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Web Extra: Extended interview with Carl Hiaasen

Best-selling author will visit Danville's Rakestraw Books on August 13 to discuss his newest, Star Island

Some days at Diablo, I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do. For instance, tonight I’m going to take pictures from the photo pit at Aerosmith’s tour opener. And yesterday, I spoke with Steve Berlin, from the band Los Lobos, whose terrific new album will be the centerpiece of a Diablo party at Walnut Creek’s 555 YVR on August 4. But even those can’t beat the cake topper interview I had recently with Carl Hiaasen, a novelist and journalist whose work I admire so much, it made me want to be a writer.

For the uninformed, Hiaasen is a longtime reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald—some of his best columns have been compiled in the outstanding anthologies Kick-Ass and Paradise Screwed. But Hiaasen is best known for his razor-sharp satirical novels, from 1987’s Tourist Season through the soon-to-be released Star Island. Hiaasen’s books, always set in his native Florida, are a fictional hybrid of the Sunshine State’s actual madcap hybrid of scenic beauty, civic corruption, and violent crime. The secret ingredient of Hiaasen’s pageturners is his humor—as dark and twisted, nihilistic and corrupt as his characters and storylines may be—they are also very, very funny.

Although he’s written nearly a dozen crime novels that would receive an R-rating if they were movies (as Striptease, which Hollywood adapted, did), younger readers can appreciate Hiaasen’s humorous tales as well—the author has written three acclaimed novels (Hoot, Flush, and Scat) for junior high school aged readers. These books share the madcap humor and environmental themes of adult fare such as Double Whammy and Stormy Weather.

Carl Hiaasen will visit Danville on August 13, for an appearance at Rakestraw Books. I’ll have the great thrill of interviewing Hiaasen in this Best of the East Bay-winning indie bookstore beginning at 7 p.m. Ticket sales ($35 per adult, $40 per couple) will include a signed copy of his terrific new thriller, Star Island. Additional proceeds from ticket sales will go to the East Bay-based teen environmental program Earth Team.

I chatted with Hiaasen recently, and we covered a lot of ground. Hope you enjoy the interview:

Let’s begin with a story in the news right now. This BP oil spill is one of those heinous, multi-tiered disasters that seems like it could come out of one of your books. I read your column saying that BP’s official explanation was “oops.” How have you been covering this story and how has it affected where you live?
I live on the East Coast of Florida and it has not wormed its way though the loop current yet, but I lived in the Keys for many years and it’s a great concern down there because the current does come through the upper gulf and pass through the straits of Florida.

It’s hard to write about anything else if your heart is in a coastal community…when you see this, knowing it could happen anywhere. It’s the ultimate worst-case scenario, it’s as catastrophic as a hurricane, except that it’s a man-made disaster.

We have been lulled into this sense of complacency—this culture in Washington has let the oil industry police itself. Everyone just believed what the oil industry had to say about this kind of drilling operation. Even as you as I are talking, thousands of gallons of oil—pure toxins are just gushing into the ocean—and everyone seems completely helpless to stop it. It’s almost impossible to get your head around it.

Who do you think are the most interesting characters in this ordeal?
It’s hard not to put (BP CEO) Tony Hayward on the top of the list. Yesterday, he came out saying there’s no underwater plumes, despite three independent university studies, which have said that there are. He reminds me of the pet shop owner in that Monty Python sketch who tries to convince the customer that his dead parrot is actually just napping.

You wish you could put some faces on the perpetrators. It wasn’t just BP, the rig was owned by TransOcean, leased by BP, Halliburton was involved in the cementing process. I don’t know if we’ll ever really know.

Coming from the point of view of someone who writes satire, there is an element of black humor to all of it, but it’s so tragic that it’s hard to laugh about it.

Florida news stories often have that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction element. How much of your fiction work comes from your imagination, and how often are these cover versions of actual events?

Very few come straight out of news stories, but having a lifetime in journalism in a place as crooked as Florida, I get to a point where I see a headline and I start to know, or I can predict, how the story is going to unfold. The trick is that you always get surprised, because there is so much weirdness in Florida that is starts to transcend anything you could cook up as a novelist.

My book Sick Puppy has a composite of a truly awful lobbyist…a hired gun, a truly amoral person. This is about the worst human being I’ve ever put in one of my books. Then Jack Abramoff comes along and makes my guy look like the Dalai Lama.

The job of writing satire is to take a premise that is not so outlandish and crank it up a step or two for humor. But the real headlines are so much weirder and uglier and sicker than anything you could make up.

 In a perfect world, Sarah Palin would be a novelist’s invention. But she is in fact the creation of a political process that is vapid and completely shallow and opportunistic it will find a personality to elevate and make a celebrity and or candidate out of it—in this case, both. You could not really sit down and invent a more unlikely figure to become a national political figure—a former sportscaster from Alaska who shoots wolves from a helicopter. If I tried to put her in a novel, I suspect even my editor would say, ‘Ok, you might want to rethink this one—no one is going to buy it.’

