“I always knew I eventually would write a book about a hurricane,” says Carl Hiaasen. He is talking about Stormy Weather, his most recent novel. “If a writer were living on the edge of a volcano, he would have to write about that. In my case I live where a lot of hurricanes rush by.” Fans of Hiaasen might have expected he would turn to this turbulent topic eventually: even in his first solo outing as an author, back in 1986, one of the characters in Tourist Season suggested that a killer hurricane was the best thing that could happen to Florida.
The catalyst for Hiaasen’s most recent satirical thriller, Stormy Weather, was hurricane Andrew, one of the many storms that attack the Florida coast every year. What Andrew lacked in record-breaking fatalities, it amply made up for by being the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States. As in Carl’s previous books, Stormy Weather has a rich helping of eccentric personalities. This time the main characters include Augustine, the wealthy hero who juggles with human skulls; Edie Marsh, intent on making her fortune by first seducing, and then blackmailing one of the Kennedy clan (she would “crawl nude across broken glass for a whack at John Jr.”); Snapper, a crook with a crooked jaw; Bonnie and Max Lamb, a newlywed couple who differ on how to best spend their honeymoon; and, finally, Skink, a pleasant, and pleasantly disturbed eco-terrorist.
Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida and, in his job as reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald, he is known for covering the increasing overpopulation—and the ensuing corruption—of his home state. These concerns are also at the basis of his new novel. “To me Andrew hitting Florida was an allegory of all the greed, the lust for growth, and the absolute avarice,” Hiaasen says. “The storm laid all that bare. It came in a space of just a couple of hours, stripped everything away, and said “Look at what you’ve done to yourself”.”
What interested Hiaasen most were not the events that took place during the storm, but those that occurred in its aftermath. In Stormy Weather these events include corruption in the building trade, escaped rampaging zoo-animals, insurance fraud, looting, crucifixion on satellite-dishes, electrocuting dog collars, and a steering clamp used as a gagging device. All the aforementioned incidents are dressed in a coating of dark humour, typical of Hiaasen’s attempts to make enjoyable any discernible agenda he might have. “I try to be very conscious about not beating people over their heads with my concerns. I don’t want the books to become soap boxes. A novelist’s job is to entertain the readers. Full stop. I think it’s inevitable—no matter what kind of a novel you’re writing—that there’s going to be some commentary. There are issues that mean a lot to me, but when I want to jump, rant, and rave I can do it in my newspaper column.”
Even before Carl Hiaasen started his career in journalism, he had already worked on two novels. As a freshman at Emory University Hiaasen was approached by one of his professors with the request to help Doctor Neil Shulman write his memoirs. Hiaasen had never written professionally before, and recalls, “What we ended up doing was organising his material, and then turning it into a novel by adding fictional characters. Only Doctor Shulman is credited on the cover of Finally…I’m a Doctor, because”, says Carl, “they were mostly Neil’s stories.”
A few years, after their initial collaboration, Hiaasen and Schulman worked together again on a follow-up called What, Dead Again? This sequel was turned into Doc Hollywood [UK / US], the 1991 film starring Michael J. Fox.
After graduating from the University of Florida Carl worked at different newspapers before finally settling at the Miami Herald. From General-Assignment Reporter Hiaasen graduated to a member of the newspaper’s investigation team. Here he and his colleagues covered topics such as corruption, drug smuggling, and the death penalty. The latter is particularly embedded in Carl’s memory. “At that particular time Florida had more people awaiting execution on death row than any other state. There were a couple of hundred of them. You really have to go the extra mile to get the death sentence in this country. It isn’t given for just a routine homicide; it has to be what they call ‘heinous and atrocious crime’. If you cover stories like that, the details of the kind of horrific crimes involved….,” he pauses momentarily, “memories of certain characters and episodes are going to surface again.”
Journalism alone was not enough to exorcise the memories, and Hiaasen felt a renewed urge to write novels. Together with William Montelbano, a colleague at the Miami Herald, Carl wrote three crime novels in the Black Lizard s. “Those books were the first I put my name on,” says the author. “All three of them sprung directly out of our journalistic notebooks.” The first novel Carl Hiaasen and William Montelbano wrote together, Powder Burn, was based on the cocaine wars that had taken place between the Miami drug barons in the early seventies. After their second book, Trap Line, Montelbano had become a Foreign Correspondent and was working in Beijing when they wrote A Death in China.
“Logistically writing became quite difficult,” recalls Carl. “On Bill’s trips home we would sit and compare the work we’d done He would bring back his ten chapters and I’d have the ten chapters I’d been working on, and we would have to do housekeeping duties to make everything fit.”
