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Oh, He's a Basket Case, All Right

Despite his bestsellers, Carl Hiaasen finds writing a 'nasty process.'

January 25, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You know all the cliches about writing being torture? You know, that it's a self-inflicted pain-fest of frustration, regret and self-loathing? They're all true.

That was the word from newspaper columnist and satirical novelist Carl Hiaasen in a public discussion with local author T. Jefferson Parker.

"It's a brooding, awful, nasty process," said Hiaasen in Beverly Hills on Wednesday evening as the two talked about his latest novel, "Basket Case," before an audience of about 100. "But if you're not in it for the pain, you're not in it."

Even after his ninth novel, selling millions of books, one of which was made into the movie "Strip Tease," starring Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds, Hiaasen doesn't find the cruel creative process to be treating him any more kindly. On most days, he still can't bear to look over his own work, which he frequently is forced to do during book tours.

"There's not a time that I don't look at a page of my work and wince," said the boyish-looking Hiaasen. "I always see something to tweak or something I would have done differently."

Even his celebrated offbeat and sometimes twisted sense of humor (one of his characters, who completely deserved it, spent 100 pages with a severed dog's head on his hand) brings him little relief. He's often asked if he laughs out loud at his own work.

"I never have cracked a smile over anything I've ever written," he said in complete earnestness. "My wife will say [after a writing session], 'You look like you've been to a funeral.' And I'll say, 'I was just writing a hilarious bit.'"

Don't get the wrong idea. It's not all darkness and gloom. Occasionally, the Florida native, who traces his heritage to Norway, will run across a sentence that sings, and he'll marvel at it. But within moments, he'll begin wondering why he can't write like that more often.

"You find millions of different reasons why life is [bad]," he said, but to be honest, writing is "really a terrific way to make a living."

The prolific 48-year-old certainly squeezes in a lot of it. His most recent effort draws from the same "straight from the headlines of crazy south Florida" pool as his other works. "Basket Case" (Knopf) centers on a frustrated obituary writer who stumbles upon a conspiracy to murder the members of an '80s rock band called Jimmy and the Slut Puppies. (One of their hit songs is "Painful Burning Sensation.")

Though his plots and characters sound farfetched, he says they're only slightly embellished, if at all. His use of a character who attacks another with a large frozen lizard, he said, was based on an actual acquaintance. (The friend never got to assault anyone, however, as the lizard thawed after an extended power outage.)

"South Florida is immensely proud of its weirdness," said Hiaasen. "It's all we've got."

Hiaasen, whose appearance was part of an author series sponsored by the nonprofit group Writers Bloc, tracks the strange plot turns to his rather simple Florida childhood. He grew up on the edge of the Everglades, in a largely undeveloped area near Fort Lauderdale. He loved to camp, fish and catch snakes. Even today, he has two pet snakes, down from a high of eight.

And then something traumatic happened--a convenience store opened about three miles from his home when he was 12. It quickly became the cultural and social center of his town, but the small edifice was a harbinger of development to come. The idyllic, if swampy, home of his boyhood was wiped out by progress.

After that, Hiaasen said he began carrying around "a fair amount of anger, which has certainly served me well." (Developers are often villains in his tales and rarely survive.)

In addition to his novel writing, he writes a twice-weekly column for the Miami Herald, a paper he has worked at since 1976. Given the success of his novels--seven of the nine have been bestsellers--he could easily walk away from newspapers. He doesn't, he says, because he thrives on journalism's immediacy versus the novel's lengthy turn-around time.

Also, the newspaper gives him incredible latitude in topics: One column accused the paper's publisher of being a nut. Not a word was changed in the piece. He often targets the big and powerful.

"It's a privilege to write a column," he said. "Every time I write one, I get to ruin the day of one of these [guys]. That's hard to give up."

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