BookPage has the distinction of being the first to interview Dave Barry on his first novel, Big Trouble, a flaming rollercoaster ride through the mean streets and fleshpots of Miami. In these pages you’ll find crazy Russian mobsters, icy Mafia killers, beautiful women, ugly sociopaths, a poisonous toad the size of a bowling ball, a dog with a dilemma, and one ticking suitcase that puts them all in harm’s way.
BookPage: First of all, the painfully obvious question, just to get it out of the way: Are you making this up?
Dave Barry: Yes and no. I’ve read a lot of interviews with fiction writers, and apparently many people don’t realize that it’s possible to make things up out of thin air, which is called fiction. In this case, the characters are all made up. Except for the ones I didn’t have to make up. The city of Miami has got to be the weirdest city in the United States. You can’t really embellish it. So any of these characters could be found in Miami.
BP: Big Trouble starts and ends with Puggy, a homeless individual. He’s admirable in every way; you obviously like him a lot. Is this an alter ego, who Dave Barry might have been if not for kismet?
DB: In the sense that Puggy really likes beer, yeah. I like to think that I’m a few notches higher on the IQ level than Puggy, although so are most domestic animals. He always ends up doing the right thing, although his real quest is for more beer.
BP: Was writing this book a whole lot of work, or did you dash off this first novel in your spare moments?
DB: It was a whole lot of work, but I really enjoyed the process. It’s so different from writing columns or nonfiction books. With a novel, you find yourself lying in bed wondering, "What will they do next, and how will they do it?" I was worried at times that I wouldn’t be able to figure it out, but then when the next part came, it was extremely satisfying. And often surprising. I talked to several writers — Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, James Hall, and Les Standiford, just to name a few who were generous with advice — and they all said there would come a time when each character would make it clear what he or she wanted to do. And they were all exactly right.
BP: Big Trouble has "Make Me Into a Movie" blazoned across it in sky-high neon letters. Who do you see Stanley Tucci playing?
DB: Probably one of the Mob guys, or one of the Russians. But he’s such a wonderful actor, he could play Jenny or Monica or Roger the dog and still make you believe it.
BP: Did you write the FBI men, Greer and Seitz, with Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci in mind? Or do you see taller Feds?
DB: No no no. One is tall, one short. They’re physically different in every way. Actually, I named them after my neighbors across the street, who are both incredibly wonderful people. So I lifted the names, transposed first and last, and made them horrible, amoral government agents.
BP: In the inevitable movie, name a cameo role you could play.
DB: One of the four jerk lawyers smoking cigars in the crowded restaurant. Maybe the one who figures out real quick that the smoking lamp is going out, per the gentle suggestion of the hit man, Henry.
BP: In the flashback scene where Eliot quits by giving his idiot boss’s computer a flying brogan, I sensed either a secret desire or an actual event in history. Which is it?
DB: Never happened. Not that it couldn’t. But I was taking the obligatory potshot at the newspaper industry, where everything is processed by committee and the end goal is to create a commercial product. There’s a covert war that’s always going on between editors and writers. However, let it be writ large that where I work at the Miami Herald, there are zero editors who are that jerky. No, it was just getting some old grudges out at the business, and I wanted to make it plain why Eliot would wind up so dramatically stuck in advertising. Because he burned his bridges in journalism.
BP: Is any resemblance of a living person to the Client From Hell purely accidental? And have you ever met, or licked, the Enemy Toad, arch-nemesis of Roger the dog?
DB: Surely a Client From Hell exists somewhere, possibly named Legion. And speaking of toads, one of the things that struck me when I moved to Miami in 1986 was all the dangerous wildlife living around here. Pretty scary when you think about it. Back then I lived next to a canal, and this giant Bufo marinus toad — you can’t believe how ugly these things are — marched up and took over my dog’s dish. And he was a big fierce dog, too. So that part actually happened. By the way, dogs are such wonderful characters in real life that I had to write Roger into the book.
BP: In one particularly scary scene with Snake and Eddie, the reader encounters a moment of fairly graphic sex and violence.
DB: Well, it was really hard for me to write that scene, but I wanted to show that Snake and Eddie, who previously seemed to be harmless losers, are in fact truly bad guys. Especially Snake, who is an actually evil person: rotten, unlikeable, impolite, unchivalrous, and mean-spirited.
BP: Earlier you mentioned the scene involving four cigar-puffing lawyers in a crowded restaurant. Was this a personal fantasy, or were you just giving your readers a uniquely satisfying moment in literature?
DB: Oh, occasionally I’ve wished I were a large and ugly Mafia hit man with no sense of humor about violations of common courtesy and the Clean Air Act; and yes, I have more than once been in restaurants where the same scene occurred but without such a happy ending. Not that I encourage aggravated assault on the criminally inconsiderate, or mean people who are otherwise immune to reason. That would be wrong. Delightful to witness, but wrong.
Jeff Taylor is author of Tools of the Trade and Tools of the Earth (both by Chronicle Books).