September 06, 2016

Carl Hiaasen

Florida’s still crazy after all these years

It’s been 30 years since homegrown Florida farceur Carl Hiaasen sucker-punched us with Tourist Season, his cockeyed beach-read salute to a state far weirder and funnier than we were led to believe by the works of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings or John D. MacDonald. He's back with a new madcap adventure set in the Florida Keys.

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It’s been 30 years since homegrown Florida farceur Carl Hiaasen sucker-punched us with Tourist Season, his cockeyed beach-read salute to a state far weirder and funnier than we were led to believe by the works of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings or John D. MacDonald.

In the years since, the Miami Herald columnist has turned out a dozen equally deranged satires, establishing his own sunbaked, bestselling subgenre with truth-in-publishing titles like Strip Tease, Sick Puppy, Basket Case and Skinny Dip. He also managed to share his skewed view of the world with kids, launching Hoot in 2002 (the Jimmy Buffett-produced film version followed in 2006). That series continued with Flush, Scat, Chomp and Skink—No Surrender.

Off-page, he played guitar—badly—with fellow authors Stephen King and Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders, wrote songs with Warren Zevon and saw Strip Tease transformed into a blockbuster film starring Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds.

In his latest novel, Razor Girl, Hiaasen returns to Key West for another twisted tale featuring ex-detective Andrew Yancy (Bad Monkey), who’s been demoted to island restaurant inspector. Warning: You may not get past page one without a spit-take at the set up for this ribald tale involving staged accidents, mob-backed beach renourishment, a “Duck Dynasty”-like reality TV star run amok—and something called a Gambian pouched rat.

Did you vet that first scene in Razor Girl with your wife, Fenia, and the family?
It was based on an actual accident that had happened in the Keys a few years ago. My oldest son had emailed me the newspaper article about a woman who was shaving her “bikini area” and crashing a car. It elicited some wonderfully bewildered comments from the State Highway Patrolman who had to work the accident. Anyway, I’d filed it away and kept wondering, how do I work something like this into the book somehow? So I finally decided to hell with it, I’ll just start the book with it and see what happens from there, because there’s no subtle way to ease into a scene like that.

Florida being an epicenter of staged accident fraud . . .
Yeah, it’s a big deal down there. We have such insurance fraud in general and Medicare in particular, so there’s no shortage of manpower if you want to launch a scam like [the title character Merry does]; we have plenty of volunteers. It’s amazing what people will do, the amount of enterprise that goes into a crime. If only they could have redirected that energy to something productive.

For the first time in years, you’re no longer a Keys resident, right?
Yeah, we just closed on our place in Islamorada, as a matter of fact. It was painful, but we weren’t spending very much time down there. We lived there for quite a while, then we moved and got down there whenever we could, but it wasn’t enough. And the kids are basically grown at this point; our youngest is starting his junior year in high school, and that’s a pretty consuming year. Our recent family vacation trips are numbered and you fit in the college search, so. We still go down there; we just stay in a hotel like normal people.

The best part of the closing was, the buyers had the walk-through and we have a North American crocodile that lives down there. You don’t see them that much; they’re very skittish, not like alligators. They really stay away from people. So it’s very cool when you see one. So they did the walk through with their Realtor and there was the croc sprawled out on our beach. They signed the papers right away, so it didn’t scare them off. Florida is one of the few places where you have to worry about something like that screwing up your real estate deal. I was pleased that he put in an appearance.

"Florida is one of the few places where you have to worry about [a crocodile] screwing up your real estate deal."

You’re a master at weaving in all manner of Florida exotica into your novels, but readers may not have heard of Razor Girl’s resident rodent, the Gambian pouched rat. Is there such a beast?
Yeah, yeah, they’re real. I’ve never laid eyes on one; I wish I had. I’ve been reading news stories for years about these in the Marathon area, so I started to research these things and they’re exactly as I describe them in the book. Nowadays you can go online and see images of them, and the very first one I pulled up to look at showed some guy in Senegal holding one up on a pitchfork, and they’re huge. In others, people made pets out of them and were walking them like poodles on little harnesses. I just became intrigued that these would make a great foe for Yancy as a restaurant inspector. It feeds all of my perverse literary instincts.

Floridians do tend to underestimate the breeding potential of nonnative wild animals, as witnessed by the python population in the Everglades.
Yeah, these would be perfect python food. The pythons might take care of them, but then what takes care of the python?

Yancy made his debut in your last adult novel, Bad Monkey. Are we talking series here?
I like him. I’ve never had the same protagonist in two successive novels, but I like him. I’m fond of the guy and I felt bad for him. He was a good cop and I wanted to see him press on his case to get back on the police force, so I decided to give him a try to get his badge back.

