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Drowning in Corruption
Crooked politicians, sleazy developers, and governors who eat roadkill: Welcome to Carl Hiaasen's Florida

Carl Hiaasen

In 30 years as an investigative reporter, newspaper columnist, thriller writer, and comic novelist, Carl Hiaasen has managed to upset almost every politician, developer, and crook (these terms often being synonymous) in South Florida. Reviewing his novel Skinny Dip in the New York Times, Janet Maslin put Hiaasen in the same league as humorists Preston Sturges, S. J. Perelman, and Woody Allen. His books teem with outlandish characters but also with serious environmental themes. In Lucky You, for instance, a lottery winner named JoLayne Lucks schemes to protect a primeval forest from strip-mall developers. Several of Hiaasen's novels feature a renegade former Florida governor named Skink, who flees the corruption of the state capital, holes up in the mangrove wilderness of North Key Largo as a hermit, and eats roadkill. Fellow Florida writer Bill Belleville recently caught up with Hiaasen at his home in Vero Beach.

When we worked together at Today in Cocoa, Florida, I knew you as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter. Now you're Carl Hiaasen. What happened?
I always imagined working on novels in my spare time along with the newspaper work. But I never imagined the books would take off -- being as peculiar as they are and as peculiar as I am. I thought it would be a rather limited audience. But I found out there are a lot of sick individuals out there.

Especially in Florida. There's that special weirdness here that makes it the perfect stage set for the kind of stories you write.
Well, I think Florida has always been such a desirable place. I'm reading a great book called The Swamp by Mike Grunwald about the history of South Florida and the Everglades, and it's really a 200-year chronicle of greed. How do we drain the place? How do we make some money down there? Let's push the Seminoles down into one place we can't figure out how to drain -- the Everglades. And then let's steal everything else. Historically, you had this incredible engine of greed -- and it's larger and more dangerous today than it ever was, at any time. I would have to say Louisiana is probably the only place that could match Florida crook for crook, sleazebag for sleazebag.

You've created some wonderfully strange characters -- like Skink, or the demented hitman, Chemo, in Skin Tight, who has a Weedwacker grafted to one arm. When did they begin to take shape in your mind?
Every journalist I know has sort of an unconscious Rolodex of people they've bumped into, things that stick with them. In the novels, you pull all these odd parts together. And then you add to them. Skink is a good example. Certainly I had never met a governor of Florida who had either the environmental credentials or the moral impatience of Skink. I mean, most people who go to Tallahassee are appalled by the politics, but they grit their way through it. Skink just went nuts and went running through the woods naked -- which I thought was a perfectly reasonable response to that situation.

How do you think Jeb Bush, the real-life governor of Florida, is doing?
I think his legacy could have been a lot worse. I disagree with him on many issues, but I do think he actually reads -- which is somewhat different from his brother. I think he has made a real effort on the Everglades, although the reconstruction project is put together with an eye toward future development, future water use for big business. We need to have an Everglades in order to have an aquifer, so I don't care what his motive is. It would have been easier for him to flat walk away and ignore it, and he didn't.

So does that mean you're optimistic about the future of the Everglades?
I like to think the Everglades are going to get fixed and everything is going to be wonderful. But you and I both know that so much money is out there. How much is going to be stolen from the program? Beyond that, you still have Lake Okeechobee being flushed into the St. Lucie River and into the Caloosahatchee River and estuary -- all that sediment and tons of cattle s**t and fertilizer and pesticides. The damage is beyond imagination -- fish mutated and deformed, and awful stuff like blue-green algae, where you literally can't breathe. We are not going to flood Disney and we are not going to flood all the subdivisions when it rains. We're going to put all that crap somewhere and it's going to be in the water.

You're still writing your column for the Miami Herald, where you hammer the greedy developers and corrupt politicians.
It may be pushing its endurance. In my 30 years at the Herald, there have been a lot of publishers and a lot of editors and a lot of advertising managers who were ticked off at one time or another. You stay because it's a tremendous thing to be able to write about your own state or your own town and have a platform -- whether it's funny or whether it's angry. Next week they might forget what you wrote, but at least you were there when the fire was hot. That's a tough thing to give up.

Does what any of us write make any difference?
I think exposure is what these giant companies fear the most, whether it happens on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times or on a blog. Someone dumping dioxin in a river really doesn't want to read about himself on the front page of anything. You let the shareholders know it's going to cost them a lot of money to clean up the mess.

You've written two children's books, Hoot and Flush. What's that been like, writing for kids?
These are real simple stories, stories about kids making a difference. In one case they try to save a little burrowing owl that is going to be plowed under in a development. In another case, they try and figure out how to stop ships from polluting beautiful places in the Florida Keys.

I was totally flabbergasted by their success. But having hope is essential. And if you read the letters -- and I get thousands of letters from kids and classes all over the country -- you understand that kids know right away what is right and what is wrong. There are no superheroes and nobody is in a cape and nobody has superpowers. They are just kids who see something they love very much and connect with very much. In these novels the kids are almost always smarter than the grown-ups, which I find to be true pretty much in real life. And they dig that. Their sense of humor is very good, you don't have to hammer them into a coma. They get it.

Did you have experiences like that yourself as a kid? Is that where your feelings about greed and developers came from?
Absolutely. It was the thing that started me down this path from a very young age. Every day it was something new, something being paved over or drained, torn down, trees and creeks disappearing. I was angry and bitter about it then -- and I am now. I think the humor in my writing is both therapy and a weapon.

Is it true you keep snakes?
I used to keep quite a few snakes, and I used to breed them too. A year or so after I got married, when we had a new baby, my wife decided my energies were better spent taking care of the new addition than traipsing up and down the highway picking up rats from pet stores. Snakes need a good supply of rats.

If Florida is so fraught with environmental peril and its leaders so unrepentant, why do you stay? Wouldn't it be easier to simply move to, say, Cat Island in the Bahamas?
You know, there are days that I feel like it, and I don't know anyone who doesn't. But I think you have to find places you care about, and when you do, walking away is not easy.

The E-Waste Nightmare
Marching Boots and Dancing Feet
Carl Hiaasen: Why He Loves/Hates Florida
Canadian Folklife on Display
The Angry Trout Cafe
The Silk Road
Beasts from the East
Logging Crews in Chicago

Photo of a dump truck

The 40th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., this summer was quite a show. From Chicago came artists who provided a visual complement to Latino grassroots music; from New Orleans, concerts of jazz, gospel, and R&B; from Hawaii, demonstrations of traditional basket weaving. And from the Canadian province of Alberta, a 100-ton yellow dump truck loaned by the Caterpillar Co. Its contribution to folklife? Razing thousands of square miles of pristine boreal forest to make way for strip mining and drilling to extract oil from the underlying "tar sands." Oh, Canada.

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Photos: Chris Buck, left; Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, right

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council