Carl Hiaasen has retired.
No more weekly columns in the Miami Herald lacerating Florida’s teeming bad guys with the blade of satire, prying the lid off the latest bucket of corruption and environmental depredation, making readers snicker over their coffee and say, “Thank goodness somebody is writing about that.”
Across the Sunshine State, as crooks and liars rejoice, readers mourn.
Hiaasen turned 68 on March 12, and his farewell column appeared in print two days later. After 45 years on the Herald staff, 35 of them as a columnist, he’s done.
Hiaasen talked with the Tampa Bay Times via Zoom the week before his last column ran. “I’m not going to stop writing this kind of stuff, although a lot of people wish I would,” he said from his home office in Vero Beach.
The pandemic hasn’t changed his work habits much, he says. “I kind of like the whole mask thing. I might keep wearing them. Nobody bugs me. I’ve spent my whole life social distancing from humans. Six feet? How about 30 feet?”
Hiaasen is hitting pause on just one of his two parallel careers. His many fans know he’s also a bestselling novelist, with 15 satirical Florida-set crime novels and half a dozen children’s books in print.
His books and columns have made him a star of the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading over the years, with a standing-room-only crowd guaranteed every time he appeared.
His most recent novel, Squeeze Me, came out last year and made hilarious sport of the strange local customs of Palm Beach and in particular of a resident president known in the book by his Secret Service code name, Mastodon.
Hiaasen did put writing on the shelf for a while in 2018, after his brother, Rob Hiaasen, and four other staffers at the Capital newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, were shot to death in the newsroom. But he returned to his column and continued it until now.
Hiaasen has no plans to retire from writing fiction, he says. He’s just stepping back from the weekly deadline.
“My kids are grown, I have two grandkids in college. So I can pace myself a little differently.” The Florida native and dedicated angler’s agenda includes plenty of time on the water, but he probably won’t be unplugging from the news.
He says he has “no idea” how many columns he was written over the years, but he now has “not just readers, but generations of readers.”
He still remembers the thrill of getting his first freelance paycheck for a story. He was a student at the University of Florida in the 1970s, and he sold a story — he thinks it might have been about an outbreak of bicycle thefts — to the Floridian magazine, published by the then-St. Petersburg Times.
“I remember getting a check for $80,” he says. “I thought, this is a great business. This is some hot s--t right here.”
This interview has been edited for length.
You’ve been writing your column for 35 years. What made you decide to retire now? It’s not like you ran out of material.
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Well, it dawned on me I was never going to run out of material.
I’ve been at the Herald for 45 years, writing the column for 35 years. I thought dear God, they shouldn’t have to hit me with a baseball bat. There’s a graceful time to go.
There were other writing projects people were interested in having me do, and I used the column as an excuse. So I figured maybe I should do some of them while I was still ambulatory and fairly alert.
I was surprised to find out I wasn’t on probation all this time. I guess I finally got the job.
How old were you when you started writing the column?
Let’s see, I started the column at the Herald in 1985. So I would have been ... 32? Is that possible? Holy s--t. What is wrong with me?
I’d been working with just about the best investigative team probably in the country. But when I would apply for jobs I would always put that I wanted to be a columnist someday. Everybody did. When I was in college, I wrote columns. We had Nixon, a full-on felon, in the White House. We thought then he was the worst president ever.
At the Herald, I was working with Jim Savage’s investigative team. We had just done this big thing in the Bahamas, a corruption story. I wouldn’t say I was burned out, but I was tired. I was also starting Tourist Season, the first novel I wrote on my own. I was perpetually pissed off, and there was no better way to express it. The main character was this deranged newspaper columnist.
I talked to Heath Meriwether, who was the editor at the time. They had this metro columnist, Charlie Whitehead, great guy, who wrote a column five days a week. So Heath said, how would you like to start? We could rotate you with Charlie for the metro column.
When I was in college I idolized all these great columnists: Art Buchwald, Russell Baker, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, who became a dear friend. So I couldn’t believe it.
But I told Heath it was a weird time, because I was writing this novel about a reporter who goes off the deep end. He’s got this bunch of environmental terrorists, they’re trying to scare the tourists away, a Shriner disappears in the third chapter. It’s going to look weird for me to be writing a column with a book like that. And he said, uh, yeah — like, yeah, nobody’s going to see the book anyway.
I think I ended up modeling myself after that character rather than the other way around. That character’s name was Skip Wiley. Jimmy Buffett ended up doing a song about that character.
What made you stay at the Herald, other than your lifelong connection to Florida?
I was lucky that I got to work for a newspaper that I grew up reading. My parents were avid consumers of news, and we got the Miami Herald in the morning and what was then the Fort Lauderdale News in the afternoon. I literally learned to read on those papers.
Nobody gets raises in journalism; you know that. All I’ve asked my bosses was just leave my ass alone, and they did.
I can’t think of any great battles (with editors) I’ve had recently. In the beginning, it was different. It was just bare knuckle. If they were a crook, I called them a crook. City Hall back then was just a bribe factory, right out in the open. They weren’t even good bagmen. They were just klutzy about it.
I learned that if you can do it with humor, that’s the best. The bad guys hated that the worst. The funnier the column was, the more humiliated they were. It doesn’t turn them into good honest public servants, but it ruins their day.
Besides your own work, what else has been gratifying about journalism?
