Writer Hiassen talks about fans and foul weather

By Greg D'Avis

Arizona Daily Wildcat

After six novels, Floridan mystery novelist Carl Hiassen is moving into the upper echelon of popular authors. His latest novel from Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, Stormy Weather an outrageous tale of corruption and chaos in post-hurricane Florida has hit the New York Times Bestseller List and Demi Moore is starring in the forthcoming film version of Strip Tease, one of his previous novels. Hiassen is unique among current mystery novelists he has a warped sense of humor rarely seen in his peers, and manages to inject a strong sense of personal outrage and politics into his novels without becoming heavy-handed or distracting. He's also created one of the most original and bizarre characters in current fiction in Skink, the one-eyed, roadkill-eating, demented ex-governor of Florida. Mutato had the opportunity to interview Hiassen while he was in Phoenix on the book tour for Stormy Weather.

Mutato: How is the new book doing?

Carl Hiassen: They tell me it's doing fine. Of course, they always tell you that when you're on the road. I guess any time you make the New York Times bestseller list it's a good sign. I'm encouraged, but when you're out on the road it's hard to tell. You're sort of detached from any reliable information, but they (Knopf) have told me they're happy.

M: Just from interacting with fans, what sort of response have you got?

CH: Oh, the readers are great. That's the single redeeming factor of these book tours getting to meet the people that actually buy the books, or get them out of the library, or steal them or whatever they do (laughter) .... It's still nice to hear what they have to say and learn which characters they like the best. Just chatting with them at these readings and signings is by far the best part of these tours.

M: The hurricane plays a central part of Stormy Weather. As a Floridan, do you have a different attitude or take on hurricanes than the rest of the country?

CH: I don't know... we have more of them, certainly. We're sort of on the front lines with hurricanes, but God knows they've devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana, and up the coast to Charleston. It's interesting because almost everybody's affected by these storms. There was a bunch of rain that moved through the midwest that came from one of these Pacific hurricanes. Everybody is touched by them, but we're right out there where the big nasty ones are. You have a very strong awareness of when hurricane season starts. Ever since I was a little kid, I can remember the bringing out the shutters and getting ready. But, I think you do tend to forget what a direct hit is like. Hurricane Andrew woke up a lot of us. It hit in southern Dade County, and most of the folks who were there were relatively new arrivals it had been 30 years since the big storm came ashore there. You had a lot of time to forget how bad it is. A lot of folks had never been through one and didn't have a clue how bad it could be. The physical destruction was one thing, but the emotional aftershock of having everything destroyed was something else.

M: You obviously have a strong sense of environmental beliefs they were most prevalent in Native Tongue, but also in all the books and in the recent Sports Illustrated article. How did those develop, and do you want to expand on your feelings?

CH: I think anyone who was born and raised in Florida, which is an extremely special place, and then had to watch it destroyed day by day just by pure greed and wanton development, it's bound to make you angry and it's bound to make you want to fight back. I've been lucky because I've been able to do that with my writing, with my newspaper columns and magazine articles and certainly the novels although they're satirical novels, I certainly sneak in a few shots wherever I can at types of people I think richly deserve it. You never know if it does any good the response is positive enough and strong enough wherever I go that it seems to me there is a universal experience of people who go back to a place out of their childhood, whether it's a river or a meadow or whatever, and there's a Wal-Mart or a car dealership. You're going to have the same reaction, the same twisted feeling in the gut, because it just doesn't seem right. It pisses people off, and it ought to. The novels are a great way to get a certain amount of revenge and to work out some of the hostility without resorting to the extreme measures that some of my characters do.

M: Skink seems to be the most memorable and prevalent of your recurring characters. Does he represent what you wish you could do?

CH: I think at some level, yes there's certain things that he says and does that I envy him for doing. At another level, he's sort of wishful thinking. I've been asked more times than I can remember who I based Skink on, and my response is always that I wish I had someone to base him on. I wish there was somebody like that. It's one of those characters you invent purely out of longing and because you want somebody like that on stage, if not in real life, at least in fiction.

M: In your novels for instance, there's Max in Stormy Weather you don't seem to like tourists very much...

CH: Well, some tourists. That's like saying I don't like politicians. There's the occasional honest politician, and there are certainly respectful tourists who come down and don't litter and don't trash the place, and they're fine. But there's also people who don't get it, who are just there because it's the only place they can think of to take a vacation. There's a reason that Max goes to Disneyworld first. I don't know how many millions of people go to Disneyworld it's like the Holy Grail. That's fine, but Disneyworld could be in Phoenix or in Minneapolis and it would be the same attraction. There's nothing unique to Florida about Disneyworld. In the book, you are symbolically and physically taking Max who's a sap and taking him out of the hermetic, safe environment of Disneyworld and putting him in the wilderness and watching him try to survive in the clutches of a madman. He's surrounded by real humans, real events and things he can't control, because that's what real life is and that's what south Florida is. That's the purpose of Max. Also, after Hurricane Andrew came through, we had these bozos hopping in their cars and driving down to Homestead with their video cameras, and treating this whole disaster like an amusement. What's appalling as you might think that is, it was going on to the extent that police had to beg sightseers and tourists to stay off the highways so they could get the rescue vehicles in. It was rubbernecking to the most despicable degree. It was on every TV in the state, no one had to be there in person, but there was this strange calling to go down there and get in the way.

M: Does your increasing notoriety as a novelist cross over and impact your work as a reporter?

CH: It's harder. I write a column, so I'm not doing the legwork I was when I was investigative. But it is a dual identity thing to some extent. It makes it difficult when you're doing your job as a journalist and calling people up anonymity and invisibility are good things when you're trying to get information. People react differently. They're either stumbling over themselves to help or they run in terror and call in sick for the next five days.

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