Who better than Carl Hiaasen to usher in 2023 with his humorous view of the world’s ills? The Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation has themed its thirtieth anniversary celebration “LOL” (Laughing Out Loud), and Hiaasen promises just that as keynote speaker for the January 19 event honoring the visionary writer who lived and worked in Florida for 48 years, until her death in 1991 at age 90.
“When I do these events around the country, the object is to make people laugh. But, in times like these, it gets harder and harder,” admits Hiaasen, who carved his niche at the venerable Miami Herald, bringing razor-sharp humor to disturbing, Florida-centric dysfunction, from environmental destruction and wildlife exploitation to gross political corruption and greed—recurring plot points for nearly everything he writes.
“Writing has always been a combination of venting and therapy for me,” says Hiaasen. “After all, almost every major national news story has some sort of slime trail to Florida.
“But I also think there’s an enhanced appetite to laugh at the absurdity of the world. It’s the only way to stay sane and rational. Otherwise, we’d all be standing on a ledge somewhere!”
The proud Florida native never had to look far for material. After graduating at age 23 from the University of Florida, he joined the Miami Herald as a city-desk reporter and later joined its prize-winning investigations team. From 1985 to 2021, he wrote a regular opinion column, which allowed him a platform to voice his views and outrage over the widespread political corruption and senseless destruction of the environment happening in his beloved home state.
“How could anyone who grew up in South Florida in the era that I did not be perpetually pissed off about what’s happened—the amount of greed-fueled destruction of wetlands that we should have protected but didn’t?” he rails.
“When I was born, the population of Florida was about five-and-a-half million. Now, it’s over 22 million. I don’t know of any nation or sovereign country that could survive that kind of rapid growth without some sort of social convulsion.”
Hiaasen used his column to great effect, proudly citing that he so enraged a Miami city commissioner that the official responded by introducing a resolution formally denouncing him.
“If you have a newspaper column in a dynamic and combustible place like Florida, and you’re writing about the first day of spring and what popped up in your garden, you need to have your job taken away from you and given to somebody who’s got something to say, because this is important stuff that not only affects what’s happening in Florida, but it’s always sort of been on the bizarre side of the cutting edge of what’s about to happen in America.”
Hiaasen remains bemused by the influx of people to South Florida, once lured by the fictional lifestyle depicted in the popular 1980s television show Miami Vice. “I did a column every year on how many people were killed in just one episode, which was almost higher than the annual murder rate in Miami.” It was all violent, drug-related corruption, and still it became one of the most popular shows in Europe.
“I could only conclude that it was the fashion,” laughs Hiaasen. “I never met a cop wearing Armani, but they made it look so nice despite having to step over dead bodies.”
Hiaasen’s well-deserved platform expanded in the late 1980s when he began writing Florida-based crime thrillers with a cast of eccentric characters who brought to life issues personal to him: to date, 16 New York Times Best Seller list novels for adults and six for young readers, translated into 34 languages.
“One of the great things about writing novels is you can deal with people as they should be dealt with and create a world in which you can maneuver the facts and outcomes,” smiles Hiaasen. “Now, that’s therapeutic.”
In 2006 Hiaasen settled in Vero Beach, which was “reminiscent of Fort Lauderdale in the days before there were high-rises.” Prior to that move, he had been living in the Florida Keys, having become fatigued by the daily I-95 commute to the Herald’s office and preferring a quieter place to write his column.
“It was a tough decision to leave,” says Hiaasen, recounting childhood fishing trips to the Keys with his father in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “You could fish off the bridges at night in your bare feet without seeing a car in either direction for an hour. Today, you couldn’t go 30 seconds without being flattened by one!”
Fan mail from appreciative readers brings Hiaasen a welcome boost, especially when his work has inspired a love of reading or brought relief through difficult times.
“What keeps you going is mail from readers saying you brought a little joy to their life,” he says of a few special letters tacked to the cork board above his desk.
“It’s happened more than once where I learn that someone’s father, sick with late-stage cancer, had his daughter read him my novels because it was the one thing that put a smile on his face.
“You read that and it keeps you going. It’s so humbling.”
Letters from young readers are equally poignant. “I try to never overlook a letter from a young reader because, when I was a kid, I never had the nerve to write a letter to a writer I liked. So, I know what it means to get something back— even if they never read another one of my books. As long as they’ve got a book open on their lap, especially in this day and age, I’m happy.”
