1. Opinion

Before coming to Tampa, Carl Hiaasen talks writing satire in the age of Trump

Hiaasen: “What’s going on in Tallahassee is laughable, too, but it has a bigger impact. ... Did you hear that Rick Scott has started tweeting? And now he’s doing robocalls. Well, look at him — what other kind of call could he do?”
Hiaasen: “What’s going on in Tallahassee is laughable, too, but it has a bigger impact. ... Did you hear that Rick Scott has started tweeting? And now he’s doing robocalls. Well, look at him — what other kind of call could he do?”
Published Feb. 26, 2017

When Carl Hiaasen speaks on March 5 at the Straz Center in Tampa, he says, "I'll probably talk about the headlines, politics, Florida's role in the national death augur."

Those are subjects he knows well. For more than 40 years, Hiaasen has covered his native state as a journalist, most of that time for the Miami Herald. In his widely syndicated columns, he employs investigative reporting skills and sharply satirical humor to address state and national issues.

Hiaasen is also a bestselling novelist, with 14 books for adults (the most recent is Razor Girl) and five for young readers. In his novels, he combines his deep knowledge of wacky Florida behavior with a passionate concern for the environment and other causes.

Hiaasen, 63, recently spoke to the Tampa Bay Times by phone. The interview has been edited for length.

­Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

For someone who makes a living writing satire, is this the best of times or the worst of times?

Well, Trump, he's certainly the gift that keeps on giving for any newspaper columnist. But it's a difficult time to write satire, when reality so far surpasses anything you can make up. With all the cartoon aspects of what's happening, it's extra hard to make up anything sillier.

It's a challenge, but in a way I feel like it's coming full circle. When I graduated from the University of Florida, it was 1974. I graduated from journalism school just a couple of months before Nixon resigned. When Watergate was happening, it was very hard to believe it was real: the Saturday Night Massacre, the missing tape, the Supreme Court. Then later we found out from Nixon's own tapes what a hateful, despicable person he was.

At that time in the country, there was really a doomsday sense. I remember when there was a rumor that Nixon would resign, they sent me out to what was then the Merritt Square Shopping Mall. I was working in Cocoa. Back then there were stores that actually sold appliances, and they would have, like, washers and TVs in the display window.

There was a crowd gathered around the TVs in this display window, waiting to see if Nixon would resign. Everyone was wondering, would he resign, would he do something nuts?

I'm reminded of that by the sense of panic some people are feeling right now, even though it's very early in this administration. There's some sense of deja vu. But we did survive Nixon. The system worked. I suspect we'll survive this guy.

As you write columns about all this, are you able to keep ahead of what happens, or do events overtake the satire?

I did one the other day about Sean Spicer trying to get a book contract. I mean, just try to imagine how many books are going to come out of this. They're all doing an insider's book. The publishers are going to be flooded by all of the books that come out of this circus in the White House.

It's hard to have sympathy for them. But it has to be one of the lousiest jobs you could ever have. With any president you have to go in there and put the best face on what they do, that's the job. Now they're playing a bigger and bigger role.

How is Trump different?

Well, how desperate must he be for adulation if he has to go to an airplane hangar in Melbourne, Fla., to get it? That's very, very telling. He couldn't have held it in Palm Beach County. That would have been a very different rally. He had to cherry-pick geographically, someplace where he's still a hero.

Of course in Florida we have to claim him at least part of the year. Have you been to Mar-a-Lago? Mar-a-Lago is such a surreal place. Did you see the story in the Washington Post, I think, about all these people who are joining just on the off chance he'll walk by their table?

All they've got at Mar-a-Lago is a croquet lawn and some tennis courts. You have to drive quite a ways to get to their golf course. Who the hell admits to playing croquet? But these people are all shelling out 200 grand to play croquet. As we speak, there are people walking down Worth Avenue saying, shouldn't we buy something to wear for playing croquet? What do you even wear? But it's a big deal, that's a big selling point at Mar-a-Lago. Just in case you've got 200 large lying around. It's hard to make up anything that isn't true.

Do you feel that so much is being written about Trump that other things are getting short shrift?

My usual pattern is to write one kind of national column, and I try to have a Florida connection to that. There's a Florida connection to almost any story. Then the next one will be a state column. I alternate, but it's hard. So much is being written about Trump that there's starting to be a certain exhaustion factor. The threshold is much higher for what's outrageous and incendiary enough to write about. I enjoy writing the humorous columns. Everybody's on a soapbox now, and I think people want to laugh.

How about non-Trump material for your Florida columns?

What's going on in Tallahassee is laughable, too, but it has a bigger impact on people's lives. Did you hear that Rick Scott has started tweeting? And now he's doing robocalls. Well, look at him — what other kind of call could he do?

The gun stuff coming out of Tallahassee is, as usual, horrifying. It's never lawmakers from big cities yelling for open carry. It's always somebody from Umatilla or Gadsden County. It's not somebody who's had to worry about the possibility of armed lunatics running around a population center.

You have to write about these things. Speaking out is important, not because it will change things by itself but so the people in the trenches know they're not alone.

Speaking of tweeting, how much do you do?

I don't have enough good ideas to throw them away on a tweet. Some journalists seem to do it all day long. I don't know how they get any work done.

If Trump could do one thing, he should get a law passed that you can't post pictures of your food on Facebook. I don't want to see a picture of somebody's fricking dinner. The country is burning, and you're posting a picture of your casserole?

Are there any columnists you're reading?

I really look for a subject, then read the byline later. I'm not reading for comfort. I'm reading for ideas. I look for the range of ideas on an issue before I write.

But thank God for John Oliver. I say this because I'm an old guy, but there was a time when Johnny Carson's monologues changed. During Watergate, at the end of Vietnam, his monologues got sharper and sharper. The people in charge said, "When Carson turned on us, that's when we knew we were screwed." People then looked to Carson and Dick Cavett to talk about those things. Today it's Oliver, the Daily Show, to some extent Colbert.

Do you think the administration's hostility toward the media will have a negative impact?

I think anything that energizes the people energizes journalism. It's a mistake to take on journalists. Nixon did that. Ask him how it turned out. This Russia thing, especially, is not going away. It's going to be much worse.

When you're not commenting on the news, are you writing another novel?

I'm working on another kids' book. I don't know if it's YA or what. The publishers decide what category it goes in. I just have a character and a story.

The kids are just great. I just got a bucketful of mail from them. They're wonderful readers. They care about all the right things. Their hearts are wide open. They instinctively care about the environment and wildlife.

For a jaded old newspaper guy, it's so heartening to know there are young people out there who really care. I'm doing a workshop this weekend with young writers. It's kind of cool. It's a good tonic to be around all that positive energy. Most of what we write about in our business does not have a happy ending, a happy outcome. With politics, you can't be too cynical.

My own son, my younger son, who's 17, is threatening to show up. So I have to be on my best behavior.