He's the modern writer most closely associated with the state of Florida -- and he's thinking about leaving.
Carl Hiaasen, the author of many novels including "Strip Tease" and "Skinny Dip," has just put out a collection of his Miami Herald columns entitled "Dance of the Reptiles." The collection ranges widely from the local to the national, from the beginning of the George W. Bush years to the 2012 election, and from local bribery scandals to Anthony Weiner. Hiaasen told Salon that covering the quintessentially American state has been essential to his well-regarded fiction career, but added: "there are certainly days when I think about leaving, as much as I love this place."
And little wonder -- Hiaasen's nonfiction paints Florida as one of the most frustrating and multifarious places on earth. But when it comes to the biggest Floridian story of the past 12 months, the trial of George Zimmerman, Hiaasen didn't think it was regionally specific: "I think it could have happened anywhere."
Hiaasen spoke with Salon about how the state has changed, which part of Florida is most Floridian and whether (as Jennifer Weiner has alleged recently) his career has seen special privileging because of his gender. But, again and again, the conversation returned to Florida and its scammers, sleazebags and folks on the make. As Hiaasen said: "That’s been going on in Florida since the beginning of Florida. Now it's at a fever pitch."
How, over time, has Florida changed?
Sure, I mean, I can go back to my childhood for that. The transformation from Florida from, very basically, a rural agricultural state with a modest tourist industry to becoming a very metropolitan state in many ways. That has fueled a lot of, I guess, the end of my novels, and for the nonfiction the chronicling of the change has been an ending in itself.
The columns which I’ve been writing for about 25 or 26 years, and before that the journalism, was all centered on the fact that things were changing in Florida so incredibly fast that you had this tremendous embarrassment of riches in terms of the material that you were dealing with. There was scarcely a week that went by where there wasn't a column idea, or two or three, there would be so much stuff happening. But it is usually only done within margins of sleep. The state has grown — basically quadrupled in size — and it is such a dramatic change that you can write about it forever and ever.
There's been the sprouting of cities in places they weren’t meant to be and you can see nature rebelling…
In that case I don’t think nature rebels quite often enough as far as I’m concerned. You have this incredible dichotomy, or, I should say, divergence in Florida — you have all these immigrants from all directions coming here. Originally, in the old days, "retired New Yorkers" was the cliché, then the Midwesterners and the Westerners go to Florida, and then of course the major Caribbean immigration -- you know, Cuba and many other locations in Central and South America.
With that population change, you had the incredible collision of cultures that needs to be covered journalistically and written about as we have. But, as with any booming area, on the margin of this, you have predators and scammers and sleazebags that are here just to take advantage of the newcomers, or that follow them the same way that a lion tries to follow a herd of gazelles waiting for the lame and the crippled to prey on. And that’s been going on in Florida since the beginning of Florida. Now it's at a fever pitch.
To what degree was the trial of George Zimmerman particular to Florida? Was it the sort of thing that could have happened anywhere?
You know, honestly, I think it could have happened anywhere, but there were a couple things going on. Central Florida, as you know, is a much different demographic than South Florida — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, those places — so the juries are going to be more conservative. But in this case in the very beginning, you had a prosecutor that overcharged the case as second-degree murder. It wouldn’t have been a second-degree murder in any county, in any liberal Democrat or conservative Republican draw. And I’m not second-guessing, I don’t know why the charge was leveled, but right away the deck was stacked against the prosecutors; in fact, in favor of Zimmerman’s defense lawyers. And so you sort of saw that play out in advance: This is what’s going to happen — you’re going to get acquitted and everyone is going to be looking. But what’s unique is that Florida — and I mean, other states have stand your ground laws, even ones more liberal than Florida on gun control, if that’s even possible.
But I think you had a couple elements: the proximity to Orlando, and everyone has heard of Disney World and Magic Kingdom. And you had a real gruff example of a real-life tragedy playing out, and it was a tragedy. Zimmerman precipitated that whole event, he triggered the whole series of events that led to that kid’s death. He himself and nobody else. And you have this contrast that everybody thinks of when they think of Orlando and they think of sort of the Disney thing and you have this sort of tragedy take place on a cloudy day and a gun he shouldn’t have had and all that stuff. So it becomes one of those "Only in Florida" cases. But I think it could have easily happened in Arkansas or Georgia or, you know, anywhere.
Your novels have a lot of fans, but I wonder if people, even now, are surprised to learn that you write nonfiction. What has kept you writing nonfiction, and are people who don't subscribe to the Herald still surprised to learn that you are doing it?
You’re right. Although I do get letters on the columns from all over, because the columns appear in newspapers around the country. But I think by and large, you’re right. In Florida, you know, I was known as a journalist probably before I was known as a novelist, so the folks here that read the books and are voracious about that kind of stuff anyway will read through the novels and then they will go back through the collections of columns.
But outside of Florida, no, the people see in the bio on the book jacket and learn that I still work for the Herald. I know it’s classified as nonfiction, but in my mind, it’s journalism. It’s commentary that you see on the op-ed pages all over the United States. I’ve done nonfiction for whimsical sorts of books. The columns themselves are serious stuff. What I do is sort of a local or statewide column once a month and then I will do a column a little more national in scope. But in many, many cases, national stories have a very strong Florida connection. That’s just the way things have played out. Look at David Petraeus or Eliot Spitzer. You go down the list of scandals, and there is almost always a Florida connection so it dovetails right into an opportunity for me to write about it.