Also, by this time Carl felt he wanted to write in different style then he had been. “The kind of novels that I wanted to do—satirical novels, funnier, and a little bit more extreme—had to be done alone. The books that I write have a very sardonic and often caustic tone that is my own. It’s the way I look at the world. It would have been unfair and unrealistic to expect Bill to conform to that.” William Montelbano wrote a fourth and final instalment in the series, The Sinners of San Ramon, as a solo effort.
Though Carl Hiaasen doesn’t strictly classify his novels as crime fiction, he decided at an early stage that he wanted to write humorous thrillers. “I think most literature is about crime of some form or another. It doesn’t have to be murder or kidnapping. There are crimes of the heart, crimes of the soul, there are all kinds of crimes. As a journalist in the US, what you end up writing about is crime, and so it was a world I was familiar with. Having been a journalist for twenty-two years I know the way people speak, how they look, and what personalities are involved. I would have loved to write novels about art-forgery or geology, but I don’t know a damn thing about that stuff.” The author also felt that, writing in a satirical style, the inclusion of thriller elements would give the reader an added incentive to keep turning to the next page. “That is where the element of suspense is very important,” says Carl. “I just like the idea of people getting so caught up in a story that they can’t put it down. If they’re laughing, and understanding the satire as well, then that’s great, but the key thing is to get them involved in the story. For me suspense fiction was the best way to do this.”
Even as a young child Carl liked suspense fiction, Franklin Dixon’s books about the Hardy Boys being some of his favourite. Now he admires Joseph Heller and John D. MacDonald. “I was very much influenced by Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Even when reading this novel about the most ghastly of human conditions, war, you’re still falling about laughing. I thought that was quite a remarkable achievement for a writer, and something to aspire to.” John D. MacDonald is a local writer for Carl. MacDonald became famous for writing about Travis McGee, a private investigator who lived on a house boat in Fort Lauderdale. “Since I was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale it was all home territory for me, and it was exciting to read novels about where I grew up. What was also exciting was that MacDonald had his characters ranting and raving about what was happening to Florida. He wrote some very memorable and acerbic monologues about the fact that Florida was being trampled, destroyed, and corrupted. This was way back in the 60’s, long before anyone else was saying such things. As a kid when you plug into a writer like that. Not only do you know the territory, but you also recognise the sentiments—that’s very exciting.”
Contrary to John D. MacDonald, Hiaasen does not stick to writing about one main protagonist. He doesn’t like to commit himself to one character. However, some of his protagonists do make return appearances in supporting roles. Policemen Al Garcia and Jim Tile show up—independently from each other—in numerous novels. However, it is quite clear that it is Skink, who first appeared in Double Whammy, for whom Carl has a particular soft spot. Once a Governor of Florida, Skink’s losing the battle against corruption in politics and society has turned him into an itinerant Don Quichote, fighting the good fight on behalf of nature. “Skink certainly does a few things that I wished I had done,” says Hiaasen. “In that respect any author becomes attached to a character who can get away with things that he hasn’t been able to get away with in real life. I like Skink, and see I him as a moral compass.”
The former Governor is one of the author’s most interesting heroes, but Hiaasen is probably best known for his bizarre villains. His first memorable attempt was Thomas Curl. In Double Whammy a pitbull locks its jaws into Curl’s arm but, after killing the animal, Curl is unable to remove it. Instead he cuts away the body and leaves the dog’s head attached to his arm. When it becomes contaminated, and the infection spreads to Curl’s brain, he gives the head a name and has conversations with it.
In Stormy Weather the leading ‘bad guy’ is Snapper who, after almost falling victim to a robbing rap-music aficionado, retaliates by administering a rap-CD as a laxative. “At that point I am certainly on Snapper’s side,” admits a laughing Hiaasen.
Unsurpassed, however, is Skin Tight’s Chemo. As his name suggests, the character looks like he has undergone a particularly aggressive dose of radiation therapy. To make it worse, the results of a bad case of electrolysis left his face looking as though cornflakes have been stuck on it. Chemo’s appearance further deteriorates when his hand, bitten off by a barracuda, is replaced by a Weed Whacker, a machine used to mow weeds.
What makes Hiaasen such an exceptional writer is that readers a never cease to feel some sympathy for his murderers. Most likely this is due to the fact that the author has most fun in creating his villains. “I know it’s a cliché,” apologises Carl, “but I think many writers will confess that it’s a lot more fun to write about the bad guys. They’re just inherently more interesting because they have crossed this moral boundary and, as a writer, that’s a more intriguing area of the human mind to explore. Heroes just aren’t as challenging.” Carl works hard on his villains because they he wants them to have dimension and be unique. In connection with this he mentions a letter sent to him by Elmore Leonard. “Leonard wrote: ‘I’m very glad you didn’t kill Chemo off. I liked him.’ “I thought that was great,” says Hiaasen with a note of pride in his voice, “because that’s a hard thing to pull off. Many criminals have a moral code, it’s not one that you necessary identify with, but there are some things that even they think are right and wrong. If you can get a handle on that when you’re writing novels, then you have a successful villain.”
