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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Carl Hiaasen

At a glance
by Carl Hiaasen

272 pages, $16.95

When you say the words Carl Hiaasen, a few things come to mind.

The first is the group of novels that the 52-year-old Florida-based writer has penned since 1981. Perhaps most notable among his 16 books is the 1993 best-seller "Strip Tease," which became a 1996 movie memorable for featuring a topless Demi Moore.

The second is a concern for the cheesy politics and environmental struggles that make his home state such a rich source of material. Blend those with a bit of public corruption, and you feed not only novelists but also investigative journalists, which is another hat that Hiaasen wears. A Miami Herald staff writer since 1976, Hiaasen now writes a weekly column.

The third, and maybe most important, that thing that the name Hiaasen brings up is voice. In all his novels, Hiaasen has told stories that usually end up being compared (mostly favorably) to the works of Florida mystery writers such as Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, James W. Hall - and even Hiaasen's Miami Herald colleague Dave Barry.

Hiaasen, though, sees himself as something more. His work, he says, is meant to be taken as satire. And since his books, including his most recent work - a young-adult novel titled "Flush" (Knopf, 272 pages, $16.95) - utilize plots involving shady politicians, greedy developers, clueless tourists and irate Sunshine State residents, there's plenty about Florida life to satirize.

Hiaasen was in Seattle recently to promote "Flush," which involves a couple of teenagers trying to prove that the owner of a floating casino is flushing the boat's toilet wastes into public waters. Even though busy, Hiaasen agreed to answer a number of e-mailed questions.

Those questions covered a range of issues, from Hiaasen's YA novels to the recent firing by the Miami Herald of former Spokesman-Review reporter Jim DeFede. (DeFede was fired after admitting that he had taped a conversation with a disturbed man who then shot himself to death in the Herald's lobby. DeFede's transgression: He hadn't told the man that he was being recorded.)

Dan Webster: After all those years as a successful mystery writer, what caused you to turn to children's literature?

Carl Hiaasen: An editor asked if I'd ever thought of writing a kids' book, and of course I figured she was joking. But the more I thought about it, the more fun I thought it might be to write a book that I could actually give to the kids in my family without fear of - dare I say - corrupting them?

DW: What are the important differences between adult suspense and YA fiction? What, in other words, do you have to be careful of when writing YA books that you don't when writing mysteries?

CH: I don't consider my adult books to be mysteries as much as satire, and it's the same attitude I take when writing the YA books. I've spent a lifetime in journalism writing about boneheaded grownups, so I consider myself an authority on the subject. The YA books are about kids who are smarter and sharper than the most of the adults around them, which is often true in real life. Obviously the language in the YA novels isn't going to be as salty, and there won't be many "adult situations," but otherwise I don't have to restrain my style too much.

DW: I noticed that your protagonist in "Flush," Noah, never resorts to violence, even when provoked. And even Paine (the boy's father) is more apt to hit a door than a person. What point were you trying to make by this?

CH: All I try to do is create characters with whom the readers can connect - characters with flaws as well as good qualities. I'm very fond of Noah and I like Paine, too, and I never imagined them as violent types.

DW: Abbey (Noah's sister), on the other hand, is far less inhibited about using her teeth as a weapon. What do you keep in mind when you work with gender stereotypes?

CH: I try to avoid gender stereotypes, but the fact is that girls and boys tend to react differently in certain situations, as do men and women. Still, I like to be surprised by my characters in the novels, and Abbey is full of surprises. I had great fun writing about her.

DW: The ending feels as if you're working toward a sequel, what with Noah's grandfather promising a return. Is this intentional?

CH: After "Hoot" (his first YA novel) came out (in 2002), I got tons of letters from kids wanting me to write a sequel. I've never done that with any of my adult fiction - though I've got a few of the same characters who show up now and again - and I'm not sure if I want to try it with the YA books. I really do enjoy starting each novel with a fresh cast. Right now I've got no plans to do sequels of either "Hoot" or "Flush," but you never know. As I said, I became very fond of the characters in both books.

DW: More generally, how did journalism help, or hinder, your initial efforts to write fiction?

CH: The skills you learn as a reporter - the eye for details and the ear for dialogue - are very valuable when writing novels. More importantly, the discipline for working that a newsroom imposes helps enormously when it comes time to sit down and tackle a book.

DW: What is there about Florida that makes it such a rich source of mystery fiction?

CH: It's a cornucopia of sleaze and weirdness - a writer's paradise, though not necessarily an ideal place to raise your kids.

DW: There always seems to be some sort of environmental message in your work? Why is this?

CH: I don't do messages. Like most satirists, I write about the outrageousness of reality. And the reality is, the most beautiful and unique parts of Florida are being wrecked at an appalling pace because of blind drooling greed. It's the engine of government and of all politics here in Florida, and you can't possibly write about the place without dealing with it.

DW: How hard do you work to balance humor with the serious points that you're trying to make? Give me an example.

CH: That's the whole trick of satire - how to be funny about a serious subject. I struggle with every novel the same way I struggle with the newspaper column. Some days it's very hard, and some days it's purely impossible. There aren't many laughs in Iraq, or the Sudan.

DW: On another note, your former colleague Jim DeFede once worked here at The Spokesman-Review. Many of our readers still remember him, as do a number of reporters. In fact, I signed the same online petition that you did protesting his firing. What is your feeling about what Jim did and about the harshness of the penalty he's had to pay?

CH: I think the Herald's decision to fire Jim without a thorough hearing was a huge mistake that had the stink of corporate panic. As usual, the readers are the ones getting screwed. He wrote a tough and very popular column, and the paper is much less interesting without it.

Jim's the first one to say he should have been suspended for taping a phone conversation without the other party's consent - but the newspaper brass wouldn't have even have known had Jim not told them himself. So his reward for admitting his mistake was getting canned. That's a fine message being sent to all young journalists out there - if you mess up, cover up. Just brilliant.

DW: Is what happened to DeFede merely an isolated event, or is there a larger issue involving corporate ownership of newspapers at stake?

CH: Corporate ownership in its present form is the worst thing that ever happened to local journalism in this country. Big newspaper companies care first and foremost about their shareholders, then their advertisers. Readers come in dead last. That's why there's less and less actual news being printed in most newspapers. It costs money to cover a community thoroughly and diligently, and that's the first place these corporations start cutting. It's disgraceful, but it's happening all over the place, at newspapers big and small.

Carl Hiaasen bibliography
Skinny Dip 2004 (Knopf)
HOOT 2002 (Knopf)
Basket Case 2002 (Knopf)
Paradise Screwed: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen 2001 (Putnam Publishing Group)
Sick Puppy 2000 (Knopf)
A Carl Hiaasen Collection (Includes audiobook versions of Tourist Season, Stormy Weather, and Strip Tease) 2000 (Warner Books)
Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen 1999 (Berkley Publishing Group)
Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World 1998 (Library of Contemporary Thought/Random House)
Lucky You 1997 (Knopf)
Stormy Weather 1995 (Knopf)
Strip Tease 1993 (Knopf)
Native Tongue 1991 (Knopf)
Skin Tight 1989 (Putnam)
Double Whammy 1987 (Putnam) Tourist Season
1986 (Putnam)
A Death in China (with Bill Montalbano) 1984 (Vintage/Black Lizard)
Trap Line (with Bill Montalbano) 1982 (Vintage/Black Lizard)
Powder Burn (with Bill Montalbano 1981 (Vintage/Black Lizard)

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