Carl Hiaasen

There are some questions even the author of "Sick Puppy" can't be asked.

Published January 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I have it in my head to ask Carl Hiaasen, "Did you make up the word 'fellatrixes,' or is it a common Florida term?" The word appears in his new comic-thriller "Sick Puppy." It designates a woman who performs "world-class" fellatio. But Hiaasen and I are lunching at the Stanhope Hotel, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. The atmosphere is too refined to discuss "fellatrixes." Instead I ask this native son of Florida if there is a term to describe native sons of Florida.

"Endangered species," Hiaasen answers. "The bumper stickers have the state of Florida on them and the word 'native.' That's the badge of pride." Does he have one? "No. I'm not a big bumper-sticker guy."

Figures. Carl Hiaasen seems as classy as the Stanhope. He is slender and refined, yet you can imagine him doing something like yanking a revolver out of his jacket and shooting up the ceiling as he drinks vodka straight out of a bottle. Hiaasen seems like the wayward son of old Newport, R.I., money, yet he is a second-generation child of Fort Lauderdale. His grandfather was born at the turn of the last century in a godforsaken place called Devil's Lake, N.D. "He'd just come over from Norway," Hiaasen informs me. "He didn't learn to speak English until he was 14. It was a Norwegian farming community. Sod houses. The whole routine. First he was a preacher, then he went to law school. One of his professors asked him to come down and work for him in Florida. My grandfather was thrilled to get away from cold winters. He'd almost died in a blizzard when he was a young boy. He packed up and started the first law practice in Fort Lauderdale in 1922. At that time it was 1,000 people. Now, of course, there's millions and millions."

Hiaasen sips some coffee. "They did a survey before Hurricane Andrew hit in '92. At that time more than 70 percent of the people living in South Florida had never been through a hurricane. They moved to a place that back in the 1940s was getting hit two or three times a year by hurricanes. Between Palm Beach and the Keys there's probably 4 and a half million people living on the Gold Coast, which is a bull's-eye in terms of tropical storms. They don't know that. They don't care."

A Stanhope waiter slides up for our order. It's noon. Still early for lunch. The place is empty. Subdued Fifth Avenue winter light flows in through sheer curtains. The emptiness only adds to the civilized feel somehow. Hiaasen orders salmon. That's a civilized thing to eat. I order it as well.

Now, I was raised in Southern California -- the onetime capital of American noir. But no longer. Florida has stolen noir's mantle. Hiaasen agrees. "Very strange how it's evolved. John D. MacDonald saw the shit storm coming. His books would have these great Travis McGee monologues about what was going wrong with Florida, long before it was fashionable to be worried about what was going wrong with the state."

I'm so glad he mentioned John D. MacDonald. He was a Floridian pulp god. He seems to be out of favor today, but MacDonald's books are dynamite. "Did you ever meet him?" I ask Hiaasen.

"For my first novel, 'Tourist Season,' he sent me a very nice note. It was flattering. Unsolicited. Before I could meet him, he died." Hiaasen pauses. "One time I sat next to him at a Jimmy Buffett concert and I was afraid to introduce myself."

"You're kidding!"

Hiaasen gives a sheepish smile. "No. I was too shy to introduce myself. MacDonald was there with his wife."

"Was he digging the music?"

"Oh yes. Very much. He was a very cool guy. But even then he was the only one."

Then Hiaasen riffs about his state. "The more Florida filled up with people, the weirder it got. The weirder the headlines got. Then 'Dutch' Leonard went down there and did 'La Brava,' which is probably the best book ever written about South Beach before South Beach hit it big. An incredible book. Leonard saw the potential." He pauses. "I only write about Florida because that was where I was born. I don't have a choice. That's my reason. It just attracts a lot of good writers."

"But in your heart, don't you feel, Get out of my territory?" I ask.

"No," he says. "I don't have a choice. My work at the newspaper is so much fuel to burn. I was on the investigation team at the [Miami] Herald. And that particular kind of newspaper work, you can go months without writing. You're up to your ass in files. You're putting together these big projects, but you're not writing every day. If you like to write, at the end of the day you're gnawing on your fingernails. I wrote because I needed to write."

