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Getting naked in South Florida.

Collaboration has never come easy to writers, notorious for being creatures of thin-skinned ego. But in a new book by 13 Miami-based writers called "Naked Came the Manatee," too many cooks in the kitchen turns out to be a lot of fun.

Initially a serial narrative that ran for 13 weeks a year ago in the Miami Herald's Sunday magazine, Tropic, "Naked Came the Manatee" put some of South Florida's most prominent writers to the literary test. Each was given only a week to read the existing installments before contributing his or her own. While this might not sound all that difficult for a baker's dozen of seasoned writers including Carl Hiaasen and Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, there was one complicating factor -- somebody had the crazy idea of letting humor columnist Dave Barry go first.

The result is a farfetched suspense thriller starring a manatee named Booger. By the time the tale ends, Booger has been joined by 24 other characters who play direct or indirect roles in a riot in Coconut Grove, four murders and Booger's search for a soulmate.

The book's title is derived from a similarly collaborative effort by some 20 Newsday staffers who, in 1969, decided to write what they vowed would be the worst sex novel ever. Titled "Naked Came the Stranger" and written under the nom de plume Penelope Ashe, the book became a bestseller after the real authors were revealed.

Tropic Editor Tom Shroder, who came up with the idea for the series along with Barry, says the book was inspired by a desire to take advantage of South Florida's burgeoning community of star writers. "I figured for this to be a really fun project, you'd have to have the best and best-known writers around," he says. "I figured I'd call them up and say, `We want you to participate, but you have to take what's given to you, and you have a week to do it, and by the way it's all for charity,' and they would say I was nuts. But every writer I called didn't even let me finish my proposal before they said, `Sure!'"

Barry says he volunteered to go first because he w the least experienced in novel-writing. "The theory was that no matter how bad I screwed up, with 12 writers coming after me it would eventually get better" he says.

The story certainly got stranger. By the third installment, author Paul Levine has Booger colliding with a mysterious box containing what appears to be the head of Fidel Castro. Jimmy Carter also makes a cameo appearance in the story, as do several of the authors, characters from previous novels.

The series undoubtedly challenged its creators, who ultimately came up with an amusing, if not always consistent, epic. "You have to pick up whatever line is dropped in the water and then outdo the next author. Everyone denies it, but of course they're lying," says Levine. "Everyone wanted to come up with something that would make the next person say, `What am I gonna do with that?'"

The toughest challenge fell to Carl Hiaasen, who was charged with clean-up duty in writing the final installment. In what was perhaps his homage to "Naked Came the Stranger," Hiaasen has Booger enjoying "thirteen hundred pounds of saucy sea-cow nooky" as the story comes to a close.

Shroder admits to occasionally editing installments to make the series flow better. "I was fighting this unsuccessful rearguard action throughout to keep the manatee from becoming a super-human character," he says. "It was very easy for these chapters to begin to weigh future chapters down and limit possibilities."

In fact the series created possibilities most of the authors might never have explored otherwise. "It was liberating, in a way, not having to further the plot or wrap it up" says Levine. "I didn't have to worry about painting myself into a corner because I wasn't the one in the corner."

Crime writer Edna Buchanan, who wrote the fourth installment and had to escape from Levine's corner by deciding what would happen to Castro's head, says writing the series was a great exercise. "Writing is such a lonely business" says the former Herald reporter. "There was this sense of being involved in something with other talented people, which is something I've missed since I left the newsroom.

As to whether the baker's dozen will continue to be involved in the future, there's already talk of a naked manatee sequel, but Barry says Booger's days of fame are most likely over. "Booger probably has an agent now" he says, "so we couldn't afford him."
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Title Annotation:Naked Came the Manatee is novel written in installents by 13 noted Florida writers
Author:Revah, Suzan
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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