Carl Hiaasen: “He’s trained his stinging wit on the crooked and the downright dumb: the stumbles and bumbles of the leading lights and other riffraff of his beloved Florida”

Carl Hiaasen. Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr.

From a Miami Herald story by Andres Viglucci headlined “Times up: Carl Hiaasen is retiring his Miami Herald opinion column, but not his outrage”:

For 35 years in the pages of this newspaper, journalist and best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen has trained his stinging wit and satirist’s eye on the seamy, the crooked and the downright dumb: the stumbles and bumbles of the leading lights and assorted other riffraff who populate and befoul his beloved Florida.

No one’s too big or too powerful to feel the bite of the barbs Hiaasen has regularly hurled from the pages of the Miami Herald in his opinion columns. Not politicians in high office, rich developers or puffed-up celebrities.

Not the Miami politico he indelibly nicknamed “Mayor Loco,” the former White House occupant he dubbed “the Big Orange Trumpster” or even — just that one time — the Herald’s own “Publisher Loco,” raked by Hiaasen for a brief, ill-advised flirtation with politics.

Maybe they won’t miss him. But the Herald’s readers will have to get used to doing without their weekly Hiaasen fix.

Carl Hiaasen will publish his last opinion piece in the Miami Herald on March 14.

His flourishing dual writing career — encompassing both his column and his novels — has stretched to improbable longevity and unmatched reach and productivity, at least for a lifelong newspaper hack. Now Hiaasen said he’s decided to retire from the Herald, where he’s been employed as reporter and columnist with hardly a break since July 4, 1976. . . .

“I’ve been thinking about easing off as the years went by,” Hiaasen said in a phone interview from his home in Vero Beach. “This is 45 years in the Herald, which is ridiculous in our business. I was 23 when I started working there. I feel like I almost grew up in the newsroom. I also feel at this stage it’s a good time to step away.”

Hiaasen said he intends to keep writing the outlandish and lavishly praised comic thrillers and suspenseful kids’ books that have made him a fixture on bestseller lists for almost as long as he’s been columnizing in the Herald. His latest, “Squeeze Me,” featuring a Trump-like lead character known only as “Mastodon,” for his Secret Service handle, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times list.

But at 67, Hiaasen said, he can do without the pressure of a weekly deadline on top of the demands of writing fiction.

“I wanted a little more freedom to do different kinds of things that I haven’t had time to do, projects I turned down,” he said. “There are a lot of books and projects I’d still like to do, and I might as well do that now.”

The one thing he will miss, Hiaasen said, is being part of a daily news-gathering enterprise with a kick-ass staff — to borrow the title of the first of three published collections of his Herald columns. The paper continues to provide an essential public service amid a cratering industry and shrinking resources and staffing, he noted.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I don’t know that I could have worked anywhere else where I would have seen a paper with so much heart, so much talent, so much grit. The talent that’s gone through that newsroom is amazing. There was not a day I wished I was working anywhere else. I just feel incredibly lucky to have been part of it.”. . .

“Along the way, he became an icon of Florida fiction — translating the seemingly endless weirdness of real life into his own genre of storytelling to the point where readers and reporters across the state often see a news story and say: ‘That could be a Carl Hiaasen novel.’ ”

Herald colleague Dave Barry, who long ago stepped back from the wear of a once-regular humor column, said he sympathizes with Hiaasen but thinks his friend of several decades may have more adjusting to do than he thinks.

“It’s not easy having to come up with something to be angry about once a week. Although Carl doesn’t have any trouble finding something to be angry about,“ Barry said in an interview. “For a guy who’s been so successful, Carl is remarkably gloomy all the time. He’s been pissed off for so many years without easing up. That’s why readers love him.

“The hardest thing for Carl is going to be when the people of Florida, especially the elected officials, continue to do idiotic things and he can’t talk about it. He’ll have to deal with that,” Barry said. “And it’s going to be hard on his fans, who love him to death despite the fact that no one has ever been able to learn to spell his name correctly.”

The sense of seething outrage that has fueled Hiaasen’s columns and his novels has not diminished one whit, Barry noted. It’s no coincidence Hiaasen hung on to his Herald gig while Donald Trump was in office, he said.

“You know there was no way Carl was going to retire while Trump was still president,” Barry said. “He was not going to let that target go.”

An unabashed liberal and expert flats fisherman, Hiaasen is especially well known for highlighting and championing the ever-shrinking natural environment of his native state, in particular the Everglades, Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay — the wellspring for the febrile plots of his novels and a frequent theme in his columns.

