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Some little known facts about Carl Hiaasen: he's not keen on being interviewed. Despite the fact -- or maybe, because of the fact -- that he's been a newspaperman for closing in on three decades, he seems as excited about interviews as he might be about, say, a root canal or a bowel examination. He is not ungracious -- quite the opposite, in fact -- and at times he warms to his topic or to a particular question enough to unsheathe his almost legendary humor and parade out a few quick quips.
As much as he doesn't like being interviewed however, he loathes having his photo taken. And when he tells us that he really doesn't like having his photo taken it is entirely unnecessary: it's apparent in every angle of his frame and every syllable of his body language while he's in front of the camera. During the photo shoot, standing next to Hiaasen and holding a reflector is almost painful for me: I am so conscious of his self-conscious sighs and his subconscious fidgeting. Before long, I want it to be over almost as badly as he does: his unhappiness is like a live thing.
Miraculously, in the end, the photographs seems effortlessly gorgeous. Hiaasen, fidgeting and uncomfortable in life, looks relaxed and at home in the photographs. His face has strong angles, which helps. And his eyes are a vivid blue that snaps your focus directly on his gaze.
Hiaasen's humor is his trademark: it's a wry humor, certainly, and he seems to stand arms akimbo as he creates his worlds: Worlds where the shenanigans of various South Florida hoods and hoodwinkers are par for the course. "Especially in South Florida whether it's violent crime or good old fashioned corruption, a lot of what we write about is right or wrongdoing."
His most recent novel, Basket Case, is set once again in Hiaasen's native South Florida. This time the protagonist is Jack Tagger, an award-winning journalist who has been demoted to the obituaries desk. His occupation has fostered an unhealthy concern for his own mortality. More to the point: he has a morbid fascination with pondering when he, too, will check out. "When I went to work at this newspaper," Jack tells us, narrating Basket Case, "I was forty years old, the same age as Jack London when he died. I'm now forty-six. Elvis Presley died at forty-six. So did President Kennedy. George Orwell, too."
While doing his job scanning the death notices, Jack notices a familiar name: James Stomarti A.K.A. Jimmy Stoma, the frontman of the 1980s hair band Jimmy and the Slut Puppies, has died in a diving accident in the Bahamas. It'll make a good story for the death page, thinks Jack, and maybe get bumped up to the metro section. Jack does his story and, after it's published, finds that all of the pieces don't add up. The more he investigates, the more he feels that foul play played a part, not only in the musician's death, but on several that followed quickly on its heels.
In a fun multimedia crossover, Jimmy Stoma's biggest hit, "Basket Case" has been recorded by Hiaasen's friend Warren Zevon ("Werewolves of London," "Excitable Boy") and will be included on Zevon's new album, My Ride's Here, scheduled for release in April. In the meantime, the song can be downloaded from Zevon's Web site in MP3 format.
Hiaasen, 48, lives in the Florida Keys with his wife Fenia, his 10-year-old stepson and the couple's two-year-old son. The father of an adult son, Hiaasen is the grandfather of twins. The author's very next project will be a children's book. His most recent non-fiction work, Paradise Screwed, is a collection of his Miami Times columns, a follow-up to 1999's Kick Ass.
Linda Richards: Basket Case was your first time writing in the first person in a novel. Did you find that really different?
Carl Hiaasen: Yeah, I did. At first especially I found it [different]. I'd wanted to do it for some time and I finally got a character that I thought I could stand for that length of a story. Especially if you're writing sort of satirical stuff the way I do -- where it's very convenient to jump from one scene to another and leave one set of characters and go on to another -- when you're locked in one character's head, looking at everything through one character's eyes, then you have to recalibrate the humor a bit and also the plotting. It makes it a little more streamlined, it makes it a little more of a mystery, which I hadn't planned on, but that's how it evolved. I ended up enjoying it, [though] at first it was a little nerve-wracking.
Being stuck in his head?
The adjustment was nerve-wracking, yeah. I eventually got into it and I started liking it the more I was there. And I liked the guy -- I liked Jack -- so it became, at that point, more fun.
Jack is a hard guy not to like.
