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Wacky Florida is unending inspiration for bestselling writer Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen

“The great thing is there's enough depravity to go around," Carl Hiaasen says about his native state as a literary inspiration. • Hiaasen, 58, is a longtime Miami Herald columnist and the bestselling author of a dozen novels, three children's books and four nonfiction books. On Wednesday, the Florida native is scheduled to receive the Florida Humanities Council's second Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.

The Times talked with him recently about why he finds Florida such a rich subject for his fiction and his journalism.

What Florida writers made you want to be a writer yourself?

As for novels, the one guy we all owe our careers to is John D. MacDonald. (The prolific thriller writer set many of his books, including his bestselling Travis McGee series, in Florida.) Especially given my background, as a kid it was just terrific to read those books set in Fort Lauderdale. I knew the street signs, I knew everything.

On a larger stage, he was a master of this very droll and sometimes cutting commentary about what was going on here. This was the '60s, before anyone had ever heard of environmentalism. But he was able to write about the destruction of a beautiful place that he loved by greed, and do it in the context of a page-turning story. The writer's first and only duty is: Don't be boring.

And he was able to reach a huge audience, have tremendous commercial success . . . without proselytizing, but he could always get his licks in.

Did you ever meet MacDonald?

I saw him one time at a Jimmy Buffett concert. I recognized him, but I was too chicken to introduce myself.

Then when I wrote Tourist Season (his first novel) my editor sent him a galley — without telling me, because they knew I'd say, "Man, don't bother John D. MacDonald!"

He wrote a very nice blurb, and he wrote me a very nice note. It was just shortly after that that he got sick and passed away (in 1986). That note meant so much to a young writer with a first book.

Any other Florida writers you were influenced by?

When they called me about the lifetime achievement award, the first words out of my mouth were, "But Patrick Smith hasn't won it yet." His books (such as A Land Remembered) have had a tremendous influence on generations of kids. There are kids who have no idea what the state was like just a couple of generations ago who have that knowledge because of him.

The place is so colorful, the material so rich, it's no wonder Florida has a history of great writers. Look at what Peter Matthiessen did with the Watson books (Shadow Country).

And I don't think it's a coincidence that Stephen King spends so much time in your neck of the woods. If you're looking for a setting that shimmers with weirdness, Florida is the place.

You've been credited with creating Florida noir, a kind of wacky, satirical (and much imitated) crime fiction. How did you come up with it?

I don't know that I invented it. But it's only wacky if you don't live in Florida. If you live here, it's documentary.

At the Herald, there was just this voluminous amount of material coming into that newsroom. And I had always liked writing satirical humor, even in high school. . . . I loved J.D. Salinger, Joe Heller, Tom Wolfe.

Why focus on the crime element?

This is a state of outlaws. It has been since the late 1800s. It always has been. Everyone who comes here is either running from something or running after something.

I read this story that said Key West in the '90s led the nation in fugitive captures. Just think about it, the amount of sheer stupidity it takes to drive until the pavement runs out and say that will be your hideout: "Hey, I know a place where they'll never find us."

You could probably afford to quit your day job. Why do you continue to write a column for the Herald?

I tell people it's a privilege to be able to have an opinion column in the newspaper I grew up reading, in a place I love and have roots in.

Every time I think about just bagging it, saying to hell with it, let somebody else do it — we have some great columnists at the Herald — something always happens, some heinous and outrageous act of corruption. And part of me is outraged, but part of me is smiling.

It's just too important. The other thing is, I'm in a rare position. They leave me alone. They do not f--- with me. They realized after 20 years or so that it's all right to piss people off. If you're doing the job as a columnist, somebody's going to be mad at you.

I think in part it's because of the Internet, because of blogs. People are more comfortable reading strongly worded opinions.

Why did you start writing books for kids?

It was because of the kids in my family. My stepson was about 11 then, my nephews and nieces were about the same age. My editor suggested it, and I said, "You know what I write. You wouldn't let your kids near it. Neither would I."

But they were right. Hoot (his first kids' book) was ripped right out of my own childhood. It wasn't that hard for me to remember how I felt as a kid. My wife says that's not surprising.

I learned very quickly that kids love it when you make fun of grownups. And when you think about it, that's what I've been doing all my life.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Wacky Florida is unending inspiration for bestselling writer Carl Hiaasen 03/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 11:16am]

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