One of the best things about journalism is the amount of talent that goes through newsrooms. You work with people and see where they end up and the great things they do. The Herald and your paper, the Times, are both papers that the New York Times, the Washington Post, national papers like that, come and cherry-pick the talent. Then you see a byline and think, I remember when that kid was an intern, and now she’s on the front page of the Washington Post kicking ass. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.
One of my sons worked at the Herald and became an investigative reporter. He had my old job. He did that in the daytime and went to law school at night. I was especially thrilled about that because my dad and granddad were both attorneys, and they probably wondered what they had done wrong with me.
It was so great to see Scott’s byline, and his wife, Jenny’s, too. He was way better than I was.
He’s an attorney now. He told me someone asked him, do you think your dad has mellowed? He couldn’t stop laughing. He said, have you talked to him lately?
Or read your last novel.
Squeeze Me was up for some humor novel prize on the West Coast, and my publisher asked me to drop in on the Zoom panel (with other authors). They’re very nice people, doing fun stuff. But at one point the moderator asked, do any of you ever worry about offending anybody when you write? I fell off my chair. Everybody on the Zoom panel is looking at me. What I worry about is not offending anybody.
You’ve been very successful as a novelist. Did you ever think, as many writers do, of leaving journalism behind when the books did so well?
I’ve been in a lucky position because of the books. I wasn’t doing (the column) for the paycheck, thank God. I wanted to be doing it.
I’d think sometimes I don’t want to just be cranking anything out. And then some crazy thing or some crazy person would come along, and I’d think, I can’t walk away now. While this guy is in Tallahassee? No.
I thought about doing it last year, but we had this person in the White House, this gaseous mound of hate and insecurity and hypocrisy. It would be immoral to walk away. He might be back. He’s right down the road from where I live.
What was the most difficult column for you to write?
The hardest column was the one after Rob’s death. After my brother was killed in Annapolis, for a long time I didn’t write anything. I thought I shouldn’t write it, but I had to. It was the only way I could start writing again.
Even people who were not fans of the column necessarily, or of the novels necessarily, responded in a way that was so overwhelming and touching, to Rob’s family and to mine.
I’d written about gun violence for so long, and about the NRA and the political corruptness of the pro-assault rifle position. Those columns always got a response, of course. But that column (after his brother’s death) got the most.
I thought about not writing again after that. But I thought about what he would have wanted. He would have been really annoyed if I decided to quit the column, and the novels as well. So I couldn’t walk away. I did what he would have wanted.
Do you think what happened to your brother and his colleagues is symptomatic of a change in attitude toward the media?
I don’t get people acting as if the public distrust of media is something new. I do not remember a time when the press was beloved. If you are doing your job, you are not beloved.
Of course, Trump brought it into high relief, made it into open aggression. But Nixon bitterly hated the press and blamed it for his downfall. Obama was not a fan, either. It’s built into the nature of the relationship (between the press and politicians).
I’m worried when reporters are threatened at political rallies. But those people are just rabid troglodytes that don’t understand any democratic principles.
I’ve had people ask me, aren’t you afraid (because of the columns he writes)? I had colleagues who reported from Beirut and Iraq, getting their asses shot at. What I do is easy.
But then, what happened to Rob. The shooter was a guy who was mad about a newspaper story years before that Rob, that nobody who was killed had anything to do with.
The irony is that such a gentle person died. His style was so much warmer and more personal than mine. My kind of columns, which I don’t regret, but — I can’t believe it was him and not me. I can’t make sense of it.
What changes do you think your columns have brought about?
I can’t change the world. But maybe a few things changed. When I started in the business, very few politicians in Florida talked about the Everglades. Now all of them do. You won’t find anybody who will say, who cares about the Everglades, or let’s drain the Everglades, or go ahead and pollute the Everglades. They might think that, but very few of them are stupid enough to say it. It’s become an apple-pie issue. And these are politicians who wouldn’t actually set foot in the Everglades. A mosquito bite would send them running.
But that doesn’t have anything to do with me.
I think it might. What are you doing now that you don’t have a weekly deadline?
I’m working on another kids’ novel that I’m excited about, and there’s another grownup novel in the works. There are a couple of nonfiction things that people have expressed interest in. I want to do some more fishing.
I never had the discipline to crank out a book a year. I admire people who do, but I’m not under any kind of pressure. My editors are great.
I might be moved to write a guest column once in a while. We’ll see.
It’s just a sickness. Let’s face it, if we were normal we wouldn’t be in this business.
What will you write about in your last column?
A few days ago my friend Dave Barry asked me what I was writing about for my farewell column. I told him I was just going to write a regular column. He said, no, you have to do a farewell column. I already wrote one about you and they’re running them at the same time. So now I’m in the position of coming up with some damn farewell column.
It was diabolical. He was strategic. He knew what my reaction would be. He said, I already wrote mine. I turned it in weeks ago. I said, were you going to tell me? And he said, I’m telling you now.
Do you think you’re going to regret not being able to write about the news every week?
I didn’t get a shot to write about the Ocean Reef story and the vaccines there. I’ve written about Ocean Reef before, and it would have been great to write about that. I haven’t been invited to join.
I’ll go nuts every week now. My poor wife will have to hear me. (He growls loudly and lunges out of his chair.)
I will be heard from.