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.)