When not ridiculing the unfathomable behavior of the peculiar species that’s come to be known as #FloridaMan, Hiaasen has honed his contumely for unrepentant polluters, ravenous developers and their enablers in state and local government — often the same corrupt politicians who routinely betray the public trust on other matters.

He’s never minced words. In one recent column taking Gov. Ron DeSantis to task for his fumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hiaasen called the governor’s spokesman “that yammering stooge.”. . .

In the 1990s, Hiaasen caught heat for calling a Miami-Dade County commissioner “a pernicious little ferret” for handing out business cards for his legal practice to family members gathered after a passenger jet crash in the Everglades.

“I mean, that is something that Giuliani would do,” Hiaasen said, referring to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy. “I always have people who ask me, ‘Do you ever regret writing anything tough?’ I’m writing about people who have a public trust, and when they abuse that trust or do something corrupt or dishonest, I don’t think you can be too tough.

“I always went at it as a reader, a voter, a citizen who would get pissed off. The material was so rich and the parade of scoundrels so powerful your job was easy. Florida is a 24-7 freak show. If you’re a journalist, there is no better place to be.”

Hiaasen said Herald management never muzzled him, though some columns hardly endeared him to the people occupying the executive editor’s office or the publisher’s suite. Only once did he agree to his editor’s suggestion that he kill an entire column: an imagined dialogue, inspired by a minor scandal at Miami International, between an airline pilot flying into the airport and an air-traffic controller who’d just snarfed up “two rails” of coke.

“I went in as a smart-ass,” Hiaasen said. “What I can say? I haven’t mellowed one bit. It’s just the opposite. [The column] was supposed to be edgy. It was a place where you take the gloves off. There comes a point where, if you asked me, I can’t name how many executive editors and managing editors I’ve outlasted. It’s a small miracle none of them fired me.”

Born in Fort Lauderdale and raised in Plantation before it was overrun by strip malls, subdivisions and highways, Hiaasen learned to fish and wander and appreciate the fields and streams in what was then a semi-rural ecological wonderland.

After graduating from the University of Florida, he went to work for Cocoa Today, now Florida Today, where he stayed for two years before getting hired by the Herald. He quickly rose to join the investigations team under legendary editor Jim Savage, an assignment he called one of his “proudest times.”. . .

He started writing three columns a week for the local news section, alternating with another legendary Herald columnist, the late Charles Whited. And he started writing novels, the first three in collaboration with colleague Bill Montalbano. Hiaasen said he never took more than a month or two off from his day job at the Herald to complete a novel. For the last two, he took no time off. But the novels and columns fed off each other, he said.

“It was just part of the way I was wired that I was always working on something,” he said. “I don’t think I could have written any of those novels if I hadn’t been working for the Miami Herald. In Nebraska or Kansas or Ohio, you just don’t have that craziness and just unabashed corruption that we have.”

Over time, Hiaasen reduced the frequency of the column to once a week, broadening its focus to national politics and issues. But he always somehow ended up writing about Florida and home.

“So often, the national news and the biggest story of the day has a Florida connection. The territory was the same, is what I’m saying,” he said. “Trump epitomizes that. Of course he would come here. They all come to South Florida. Every scammer aspires to be in Florida at some point.

“It’s good material and it’s also important work. You still elect people with the ideal that they’re honest and will do their best for all constituents, and they’re not going to steal or get rich on the side. Again and again, you find out not everyone does it right. And you have to write about it.”

With his two children and stepson grown, and grandchildren in college, Hiaasen also hopes he’ll now have more time for fishing, especially once the pandemic recedes. A top-flight fisherman with a keen eye and cast for elusive bonefish, snook and tarpon, he lived in Islamorada in the Keys for a decade — in part to have a dock on Florida Bay, and in part to get away from runaway growth in Broward and Miami-Dade.

About 15 years ago, when the Keys also got “too crowded for my anti-social personality,” he moved with his family to Vero, where the snook and tarpon are abundant, too.

Hiaasen said he will likely keep writing until he no longer can, noting that his grandfather practiced law until he was 90.

“Most writers never really quit writing. I’m not really qualified to do anything else,” he said.

Not that the craft ever gets any easier, he said. And thus the decision to focus his energies.

“Writing for some of us is like giving birth to a porcupine. The columns are the same way. Some weeks the subjects are obvious. Some weeks it’s very tough to hit a note nobody else is hitting. It’s hard and kind of grueling,” he said.

“It’s not like I’m moving to the Turks and Caicos or something. But enough is enough, and for the readers, too.”

 

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