In California, you all just had a primary election ... The idea to spend $72 million of your own money to become governor of California, it’s quite extraordinary. If Mark Twain or Will Rogers were alive today, what would they say about something like that?

I have a Sarah Palin and a Mark Twain question for you, but we'll get to those later. First, it seems like South Carolina is the new Florida, as far the new epicenter of weirdness and corruption. Have you thought about moving to Charleston?
No, but it has been very discouraging for those of us in this business to rely on Florida to lead the way as the most corrupt place in America. Now, clearly South Carolina has taken the lead.

California can relate to this as well. I saw an AP story last year, they polled editors about the weirdest place in America based on the flow of news. Florida was first and California was second. But South Carolina is going to vault to the top.

I can’t leave Florida, it is still too good—but we have some catching up to do.

Let’s talk about your books and some of the characters who keep popping up in them. I'm delighted to hear that in Star Island, you’re bringing back Chemo, the disfigured killer with a weed wacker attached to his stump of an arm from Skin Tight.

Chemo is back! I’ll tell you why I brought him back. I had gotten a very nice note from Elmore Leonard saying, “I’m so glad you did not kill off Chemo!”

At the end of Skin Tight I had him get a 17-year sentence at a Florida state prison. So I did the math and he was just getting out now. I missed him!

I was setting this book in South Beach, which is not my favorite locale personally, but rich and ripe for a novelist. So I thought if I’m going to set a book in South Beach, I want Chemo on one side of me and (former Florida governor and homeless recluse) Skink on the other.

Skink has been in more books by far than any other. Thinking about him hopping from book to book makes me wonder about how these characters live in your imagination, even when you are not writing a novel.
With Chemo, I had always wanted to bring him back and he had last been seen on South Beach, so that’s where we find him now. In Star Island, you’ll find out that after he gets out of prison he was briefly in the mortgage business selling sub-prime loans.

My son who is a reporter at the Herald, wrote a big piece about this. For awhile anyone could sell mortgages in Florida, they had thousands of convicted felons and a couple of murderers doing very well in the mortgage business. So I thought, this is exactly the job Chemo would go into, because he’s persuasive enough.

Sometimes you kind of file characters away and you think, it would be nice if the recurred again. With Skink, he has appeared more often than any other character. Part of this is that wherever I go, readers seem to love him. At times I think he’s getting even crankier than normal and maybe he should take a rest, but I’ll be working on a storyline and he often seems to fit. I’ve always had a fantasy about turning him loose on South Beach, so this was fun.

So here’s the Palin question. Since Skink is a former half-term governor of Florida who left mid-term to live in the wild…what would happen if he met another half-term governor named Sarah Palin somewhere in the Everglades?

(Laughs) That’s one I had not thought of! He would make her heart beat faster, there’s not telling what he would do. I’m just trying to put myself in that position stumbling across Sarah Palin in the Everglades. Who knows, they could win each others heart.

Wildly psychotic villains are a signature touch in each of your novels. My favorite is probably Darrell Grant, the drug-addicted, deadbeat ex-husband from Striptease.

There’s another one that I did poach a little bit from real life. I wanted to give Erin the worst possible ex-husband. It would be easy to make him a drunk or drug addict, but I wanted him to be engaged in an occupation that would be beneath anything you could imagine.

I clipped a story out of the Herald, about a guy who stole wheelchairs for a living. He would stake out nursing homes and hospitals and steal top of the line wheelchairs, and he would throw them in his minivan and he would take them home and strip them for parts. It was a four-inch story in the paper, but I thought, I’ve got to use this somehow. So I invented Darrell as a wheelchair thief, because this is when you know you’ve got a bad ex-husband, when he’s stealing wheelchairs from old ladies.

Of course, after the book came out people said, “That’s sick! No one would ever do that!” I had to pull out the clip and say, ‘Not only would they do it, but they have done it.”

The author Roddy Doyle recently told me that he writes his adult novels with himself in mind as the catch-all reader, but his childrens books are written for a very specific child at a very specific age. How do you approach your writing for young readers vs. adult fiction?
I know exactly what he is talking about.

The first step when I did Hoot. I sort of stepped back and tried to look at things the way I did when I was a kid. My wife would tell you that was not a big reach for me, to slip back into adolescence. That book was a page from my own childhood, that book was based on some things that really happened when I was a kid.

When I wrote Hoot, my stepson was 11 and my nieces and nephew were 11 or 12, and I did have them in mind. Because they had wanted to read one of my books but I could not give them Double Whammy or Striptease—I just couldn’t do it.

