Spotlight On Carl Hiaasen

Mr. Sunshine

Mystery writer on sand, sun, and ''Skinny Dip'' - Carl Hiaasen speaks on how he gets his novel inspiration from living in South Florida

On a blazing June day in the Florida Keys, Carl Hiaasen -- lean, sun-browned, a youthful 51 -- is hanging out at a seafood joint where everybody knows his name. He lives down the road in a big house on Florida Bay, with a lovely family and all the comforts the world offers a consistently best-selling writer of airport-ready comedies. This would seem a recipe for a carefree life in paradise, but Hiaasen got here by drawing on a well of bile, and it is bottomless.

Asked what it is that makes Florida -- the stage set for his burlesques of greed and lust -- so weird, he says, ''Its history is rich with sleaze,'' embarking on a rant ranging from pirates and scalawags to Boca Raton boiler rooms. The Walt Disney Company is a favorite target; in 1998, he published a polemic titled ''Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World,'' finding it therapeutic to write a screed: ''That's what I do most of the time anyway. I'm in a constant state of'' -- pause -- ''you know'' -- pause -- ''emotional distress. I'm sure that's where most of my writing energy comes from.'' As one friend, the humorist Dave Barry, says: ''There's real anger in Carl for whatever reason. It's a good thing he's able to write books and kill bonefish or else he might be an ax murderer. And a good one. And a likable one.''

The books -- Skinny Dip is his 10th novel -- define their own genre: the gonzo-absurdist, mangrove-hugging suspense thriller. The common theme is antipathy for unfailingly craven government and unbelievably odious overdevelopment and environmental plunder. ''Skinny Dip'' finds a quack biologist working to murder both his wife and, for the sake of a real estate scheme, the Everglades, the area dearest to the author's heart.

Hiaasen was born in Fort Lauderdale and grew up on its outskirts just in time to be scarred by their destruction. Of ''Hoot,'' his 2002 children's book, he says: ''The little burrowing owls at the centerpiece of that novel are right out of my childhood. They all got bulldozed.'' His recurring hero Skink -- a governor who fled his mansion to become a swamp-dwelling vigilante -- was inspired by an old friend whose hostility toward real estate developers ended only with his suicide at age 17. Hiaasen's own indignation was bolstered by the locally set detective novels of John D. MacDonald: ''He would get off on these riffs about what was happening to Florida -- the total stampede of greedheads, as Jimmy Buffett would say.... I found out you could do both: You can sell novels and make people turn pages and, at the same time, you can get your licks in.''

Two years after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism, he arrived at The Miami Herald, developing into an award-winning investigative journalist, a guy who knew no greater kick than catching high-powered weasels in their lies. ''The best thing in the world,'' he says. ''You've got him by the nuts and it's wonderful.'' In 1985, he became a metro columnist feisty enough to get himself officially condemned by the Miami city council and sued, unsuccessfully, by the city's mayor.

His career as a novelist started with three thrillers cowritten for easy cash; It emerged as a project in ''meting out justice.'' In 1986, he published ''Tourist Season,'' starring a newspaper columnist so revulsed by the trampling of South Florida that he begins a terrorist campaign involving, for instance, killing the president of the Miami chamber of commerce with a toy alligator. His debut found him fully formed. ''Carl's not someone who's evolved,'' says Hiaasen's agent, Esther Newberg, intending a compliment. ''He's one of those people who hit the ground running.'' Nine novels later, it's as if he's still running for his life: ''I had a friend of mine say to me, `When are you gonna write a serious novel?' I said, `You don't understand. This stuff is deadly serious to me.'''

Originally posted Jul 30, 2004 Published in issue #776 Jul 30, 2004 Order article reprints
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