With acerbic—and very funny—storytelling, Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen skewers those he sees as behaving badly. The native Floridian’s satirical tales feature colorful antiheroes who battle equally colorful corrupt officials, medical miscreants, and other morally objectionable types. As humorous as his writing is, Hiaasen is serious about bringing to light those whom he believes inflict irreparable damage on the Sunshine State. He’s published 14 novels for adults, and a handful for young readers. His most recent young adult book, Skink: No Surrender, features his iconic character Skink, the eccentric, ex-Florida governor who lives in the swamp dining on road kill. We talked with Hiaasen about his passion to protect Florida’s natural riches.
Protecting the River of Grass|
The Everglades provide economic and recreational benefits to the state’s residents, as well as the water supply to one in three Floridians. The ecosystem is also home to 67 threatened or endangered species. As a result of development over the past century, the ecosystem has shrunk to less than half its original size, while agricultural pollutants have had a negative impact on indigenous plants and animals. Since 1993, the Everglades Foundation has led efforts to restore and protect the greater Everglades ecosystem.
PBI: When were you first compelled to write about the diminishing natural environment in our state?
Hiaasen: I can’t recall the specific moment, but I recall my reaction to seeing bulldozers flattening a wetland area where I grew up in Plantation. Watching that get paved over I’m sure affected me and pissed me off profoundly.
How did you become involved with the Everglades Foundation?
It was when the movie came out of one of my books, Strip Tease. A backstory is the pollution of the Everglades—rather, the behavior of the big sugar companies. I was contacted by Paul Tudor Jones [one of the foundation founders], who has a place in Florida. He’s a big Wall Street investor and has been very involved in Everglades conservation. He wanted to do a screening of the movie as a benefit for what was then the beginning of the Everglades Foundation. I was happy to do anything I could, and I still am.
Why did you start writing stories for young readers?
An editor had that idea years ago. I thought it was crazy. My adult novels are disturbing enough. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to subject the younger generation to that kind of point of view. But they assured me kids would dig it. Kids like funny books, they like irreverence, they like books that make fun of grownups. And all my books make fun of grownups. What I underestimated was the deep connection kids have to environmental issues, especially in a place like Florida. I have been lucky because the kids’ books have been popular all over the country and outside the country. It mystified me at first, because they are horror stories. I had written them with my own nieces and nephews and now my own grandkids in mind, not really thinking they would hold much interest outside of Florida.
What feedback have you received from young readers?
The mail and correspondence I get from kids is so wonderful, so sharp, bright, and insightful. And very, very touching. Their hearts are so big and their dreams are so big, if you are a writer you can’t help but be moved by that. The idea of just doing one, after Hoot, it evaporated pretty quickly. The letters start coming in, “when’s your next book? When’s it coming out?” It was too important. Any time you can get a kid to pick up a book, it’s a big deal.
How have children outside of this country responded to the books?
It’s amazing, the connection, even in places like Japan. I think it’s because kids universally are drawn to wild places and wild animals. The idea of an alligator intrigues them. They don’t have the same visceral reaction as a 65-year-old tourist from Chillicothe, Ohio. Kids see the beauty and the wonder of it. I was amazed and delighted that it didn’t seem to matter where they were reading the book, they connected with these little characters and stories set in our neck of the woods.
Your recurring character, Skink, who has appeared in several of your books for grown-up readers and now in your young adult novel, Skink: No Surrender—he’s not based on a real politician?
I wish he were. I would give anything if there was a real, live inspiration for that character. There are certainly elements you can take from certain other characters. A couple of different governors thought they in some way inspired me. And as much I admired some for some of the courageous things they do, like Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham, you could never picture them naked, living in the mangroves, eating road kill; nor would you want to picture them doing that. The character is a pure, fictional invention. I always tell people one of the great selfish luxuries of writing novels is they are your characters and you can do with them whatever you want.
Is he named for the lizard-like creature of the same name?
No, I was just looking for a funny name. A lot of times I look for funny names in nature, and I wanted a name connecting him with nature. And skinks are pretty cool lizards. They are beautiful and crafty, aggressive, and fun. I spend a lot of time on all the books on the names of characters. They may change three or four times in the course of working out the manuscript. In my eye they have to look a certain way on the page and hit my ear a certain way as well. I want readers to read the name once and not forget it. I don’t want them to be at page 100 turning back to figure out who that character was.
In your novel Sick Puppy, it seems you are well acquainted with the behavior of Labrador retrievers.
I’ve got two. I’m a sucker for Labs. They always go everywhere, they’re pretty amazing dogs. I love them. They’re great with kids, and the grandkids, and they have the greatest attitude toward life. A Labrador retriever has got it all figured out. I got so many letters from people saying, you obviously have a Lab. They just knew.
Funny story with that book. I called the Lab McGuinn, because I am a big fan of [musician] Roger McGuinn. I didn’t know he lived in Florida. So I was at a book signing in Orlando, and the store owner said, “You are not gonna believe who’s here. Roger McGuinn is here.” He loved the fact that the dog was named after him. He’s a sweet man, and obviously a genius with the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. I was just blown away. Certainly when you are writing, you don’t think your going to hear from the person. It was one of my old rock-and-roll heroes, and here he shows up and says, “Thanks for naming that dog after me.”
In a 2010 interview with Smithsonian magazine, you talked about real life becoming stranger than fiction, and that the path to a more civilized world would be through public outrage, fueled by fast, useful information from responsible journalists. So how do you view the weirdness curve in 2015?
It’s tough. I am trying to finish a novel for grownups, and a couple of the things I had planned for the novel, you always do try to stay ahead of things a little bit, but now they’ve already kind of happened. So now I’ve got to sort of ratchet it up, and it’s been a struggle, this last 100 pages, to pull it all together. Sometimes I’ll take a clipping, in this case a couple of years old, maybe five paragraphs from a newspaper. And it will just hit the right switch, and I know I can do it better in a book.
People in Florida will know the event really happened. But people outside of Florida think you are a very sick person that you made this up. I save the clippings meticulously so that when I do book tours, I can say, “no, no, no, I wish I could say I thought of that depraved scene, but let me read something for you.” It’s hard because it all keeps getting crazier and crazier. You want to keep your edge, and I want to think I can think of something so twisted it would never happen.