So I thought, if I can keep the same smart-ass attitude and the same themes and at the same time make kids laugh, maybe I can pull it off.

Now I have a 10-year-old son, and I’m shooting for that frame of mind, I suppose. The best way of looking at the world is through a 10-year-old’s eyes.

Your appearance at Rakestraw Books on August 13 will benefit Earth Team, a network of junior high and high school aged students who do Bay cleanups and start recycling programs at school. What kind of response have you received from younger readers about the environmental themes in Hoot, Flush, and Scat?
It has been phenomenal. Overwhelming. I get so many letters, I am not exaggerating to say I’ve received a couple of thousand of letters from kids. The love that they have for nature and for wild things and for taking care of the part of the world that has not been trampled is profound. They are articulate and funny and sharp kids.

If you spend a lifetime of journalism, you don’t wake up in the morning expecting to get a real positive response from what you write, or for it to have that great an impact. You know along the way that some good has been done, or that somebody’s situation has been improved or illuminated by something you have written in the newspaper. To get this kind of response has been something very new for me. I get a lot of response about my column, but it is not of this nature—kids write with a certain passion, they are witty and they don’t mind telling you if they don’t like something about the book. It has been such a pleasant surprise for me.

Being as cynical as I am, I am so thrilled to see my 10-year-old son pick up any book. He reads all the time. These days, authors are competing with Wii, xBox, and 200 stations on televisions. But you still have lots of kids who would rather pick up a book in their spare time—it is encouraging for the future of the planet.

I tell kids “my generation screwed things up completely, you all have a chance to do it better.” That’s the way I feel. You see the BP spill and this catastrophe in the Gulf, and you think this was the great enlightened baby boom generation who put this deal together.

I give the kids books to my mom for Mother’s Day presents—she likes that your characters and stories are all in there without the vulgarity that is in your books for adults.
I have tried to shield my own my mom who is 82. I always have to warn her about the adult books when I send her an advance copy. She was raised in a strict, prim Catholic household. I’m in absolute mortal fear when I send her the newest book. This new book, Star Island, is pretty raw in parts, and I told my mom, “My feelings will not be hurt if you don’t read it, because the language is pretty raw. But that’s how these people talk.” She just laughs at me and says, “Just send me the book.” We’ll see how that goes with Star Island. I could be in time out again.

I remember plowing through Powder Burn, Trap Line, and a Death in China, the three novels you co-authored with journalist Bill Montalbano before Tourist Season. What was that collaboration like—how did you write together?
Bill was such a gifted writer and editor at the Herald who was there when I went to work there at 23. By ‘77 and ‘78 the cocaine wars had broken out in Miami. I was writing about it and Bill was editing me, and he said, “We ought to write a book about this just for fun. Rosie, my wife, really wants a swimming pool, do you think we could write a book and sell it for enough money for a pool?”

So we made an outline and we would each write chapters on typewriters. Then we would edit and scratch and scribble with a pencil. Even though our styles are very different, we came up with this homogenized voice to the point where our wives at the time could not tell who had written what. By nature, this made the stories to be more procedural detective stories. We were able to sell Powder Burn and Bill got the money for his swimming pool.

I just watched the Disney film Rascal, having remembered a passage you wrote about that movie in Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World. That book and your golf book, The Downhill Lie, bridged the gap for fans waiting for your next novel. Why did you decide to work on these more personal pieces?

It was a reach for me. I very seldom write in the first person. Even in my columns I very seldom write in the first person. To get to do those kind of essays and rants, it was unusual. There are all kinds of different muscles that you use in writing and its nice to keep them all limber.

The golf book came about by accident—I had not intention of writing anything about it. Golf, lets face it is golf. But it became more about my dad, who died so young. The few times we had spent together, a lot of them were on the golf course. It became a more personal book than I ever expected it to be.

They were breaks I was taking between other novels. I just finished the writing on Star Island in December, and I started another book for kids. I’m looking at my own son and thinking he might be interested in my stuff much longer. I have three grandkids as well, and I want them to be able to read them.

This is going to sound self-absorbed, the adult novels are more therapeutic for me. It’s a way to work through my demons, because there really are no rules. Real life keeps getting so much stranger, its more challenging to stay one step ahead of that one coil of weirdness beyond reality.

One of my favorite movies is the media satire, Network. I watched that film in college in the early 1990s, and went home from class and saw on TV that Geraldo Rivera had been hit in the nose by a neo-Nazi on his TV show during sweeps week. I remember thinking, “wow, Network came true.” I asked Faye Dunaway at a film festival if Paddy Chayevsky’s script felt immediately prescient as they were making it (in 1976), or if the eventual rise of Fox News and other ratings-driven propaganda came as surprise.