It’s interesting to me that looking through your book, there were a lot of national stories. As a newspaper columnist, is there any sort of special responsibility you feel when covering events of national import?
It's just like a job. Your number-one responsibility when you write something as opinion is: you get your facts right. You know, there are a lot of satirical columns and funny columns, and obviously there is the joke that the commentary is about something important. If you look back and maybe you’re too young to remember, but columnists have written humorously all the time on everything from Vietnam to Nixon, and you go on. So those columns themselves are going to have a different tone.
But the columns you see on the war in Iraq, the columns you see about Afghanistan, and certainly the Cheney stuff, you know, doesn’t pull any punches. At the same time I’m going to make sure that everything I got in those columns, unless it’s satirical — you know, satirical columns — you want to make sure your facts are straight and accurate because you are only good as your research is.
Now, and this is the age we live in — the age of Googling things and everything else as you already know — it’s easy to not get your facts straight. So when you’re writing a column about Iraq and you’re trying to list the number of American casualties and Iraqi civilians, you get the most recent information you can and you make sure it’s right and all that goes into the column. In the end, I think your responsibility is just to be true to some principle and consistent and not change your position just for a laugh or just to get a few extra readers.
I mean, you know the stuff on gun control that’s in there — and I own guns — and the NRA leadership is a bunch of lunatics. And I’m a gun owner. So I’m going to write that way, and I could care less about what they think about it or the mail that they send or the emails that they generate. I couldn't give a rat’s ass. I know lots and lots and lots of gun owners that are not a part of the NRA who do not agree with the idea that we should be able to have or buy a semi-automatic weapon and carry it around in your car or to a school and a public building. It’s insanity. We are the only country in the world that allows that kind of nonsense.
If you weren’t from Florida, would you still find Florida as interesting as you do?
That’s a good question, because there are certainly days when I think about leaving, as much as I love this place. But there are days where the political landscape is so desolate and so discouraging that I think about going somewhere else. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d be having a lot of fun as a columnist. If I lived in California, there’s a lot of places — Texas, certainly — where the material is just fantastic if you are writing a good, tough column, and you get a kick out of making fun of gasbags in politics. That exists anywhere.
What’s important is: I don’t know if I lived somewhere else that I would look at Florida in the same way as I do now. I don’t feel that I would have the same sense of anger and the same sense of betrayal of public officials. And just watching the place get destroyed by concrete, if you don’t live there, I don’t write about it with the same kind of energy. And I don’t think the scalpel is as sharp if you don’t have an emotional investment.
You were mentioned in The New Yorker last week as part of the conversation about how male writers are seen as getting, automatically, more attention and respect than female writers...
I have to say, I get the New Yorker, but I've been out of town, so I didn’t see it.
An author, Jennifer Weiner, was quoted remarking that she didn’t get the same level of critical-attention marketing as you do, and it was implied it's because your books are marketed toward men…
You know, I have to say, it’s kind of ironic because when I go to book signings I would say 75 percent of the people there are women, at least, except when I go do signings for the kids' books that I write — the novels that I do for kids — parents often come together with their kids. But I think the idea that it is being marketed to men, judging by the letters and the attendance at the book signings, that would shock me that my readership is predominantly male. I think there is certainly a male voice, a male narrative voice, in a lot of the novels. But I’ve also written numerous novels where the main character was a woman, was a heroine. So, in those cases it’s exactly the same as the last book. I see the point she is trying to make, but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
Is there a region of Florida that is the most Floridian — the epitome of every complex aspect of Florida?
Let me think about it for a minute. I can’t think of a place that sort of embodies everything because Florida is such a complicated and different place. The panhandle — you are basically in Southern Alabama. In Miami, you’re basically in Havana, Cuba. But that in between area I can’t think of, you know, if there are times… there have been arguments made that voters should actually be two different states. So it’s hard for me to think even geographically or politically or sociologically of a place that would embody all the weirdness and diversity of Florida. I suppose… gosh. I can’t think of one. Just because of the very tropical nature of South Florida and the very southern, almost gothic, parts of North Florida, and the center piece — the middle part of Florida — is just a mix of everything.
You know, I think you can get on an airplane leaving Orlando or Miami and feel like you’re getting the full breadth and measure of the Florida experience with the airline passengers. You know, you could be riding on the same plane with a high-ranking member of a drug cartel, a family of a mom, a dad, and five kids.
You’re such a prolific novelist and you churn out nonfiction, do you ever want to sit back and take a break?
I do. I do. But, here’s the deal. First of all, the newspaper business is such that it’s all about production and by that I don’t mean quantity, but I mean the rhythm of the writing, the column. I build the rest of my week around my column. If you take time away for a while, you could lose the rhythm for the rest of what you do in life. I know that must sound odd, but it is very much a part of the discipline you need to do your other work, and it’s one reason why I’ve continued writing a column all these years. Part of it is because I love Florida and I don’t want to give up the place.
But part of it is the discipline of the column itself is so important to the rest of what I do with my other writing and the material and the research I do for the column often overflows into the fiction and the other stuff. It’s sort of a valuable bounce of inspiration. I don’t want to give that up either.
Because you’re able to put into practice in your fiction so much from your nonfiction, it’s a valuable resource…
Yes, it really is. It keeps me connected. When you’re writing novels, it’s easy to get off the road. And by that I mean get sucked into the world of your characters you are creating and writing about. But the columns keeps me rooted in real-life headlines and because all my novels are set in modern times, in real life, and they have a sort of journalistic pacing to them it’s important for me to be able to hold on to the newspaper columns as long as they’ll let me.