spotlight on Carl Hiaasen

For writer, `Hoot' is a childhood recalled

Journalist-novelist's stories are often filled with wacky characters


LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES-- --There's no doubt about it, novelist-journalist Carl Hiaasen writes about weirdoes. His books Strip Tease, Stormy Weather and Lucky You are packed with bizarre characters: a petty crook who fences hot wheelchairs, a 7-foot hit man, a guy who has a weed whacker surgically attached to his arm.

"Growing up and working in Florida, the material is so rich," says Hiaasen, seated at a table in an empty hotel room here.

"You can only put so much in the newspaper; in the meantime you have all this overflow, this great material, this great inspiration, and what better place to put it than in a novel? If people outside of Florida think you're making it all up, people who live in Florida see the novels as documentaries. It's a well you go to when you're writing fiction all the time."

Hiaasen, whose brother, Rob, is a reporter on The Sun's staff, moderates his characters when he's writing kids' books. His first, Hoot, was essentially a memoir of his childhood in South Florida and has been made into a movie opening today. Even it boasts a Huckleberry Finn-like character and a few wacky families.

Hiaasen has been writing all his life. "When I was 6 my dad got me a typewriter. And I had no idea I could make a living at it, but I just knew I enjoyed it. Everything else has been sort of gravy. I knew if I was going to write and learn how the world worked, newspapers was the place to go and do that."

He was married at 17, a father at 18, and still managed to attend the University of Florida and snag a reporting job by the time he was 21. He was 22 when his dad died unexpectedly, and Hiaasen returned home to help his mother and accept a job at The Miami Herald.

"My sisters were in college and my little brother was getting ready to go to college. I thought, `My mom's going to be in that house [alone].' The Herald offered me a job in the Brower [County] bureau so I took the job and went back to South Florida. Not that I'm a great humanitarian, but it was a good job. ... Career-wise it would've been stupid to say no, but personally it would've been unthinkable to say no."

Hiaasen, who's dressed in a navy blue polo shirt, jeans and a gray Harris Tweed jacket, still writes a Sunday column for the paper, but most of his efforts fall to his books. "Writing a novel is a different muscle than writing a 900-word newspaper column," he says, his gray hair contrasting with his tanned face.

"It's large and more complicated and the exercise is much more challenging. The fact remains that you go into a room and close the door with nothing, and come out hours later, beaten and bedraggled and worn down, with something - with something worth publishing, hopefully."

His first three books were written with editor Bill Montalbano, but when Montalbano transferred to the China bureau it became more difficult. "I had a book I wanted to write, a very seditious little novel called Tourist Season, about a motley gang of eco-terrorists who start bumping off tourists in Florida. And it was every Floridian's secret pipe dream - the unspoken dream. I went ahead and wrote it. It was very different from the stuff I wrote with Bill. It got published in '86 and that's how I am where I am today."

Hiaasen, 53, says the toughest time was when he and his first wife divorced after 26 years of marriage. "You get married at a very early age, you're both kids, teenagers, and just grow up differently. I think that was brutally hard on both of us, but I think it was absolutely the right thing to do. But at the time if you didn't have a midlife crisis before, you suddenly do, thinking, `Wow, this is where I've gotten in my life?'...

"It's always been my nature to write through these problems. When my dad passed away and when the divorce happened, I would just lock myself in the room and I would just write. People couldn't understand it. Living in Florida, I always had a boat, was out fishing, doing stuff, but people didn't understand. They'd say, `How can you work?' I said, `How can you not?' This was the anchor or the lifesaver you hang on to."

Hiaasen remarried eight years ago and has a 6-year-old son, a 15-year-old stepson, a 34-year-old son and three grandchildren. "That's part of why the idea of these kids' books appeals to me," he says.

"It would've been easy not to get married again and have a very nice life. And write at home and fish when I wanted to, but you insulate yourself so much from what's happening. When you have young kids or a teenager running around the house, you are connected to modern culture whether you want to be or not. And I think it's essential if you're a novelist working in this country to be connected to modern culture. I don't mean dropping brand names and throwing an iPod into every scene in the novel, but just understanding what they're talking and thinking about."

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