Network is Glenn Beck. You hit it right on the head. Again, the question as a satirist is, how do you stay ahead of it? I write stuff and think, “Wow, I’ve done it now, people are going to hate this and say that’s not possible.”

In Star Island, there is a pop star who can’t sing a lick and has lip-synched her way to the top 40, but is falling apart at the seams. So her record company has to hires a look-a-like to go out in public and pretend to be the pop star, when the pop star isn’t ambulatory. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all.

In Basket Case, your protagonist was very critical about the death of local, independent newspaper coverage. That book is a few years old now, what is the state of newspapers now?
We’re so much worse. My oldest son is an investigative reporter at the Herald, and I feel guilty for leading him into the business. People in small towns need to get info about their city councils and school boards, and the only way that happens is with reporters. If you lose local news coverage, the whole democratic process becomes endangered because without the right information it’s very hard to make a good decision as a voter and as a citizen.

The very idea that we are getting our news from blogs on the Internet is terrifying. There are some terrific blogs, but anybody can start one. I guarantee you if Ted Bundy were alive today he would have his own blog. They bring with them no have no automatic credibility at all. You need credible reporters with notebooks and tape recorders gathering information.

When I was in my 20s, I was working at the Grand Canyon National Park, and reading voraciously. Specifically, your books, as well as Elmore Leonard’s and Charles Willeford’s. Reading those books made me want to write. who are your favorite favorite writers—and what is on your summer reading list?

I hope this isn’t a cop-out, but when I’m working on a novel, even a kids’ novel,I don’t read a lot of fiction. I just don’t, out of instinct. Maybe I’m worried it will infect my own style some way, or even worse, make me feel inferior.

The danger of picking up a really great novel while you’re writing is that you’ll say, “I’m in the wrong business—I could never do what this author is doing.”

I read an old F. Scott Fitzgerald book—This Side of Paradise—that was the last piece of fiction I’ve read when I had some down time. Another one I loved was Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. It’s one of the funniest books I have ever read. Just world-class funny. His new book, (Super Sad True Love Story), that’s on my list to read when I’m not writing.

You’ve dropped a couple of Tom Petty references into your books, as well as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and you co-wrote the song “Basket Case” with the late, great Warren Zevon. I’m curious about your musical influences and how many of them you have been able to meet.
Roger showed up at a book signing because I named the dog after him in Sick Puppy. I hooked him up with Dave Barry and his Rock Bottom Remainders—this motley group of authors who have guitars and play in a band together. So Roger has been playing with the Rock Bottom Remainders—he’s a first class ringer.

I've found that musicians have a lot of time to read because they travel so much. David Crosby and Jerry Garcia, I knew a little bit. It is quite a trip when these guys who you have idolized as musicians since you were a kid are reading your novels.

One of the high points of my life, a few years ago I got a call that the Rolling Stones were coming to South Florida. I got a call saying Woody and Keith would like to meet you because the read your books. So I took my family to the Stones concert, and I went back stage to this dark room where they play snooker before every show. I met them and they had read the books, and they brought Mick out to meet me as well. It was a blast.

You don’t sit there writing a book thinking Keith Richard is sitting in a hotel room reading this. You just don't do it.

What’s on your record player this summer?

I’m listening to the remix of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street. And some Jack Johnson and John Hiatt and Byrds and Beatles and Creedence. I love that stuff.

I got a huge speeding ticket while “Fortunate Son” was on the radio, that song always made me want to jam my foot down on the gas pedal. So now, whenever it comes on, I always slow down to 40 miles an hour and look in the rear view mirror, expecting to see flashing blue lights.

Booklist’s review of Paradise Screwed compared you to Mark Twain as a cultural satirist—author Tony Hillerman and book reviewers in the New York Times have made the same comparison. Twain has an autobiography coming out this fall, which he insisted had to be published 100 years after his death. If you can try to project 100 years into the future, what do you imagine people will think of your body of work?

I’ll be very interested to see what Twain wrote that he wanted kept under wraps for a century, unless it was about a messy divorce or something. I have nothing written so far that I hope to see out 100 years from now. I would be thrilled if people were reading anything in 100 years. There is something about the newspaper business that teaches you some humility—you are so used to having something you wrote today winding up in someone’s birdcage tomorrow.

There is a little sense of permanency to the novels, but I can’t project out that far. You hope that the books hold up over time, that people will still understand what Tourist Season was all about.

In a perfect world, all of the things I have been writing about will have been laid to rest…the human race will be a harmonious heap of writhing arms and limbs and all animosity will be put aside and there will be no more corruption and no more greed. But that’s not going to happen, because you would need a perfect world.

Carl Hiaasen will be at Rakestraw Books (522 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 837-7337) on August 13 at 7 p.m. Tickets must be purchased in advance, $35 per adult, $40 per couple, each ticket includes a copy of Star Island. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit Earth Team.