In his first novel, the Sarasota author tackles the red tide and inequality


SARASOTA, FL – In his first novel, Sarasota journalist and author Cooper Levey-Baker tackles two long-simmering issues in the region: the impact of red tide outbreaks on businesses, residents and the environment , and financial inequalities.

“Dead Fish Wind,” his dark comedic coming-of-age tale, was released Thursday by Madville Publishing.

In her book, Levey-Baker’s main character, Cicely, is stuck in a miserable job caring for her “deadbeat” father. Essentially, “she lives just one step above roaming in a city ruled by a remote and affluent elite and hit by a catastrophic outbreak of red tide,” according to the description on its website.

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The plot focuses on her dreams beyond the life she knows and her search for a way out, through “a scheme that involves stolen placentas and a dangerous doula”.

Although the story takes place in a city like Sarasota, it is not actually Sarasota, the author said. “I want to be clear. The geography is Sarasota, but it’s not Sarasota at all at the same time. It’s supposed to be this twisted, dystopian Sarasota. But locals will recognize the landmarks.”

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In 2012, he began attending the University of Tampa’s creative writing program, where “Dead Fish Wind” was born out of a creative writing exercise.

“One of my teachers told us to close our eyes and write on a blank sheet of paper and you can’t stop, your hand has to keep moving,” he said. “Basically the idea was that you can’t think too much about what you’re writing.

As Levey-Baker wrote, “a very specific image of this woman walking home” popped into his mind, he said. “There’s this howling wind. She’s wearing a trench coat to protect herself from the wind. She comes home and there’s an old man, her father, sitting there smoking a pipe. That was the spark of the story .”

After class, he couldn’t get the image out of his head. Exploring history, thinking of this image of a woman battling the elements, he had a rush of ideas.

“Maybe I could do something with the red tide,” he said. “Where is this woman going? What is this conflict between her and her father?

Levey-Baker, who moved to Sarasota when he was 15, graduated from Riverview High School in 1998. He moved for college, attending Wake Forest University for his undergraduate degree.

It wasn’t until he moved in 2003 that he experienced Sarasota “as an adult,” he said.

He started working as a journalist in the area shortly after returning to town. Today, he is an editor at Sarasota Magazine.

Although he heard about the Red Tide as a teenager in Sarasota, it was through his work that he began to fully understand its impact on the region.

Cooper Levey-Baker’s “Dead Fish Wind” was released Thursday by Madville Publishing. (Cover design by Gigi Ortwein)

“Around 2005, 2006, there was a horrific red tide outbreak here in Sarasota,” Levey-Baker said. “It was like a few years ago. It went on for months. Hotels were canceling trips. Companies were losing money. It was a total disaster and I had never experienced anything like this before.”

At the time, he covered the issue for Creative Loafing and became interested in the subject. Even after his coverage of the outbreak ended, “it was a memory I always had in mind,” he said. “It’s something people here know about, but I always thought too few people knew about it.”

He relied heavily on his journalism training, particularly his Red Tide work, when he wrote the first draft of “Dead Fish Wind” in 2013.

The story, written “quite in the shadow of the Great Recession that happened,” also tackles the issue of inequality in this fictional town inspired by Sarasota, Levey-Baker said.

“I take the red tide but increase it to this kind of crazy level. At the same time, I take this inequality and increase it to this absurd level,” he said. “Obviously, inequality is this huge problem. I think it’s particularly acute in Sarasota. I just saw that the rents here are astronomical. I wanted to reach that gap between working people and people living comfortable lives. .”

It’s not something he was always aware of, he added, especially as a teenager. “It’s easy to overlook this divide sometimes. Sarasota is such a wonderful place and such a beautiful place, it’s easy to overlook the struggles that a lot of people go through.”

It’s something that has become more apparent to Levey-Baker over the past decade through her work.

“As a journalist you meet people from all walks of life and realize that not everyone has had the same privileges and opportunities,” he said. “I met people with very different life experiences, and it opened my eyes.”

Once the first draft of the novel was completed, he “just started editing and editing and editing,” he said. “It took a long time before I felt like it was in some sort of finished form.”

He began submitting the book to various publishers. Although he received valuable feedback, he was unable to find a home for him.

“It got to the point where I was getting polite, personal rejections, not just general rejections,” he said.

Tampa-based author friend Brian Petkash, who published a collection of short stories through Madville Publishing in the spring of 2020, pitched it to the independent publisher.

Levey-Baker appreciates that the story stands out from the Texas-based editor.

“Obviously a book that’s set in Florida, I think Floridians will get it, but I wanted to work with someone who’s not in Florida,” he said. “If they’re not from Florida and they don’t care about Florida but they care about the book, maybe that’s a sign.”

And with the red tide rising and flowing in Sarasota and throughout the Sunshine State, he thinks Florida readers will embrace the story and its dark humor.

“I just hope people approach it with an open mind and accept the absurdity of it,” he said. “I never try to have a message in my fiction. It’s really just trying to provide a memorable reading experience. What matters to me most is that people enjoy reading it. Not enjoy it in a superficial page-turning type of way, but just something that captures your imagination.”

Learn more about buying the book here.

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