Yancy’s restaurant-inspector purgatory does have its warped appeal, however.
I do enjoy the restaurant inspection stuff. In Florida, all the restaurant inspections are a matter of public record and you can go online and call up your favorite or least favorite restaurant and read with either glee or chagrin what was discovered in the last rodent feces and pestilence. They count them, even. It was fascinating, so I had a bunch of those files I used. And when I met my wife, she was managing a restaurant down in the Keys, so I certainly had some insight in that sense, and it just seemed like an interesting kind of job to go to from being a cop. At the same time, you still need some cop skills. Some of those kitchens look like crime scenes! If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s early books, he just went nuts!

Speaking of nuts, Yancy’s romance with our razor girl Merry is hardly beach-read material.
(Laughs) No; sometimes people are attracted to the wrong kind of people for the right kind of reasons, if that makes sense. I like the character of Merry quite a bit from the very first page on. She had a good energy and kept everyone off-balance, which is something you look for in a character because that happens in real life. You meet people like that. Yes, she’s involved in this scam, but she does have morals and lines she doesn’t cross. Plus, she’s smarter than most of the guys she meets, which is also true in real life for the most part. She’s resourceful and doesn’t let herself get pushed around. I like women characters who are always a step or two ahead of the male characters. Those type of characters end up surprising you as you’re writing them, and that’s great fun.

"Sometimes people are attracted to the wrong kind of people for the right kind of reasons, if that makes sense."

You managed to keep the “Duck Dynasty”-inspired Buck Nance subplot comfortably offstage for the most part. Was that intentional?
Oh God, yeah; especially now. I was writing and some of this was set pre-Trump.

Speaking of Trump, did you sign the anti-Trump petition along with your Rock-Bottom Remainder comrade Stephen King and hundreds of other authors?
I haven’t even seen it, but I’ve been in Montana for several months. I’ve had him in my columns so my position is pretty clear on him.

I take it you won’t be checking the Donald’s ballot box this fall?
Yeah. Selfishly, part of me would want to, just because of the column material I would have. I’ve met him twice; once at a movie premiere in New York, the other at an Everglades Foundation conference at Mar-a-Lago. I’ll look up Stephen’s petition, but suffice to say I’m not going to get invited back to Mar-a-Lago.

It’s been 30 years since your breakthrough novel, Tourist Season. Since then, you’ve had bestselling films made of your books, Jimmy Buffett songs written about your characters and a rock band of literary musicians to occupy your spare time.
It’s mindboggling. Almost impossible to think about that. I haven’t been on stage with the Remainders or touched a guitar in 10 years. I don’t really have an excuse for that. Since my buddy Warren Zevon passed away a few years ago, I haven’t felt the mood to pick up the six or seven chords that I actually knew.

One of your nonfiction books that has earned its own rabid following is The Downhill Lie, about your futile attempt to master the game of golf. Do you still play, if only in vain?
No. I messed up my back and had surgery about two-and-a-half years ago, and they assured me I would be back on the golf course inside of three months, but that’s not the case. I do go back and try, but I get about seven holes and it hurts. Tiger Woods has had the same surgery several times, but it only took one time to put me out of action. It does get to me. I could probably still play a little, but all it would take in my case is one bad shot and I would be back on the operating table. I still love to follow it on television very avidly, but when you have that kind of pain, you don’t need to be asked twice to take a seat.           

Is there a book you’ve always wanted to write? Your great white whale?
No. I have to say, and this is going to sound very unambitious, but it’s always the next book. I do alternate between the kids’ books and the grownup books now, so as soon as I’ve finished one, I’m already fixating on the next one. I think it’s sort of a newspaper mentality: What’s the next story? What’s the next book? I love fly-fishing, but so many great writers have written about fly-fishing that I have no great desire to weigh in on that; it’s been done better than I could do it.

What writers excite you today?
There’s a really great young fiction writer out in Montana named Callan Wink, who just had a book of short stories out (In Hindsight). You read his stuff and you hear echoes of Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison. I think he’s going to be a big talent; he really is a sharp kid.

Will we be seeing Skink again?
I don’t know. I never am sure. They’ve got to be books in which he fits; where it’s logical for him to sort of pop up. The story may come to me. Right now, I’m focused on a new kid’s book, and Skink appeared in the last one of those, but this one is different. My characters go all over the map and it’s like herding kittens to try to keep them confined. I get so wrapped up in that that I don’t think very far down the road. I know some writers who can tell you what their next three books will be, but I can’t tell you what my next three paragraphs will be. That’s just the way I’ve always done it. And all the time, keeping one eye on the news because I’m still doing the Herald column once a week when I’m not traveling. And in political years, that always claims a lot of my attention.

Prediction time: Who’s going to win the presidential election this November?
I think Hillary is going to win. It’s going to be difficult for Trump to carry Florida because of the Hispanics and African Americans. And women; women voters are not fond of him down there. Those are key groups. That’s why Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012. But our hope and prayer is that it doesn’t come down to Florida; let it be Ohio or Pennsylvania. We’ve had our share of the spotlight.

As if!

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Razor Girl.

 Author photo by Quinn Hiaasen.

Get the Book

Razor Girl

Razor Girl

By Carl Hiaasen
Knopf
ISBN 9780385349741

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