Saturday, November 9 at 3 pm
Times Festival of Reading
Since releasing his debut short story collection Cigar City: Tales from a 1980s Creative Ghetto in April, Paul Wilborn has spoken about his book at venues throughout the Tampa Bay region – at libraries, colleges and universities, galleries and museums.
With all the attention and accolades, the most exciting invitation has been from the Tampa Bay Times to appear at its annual Festival of Reading – the holy grail of book events, in his eyes.
“It’s a dream come true,” he admits. “I think I really wrote the book just so I could be invited to the Festival of Reading.”
A Tampa native and former journalist, Wilborn was a central figure in Ybor City’s burgeoning arts scene in the 1980s. Working with award-winning photojournalist and artist Bud Lee, he helped organize the annual Artists and Writers Ball, a bacchanalian celebration in the Historic District. The parties were an artistic riff on the galas thrown by Gasparilla Pirate Krewes.
“But we did it in a crazy, artsy way,” Wilborn says. “We had debutantes and coronations. It was totally wacky. Anything we could think of that was funny and artsy, we did.”
photo by David Audet
Ybor City, well past its heyday, was a much different place in the 1980s, he says. Many historic buildings and social clubs were empty and underutilized. So, the group had its pick of iconic venues, often hosting the ball at the Cuban Club.
“You’d have this great empty club and seven or eight floors with themes,” Wilborn says.
Those attending might find punks pogo-ing in the basement and impromptu kick lines in the ballroom.
“Those were magical things. We don’t know how they existed, but they did.”
Lee, founder of the Artists and Writers Group, deserves all the credit for producing the legendary events and for energizing artists, writers, musicians and other creative individuals that gravitated towards Ybor City at the time, Wilborn explains. “I was there. . . and I was active in the group, but Bud Lee was the guru. He was the Pied Piper and we were all dancing behind him.”
For years, friends encouraged Wilborn to write about his experiences in Ybor City.
“It was a magical time and place,” he says, but he balked at the idea of writing about it, especially in a memoir.
After Lee died in 2015, Wilborn began seriously considering writing about that time period. Still, he didn’t think a nonfiction project was the right approach for the material. He decided to write a collection of linked short stories that used Ybor City in the 1980s as their backdrop. Writing through a fictional lens, he had “just enough distance” to write about his experiences.
1980s Ybor City – photo by Bud Lee
“I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, this character is me,’” he explains.
Wilborn is currently working on his next book, a novel set in South Florida in the 1980s. As a journalist, he spent a few years covering sports for the Palm Beach Post and traveled the state when working for the Tampa Tribune and the then-St. Petersburg Times.
“This is a fictionalized version of a lot of the people I met in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says. “It’s a very Florida book – Florida before it went boom.”. . .
Explore Paul Wilborn’s writing here