Working at the Miami Herald, Hiaasen is never at a loss for interesting topics: disastrous holiday experiences with alligators in Tourist Season; murderous angling competitors in Double Whammy; lurid television exposes and plastic surgery in Skin Tight; amorous dolphins and theme-parks in Native Tongue; strippers and corrupt politicians in Striptease; and now the hurricane and its consequences in Stormy Weather. There are even incidents that Hiaasen won’t use because he fears they won’t be considered credible. The author gives an example that occurred in the aftermath of hurricane Andrew. “The 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army had been brought to Dade County to keep peace and order after the hurricanes. However, the Pentagon decided not to give them live ammunition because it was a domestic, peace time mission—if a civilian got shot it would be a major problem. So the forces had their M16’s but no bullets. On one occasion a group of soldiers in a Jeep was surrounded by members from a drug-gang in an attempt to rob the 82nd Airborne of their M16’s. This bunch of kids, a crack gang!” Hiaasen laughs at the audacity. “They’re trying to rob the US Army of their weapons, knowing full well that these soldiers didn’t have any bullets. Of course the drug gang was extremely well armed with machine guns and live ammunition. To their credit, the soldiers said ‘No, you’re going to have to kill us to get these guns. We’re going to get in so much trouble if we let you people steal them, that we might as well be dead anyway.’ The gang finally laughed and said ‘Hey, all right,’ and let them go. It’s a surreal world when you have kids trying to rip off the US Army. After that the Pentagon let the army start carry bullets. I didn’t use it because I thought people would just say it would never happen, but it did, and it was on the front page of the Miami Herald.”
Maybe even stranger are the incidents that have occurred after Carl’s books appeared. When Skin Tight was published a man walked up to Hiaasen to show him a photograph. Four fingers were missing from the hand holding up a picture in which the man was feeding a barracuda from his mouth. The accident had been taped on video, and the man was now circulating copies to friends and acquaintances. Another scene in Skin Tight involves a talk-show host undergoing plastic surgery during a live television broadcast. Well known US presenter Geraldo Rivera followed suit a few years later on his show. “Only in America,” sighs Carl.
With the film rights to Stormy Weather having been sold to 20th Century Fox, who bought it as a vehicle for actress Meg Ryan, Striptease [UK / US] was the first cinema adaptation of a Hiaasen novel. Demi Moore received twelve million dollars to star as stripper Erin Grant, a former FBI employee who pays for the custody trial of her daughter by stripping. The film also featured Burt Reynolds as a corrupt and sleazy senator.
At the time Carl hadn’t seen any footage yet, and he was weary about commenting. What he would say was that he was happy with the casting of Moore as Erin. The part of Erin’s daughter is played by Rumour Willis, one of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’ three children. Hiaasen hoped that the close mother and daughter bond, which he says was very evident on the film-set, would come through on the screen.
Hiaasen did not find it easy to research Striptease easy. “I would rather interview someone in prison than in a strip club,” the author says with a grin. “Strippers have heard every bad line in the book and ‘I’m a writer working on a book about strippers’ apparently is one of them. ‘Yeah, sure you are, they would answer, ‘and I’m Madame Curie. They did not believe me at first, and it took some time to convince them. To complicate matters they have to get up and dance in the middle of an interview. Once their clothes start flying off its a little distracting.”
Hiaasen recently started work on his latest book, Lucky You. This time the novel was inspired by the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The explosive device was linked to an extreme, right-wing militia. “All over this country we have these militia groups who dress in camouflage and train themselves in survival methods.” Carl sounds perplexed when he says, “These militias believe, truly honestly believe, that the United States is going to be taken over by NATO forces trying to establish a single world government. Their culture is very much wrapped up in guns and I’ve always been fascinated by that. I think that’s suitable area for exploration.”
Fellow crime writer Edna Buchanan used to be a colleague of Carl’s at the Miami Herald. She left the newspaper to concentrate on writing novels featuring her journalist sleuth Britt Montero. Hiaasen has no similar intentions. “I only do two columns a week, but I think it’s important because they give me an immediate feedback. It takes nine months to a year for a novel to come out once you’ve written it. My heart’s always been in the newspaper business, and I don’t know how much longer I can do both. It gets harder and harder, and with the promotion aspect of the books these days you have to spend quite a bit of time on the road once it is published. There is going to come a day when I cannot juggle both, and one of them will start to suffer. I hope I will be the first to notice so I can bail out before readers start to notice.”
If that day comes, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Hiaasen will choose writing novels over the columns.
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1996.