Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, Star Island, is a hilarious satire of modern fame about a Lindsay Lohan-esque celebrity named Cherry Pye and her body double, who accidentally gets kidnapped by a crazed paparazzo. We gave our patented (not actually) book quiz to the Florida-based author to see what books make him cry, laugh, and feel enough shame to hide behind a magazine.
What book are you reading now?
I haven’t started it yet, but the book that’s on the nightstand is [Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam novel] Matterhorn, which by all accounts is supposed to be a pretty incredible book. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but that’s what’s on the bed-stand. For those of us who grew up during that war, it’s still something that I remained intrigued and mortified by at the same time.
It’s kind of amazing that the book was 30 years in the making.
I think I understand it. A lot of great books take time, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it came from his personal experiences.
He was a Marine, I believe.
I think I see where it would take some time to work it out just right, but everything I read about it looks just great.
What’s the book with the best movie version?
There are two books that come to mind. The first one wasn’t a movie, it was a miniseries, but I think Lonesome Dove was a tremendously faithful adaptation of Larry [McMurtry]’s novel. For fans of that novel, and God knows there are millions, I think they were immensely satisfied with what was done with that cinematically. The other one was a novel by John Gregory Dunne, but you have to help me out with this. It was a novel he did that was made into a movie with Robert Duvall, and I want to say True Confessions. I read that book and I was knocked out by it and I went to the movie with the usual trepidations, that it couldn’t possibly live up to the novel, but it was pretty darn close. And I believe that John worked on that script, which would account for the quality of it. I remember seeing that, thinking, they can make a good movie out of a novel. It can be done.
I notice that you didn’t mention Hoot, a movie made from one of your books…
Well, let me tell you about that. I was more involved with that than other movies. Lots of screenplays have been based off my novels, but only Striptease and Hoot were actually made into movies. Hoot I got more personally involved because it was for kids and I know that kids are meticulous readers and they also have great expectations when they go to the movie theater. So I got a lot of notes from the studio and tried to make things right, but in the end it’s such a huge battle when you’re dealing with so many notes, I think both [director] Wil Shriner and I felt pretty beat up at the end of the process. Having said that, the film didn’t do well theatrically, but it’s doing well on DVD, and I’ve gotten so many letters from kids who loved the movie. Including my son, who’s 10, who downloaded it the other day to his iPod, and I didn’t even know he was doing it. He loved it so much. So I have to say that, in the end, I was left with a good feeling about it. I wish that we had a little different budget and that we were able to do things we couldn’t do, but that’s always the case. I think it’s always good for the author to stay a good cattle prod’s distance from the actual moviemaking.
Have you ever purchased one of your own books in a bookstore?
I have, but I don’t remember which one. I remember going on a book tour and realizing that I had a relative in the town and that I hadn’t sent that relative a free book. And my fear was that they were going to show up at the book signing and I didn’t want the store to have to cough up a book for free. So I remember buying a copy of the novel surreptitiously and kept it with me just in case they showed up. I had that cold creeping chill up my spine like, “Uh-oh, what if they come looking for their free book?”
Is there also the fear of someone seeing you buy your own book?
Yeah, that’s embarrassing. Here’s my rule: You always want to pay cash for your own books, because if they look at the name on the credit card and then they look at the name on the book jacket, then there’s this look of such profound sympathy for you that you had to resort to this. It really is withering.
Like, “Wow, how egotistical do you have to be?”
[Laughs] Yeah, I’m going from store to store, trying to jack up the sales. I have to wear a disguise.
Is there a book that changed your life?
It’s nothing you haven’t heard before. [J.D. Salinger’s] The Catcher in the Rye really knocked me out of my chair. Especially as a young person who knew he wanted to write, it really opened my eyes about what fiction written in the voice of a young person could be. Catch-22 I still think is one of the most phenomenal novels in the English language because of [Joseph] Heller’s ability to make you laugh literally on every page while writing about the darkest of all human conditions, wartime. I’m still blown away by that book.
And plus, what other books are so influential that they coin their own terminology?