Yeah. We can all sort of identify with a lot of the frustrations of working in the newspaper business. And even if you're not in the newspaper business, then the frustrations of working for a big faceless company that's controlling your life. So when he does stand up to the boss and insult and humiliate the boss everybody sort of roots for that because we've all fantasized about it at one point or another.
And dealing with mortality at mid-life. That's a wonderful resonance through Basket Case, as well: how he's always understanding ages by who died when they were that old.
The worst possible time to start writing obituaries would be at middle age. I've always felt that: It's one thing when you're a young reporter and they're throwing anything at you, but middle age is a tough time to have to wake up in the morning and know you're going to have to go in and write about folks who died, some of whom are going to be about your age. So it was interesting, for me, having a character grappling with that. Wrestling with those questions that everybody [has], but having to face it every single day: some new dead person. [Laughs]
And there's always another one coming up the pike. [Laughs]
Yeah, there's no shortage of them. But that was one of the fun things, although I'm amazed that with Jack's fixation with the age at which famous people have died, he's completely wrong about one guy. And I used the one guy I thought I would hear about. But he says: Elvis was 46 when he died, just like me. Well, Elvis was 42 when he died. And I'm thinking: with all of those Elvis fans out there, I'll be hearing from them. And then I realize that the reason I haven't heard from any Elvis fans is because they don't think he's dead. [Laughs] That's the problem, right?
Was that intentional? The wrong date?
Not at first. But by the time I found it I was so far along I thought: It would be just like [Jack] -- and in fact there was an almanac that I'd looked at that has listed Elvis' age when he died at 46 -- and I thought: well, Jack probably could have looked at this same almanac. But it was interesting to see that the only person who pointed it out to me on the entire book tour -- and you think: Elvis fans, they're pretty serious -- was someone whose sister was 42 at the same time Elvis died and so she remembered. And that's the whole syndrome that I'm sort of writing about with Jack. Because if you're the same age you remember: when you look at that obituary you say: Oh my God, that person is as old as I am. Then you remember it. Otherwise you don't and it sort of proves the point of his own obsessions and fixations that we're so egocentric in the way we look at the life and death.
When someone else dies you immediately think of yourself.
Not only that, you always want to say: OK, what did he do wrong? He must have done something to have this happen to him. You're praying it's not some ghastly disease that just plucked him out of nowhere. You're hoping he would have some role in his own demise and then you can breathe easy: I'm not going to go hang gliding, that's for sure.
It's just like when I put the music stuff in a novel: it says a whole lot about a character if you say what kind of music he or she is listening to. It speaks volumes about: O.K., he's a Stones fan. Or she's a Mariah Carey fan. Right away it's a detail that's important to that person's personality. And so is age, for that matter. Certainly when you hit Jack's age and you're working for a much younger editor, or if you're working for a factory and your foreman is much younger than you are it's the same sort of dynamic that you have to get across, so it becomes important. And not just some sort of detail that you're tossing in.
Do you always know whodunit? Are you a heavy plotter?
No. I mean, certainly in this novel, I knew who had done it. I didn't have all the wrinkles sensed out, but most of the time I don't. None of my novels, I don't think, are really whodunits. By page 90, everybody knows whodunit. The trick and the fun is trying to figure out how are they going to get out of it? Are they going to get out of it? What's going to happen to these people? At that point you want [the reader] to care so much about and be so interested in the characters -- the good guys and the bad guys -- that they're going to keep turning the pages. Because I've never thought of myself as a mystery writer or a thriller writer and yet that's where the books often end up in the bookstore. I mean, I don't argue about it, but that isn't what I set out to do.
The idea of using suspense or a suspense novel as a framework for satire is just useful to me and it's natural to me from doing newspaper work. From writing about crime it's perfectly natural because that's what much of what we do is. Especially in South Florida whether it's violent crime or good old fashioned corruption, a lot of what we write about is right or wrongdoing.
So I love this -- the title when I see it: crime fiction. And my response is always the same: most great novels are about some kind of crime, whether it's a crime of the heart or passion [or whatever], they all have to do with crime. You know, wrong or injustice being done or they wouldn't be there: there wouldn't have been a reason for them to have been written. So "crime fiction" is a bit of a redundancy to me. But it's just a little category that booksellers have come up with and you have to live with it.
