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.
As he leans on the lectern—with wire-rimmed eyeglasses, silver hair, gray jacket, khakis, rose-colored dress shirt—Hiaasen’s delivery style hovers somewhere between timid adolescent and comedic wiseacre. The saga of three youngsters who fight to save a rare, burrowing-owl habitat from developers, Hoot is rooted in Hiaasen’s own childhood. “I remember when you could get on your bike and ride for a mile and you were in the swamps,” he tells the audience, which is mostly kids. “There were no malls.”
The oldest of four children, Hiaasen was born in Ft.Lauderdale in 1953, the son of a lawyer, Odel, and a former teacher, Patricia. Ft.Lauderdale in the 1950s was a sleepy town fast becoming a vacation mecca and retirement community, 25 miles north of Miami. Everywhere he looked, condominiums were going up. “Forty years later,” he says, “it still ticks me off. It was very frustrating. I didn’t know how to fight back.”
Hiaasen has never forgotten the first time his father took him fishing. “The Keys never looked so enchanting as they did on that morning,” he wrote in a 1995 Herald column. “The deep-running Atlantic was undeniably impressive, but the calm crystal flats of the backcountry intrigued me the most. To wade the banks was to enter a boundless natural aquarium: starfish, nurse sharks, eagle rays, barracuda, bonefish, permit and tarpon, all swimming literally at your feet.”
After high school, Hiaasen got married and had a son, Scott, now 31, who is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Hiaasen’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1996.) He attended EmoryUniversity in Atlanta and graduated from the University of Florida with a journalism degree in 1974.
While working as a reporter for Cocoa Today (now called Florida Today) in the town of Cocoa just east of Orlando, he became increasingly dispirited by the development in South Florida. “It was getting made into a parking lot. I just hated it.” Shortly after his father died, in 1976, the Herald offered Hiaasen a $100 a week salary increase and, coincidentally, the chance to be near his mother. He took it. (His mother, now 75, still lives in the house in which Hiaasen grew up.)
By the early ’80s Hiaasen and fellow Herald reporter Brian Duffy had launched an investigation of Port Bougainville, the largest condominium and hotel development—2,800 units complete with canals and floating gondolas—ever planned for the Keys. In a series of articles, the journalists reported that developers had misrepresented the project’s size and had proceeded without final, necessary approvals from the state environmental regulation department and the Army Corps of Engineers. The company “had already started destroying hammocks of mangroves,” Hiaasen recalls. The pair dealt the enterprise a mortal blow with their revelation that an elected official who voted on construction projects had been seen handing out Port Bougainville brochures.
“Carl is a hell of a digger,” says Duffy, now editor of U.S. News & World Report. “He loved to get that telling detail, whether from the fifth re-interview of a source or from a mind-numbing government document.”
“He’s got a more visceral reaction to development than anyone I’ve ever known. He really feels it,” says Jeff Leen, a former Herald colleague who now heads the Washington Post’s investigative unit.
Shortly before the Port Bougainville story broke, an editor at the paper, William D. Montalbano, suggested that he and Hiaasen write a novel together. Powder Burn, about the city’s cocaine wars, appeared in 1981 to critical praise. The duo wrote three books before Hiaasen decided to go solo in 1985. Tourist Season (1986), a sardonic indictment of corruption in South Florida, put Hiaasen on the crime-writing map. Soon after the novel was published, Hiaasen appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where he opined that “there’s nothing wrong with Florida that a force-five hurricane wouldn’t fix.” Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, incensed by the remark, suggested in an open letter published in the Herald that Hiaasen “displayed a one-dimensional, exponential hatred of South Florida” and that Hiaasen should take it upon himself to issue an apology to “the entire human race.”
In all, Hiaasen has written more than 1,500 newspaper columns, 13 novels, and a book-length diatribe against the Walt Disney Company titled Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World. “After opening with an overbilious screed against the company’s signature blandness,” wrote a critic for Entertainment Weekly, “the author settles down and rakes good muck.” A spokesperson for Disney likened Rodent to “leftovers that have been heated up for a third time.”