Our fish arrives. As we anoint it with squeezed citrus I bring up an old TV show: "Florida really became the capital of noir with 'Miami Vice.'"

"That had a lot to do with it," he agrees. "Which is funny because the show really was a cartoon. Every year I'd do an end-of-the-season body count on 'Miami Vice.' It was hilarious the number of people who'd die on that show. It's still big in Europe." He then tells how the titles of his first books were changed when they were translated to German. "The name 'Tourist Season' didn't mean anything to them. Another one was called 'Double Whammy.' And 'Skin Tight.' They changed everything. One was 'Miami Murder.' The other was 'Miami Death.' And the other was something like -- 'Miami Gangsters.'" He gives a good laugh. "Everyone has a blazing gun on the cover. Nothing to do with the book. Very funny."

I eat some fish. It's almost tasteless. But it seems somehow like the height of civilization. Thinking of such things, I start slamming Key West.

"Key West," Hiaasen says, rolling his eyes. He tells me the Russian mafia run some of the T-shirt stores on Duvall Street. "Key West trades in on the name 'Hemingway,'" he says. "You can't take a leak without seeing Hemingway this and Hemingway that. And the irony is, if Hemingway were alive today he'd take a blowtorch to Duvall Street."

"Is there any kind of literary community in Florida?" I ask.

"In terms of location or spiritual community?" he asks back.

"A hierarchy."

Hiaasen laughs. "I live on Islamorada, which is halfway between Miami and Key West. I can tell you there's no literati there. It's a fishing community. If I was a Miami city person I would be plugged into the literary hierarchy. There are a lot of people writing books there. A lot of people writing about the Cuban experience -- which is good because it's something the rest of us are completely unqualified to write about."

"You're not the first Floridian I've lunched with," I say. "I had lunch with big deal lawyer Roy Black, who told me Miami was the capital of Latin America."

Hiaasen nods. "Look at what's happened in the papers the last couple of weeks. This 6-year-old kid. Unbelievable." I instantly know he means the Cuban kid whose mother drowned smuggling him to Florida. "Their idea to get public sympathy for this child's cause is to block intersections," Hiaasen says. "Someone is going to get killed over this. It's insanity."

We continue eating our innocuous fish and discuss his career as a columnist vs. his novels. "It's hard to explain," he says. "The books are wonderful. They stick around and the columns are in the bird cage in a couple days. [No they aren't! Hiaasen's columns have been recently collected in "Kick Ass."] But in terms of immediate impact, when the juices are running the hottest and the public attention is the most intense, the columns are wonderful."

He tells me the Cuban kid is a good example. "A book about this case started today wouldn't be out for a year and half. A column can be out the next day. You can say, 'Stop this madness. Get this boy back to his father.' You can get in the paper. And people are talking about you. Screaming about you on talk radio. But in the middle of the fray, writing a novel is a much different muscle to be exercised. Writing-wise it's more challenging. More absorbing. A column is more of an extravagance. Not a duty, but something I feel a real strong moral obligation to do." He pauses. "If I stood at a rally and said -- as some Cubans did -- maybe this boy's father should be given some consideration, I'd be booed. Jeered. Chased. And this has been going on for 15 years. Dissension is not tolerated by the people who fled Fidel Castro in the name of tolerance."

"Have you been stalked by Cubans?" I ask.

"No," Hiaasen answers. "You know why? Because I'm not Cuban myself. I remember walking into the newsroom. There was a young Hispanic reporter in tears at her desk. She'd just had a death threat for the most innocuous story imaginable. For daring to suggest that there are two sides to every issue."

"Are there two sides to 'Sparky'?" I ask, referring to Florida's woefully inept electric chair.

He smiles. "Finally Jeb [the governor] decided Sparky wasn't good policy. All it takes is a couple guys' heads to explode and those Republicans go running for cover. We're like one of the last states in the union to have an electric chair and we don't have one that works. After the last guy got juiced, Jeb Bush's cavalier comment was, 'It's just a nosebleed.' He wants to look tough on crime, but lethal injection isn't tough enough. Lethal injection is too nice a way to kill someone."

