Carl Hiaasen offers tools for upcoming writers

By Emily Hoover |
Photos By Phillip C. Sunkel IV

For novelist and columnist Carl Hiaasen, the future of journalism depends on committed, dedicated and idealistic writers working against an unforgiving job market.

“We’ve never needed good journalists more than we need them now,” Hiaasen said. “As the rest of the business shrinks, especially with investigative reporting, which is expensive, I admire [recent journalism graduates] because, even at the [Miami] Herald, they’ll send you out with a camera in your hand. They expect you to do both, even with a video camera, which is terrifying.”

Hiaasen, graduate of University of Florida’s journalism school and columnist for the Miami Herald since 1985, received the 2010 Florida Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented at the Florida Heritage Book Festival’s Literary Legends Award Banquet on Sept. 24.

He spoke to a full Flagler auditorium on Saturday, Sept. 25 and welcomed a lengthy line of fans for his book signing in Flagler College’s Virginia Room.

Hiaasen believes there is a need for journalists to practice accuracy in their reporting.

Author Carl Hiaasen hosted a book signing for his new release.

“[Reporters] end up filing for the web edition before they even have their facts right, and there is a danger in that, I mean there are legal problems with that,” he said. “The old process of going through editors and fact checking is gone and now there are corrections made so often. The future is so cloudy, who knew, when I came into the business, that we would come to this point.”

Hiaasen, whose hometown is Fort Lauderdale, grew up with newspapers. He said that the Miami Herald was dropped onto his doorstep every morning and he learned how to read based on baseball scores and events recorded in the sports section.

While he described Florida as a “unique kind of freak show,” musing on O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods and Rush Limbaugh — and their decisions to live here — he still believes that, despite extensive travel and a summer home in Livingston, Mont., Florida is home.

“I was born and raised here, I have roots here, I have a privilege to still write a news column for a newspaper I grew up with,” Hiaasen said. “I believe, and I may be wrong, that the best writing happens when it’s about something you care about. I have such strong feelings for Florida; such affection for it, that I think a lot of the energy would go out of the novels [if I left Florida].”

Hiaasen said that Florida is more than just a setting in his novels. It is a character.

A&E editor Emily Hoover sits down with author Carl Hiaasen.

Even though Hiaasen investigated the Cocaine Wars of the 1970s, worked as a news beat reporter and continues to produce a weekly column for the Miami Herald, writing fiction consumes most his time, he said. His first novel, “Tourist Season,” was released in 1986, his novel “Strip Tease” became a movie, starring Demi Moore, in 1996 and his newest book, “Star Island,” satirizes celebrity behavior in South Beach, Miami and confronts the growth of celebrity journalism.

Making the transition from newspaper writing, in which one’s literary voice is absent, to fiction is difficult but not impossible, Hiaasen said.

“Well, it’s hard work, because in my case, when I did it, I worked all day in a newsroom,” he said, “and I’d come home at night, briefly say hello to my family and then go into a room, close the door and write. It can be brutal on your family life and your home life.”

“You fill your day with writing; it’s all you do, so there is a lot of personal sacrifice,” he said. “But, if you’re willing to do it and it means that much to you, that’s how most first novels are written. Most writers have day jobs; they write in their spare time, while they are working at Starbucks.”

As Hiaasen writes fiction “six days a week,” spending only one day on his opinion column – which features political and social commentaries on Florida as well as the whole country – he still uses the skills he acquired from journalism.

“Journalism is so much about discipline,” he said. “You need talent, but you’ll waste a lot of time without discipline. I was taught to write on a deadline, which is critical to work as a novelist. Instead of having six weeks to write a poem, I had an hour and a half to write 400 words.”

“As a journalist you learn to listen, you learn, when dialogue hits the ear, how people talk,” he said. “That’s why it’s no mystery that so many novelists have come out of a background in journalism.”

Hiaasen also believes that diversity is celebrated more in contemporary journalism. English and creative writing majors have more breathing room, he said. When he was starting out, Hiassen said, newspapers steered away from writers with a background in anything except for history, law or political science.

Even though most of Hiaasen’s characters embody real Florida, such as golfers, beauty pageant contenders and sleazy salesmen, Hiaasen also finds real pleasure in writing children’s books, like “Flush,” “Scat” and “Hoot,” which also transitioned to film in 2006.

“I started writing kid’s books, very skeptically, because I thought it wasn’t going to work,” he said. “Especially when you’re competing with Xbox and Wii. Not only were these kids reading, but also I had buckets of mail coming from these kids. It became an important part of what I do.”

“After every grown-up novel, I write a kid’s book,” Hiassen said. “They are a terrific audience and, really, they are the ones who are going to be running this planet.”

As money is tight for newspapers and the distinction between the news side and the business side continues to blur, creating conflicts, Hiaasen wishes the new crop of writers the best of luck. He also encourages young fiction writers to keep journals, even if they are never shown to family members, friends, teachers or publishers.

“My novels are character ensembles and I have no master plan,” he said. “I know them, but I like to let my characters collide, which is why I don’t use an outline; it feels like a pair of handcuffs.”

Whatever writers use to create their craft is the right way, Hiaasen said. The most important thing for young writers, he said, is writing everyday.

“You’ve got to be happy to be in print,” he said, smiling. “Hang onto that feeling and keep that feeling.”

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