Sunday, March 20, 2011

Claire Matturro - Sarasota Sleuth

Picture the only female law partner in a prestigious Sarasota firm.  Now make her a germ-phobic vegetarian with an obsessive-compulsive personality, a dysfunctional family, and a wickedly irreverent sense of humor. Then throw her into a series of misadventures with a cast of quirky friends and relatives, and you have the makings of an unforgettable read that will have you chuckling on every page.  This is what Claire Hamner Matturro has done in her four “Lilly Cleary” novels. Think John Grisham on laughing gas.

 Matturro, a former Bradenton resident, spent nine years at Sarasota’s Dickinson Gibbons law firm, becoming its first woman partner before deciding she needed a change. “I made the change in a series of small steps, like going into a pool a little at a time,” she says.  Having wanted to write since childhood, she joined the writing faculty at Florida State University College of Law where she taught for six years.  Then she took the plunge into full-time writing.  She wrote two serious manuscripts, both unpublished, before hitting on the idea of writing a legal thriller with a lighter tone.  That led to the creation of Lilly Belle Rose Cleary, the lovably neurotic lawyer from Bugfest, Georgia. Matturro describes Lilly as “a feminine composite of the trial attorneys I knew. Most have obsessive qualities, so I exaggerated them, and I gave her a dysfunctional childhood to explain her weird personality.”  The writer admits to having certain similarities with her heroine, however. “We’re both vegetarians, we love organic foods, and we both have rural roots.”

Matturro’s debut novel, Skinny Dipping, was published in 2004 and earned praise from the Kirkus Review as “Funny, sharp, savvy…this new kid on Grisham’s block is one to watch.”  This was followed by Wildcat Wine in 2005, Bone Valley in 2006, and Sweetheart Deal in 2007.  In Bone Valley, Lilly Cleary becomes unwittingly involved with environmental activists working to expose the dangers of an abandoned phosphate plant in Manatee County. Matturro got the idea for the story while driving through the real Bone Valley near Lakeland.  Although she had read about the phosphate issue in the press, she was shocked by the devastation and later realized that many people were unaware of the problem.  Bone Valley” struck her as a great title for a book, and nine months later, she had completed the rough draft of the novel. “This book took more research than the others,” she explains.  “The hardest part of the book was condensing and weaving the research into the storyline.” The result is an eminently readable cautionary tale with particular significance for Floridians

Matturro’s fourth Lilly Cleary novel, Sweetheart Deal, differs from the prior novels in that it is “more personal to Lilly and more poignant, very much in favor of small towns and families.” But it has enough suspense and action for even the biggest legal thriller fan. The story has Lilly returning to her hometown of Bugfest to help her reclusive mother who has been accused of shooting a man. The plot includes fire ants, an unscrupulous developer, a corrupt county commissioner, voodoo eggs, and an albino ferret with Lassie fantasies.

Although Matturro lived in southern Georgia while writing all four novels, she traveled to Eugene, Oregon in 2007 for a stint as a visiting professor of legal writing at the University of Oregon. “Eugene was cool, very cool, and had marvelous progressive programs and great health food stores and wonderful walking and biking paths,” Matturro recalls, “but home is home.” Since 2007, she has returned to her adopted native state, Florida.

Matturro’s novels are set in the Sunshine State because “you can find almost any kind of drama in Florida.”  She finds the state “enormously fascinating…it’s got everything—crime, wonderful wildlife, fascinating history and cultures.”  She enjoys the works of other Florida authors and “can’t get enough of them.”  She also loves her craft. “I love playing with words, the music of language, and the sheer fun of making up stories.”  While she admits to having trouble with spelling, she says the most difficult part of her job is “the physical act of typing.” 

In her spare time, Matturro enjoys walking, gardening, and “hanging around watching the sky change as night comes on” with husband Bill (a retired environmental attorney), and Bunni, her twenty-five year-old cat. She is also a self-described “people watcher” which provides the inspiration for many of her eccentric characters. According to Matturro, “The key thing in writing is to be a people studier. Listen to as many different kinds of people as you can.  Listen and remember.”  And she hopes readers will come away from her books with something to remember. “I want readers to be entertained, but I try to slide in some education, so I hope they will learn something too.” 

One thing is certain: no matter why you pick up one of Claire Matturro’s novels, you’re sure to be coming back for more.

For more about Claire Matturro, visit her website at

Next: Dr. William Emener - Lessons on Love and Life

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tom Corcoran - Key West Chronicler

If you’ve ever been to Key West, you know that it’s one of the more colorful Florida locales. And no one captures that local color quite like Tom Corcoran. With a photographer’s eye, Corcoran gives readers a glimpse into the off-beat heart of the city that has captivated him for almost forty years.