I laugh. I move my fork toward my fish. Then I just set it back down. Do I really want to eat this? Sure. I take another forkful. Then I ask, "'Sick Puppy's' trip is comic eco-noir. Are you an ecologist with a big E? Or do you just become one after living in Florida?"

"I just grew up feeling this way," Hiaasen answers. "It's not saving a tree for the sake of saving a tree. If you save enough trees, you stop a lot of the graft and criminal behavior going on between politicians. They're selling their vote for what everyone wants -- a piece of the land. For that waterfront or lake front or estuary. What 'Sick Puppy' is about is that they can get it as long as they have these lobbyists. It's perfectly legal." He takes a bite of his fish.

"The thing down in Florida is you can get in your car and drive by the carnage. See the bulldozers fill in the estuary. I just always wanted to put one of these bastards into a book and have terrible things happen to him." He shakes his head and smiles. "I'm still amazed that readers get so plugged in to my books even though they're set in Florida. All these folks have had the same experience. Maybe they had their kid in their car and wanted to show something from their own childhood, a pond or a lake, and it was gone. It was a Wal-Mart. There is a unique and unforgettable feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you turn a corner and that place is not there. And that's what they say when they write, 'We're trying to save Lake So-and-So. They're trying to put in a shopping mall ...'" He pauses. "I'm thinking there are just so many good people who are just human beings who have a wonderful memory of the way something was."

Let me jump outside the narration of this lunch for a moment. A week or so later after we eat fish, 'Sick Puppy' hits the New York Times bestseller list. My immediate thought is, Good for Hiaasen.

This is a novel reaction for me. In my career, I've interviewed probably 50 novelists, and two dozen of them wrote that curious animal known as the "bestseller." I won't mention their names, but Hiaasen is the first writer whose marketplace success makes me feel good. Then I wonder why. He was neither arrogant nor humble. Hiaasen just was. And what he wasn't was New York cynical. New York world-weary. Then I realize Hiaasen is probably one of those peculiar animals called "good people." Or maybe just a typical Floridian?

We end lunch with espresso and Hollywood. We talk of Tinsel Town and that god-awful movie Demi Moore made out of Hiaasen's "Strip Tease." But there is no "Day of the Locust" in Hiaasen's vision of Hollywood. He has nothing but thoughtful enthusiasm.

"I always tell people, 'What's the worst thing that can happen to a writer who has a not-so-perfect movie made out of one of their books?'" Hiaasen says. "If that's the worst thing that ever happened to you, you've had a pretty damn good career." He shakes his head. "Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. I had fun. The check cleared. The script wasn't what I would have written, but the book had problems too. My books are not plotted to warm the cockles of a screenwriter's heart. There are a lot of subplots. Jumping around. They're really not star vehicles. I spend a lot of time on characters that to Hollywood must seem like minor characters. But they interest me. And if they interest me, I want to know about them. It's my book. When it lands in front of a screenwriter, they have to turn it into three acts. Make sense out of it. At the same time keep the humor, which is not slapstick. They can put on the screen a line or moment that is funny, but unless you have a narrator on the screen it's hard to capture the tone."

He then says something I never thought I'd hear a bestselling novelist admit. "People always say, 'God, screenwriters make so much money.' My response is, 'They earn it.'" But Hiaasen is not some goody-goody sap: "Check your pride at the door, is what I always say. Hollywood will always tell you that what you wrote is the best thing they've ever read. And as soon as you're out the door, they're on the phone to the guy they're going to get to rewrite it."

We're both done eating. This has been the most subliminal meal I've eaten in a long time. I am no longer hungry. But I'm not really full. If Hiaasen weren't so interesting I'd be carping about Stanhope culinary ennui. As we leave, Hiaasen remarks that my town, New York, "is the greatest city in the world." Before he's chauffeured to a television studio for an interview he tells me, "I feel much more comfortable here than in some places in Florida."

Where in Florida would Hiaasen not feel comfortable, I wonder. The Everglades? Disneyland? Then I know. A Wal-Mart built on a dredged wetland. Hiaasen's limo disappears up Fifth Avenue. I bet the word "fellatrixes" really exists.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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