For such an esteemed newspaperman, Carl Hiaasen kind of buried the lede.
The author of nearly 20 novels naturally wanted to talk about his newest breezy read, Razor Girl. He was also ready to wax about his beloved Florida and the greedheads who have despoiled the state’s beauty. And in this election season, how could a Miami Herald columnist not chat bemusedly about the absurdity of politics and corruption?
“You look at what America is gobbling up and you always write in fear that no matter how weird and depraved your fiction is, it’s going to look tame,” he said.
But Hiaasen was 40 minutes into a phone conversation when he casually mentioned that he blames his Norwegian heritage for the anxiety and self-doubt he feels as a writer.
Hold it. Self-loathing Norwegians? Does he know we invented self-loathing Norwegians in Minnesota? What’s your pedigree?
“My grandfather grew up in Devils Lake (North Dakota),” Hiaasen said. “He almost died in a blizzard as a kid, so he got it in his mind that he was going to get out of North Dakota. He came to Fort Lauderdale in 1922 to practise law.”
It gets better. Hiaasen’s grandfather married a woman from Benson, Minnesota. She died in 1930 and when the old man passed on at age 100, he was buried next to his wife in a little cemetery outside Benson.
“He kept a picture of the graveyard and we found it and arranged to have him buried there,” Hiaasen said.
Imagine that, Florida’s most distinctive current literary voice – a prophet crying over the Everglades and the Keys – has a stake in the frozen earth of Minnesota.
Hiaasen’s latest novel, Razor Girl, is set in the Florida Keys, a strip of islands built on fragile geography and a rich mythology. The story brims with sketchy low-lifes who skirt around the edges of probability. “My son, who was working at the Herald at the time, sent me this clip about an accident involving a woman who was grooming herself at high speed,” Hiaasen said. “And I thought: I have to find a way to get this into a novel, because no one’s going to believe this.”
He wove that incident into another South Florida weirdness – the business of ramming cars for insurance business – and he was on his way.
“There is a whole cottage industry of people who stage accidents,” Hiaasen said. “They work for crooked lawyers, crooked chiropractors, crooked doctors. They take old cars, crash into people and the insurance companies say, ‘Settle it?’ ”
An encounter between the Razor Girl and a mediocre Hollywood agent sets off a series of events with characters that include a Duck Dynasty-style celebrity, an avaricious lawyer and a former cop turned restaurant inspector. Hiaasen fans will recognise that last entry as Andrew Yancey, who was a hero in 2013’s Monkey Business.
He had never brought back a character from one novel to the next, but he felt he wasn’t finished with Yancey. Besides, the character allowed Hiaasen to plumb the rich trove of restaurant inspections that are posted online in Florida.
“There are separate categories for live and dead roaches, so these inspectors have to sit there and count which ones are moving and which ones are dead,” Hiaasen said. “So what would you do if you were a hot-shot cop (like Yancey) and this is what you’re doing?”
Hiaasen, 63, grew up in South Florida, fishing in the swampy waterways as a kid and then snaring a job at the Miami Herald as a reporter in his early 20s.
He worked as an investigative reporter and then became one of those rare newspaper journalists who become columnists. They get to stick their mug on the page and imagine that readers care what they think. He has used that soapbox to decry the degradation of his beloved state and to stick a shiv between the ribs of politicians who allow countless yards of concrete to be poured and regulations to be bent. His homeland, an accident of tropical beauty, has become a bizarre kind of metaphor for America.
“It’s a question of selling out,” he said. “When I was five, six years old, you saw these places disappearing and it affects you. And it should as an adult. It’s so beautiful.”
Hiaasen perhaps protests too much. He had for years a swanky shack in Islamadora, a point on the Keys best known recently as the setting for the hit Netflix drama Bloodline. The beachfront property had six bedrooms, a guest house, a cabana, an oversized pool and a private beach. He sold it earlier this year after listing it for US$3.4mil.
Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in baseball history, decamped to Islamadora each autumn because he loved to fish the warm Atlantic waters.
“When I first moved there in 1994, Ted was there a little bit, but it’s gotten exponentially more crowded,” Hiaasen said. “I love the Keys but you have six million people within a two-and-a-half hour drive.”
He started writing fiction in 1981 with Bill Montalbano, another Herald reporter. They fashioned three traditional thrillers and then Hiaasen went on his own with Tourist Season in 1986. It spun a story about eco-terrorism and the Orange Bowl, two symbols in which South Florida’s despoliation and excess meet.
Hiaasen has also written novels for young audiences, rummaging in much the same environmental issues and weird characters, although he obviously doesn’t include someone such as a half-naked woman shaving herself on the expressway.
Then there is the Herald column he writes weekly. This political year has made that endeavour as much fun as spearing carp in a barrel. A news junkie, he skims several newspapers a day (mostly online) and watches the evening news with an eye for the absurdity that increasingly has come to pass for normal life, particularly in Florida.
“Fraud, criminal scam, election mayhem, it usually happens first in Florida, in an extreme and unforgettable way,” he said. “It’s great material if you’re a novelist but if you’re a citizen and you’re thinking of your children and grandchildren..?”
Hiaasen writes in an instantly recognisable style. The pace is swift, the humour irreverent, the ideas presented simply through metaphors rather than dialectic argument. Newspaper writing taught him to grab readers early and get them on their way.
The work, while financially and spiritually rewarding, leaves him spent at the end of a long day in his home office. If you imagine him staring into the gorgeous Florida sun and coast, think again. He prefers a blank wall in front of him and he wears ear mufflers to keep out distraction.
Trick of satire
“My mission is to make people laugh for the right reasons – that’s the trick of satire,” he said. “But I don’t come out of my office with a grin on my face. I come out looking like I just went to a funeral. By the 25th time that I’m scanning something, I’m looking at every comma, semi-colon, how it rings in my head. It’s exhausting if you’re doing it right.”
Ah, he is a self-loathing Norwegian.
When he’s not writing, fishing, walking the beach or scanning the news for ripe folly, Hiaasen is on the book tour treadmill. In 18 hours, he swoops into town, finds his hotel room, does interviews, signings, events and flies out again. And for all its insanity, Florida still beckons him when he looks down from his airplane window and sees America’s most famous peninsula.
“I feel like I’m home. Part of that is because I’ve lived here my whole life, but part of it is that it’s such an incredibly beautiful place,” he said.
His brief visit to Minnesota on his current tour won’t afford him a chance to fish, or to drive out to Benson and pay his respects to the grandfather who rescued him from the North Dakota windscape.
“This is the curse of the book tour,” he said. “When I’m there, I’m always on business.
“When we buried my grandfather, we went out from Minneapolis to Benson and we really got a feel for the countryside. It was a beautiful trip to a beautiful place and it’s one of the many places I wish I could stay longer.” – Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/Tribune News Service/Graydon Royce