"You can't be a happy newspaper columnist, you can't be Erma Bombeck," Carl Hiaasen insists, stabbing the air with a forkful of grouper as he lays out the tenets of Journalism 101 over lunch. "All of my best work comes from some kind of anger. If you go up to Jimmy Breslin, he's as pissed off today as he was 30 years ago. That's the fire you want to have in your writing."
At the moment though, it's difficult to see just what's inspiring all of Hiaasen's raging against the machine. In faded jeans, polo shirt, and sandals, with his tanned, boyish good looks belying his 51 years, Hiaasen hardly evokes the aura of the grizzled, ink-stained reporter. And while he may fill his weekly Miami Herald columns with rants against the suburban sprawl that has overtaken his native Plantation in Broward County, and which now encroaches on the Everglades, those creeping condos and strip malls seem a world away from this Islamorada waterfront restaurant.
As U.S. 1 south from Miami approaches his secluded home in the Keys, the bikini shops and tourist motels drop away, replaced by breathtaking panoramas -- just sun-dappled whitecaps stretching to the horizon on either side. It takes a fair amount of concentration to keep from getting lost in it all and driving right off the Overseas Highway into the ocean. It's an idyllic mood Hiaasen himself has come to treasure whenever he pilots his flats boat from his private dock and zips across the water for a round of bonefishing: "It clears your brain of everything, it recharges you."
Hiaasen's career seems similarly beatific these days. Already a fixture on the bestseller lists with his comical tales of rapacious developers and crooked pols running wild in South Florida, his tenth novel, Skinny Dip, is gaining notice far beyond the aficionados of crime thrillers who are sure to be out in force for his reading this Saturday at the Miami Book Fair International. Indeed, the New York Times may have panned the latest offerings from the once-mighty John Updike and Tom Wolfe, but with Skinny Dip it saluted the arrival of "a screwball delight so full of bright, deft, beautifully honed humor that it places Mr. Hiaasen in the company of Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and S.J. Perelman."
Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Angels in America) has already secured Skinny Dip's film rights, while Hoot (Hiaasen's equally successful 2003 foray into children's books) is in preproduction for the big screen with Penny Marshall and good friend Jimmy Buffet coproducing.
"Hollywood," Hiaasen chuckles, shaking his head as Kulchur presses for details. "My agent gave me great advice years ago: It's all found money. Don't even think about it."
Best-selling novelist, award-winning children's author, Hollywood darling -- does he ever grow weary of banging out his column in the midst of it all? As a Herald reporter since 1976, and a regular columnist since 1985, he's certainly earned a break. Even Jimmy Breslin, pissed off or not, has announced his retirement from the daily-paper grind.
"Sure, I could melt into a family mode and crank out these novels every couple of years, just watch my kids grow up," Hiaasen muses. "I could travel, do things my wife wants to do. Some days that sounds pretty good." He pauses, his eyes briefly glazing over before snapping back into focus: "But I wouldn't be happy, I know I wouldn't be happy. Just being aware that something wrong was spinning out of control -- there are very few voices to say, öHey, wait a minute!' If you can draw a little bit of attention with a column, put a stop sign up, make somebody cringe who's got their finger in the pie -- you might lose nine out of ten times, but the one you win, the one time regular folks and citizens have their voices count, it keeps you going."
That should be dispiriting news to Miami's ever-colorful cast of politicians, for whom Hiaasen has equally colorful monikers. Maurice Ferré, who during his 1973-85 tenure as mayor of Miami never found an ethnic group he wasn't eager to pander to, constituted "a veritable slag heap of mediocrity." Ex-Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, who was re-elected while facing federal criminal charges of bank fraud and money laundering, and who would later be convicted of voter fraud, was a "pernicious little ferret."
And then there's Xavier Suarez, whose 111-day return to city hall ended in 1998 after the courts found that his election victory had been irredeemably tainted by fraud, including ballots cast by dead men. After watching Suarez erupt into public crying jags, dismiss a $68 million budget deficit as imaginary, and appear outside the Herald's own offices in his bathrobe early one morning, searching for a copy of Hiaasen's latest column, there was only one nickname suitable for Hizzoner: "Mayor Loco."
"Another chaotic week ends," Hiaasen wrote at the time, "leaving Miamians to wonder how long before the white-suited men with butterfly nets come to take the mayor away." A subsequent libel suit brought by Suarez was dismissed, enshrining him as Miami's first ex-mayor who can legally be described as insane.
Even the Herald's own executives haven't been off-limits. In 1998, when publisher Dave Lawrence publicly mulled a Florida gubernatorial run against Jeb Bush, it was left to Hiaasen to utter aloud the dismissive opinion of his fellow staffers: "Earth to Dave," he wrote, christening his boss Publisher Loco, "have you completely lost your marbles?"