But no cause has engaged—or, for that matter, outraged—Hiaasen more than the plight of Florida’s Everglades, the fragile wetland ecosystem that once stretched across four million acres but has been reduced to half that size by farms and development. Backed by Florida governor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, an $8 billion plan to restore the Everglades by rerouting a trillion gallons of water to it by the year 2006 seemed on track. Then, in late April, Florida legislators, apparently yielding to entreaties by sugar-industry lobbyists who oppose the plan, introduced legislation that would both weaken it and delay compliance with it by 20 years. In the past, Hiaasen has praised Bush (“He put a lot on the line”) for his support of the project, but as we went to press, the novelist feared the governor was waffling on the issue. “Overwhelmingly, from Key West to Tallahassee, voters have said saving the Everglades is not only a priority but a moral imperative. If it looks like the governor is caving, it’s going to be politically risky for him.”
As a novelist, Hiaasen’s strengths lie in memorable characters, unpredictable comedy and a crusader’s commitment to the environment. “To a great degree in Carl’s fiction,” says Sonny Mehta, president of Alfred A. Knopf and Hiaasen’s editor, “the villains are the people who have wrecked Eden—whether they’re developers, sugar plantation people or any of the carpetbaggers who have made a buck in the process of merchandising paradise.”
Says fellow satire novelist Christopher Buckley (No Way to Treat a First Lady): “Carl has been prophetic in his environmentalism. He’s also been hilarious—a comic Edward Abbey [the environmentalist-novelist]—which is some mean trick and a pretty cool perfecta at the literary dog track.”
Spend time on some of the Middle Keys—Upper Matecumbe, Lower Matecumbe, Islamorada—and you might run into Hiaasen. He shops at the all-night grocery on Islamorada and grabs a fish sandwich at the Hungry Tarpon on Lower Matecumbe. Padding around Hooked on Books, one of Islamorada’s bookstores, he looks like countless other “Keys fleas”—blue jeans, blue shirt, blue eyes, barefoot, tan. He’s lived here for a decade.
On a recent moonless night, he and his wife of four years, Fenia, were sleeping with the windows open. (The home they share with their son, 3-year-old Quinn, and Fenia’s son from an earlier marriage, 12-year-old Ryan, overlooks FloridaBay.) They could hear bottle-nosed dolphins frolicking in the waves just outside, spouting air through their blowholes. Another day, nine manatees swam up to their dock. “They are great, gentle things,” he says. Hiaasen called Fenia on her cell phone—she was out doing errands—and told her to buy up all the lettuce in the grocery store. He knows he’s not supposed to feed the manatees, but he did it anyway.
This morning, Hiaasen is piloting his skiff through the saltwater estuarial section of EvergladesNational Park and railing against Jet Skis. “The idiots think it’s fun to harass wildlife,” he says. “You always dream about something terrible happening to them.” He smiles wickedly. He rants against the builders of subdivisions. Florida rivers, he explains, flow toward the sea, cleansing the Everglades with freshwater before emptying into the ocean. But developers siphon freshwater from the Everglades for irrigation. “Without the freshwater flushing,” Hiaasen explains, “the water in FloridaBay becomes too salty to support the vast array of wildlife.”
He motors in and out of mangrove islands, threading his way through a labyrinth of man made shortcuts with quirky names—Bucky Stark’s Wheel Ditch, Crocodile Dragover. Pulling close to one island, Hiaasen points to a circle of white in the green waters. “That’s mullet mud,” he says of the swirling sand, the result of a stirred-up school of baitfish. “Look!” he says, pointing into waters four feet deep. “That’s a sleeping lemon shark. You never see sharks sleeping.”
Back in his office, which he built next to his house—he files his Herald columns from here—Hiaasen picks up a favorite book, The Everglades: River of Grass, written in 1947 by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “Her efforts got the EvergladesNational Park dedicated,” Hiaasen says. Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the wetlands. Juanita Greene, the organization’s spokesperson, says that Hiaasen “has done the best job of spreading the word about the Everglades problem.”
Hanging on the wall is a photograph—of the moon rising over cypress trees—taken in the Everglades by another champion of wild Florida, Clyde Butcher. And there’s Hiaasen’s framed certificate for largest bonefish, from the Bonefishing World Championship, 1998. Sun streams through the window. Sea breezes flow like rainwater through the tall grass. Here, far from the chaos of Miami, Hiaasen is recharging his batteries, gathering strength to battle the forces that would destroy his world.