There are certainly elements of suspense in your books, but -- in Basket Case -- there are also elements of suspense in Jack and Emma's romance and...
... and for a while I don't think you really even know if [Jimmy Stoma] was a murder or not. And that's the way life unfolds. That's the way newspaper stories unfold. You seldom know everything the first day something happens. Although you develop sort of an instinct about things after enough time. You know that if somebody was stabbed 87 times it was most likely somebody who knew them. That isn't a random stabbing. Ninety times out of 100 they knew who killed them. There's things that you learn, like anything else.
Every novel is different, but the fun of it is having characters that surprise you, turning them loose in one direction and seeing where they're going to lead you. I don't think I could stand to have a novel that was too carefully plotted where you can't change the pace or change the direction if the character wants to go somewhere else and he's being interesting while he's doing it. It's sort of cheating your readers out of possibilities. I don't think anyone's life is scripted that carefully. I don't know any mystery or crime that has ever unfolded the exact way it was planned. That includes September 11. What happened on that last jet: that wasn't part of the plan and that's what makes a novel -- that's what makes great literature -- is those moments when something goes awry and people do something extraordinary that's not anticipated.
Your novels have a spontaneous feel, but that's true also of your non-fiction: the columns you write for the Miami Herald. You feel like you're riffing and it sounds like you're having an awful lot of fun.
Some days it is fun. Some days the subject matter is pretty heavy and obviously the political misbehavior that we have is sort of a never ending source of amusement. Ridicule is the only way to treat those kinds of crooks that somehow end up in public office. Ridicule and scorn is all they deserve. The columnist has the cat bird's job at the newspaper because he can just cherry pick the best stories and just take off on them. You have the luxury and also the duty of writing what everyone else is thinking but that can't be in the news story because it's not objective. You're getting paid for your opinion. All most good columnists have to do is connect the dots.
That's what's going on with Enron right now. You put all the facts you want in the paper about what led to the company's downfall but all you have to do is look at what they were and who they met with and how much say they had in the regulatory process of the energy policy in [the United States] and the things they were lobbying and the reasons they gave all that money to politicians and you can connect the dots. You start to see a much different picture and that's the great fun of my job: to be able to stand back from it. It's like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes. Especially in a town like Miami where there's just no end to bad behavior of people who'll supposedly hold the public trust. It's just a fountain of weirdness in many other ways and all of it is there for the taking. And, certainly, it infuses the novels: it has to, that sort of chaos. If you're going to represent a place in fiction it should be pretty accurate and true to the mayhem we have down there.
These days when you meet someone at -- say -- a cocktail party and they don't know who you are, do you identify yourself as being a journalist or a novelist?
I tend to introduce myself as columnist with the Herald. I still do that. I don't know, it's still my main day job. That's what I've done the longest, so I guess that's what I do.
Do you still go into the office and all of that?
No. Not if I can help it. I've been working at home for several years. I live about two hours away from the paper down in the Keys. It's very hard to leave that and drive up and sit in traffic on the interstate in Miami which I did for many, many years. I did enough of it that I don't need to do it anymore. I have the flavor of that.
Your novels have been wildly successful. They have to have been more successful than you ever anticipated.
Absolutely. I'm more shocked than anybody because when I started I thought: Nobody outside of South Florida is going to get this. Or care about it. And the stakes are so low when you start -- you've got nothing to lose -- so you just cut loose and have fun.
[The novels] have been published in 22 different languages now. That boggles my mind. I have no idea how or if the humor translates because these are very sort of American novels. It's rewarding but it's shocking, certainly. I mean, I never anticipated that. But at least in terms of the novels some of the characters are just this side of the law who are nonetheless good and have a strong moral center [and] seem to be loved no matter where the books are.