Lawrence may have removed himself to the more genteel milieus of education and philanthropy, but as Hiaasen's attention more recently has been drawn to national affairs, his old rogue's gallery has quietly slipped back onto Miami's campaign trail. Xavier Suarez defeated a much better-funded opponent to make last week's runoff election for the District 7 county commission seat. Though he eventually lost, the press made only the vaguest allusions to his checkered past.
Maurice Ferré also re-emerged to run for county mayor this past summer, touting his financial acumen and skill at soothing racial tensions. As with Suarez, Herald reporters covering the race often seemed oblivious to the back issues of their own paper, ignoring the $1.4 million a supposedly bankrupt Ferré hid from creditors in a bank account under his wife's name. Also omitted: complaints from law enforcement figures that, as mayor, Ferré continually meddled in FBI investigations of anti-Castro bombers, hoping to reap el exilio's support for his courageous intervention.
"The public's memory is very short," Hiaasen offers with a sigh. "Maurice Ferré is like a bad rash that never goes away. These guys don't die."
That much seems assured. Following his respectable August 31 third-place finish in a crowded six-man field, Ferré quickly met with the remaining contenders to sound out their positions on adopting a "strong mayor" system, hinting he was already contemplating a 2008 county mayoral run.
"There's a part of me that roots for these comebacks because the material was so great during Xavier's second fling," Hiaasen admits. "It's hard not to lick your chops. The same with Ferré -- it's good copy."
It's not just the public's memory that's short, though. The Herald has switched from calling Ferré "venal, vindictive, [and] obsessed with remaining in office at all costs" to addressing him as Miami's elder statesman.
"Well, the institutional memory of the Herald is extremely short, too. You have folks working there who, frankly, weren't even born the first time around for these guys. They never got to see them in action in their prime." Choosing his words carefully, he continues: "I think the best you can say about Maurice Ferré is that he's less shrill, he's less deranged than some of the other candidates. He's never advocated anything nutty. His problem has always been who his friends are, and managing his money. He's never been what we've come to know in Miami as a traditional crackpot politician."
So in Miami that's the best we can hope for? Vote for Ferré -- he's less deranged than the other guy?
"Yes, that would be a great campaign slogan: öVote for Ferré -- he's not on any medication that I know of.' These are big selling points in Miami. The bar of sleaze is set so high, anybody who doesn't have handcuff marks on his wrists becomes an elder statesman. " With a shrug he adds, "You have a whole generation that doesn't know these guys. It's the duty of journalists to remind people." On that count at least, Hiaasen is willing to assign blame.
"The average length of the Herald's stories has been cut," he says. "You look at the profiles we ran of Senate candidates Betty Castor and Mel Martinez. In the old days those two pieces would have been on the front page instead of bumped inside. You look at New Times -- you have the space to go into depth, to really rock and roll."
Sure, but New Times hardly has the same readership -- or impact -- as the Herald.
"No, it doesn't, but every time I pick up New Times, it's awfully thick with ads. I would say the folks at the Herald might learn something from that. All that advertising means you can have a lot of fun, you have the space to really do a story properly."
For fans of Hiaasen's 2002 novel Basket Case, this is familiar terrain. That book's hero was a muckraking reporter busted down to the obituary beat after publicly embarrassing his paper's new budget-slashing corporate owner, Race Maggad, head of the Maggad-Feist newspaper chain. "These days we buy the loyalty of readers with giveaways and grocery coupons, not content," Basket Case's protagonistlaments. Meanwhile, Maggad's mandate was to "strive for brevity and froth, shirking from stories that demand depth or deliberation, stories that might rattle a few cages and raise a little hell."
Maggad, of course, was a barely disguised caricature of Tony Ridder, CEO of the Herald's own parent company, Knight Ridder.
Did you ever hear from Tony Ridder after Basket Case was published?
"Not a word," Hiaasen answers dryly.
The real-life inspiration for Race Maggad wasn't exactly veiled.
Hiaasen leans forward, all the humor drained from his voice. "How could I not write about him? I grew up with this newspaper. I've put my life into it! It was the paper that landed on my doorstep every morning. So I have a right to be pissed, just like any reader. Anyone who can look you in the eye and tell you the Miami Herald of 2004 is as good as it was in 1984 is out of their skull. It's palpable, the difference is palpable."
Exhaling, Hiaasen slumps back in his chair. "But to be fair, I don't know what the options are. I don't blame the Herald. I blame Knight Ridder. There's plenty of good talent there, plenty of good editors, all the ingredients. But when you're not in charge of the money, when you're getting memos that say öcut here, cut there,' you're screwed. Short of quitting, what do you do? It's amazing what they still do given how the budget has shrunk, the staff has shrunk, the news hole has shrunk. But it's really silly pretending it's the same paper it used to be."