Exactly. They become part of the lexicon. And in a broader sense, one author that had a big influence on me by being from Florida was John D. MacDonald. I was born in Fort Lauderdale and his books were set basically in my backyard, and not only were they great reads, great page-turners, but he riffed so cleverly about what was happening to Florida, the destruction of Florida, the exploitation of Florida, long before it was hip and popular to do that. And I remember reading these books as a young person and thinking that you could still write a book that’s a compelling read but at the same time you could slip in a few zingers, you could get your message across, you could make a point. MacDonald felt very strongly about the same stuff that I write about, and he did it so deftly and artfully that I remember reading it and getting excited, thinking, “It can be done, you can pull this off.”
MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye might be a pretty interesting movie adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio is rumored to play Travis McGee.
That would be tremendous. I don’t go to many movies, but that one I would go to.
Is there any book that you were really surprised that you enjoyed?
I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, but I went in semi-reluctantly when I read [Khaled Hosseini’s] The Kite Runner, because it had been hyped so much and extolled in such a way that you naturally become leery. One, if it could be that good, but also the subject matter that I feared might depress me. When I’m writing, or trying to write, books that are funny, I try not to read books that are too heavy, but my wife had read it and friends of mine had read it and they’re very careful about what they suggest to me. They told me to get it. And I remember going into it thinking it can’t be that good, but it actually was. It was one of those books that I felt socially obligated to read, and I tend to shy away from that stuff, but this one was the real deal.
When I’m deciding to read a book, I never open to the first chapter, because that’s been revised and worked over 88 times. I’ll just turn to the middle of the book, to the middle of a chapter, and just read a random page and I’ll know right away whether this is the real deal or not. You can tell right away, if it’s really good, it’ll be really good on page 158. Lots of people can write a good first page but to sustain it, that’s my litmus test. If I flip to the middle of the book and there’s a piece of dialogue that’s just outstanding, or a description, then I’ll flip back to the first page and start it.
Have you ever hidden a book in public behind something else?
When I was young, I remember two books. When I was in junior high, I got turned on to the James Bond books by Ian Fleming, and I remember my mom saying, “Oh no, you can’t read Ian Fleming.” My dad had one of the novels and she put it on the highest shelf. But I ended up with a copy, it was either Goldfinger or Thunderball. We used to get a lot of outdoor magazines, Fish and Stream, Outdoor Life, stuff like that. And I remember when I was in my room when I was reading Ian Fleming, if my mom came in all she would see was the hunting or fishing magazine that was wrapped around it.
If there were only one genre you could read for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I tend not to read any specific genre. I read a lot of nonfiction when I’m writing, and when I do read fiction, a lot of the books that I like don’t fall into a specific genre, like Tom Wolfe and Gary Shteyngart. If I was relegated to a life of only flying on airplanes, stuck bouncing from airport to airport, the one genre, as an escape valve, would have to be mysteries. There’s nothing quite as fine as opening a Michael Connelly or a P.D. James or a James Lee Burke. If that were my fate, yeah, I’d probably pick mysteries.
The last book tour I did was for one of my adult novels. By the end of the tour, I’m just a bitter, heaving mass of self-pity and self-loathing. The tour just tears me to pieces. So here’s what I thought would get me through: Crime and Punishment. There’s an impulse in every writer to inflict pain on oneself, so I picked Dostoevsky.
In itself it’s a type of punishment.
Part of you wants to see just how low you can get, and then you read Crime and Punishment and think, well, at least my life isn’t as bad as that guy’s. I mean, I’m on a book tour, what am I bitching about?
I haven’t killed a pawnbroker…
Exactly. And in a strange way it elevated me.
Sort of like literary schadenfreude.
And I tell you, if you’re sitting on a plane reading that, people do stay away from you. There is no idle conversation being struck with you. “How’s that going?” “How’re you liking that book?”
What was the last book that made you laugh out loud, and what was the last one that made you cry?
The last book that made me laugh out loud was Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. I think he’s absolutely brilliant. Now, the last book that made me cry? I’m Norwegian, and we just don’t crack up a lot, that’s just not in the DNA. I guess it would have to be Old Yeller. That’s the last time I remember crying at a book. That one was tough. I avoid sad books. Everybody told me to read Marley and Me, but I know how it ended, and to me there’s nothing sadder than the dog dying. That’s about as sad as it gets in a book for me. Also, I’ve always had Labradors, so I knew that was going to be a crusher, a killer. So I stayed away from it. That’s the problem with pets—they die. If you don’t want that, get a tortoise. That’s the book I’d write.
Where the tortoise is rabid and gets taken out back and shot?