Hiaasen’s 2002 book Hoot marked his foray into writing for young readers, prompted in part by his own children: Scott, from his marriage to Connie Lyford, and Quinn and stepson Ryan from his marriage to Fenia Clizer. In 2020 he married Kaitlyn Fox.
Recipient of the coveted Newberry Medal, Hoot was inspired by an experience he had growing up in a rural suburb of Fort Lauderdale. The ecological thriller centers on a middle-school–age hero who makes it his mission to save a colony of miniature Florida owls.
“I remember writing a science paper on them in sixth or seventh grade,” says Hiaasen, referring to a native species of pint-size owls that nest in the open fields where he and his friends rode their bicycles.
“Then, one day, a sign goes up and they’re going to build this giant development called ‘Hawaiian Village.’ In Florida? Really?”
Hiaasen and his friends watched in disbelief as survey crews and bulldozers appeared. “They were going to build this giant thing and bury these animals alive.”
Hiaasen and his friends retaliated, removing survey stakes after crews left each day. “It definitely slowed them down, but, in the end, it was going to get built,” he recounts.
“Some got away, but a lot of them died. But, in my book, it was going to be different. That’s the great thing about fiction. I get to write a better ending.”
In a bittersweet triumph, a small colony of these burrowing owls survived and remain in a fenced-off area for visitors to observe. “It’s one of the few last traces of that particular species of Florida’s burrowing owls, which seemed like the logical place to start my first book for kids,” says Hiaasen, who encourages young writers to tap into subjects that are personally meaningful. “The best writing you’ll
ever do is when it’s something you care about. If you don’t care, it shows, whether you’re writing fiction or poetry—even journalism.”
Two of Hiaasen’s novels have been made into feature films: Strip Tease (1996), starring Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds, and Hoot (2002), starring Luke Wilson and Brie Larson. A third, Bad Monkey (2013), was recently adapted for an Apple TV series starring Vince Vaughn. Executive produced by Ted Lasso creator Bill Lawrence, it is slated to air later this year.
Hiaasen began writing his newest novel for young readers during the pandemic. Wrecker is slated for release in September. Based in Key West, it centers on a middle-school-age hero from a long line of shipwreck salvagers, whose work represented the primary industry in the Florida Keys from the mid-1800s to the turn of the century.
“Key West has been a favorite place for smugglers for 200 years,” says Hiaasen, who took inspiration from source material for a 1979 Miami Herald investigative series on the marijuana-smuggling trade. “I’ve always loved Key West. It’s changed a lot, of course, but there’s still a little outlaw blood there that makes it interesting.”
Writing during the pandemic wasn’t a stretch for Hiaasen. “Writers self-isolate all the time. I go into a room by myself every day and write.”
Hiaasen has also been working on his seventeenth adult novel, which he says is more of a therapeutic necessity than workaholism.
“My method has always been to be totally immersed in something so I don’t get obsessed with how a new book is received,” he says, referring to his upcoming youth release.
“But either way, at the end of the day, I still have to go over to my office and write, and hope it’s good,” he laughs. “I don’t know what else I would be qualified to do.”
About the Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation
Established shortly after the 1991 death of its namesake, the foundation holds teen and adult writing workshops and an annual spring poetry and barbecue event. It also preserves the historic “cracker” house purchased by the writer and her husband, Time magazine poetry critic Schuyler Jackson, in 1943. The small frame home was originally located on 11 acres in Wabasso but now stands on Indian River State College’s Mueller Campus west of Vero Beach.
Born Laura Reichenthal in New York City in 1901, Jackson studied at Cornell University and became an influential poet, critic, novelist, and linguistic visionary who lived and worked in Florida for 48 years. Her groundbreaking 1927 collaboration with British poet and novelist Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry, sparked a critical movement called “New Criticism,” which influenced the way poetry would be written and read for generations.
“She was an analyst and philosopher at heart and deeply committed to wanting people to understand and value language, which she demonstrated through her own writing,” says LRJF president Marie Stiefel.
IRSC Mueller Campus 6155 College Lane
LRJF Writing Center & Mailing Address:
1914 14th Ave. 772-569-6718