While its metropolitan news-gathering has certainly suffered from staff reductions, the Herald's recent redesign has helped to spotlight arts and cultural coverage, which now rivals that of any weekly paper. But such arguments leave Hiaasen unmoved.
"It's been redesigned in such a way that you get more graphics than copy," he scoffs. "Since I've been at the paper, almost 29 years, I can't tell you how many redesigns there have been. But I can tell you how many actually improved the circulation figures: zero. You can blame the Internet, but if you're not putting out a product people feel they have to have, why the hell would they buy the paper? What they don't get anywhere else are the investigations, the really good writing -- Dave Barry, Leonard Pitts, the people you can't find anywhere else. If you're going to recycle the same old stuff, of course your circulation is going to go flat."
The only way to reverse this decline in readership, Hiaasen stresses, is to turn the industry's conventional thinking on its head and realize that "readers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for." His own moment of clarity came in 1988, with a series of scandals surrounding then-county manager Sergio Pereira, whose appointment had been seen as a watershed for the ascension of Miami's Cuban Americans into the city's power elite.
Yet while Pereira was being hailed in some quarters as a local boy made good, his actions soon progressed from the merely controversial (spending $31,000 in public funds to redecorate his office, commandeering a police helicopter for private flying lessons) to the outright criminal (a 1987 indictment for buying fifteen stolen designer suits; the case was dismissed on a technicality). In 1988 Herald reporters uncovered a secret land deal Pereira had been cut in on, earning him a cool $128,000 after the property was rezoned by the very county commissioners who'd hired him just months before. Pereira's response? The Herald was pursuing an anti-Cuban vendetta.
"I wrote a column saying, öFire the guy!'" Hiaasen recalls angrily, which immediately prompted a tense meeting with the Herald's managing editor: "He came to me and asked if there was another way to say it. What do you mean, another way? Fire the guy! Time's up, three strikes you're out! He's an embarrassment, he shouldn't be county manager. Our own paper had documented all these things -- goodbye! öWell, we're a little worried about the reaction of the Cuban community.' You think the Cuban community wants a guy like this in office? Are they all going to cancel their subscriptions to the paper?
"This is an insult to the Cuban community by suggesting they're going to put up with this, that they're any happier about this kind of behavior than we are. öOkay, but can we just take out the line about firing him?' I can't believe we're having this discussion! Under no circumstances. If you do that, I'll be gone. I'll leave. They were so afraid there would be a mass of people marching on the building. Well, nothing happened. I didn't get a single letter from a Cuban reader saying they're offended. Then five days later the editorial board screwed up their courage and wrote an editorial saying he ought to be fired. Shortly after that, he resigned."
Hiaasen rolls his eyes, visibly distressed at the memory of the incident. "In those days, they were so afraid of offending a single Cuban American," he says. "Well, you're offending them more by thinking like this. They're smart enough to know what's honest and dishonest, what's right and wrong."
Call it a sign of the times: Hiaasen's current newsroom tangles are a bit less politically tinged. "I described the state legislature in Tallahassee as a festival of whores," he remembers of one back-and-forth rewrite. Not that his editor necessarily disagreed with the characterization. He just wasn't sure if Hiaasen's language was going to spark a protest from the decency brigade. "I had to sit there while a copy editor did a word search and found that I had used öwhorishly' in an earlier column -- so they could point to a precedent if they received any letters of complaint." Not one letter arrived.
"It all comes down to what we think of our readers. Can they handle it? They get HBO, for Christ's sake. I think they can deal with öfestival of whores.' Look, I read the letters in New Times. You've got a lot of latitude style-wise, which is great to read. And I don't get the impression that you're swamped by angry letters from people who object to seeing the word shit in the newspaper. We've got a vice president who told somebody to go fuck himself on the floor of the U.S. Senate. I don't get the sense that erasing shit from somebody's direct quote is a priority in America.
"I still read the Herald every day," he continues. "You get excited about the good stories, a great project. Most of the time it's pretty predictable, but you can still spot the talent."
So his advice to this year's fresh-faced crop of journalism school graduates, no doubt dreaming of future Pulitzer glory?
"You have to have a strong masochistic streak," he counsels. "You have to be able to say, öI'm never going to be rich, but I'm going to be happy. I'm doing good work and changing people's lives.' You have to tell yourself that every morning when you go into the office, because every day this business is becoming less and less fun."
That's some pep talk: Welcome to a life of diminishing returns! Now polish your lede.
"Well, being a journalist is also a legal way to work out a lot of problems," Hiaasen quips, flashing just the hint of a smile. "I look at it as free therapy.... If you can make people laugh, if you can take them along on this great ride where they're enjoying themselves, and at the same time get a few riffs in, if it sticks, fine. If it doesn't, at least you've got it out of your system."
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