I think part of that is in the environmental matters. You don't have to live in Florida to know what it's like to see a place that you really cared about as kid paved over or demolished or the meadow that you played in is now a Wal-Mart shopping center or the creek that you remember fishing in when you were a kid is now polluted. Everybody gets that same feeling in the gut when they discover something like that. It's not liberal, conservative, democratic, republican or whatever, it's just the natural human reaction: one of anger and one of outrage about that.
At the book signings people always want to talk about those things, which is rewarding because it tells me that they're not just buying the books to laugh. What's making them laugh is that they get it: they understand the point that's being made. And that's really what keeps you going: the idea that not only are they entertaining. The books are supposed to be entertaining, but that's your job if you write novels: to entertain people. But if you can get the message across and people actually dig it, you know, it's a bonus. It's been a very eye-opening experience and certainly one I never anticipated. But it gives you a lot of hope because you feel like you're not a voice in the wilderness screaming and yelling and stomping your feet. Other people feel the same thing.
Was the music part of the book fun for you?
Oh yeah. It's a blast. I mean, I love rock music, so it's always very, very fun to revisit the big hair band of the 80s and do all that stuff. That's just one of the selfish little perks of what I do: you throw in that kind of stuff and have fun with phony lyrics.
I know that Warren Zevon is including a cut of "Basket Case" on his next album and that the song can be downloaded from his Web site. Have you worked with him before?
Yes. He's a friend of mine. He asked me to help on some lyrics that he did for an album a few years ago. And, of course, I had all of his records long before I met him. So I said: Sure, that would be great fun.
It was at the same time the movie Strip Tease [based on Hiaasen's novel of the same name] was being made, so it was a wonderful distraction. We did a couple of songs together -- lyrics, only -- and then Warren would do the music.
I went to him this time after the book was done just on some sort of misguided whim that it would be fun. The song "Basket Case" only had a few lines that were quoted in the novel. But somebody said: Wouldn't it be great if you had the whole song? What would the whole song sound like? So I started thinking about it. And I very gently approached the subject with Warren. He thought about it and, I guess just out of friendship, he said: I've never written a cover song for a novel before but...
So then he came up with this great guitar stuff and we did lyrics together, but he did all the music. He got Anton Fig, who is the drummer from Dave Letterman's band. He's a New Zealand guy, a great drummer. He said: Big 80s drums? I'm your man. And next thing I know there's a song. Most books you write them and then you're on to the next one. Now I've got something that five years from now I can pop into the CD player and say: Jimmy and the Slut Puppies! There we go. And "Basket Case," I told Warren: This could be autobiographical for either one of us. [Laughs]
The whole thing is one for the philosophers: Art imitates life imitates art imitates life...
Right. It's so bizarre, isn't it? But it's fun. Like I said, what other kind of job can you get to do that kind of stuff? So I've been pretty lucky?
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the editing and actually finishing -- believe it or not -- a novel for kids. They asked me to do a novel for kids, which I agreed to do because I'd never done it, just like I'd never written a novel in the first person. And also because I wanted a book I could give to my nieces and my nephew and my stepson -- who are all 10 to 14, in that age bracket -- and I'm still a little nervous about some of the language [in my novels]. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate. It's the way people talk -- the way grown-ups talk -- but it doesn't mean I have to beat them over the head with it at that age. Although they're all dying to read these novels, now I've got something I can give them instead and say: This one's OK. So that's why I thought I'd give it a shot. I've enjoyed it tremendously. It's very, very different.
I can't get into it because I'm not done yet, but the storyline is not unfamiliar to me. The trick about writing kids' novels is in not writing down to them. As Rowling proved with Harry Potter: that's how you connect with kids. You write as if they were grown-ups because most of the ones you meet are going to be hip to it if you try to do anything else. That's been interesting. So we'll see. I don't know how it's going to turn out.
Is it set in South Florida?
It's set in South Florida. It's about a kid who moves there from Montana and is not sure he likes South Florida and he meets a runaway: a kid who just lives out on his own and they form an unlikely alliance. But I had a blast doing it. Like I said, I've got a bit more editing and work to do but that's what I'm finishing up now. I have no clue what I'm going to write for the next grown-up novel. I couldn't begin to know. | January 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine Her fourth novel,and the author of Death was the Other Woman.