Friday, August 22, 2008

Humor and Hiaasen

Satirical writer to be at writers’ conference

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy Photo

Carl Hiaasen is one of the most astute and prolific writers around. He began his career 32 years ago with the Miami Herald as a general-assignment reporter. He became an award-winning investigative reporter, pens many magazine articles and in 1985 began writing a column, which continues week-in, week-out to this day. As well, he is the best-selling author of nearly a dozen novels, including "Sick Puppy," "Nature Girl," "Tourist Season," "Basket Case," "Striptease" and "Downhill Lie," a new hilarious memoir about returning to the fairways after a 32-year absence.

Hiaasen's novels have been published in 33 languages. The London Observer called him "America's finest satirical novelist" and Janet Maslin of The New York Times compared him to Preston Sturges, Woody Allen and S.J. Perelman. Nice company, if you can keep it.

What makes Hiaasen so appealing is his humorous take on his home state of Florida. His books take place there and his columns take a gimlet-eye view of Florida's skewered goings-on, political and otherwise.

Hiaasen will present a breakout session at the Sun Valley Writers Conference on Saturday, Aug. 23, at 10:15 a.m. called "Florida and the Frontier of Weirdness." On Sunday, Aug. 24, his talk will be on "How I Became a Grandpa and a Kids' Superstar in One Year."

Hiaasen ssaid he was finally induced to participate in the 2008 writers' conference by its new executive director, John Hockenberry, "an old friend of mine."

"This year we're in (Livingston) Montana, so it worked out fine."

Hiaasen began writing novels in the 1980s with his good friend and fellow journalist the late William D. Montalbano. Together they penned three mystery thrillers—"Powder Burn," "Trap Line" and "Death in China"—which borrowed heavily from their own reporting experiences.

"'Tourist Season' was the first I wrote by myself and had the audacity to put my name on," Hiaasen said.

Hiaasen, as a Florida native, loves the weirdness of his state.

"Working in Florida informs the fiction," he said. "What might seem fantastic in the normal part of the country is not that far-fetched for Floridians. The crazy reality of that is that I'm not qualified to write about anywhere else."

He calls his novels "a kind of a hybrid with a satirical point of view. People might think it's deranged, but the headlines alone in Florida are sufficient. It's more fantastic than anything I think up or the stuff I think I think up."

Hiassen writes character-driven, sardonic novels that veer towards the thriller genre.

"It requires a different approach," he said. "I start with a plot in mind and a cast of characters but I don't know how it's going to shake down. I don't work from outlines. I know what the engine will be but I have no idea how it will end when I start. The characters partly come from journalism and my own personality. The first thing that gets me thinking is to get them on stage and let them collide. The plots evolve from characters. Some writers are incredibly precise. In my books you know who done it by page 40."

Hiaasen calls Wood River Valley writer Ridley Pearson "the hardest working person in show business, as we say—him and Dave Barry, who is a very dear friend."

In terms of specific place, truly bizarre characters and whip-smart losers, think Elmore Leonard meets the late John D. MacDonald. But unlike those two writers, Hiaasen seems pretty normal. He's is a family man who spends time bragging about his son and daughter-in-law, both of whom are journalists. He's a hard worker who has stayed with one employer for his whole career. And he is a person who understands the job of writing.

"Writing is pathology in my case," he said. "It's more a form of personal therapy for me. I'd write even if I didn't get paid for it. It doesn't get easier. All writing is hard work. That's what I tell students and new writers of any age. Even bad writing is hard work. There are truly great novels on the bestseller list and truly hideous ones but all of them require a huge amount of work. They all start with a pile of blank paper."

Hiaasen's books are very adult oriented but he has also written two books for a younger audience: "Hoot" and "Flush."

"I do a fair amount of talking to kids' groups," he said. "It's a complete surprise with doing these kids' novels. They get it. They get the point. There is nothing like that energy you get back from kids."

Conference Highlights

Free to the general public

· Saturday, Aug. 23, at 7:15 p.m.

Former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has been in Georgia this week at the invitation of President Mikheil Saakashvili to observe the Russian invasion and its consequences. In the Sun Valley Pavilion, after the conclusion of the regularly scheduled Sun Valley Writers' Conference program, he will discuss the invasion and its meaning for the United States. Limited, free public seating will be available. Holbrooke served as U.S. ambassador to Germany and to the United Nations, and negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords, which concluded the Bosnian conflict.

For conference participants

· Sunday, Aug. 24, at 10:15 a.m.

"David Halberstam: The Coldest Winter," a documentary film covering highlights in the career of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author and frequent Sun Valley Writers Conference author, followed by a panel discussion on war reporting. Panelists will include Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, George Packer, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." His reporting from Iraq won an Overseas Press Club award. Also on the panel will be Martha Raddatz, an award-winning journalist, ABC chief White House correspondent and author of "A Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family."

· The Walter Mosley event on Saturday, Aug.23, from 4:45-5:30 p.m. has been cancelled. Ted Kooser, former U.S. poet laureate, will speak at that time in the Sun Valley Pavilion.

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