An Ohio native, Corcoran joined the Navy in the 60s and was sent to Key West for an eight-week training course. He fell in love with the island and its people. “It was so fascinating to an Ohio boy,” he says. “The sights, sounds and smells were just glorious.” When he finished his naval stint, Corcoran returned to Key West. He took a job tending bar at The Chart Room where, in 1971, he met a young musician who had just arrived in town. Jimmy Buffett stopped in for a drink, and Corcoran welcomed him with a beer “on the house.” This was the start of a lifelong friendship. Buffett and Corcoran shared many memorable experiences. One found its way into Corcotan’s third novel, Bone Island Mambo, which includes a scene that took place on Buffett’s boat. Corcoran even co-wrote two songs that became Buffett classics: “Fins” and “Cuban Crime of Passion.”

Inspired by the sights and scenes around him, Corcoran decided to try his hand at photography. “I read books on photography and gave myself assignments,” he explains. “For example, I’d photograph only green things for a week. That way I’d learn to see all shades of green. Now I can look at a bush and see twenty different greens.” He soon became good enough to do some freelancing. His photographs were featured on seven of Jimmy Buffett’s album covers as well as on the book jackets of writers like James W. Hall, Winston Groom, and Les Standiford. 

By 1980, Corcoran’s life began to take a different turn “I had a wife and a kid, and I needed a full-time job. My son was at that impressionable age, and Key West was filling up with impressions.” So Corcoran moved his family to Fairhope, Alabama, where he worked as an advertising and magazine photographer until his wife’s death in 1986. He suddenly found himself a single father with a rambunctious 15-year-old, so when he was offered a job as editor of Mustang Monthly, an automotive magazine, he moved back to Florida and settled in Lakeland.  According to Corcoran, “Writing about (Ford) Mustangs taught me to spot details readers respond to, and editing the technical stuff to make it more interesting really helped my writing.” 

In 1998, Corcoran made the transition from non-fiction to fiction with the publication of his first novel. The Mango Opera marked the debut of Alex Rutledge, a Key West freelance photographer who is occasionally coerced into photographing crime scenes for the city police and county sheriff. Corcoran wanted Rutledge “to be someone typical of the Key West I loved, a vehicle for its personality to come through.” He also gives readers a sampling of the colorful cast of characters that people the Keys. “Key West is an island of characters. Many are genuine characters, and those who aren’t have manufactured characters for themselves. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody has a support team. Nobody’s a star in Key West.” 
The Mango Opera was soon followed by five other Alex Rutledge mysteries. Corcoran credits his Key West days with providing a wealth of story material. “I spent a lot of time listening to the stories of old Conch fishermen at bars on Duval Street, and I use these in my novels." He also drew inspiration from experiences closer to home. He got the idea for his 2005 offering, Air Dance Iguana, while sitting on his dock. "I was looking out at the water, and I wondered if  anyone had written about a murder victim being hung from a boat davit.  I couldn’t find it in any other book, so I used it as my opening scene.” He keeps his readers guessing by throwing out false clues and real clues at the same time, “like a video game on paper.” The story, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch, “will take you away to Margaritaville without wasting away your time.”

The sixth Alex Rutledge mystery, Hawk Channel Chase, was released in hardcover in 2009, then in trade paperback and Kindle download in 2010. It has three or four subplots, and Sam Wheeler (Alex’s fishing guide friend) is fundamental to the story.

Corcoran is already at work on his seventh Alex Rutledge mystery, as yet untitle The story embroils Alex in two cases, one in Key West, the other in Sarasota. And two dodgy street characters created for his second and third mysteries, Dubbie Tanner and Wiley Fecko, will team up to form a private investigations company that proves invaluable to Rutledge’s efforts.

Corcoran has also ventured into the publishing arena as co-owner of The Ketch and Yawl Press, a small company that specializes in non-fiction books about the Florida Keys. In 2006, Ketch and Yawl released Jimmy Buffett: The Key West Years, Corcoran’s compilation of photos and vignettes about Buffett’s life from the 1970s throughout the past several years.  It’s a must-read for all Parrotheads and anyone who is nostalgic for the old Key West. In 2007, Corcoran released Key West in Black and White, a collection of over 160 vintage black-and-white photos. The two most recent releases are fresh editions of existing titles. Undying Love is Ben Harrison’s study of perhaps the weirdest true crime case in Keys history. And The Railroad That Died at Sea tells of Henry Flagler’s construction of train rails to Key West a century ago.

Most recently, Corcoran has returned to songwriting, collaborating on six tunes with Florida-based folk singer John Frinzi for his 2009 CD, “Shoreline.” The title song is derived from a long poem Corcoran wrote while in the Navy. The two artists continue to write new songs for Frinzi’s next release. In 2010, Corcoran assembled a 40-minute high-definition DVD with 400 recent color photographs of Key West and an instrumental sound track featuring Frinzi’s acoustic guitar and the steel pan of John Patti. It's like taking a trip to the Keys without leaving home.

The ease with which Corcoran moves between fiction and non-fiction is no small feat. But it’s easy to see why his books have been so successful. All share one fundamental quality: an abiding respect for the reader. “I never disrespect the intelligence of my readers,” Corcoran says. “I know they’re smart or they wouldn’t be reading in the first place.” 

To find out more about Tom Corcoran’s books, visit his official website at

Next: Claire Matturro - Sarasota Sleuth