked through legislation that stripped tobacco companies of their traditional defenses. Horrified at what they'd unwittingly done to some of their more generous campaign contributors, state lawmakers repealed the anti-tobacco law in 1995. Chiles then vetoed their repeal, setting up a titanic floor fight.

The Florida novel is to literature what Jimmy Buffett is to music--a quickie confection meant more to be enjoyed than believed. Smokeout, for instance, accurately portrays the high-stakes lobbying and political arm-twisting of the tobacco snuff-out; but the climactic vote didn't really involve two nude senators rappelling down the side of Florida's 22-floor Capitol, or the Senate roll-call board exploding when the vote was tallied. "One of the few pearls of wisdom I was taught in creative writing was that literature is not about the day nothing happened," says Dáte. "In this case, everybody who's been following the news knows what's happened to tobacco. I had to make it better."

Dáte was born in India, the son of doctors. Emigrating with his family at age 3, he grew up in Boston, Rochester, N.Y., and Anaheim, Calif., enrolling at Stanford in 1981. His premed studies faltered because, he says, "a lot of my dormmates were working at the student paper." Dáte began hanging out at the Daily, and by the time he earned his political science degree, he was editor.

After an internship at the Los Angeles Times, he spent two years with the Middletown (N.Y.) Times-Herald Record, then moved to Orlando in 1988. He went to the Sentinel's space bureau two years later and spent the next four years covering shuttle launches and the military-industrial intrigues of NASA. "Occasionally, I'd see something and say, 'That would make a fun plot for a book,'" he recalls.

As a general-assignment reporter in Daytona Beach, Dáte covered mostly crime and tourism stories important to Central Florida's biggest industry. He saved for three years to buy Sounion.

"I was the official worrier on the Trip," says Mary Beth Dáte. "We took turns on everything, the navigation and the watches. We became partners and learned to work together." Shirish calls himself and Mary Beth "flexible introverts."

They sold the Southern Cross cutter four years ago, when their son Orion was born. Mary Beth works from home as a graphic designer and cares for Orion and his baby brother, Rigel, 1.

Back ashore in Florida, Dáte returned to the Sentinel in 1995 but moved to the Associated Press in Tallahassee a year later. He joined the Palm Beach Post capital bureau in 1997, shortly before Final Orbit was launched.

Smokeout's debut a day before the 2000 election is coincidental, but "there's good political satire in this book," says publisher Nyren. Dáte has been sizing up Florida's U.S. Senate campaign and the 2002 governor's race for material to use in his next novel. Could this be his last campaign as a newsman?

"Oh, definitely, I think about that. It would be great to spend more time with my kids, to work when I want," he says. Dáte knows that only a handful of writers hit the bestseller lists and nab eight-figure movie deals, like Clancy and Grisham, but hints he'd settle for less. "They don't all get rich and famous, but there are a lot of writers who make a living just writing these novels."


BILL COTTERELL is chief political writer for the Tallahassee Democrat.