Standing at the wheel of his 17-foot skiff, Carl Hiaasen points to a large, graceful bird gliding in the blue distance. Black with a white patch above the tail, a wondrously wide wingspan and a gentle swaying motion, it skims low over the mangrove islands of FloridaBay and the waters separating the Everglades, at Florida’s southern tip, from the Keys.
“That’s an Everglades kite,” says Hiaasen, 50, adjusting his baseball cap and sunglasses. “They’re rare. It’s looking for snails; that’s the only thing it eats.” Leaning into a long pole, he eases the boat, its engine cut, away from land, out into the shallows. “I’ve seen only a half-dozen in my whole life.”
Since his first fishing trips here as a child, the Miami Herald columnist and wisecracking author of 13 subversively entertaining mystery novels has carried on a love affair with the waters and land of the Florida Keys. He’s best known for Strip Tease, from which a roundly panned 1996 movie was made, and Tourist Season, which prompted author Tony Hillerman, in a 1986 New York Times review, to dub him “the Mark Twain of the crime novel.” Hiaasen, said reviewer Tom Nolan in the Wall Street Journal in 1995, “writes with the gleeful social scrutiny of Tom Wolfe and the twisted imagination of Hunter S. Thompson.” Most recently, Hiaasen won a Newbery Honor award for the young-adult novel Hoot, published this past fall. His works have sold five million copies and been translated into 28 languages. The London Observer has called Hiaasen “America’s finest satirical novelist.”
At heart, though, Hiaasen is an environmentalist. For the past 18 years, he has used his take-no-prisoners newspaper column to hector drug runners, corrupt politicians, unreconstructed doctors and lawyers, and wetlands-draining real estate developers. As a satirist with an eco-warrior’s agenda, he has skewered these same offenders in his novels.
On a Friday morning in downtown Miami, the throngs attending the Miami International Book Fair move like schools of fish through the streets. Authors have converged from around the country to promote their books. Hiaasen has driven nearly two hours from his home on Lower Matecumbe Key to discuss Hoot, his first foray into children’s fiction.