Sarasota magazine editor-in-chief Cooper Levey-Baker to publish his first novel in January
Regular readers have seen Editor-in-Chief Cooper Levey-Baker’s signature in Sarasota Magazine for years he won numerous awards for his work, including from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Professional Journalists. He’s also the magazine’s food editor, reporting on everything from Sarasota’s best restaurants and culinary trends to local manufacturers.
And next month, January 20, Levey-Baker will release his first book, but unlike his journalism, Dead fish wind is a work of fiction. That said, as you can guess from the title – and the scarlet cover – the red tide plays a part in the plot, and the book is set in a town similar to Sarasota in southwest Florida. Eagle-eyed locals will have fun guessing which characters, buildings, and events inspired the plot points in the book.
We spoke with Levey-Baker about the book’s inspiration, his writing process, how Sarasota plays out in the story, and what he hopes readers will take away from his reading.
Writing a book, especially a novel, has it always been something you wanted to do?
âWhen I was a university student, I had a very vague ambition to want to be a writer, but I didn’t know what form it would take. When I was 22 or 23, I wrote a book. I really enjoyed it, and it was a good learning experience, but it was terrible. Around the same time, I was starting to work as a journalist, and it got the better of me, I loved that too. But I still had a book in mind, and in 2013 I enrolled in the University of Tampa’s new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and studied fiction.
How does the idea of Dead fish wind arise from?
âI started working on it in high school, and the impulse was a writing exercise. Our teacher told us to put aside what we were working on, pull out a new sheet of paper, and start writing down whatever came to mind. For me it was the image of a young woman wearing a trench coat and walking in strong winds, fighting. She was walking home from work and when she came home her father was there smoking a pipe. I had no idea where it was coming from. It seemed to come out of nowhere in my mind, and the experience was strangely powerful. Also, once the writing exercise was completed, I received positive feedback on what I had written, which made me think that there was something that was worth exploring further. depth.
âI had to write a thesis for my graduate studies, and that was the basis of my thesis. I finished a very messy draft in 2014, and I graduated and spent another year rewriting it. I finished a draft that I was happy with in 2016. From there it was editing – cutting a paragraph here, a line there. In 2017, I started sending it to publishers.
Madville Publishing is based in Texas, how did you meet?
âA writer named Brian Petkash, with whom I graduated from college, has published a collection of short stories titled Errors by the lake with Madville in 2020. He recommended me to them. I went through the process of submitting the manuscript and having it read by a blind reviewer not affiliated with the publisher. Whoever gave me their thumbs up in August 2020. It was strange and a bit surreal to have such good news in the midst of the pandemic – I was ecstatic.
Dead fish windThe protagonist of is a young woman named Cicely whose future looks bleak when we meet her. She lives in an unfinished condo project and takes care of her father; her mother abandoned her; she doesn’t have real friends; she has a dead end job as a cocktail waitress at a men’s club-type venue that doubles as a community gathering place. In the book, Cicely makes her very first friend, discusses her feelings for her family, and gets involved with a villainous doula who illegally sells placentas. Talk about how you made up the story.
âComing back to the idea of ââmy graduate school, I knew the main character was a young woman with a deadbeat dad. The book is written in limited third person, and everything is specifically from Cicely’s point of view. Understanding this has helped me. I was getting into her mind – how she sees things, lives things, why she makes the decisions she makes. It gave me the boost I needed to find out who the other characters are.
âThe cool thing about fiction is that you can have interesting characters and randomly bump them against each other. It forces you to understand what’s going on. An example of that in this book is with Cicely and the Landlord, the guy who owns the apartment Cicely and her dad live in. Once you force Cicely to cross him, you can build the characters by seeing how they react to each other. It takes you to places where you surprise yourself. “
There are also some fun times to laugh out loud.
âI wanted to write something literary but with genre elements it wasn’t just someone who contemplates the state of the universe. As one of my teachers said, the key is to get the reader to turn to page two. How do you make sure people keep going?
The setting resembles that of Sarasota after the recession, but magnified. For example, Cicely and her father do not have a reliable water source in their house.
âYes, it was like the aftermath of the steroid financial crash. I took any Sarasota issues or challenges and upped the frequency at the expense of the great things in life here. It’s dystopian; it is not realistic. That’s not to say Sarasota doesn’t have its dark side, or that there aren’t a lot of horrible things going on here. But the public image of Sarasota is so bright and bright. The weather is nice. I wanted to pick up the boulder and look at what was below.
How would you describe the place where Cicely works? Again, thinking of Sarasota, it feels like the Cheetah Club and Robarts Arena have had a baby.
“There is a place in Twin peaks, which takes place in a small town in Washington state called Roadhouse, and that’s where it all happens. Teenagers meet there after school, criminals get together to discuss their plans, musicians play – everyone knows each other. I had this idea in my head as the place where everything happens because there is nowhere to go. It’s cheap, ugly, degrading, and it’s the only place Cicely has a connection to the outside world. This is where she talks and has other interactions with other adult human beings. I needed a place that would allow all of these types of interactions.
The red tide is also a point of intrigue, and you were working on this book at the same time as the horrible bloom of 2018. Was it a coincidence?
âYes it was. The first time I heard about the red tide was after the 2005-2006 blooms that lasted for months. I remember hearing hotels say people were canceling trips. . When I worked for Creative Loafing, I wrote a story about it that forced me to understand science. The point is that the flowering goes away, and everyone forgets about it. I wanted to include it as a background because when I was writing the book not many people knew about it or talked about it. Then came 2018. â
Was it difficult to write from a female character’s perspective?
âIt was a challenge, and something that I had and I’m afraid to do. Using the limited third-person perspective instead of trying to write a first-person story has helped a lot. I’m not trying to speak in another person’s voice, but rather describe what’s going on and then dive into the character’s mind here and there. I also incorporated feedback from women who were mentors in my writing program, classmates, my editor and, of course, my wife. It was all vital.
Sarasota Magazinethe artistic director of, Gigi Ortwein, designed the cover of Dead fish wind– talk about this collaboration.
âMadville Publishing has designers who make great covers, but I love Gigi’s work. So I asked her if she would agree to try a blanket for me. She came up with some ideas, we shared them and my editor liked them.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
âI have no message; there is no take out. I just want to provide a pleasant experience, something a little provocative. If someone reads it and it stays with them, that’s all that matters.
Dead fish wind will be published by Madville Publishing on January 20, 2022; you can pre-order a copy from Bookstore1Sarasota. Levey-Baker will also be hosting a book release party on January 20, 2022 in Fogartyville, downtown Sarasota. Tickets cost $ 20 and include a copy of the book. For more information, click here.