Carl Hiaasen portrait by Tim Chapman

The man who invented Skink

Carl Hiaasen on Skink’s non-inspiration, Big Sugar and why he stays.

I fell in love with Carl Hiaasen in 1999. I sold shoes at Dillards. On my lunch break, I wandered toward Waldenbooks and saw a novel with an alligator on the cover: “Tourist Season.”

Skip Wiley had a well-known theory that the quality of life declined in direct proportion to the Asshole Quotient. According to Wiley’s reckoning, Miami had 134 total assholes per square mile, giving it the worst A.Q. in North America. In second place was Aspen, Colorado (101), with Malibu Beach, California, finishing third at 97.

I was hooked.

Of course, that A.Q. isn’t limited to Miami anymore. When I remark that Florida’s fertile ground for his sort of writing — Hiassen mastered the “weird Florida crime” genre, he corrects me:

“I would describe it as steamingly fertile,” he says.

“I remember when I was working in the newsroom in Miami, we used to think we had a monopoly on the weirdness and depravity, but it goes all the way from the Panhandle to Key West now. There’s no escape. Like this guy they arrested: He was going to pay a guy to bomb all these Target stores so that the price of stock would go plummeting and then he could buy the stock more cheaply. This was not ISIS; he was just a greedy old white guy.”

In his novels, Skink, a governor who couldn’t stomach Tallahasse politics and disappeared to live a hermit’s life in Florida’s wild bits, surfacing only to right a cosmic wrong, would have made short work of this guy. Skink, fans know, is the true Florida Man: If this guy had been governor, our state would be a different place. I have an “Elect Skink” bumper sticker on my bike. Some say Hiaasen based Skink on Lawton Chiles.

“I think Lawton probably might have thought I did,” he says. “Claude Kirk thought I based it on him, that’s how crazy he was. I wish there had been someone like that. I wish there was someone like that in Florida politics. I wish there had been someone like that around in certain key points in the political history of the state. We’ve had some good governors here and there, but none of them that I know of had a particular appetite for roadkill.”

What they do have, and what enrages Hiaasen, is an appetite for Big Sugar:

“It’s one thing to have used Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades as a toilet for all those years when it was pretty flagrant, but it’s another thing that they got subsidized by American taxpayers unwittingly, and the morality of that is pretty hard to justify… This is basically coming out of your pocket… [it’s] propping up a totally bogus price for sugar, just to enable a couple of gigantic companies to get richer and richer and richer. It is corporate welfare; that’s exactly what it is.”

He calls his fiction therapy for his outrage.

“I knew I wanted to write something funny that still sort of cut to the ugly part of the bone marrow. Witnessing it as a journalist, even though you’re writing about it, there’s still sort of a helpless feeling, because when you see a place you love getting paved over and poisoned and polluted, I don’t care how dispassionate you are as a reporter, if it’s affecting your family and it’s affecting your ability to do something recreational with your kids, when you see all of it happening it’s hard not to get pissed off. The books were great therapy for that.”

He cautions journalists to stay the course.

“I think that’s the greatest sin of all to just sort of throw in the towel and say ‘Nothing’s ever going to change.’ I think you pick your battle, you raise a little bit of hell, and, once in a while the good guys win.”

Is that why he’s stayed in Florida?

“I love the place,” he says. “It’s a place that’s worth fighting for. If you’re going to invest a lifetime and generations, as my family has, you don’t turn and run away because shitty things start to happen… There are days where it would make you think yeah, wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere where people aren’t getting shot because they dump a bunch of popcorn on someone in a movie theater. It’d be nice to live in a place where that shit doesn’t happen.

“But on the other hand, there’s so much of it that’s worth fighting for.”

The following excerpts from our interview were not included in the print edition of CL:

Who do you think our next governor will be?

I’ve been wrong so many times. I didn’t think Rick Scott had a chance, but that’s what $78 million dollars and your own money can buy you. It’s just going to be ugly, because of all the money that’s going to be spent. We talk about it, the special interests, especially the agricultural, the amount of money that’s going to be raining down on these candidates.

It’s very difficult not to be corrupted. By that, I don’t mean that they’re buying you Cadillacs. What they’re doing is they’re financing your elections. Very few people turn down NRA money, very few people turn down money from Big Sugar. It costs a lot to run a political campaign and when you take their money, it’s very, very hard to stand up and say no to them. It takes a special person to do that.

Speaking of special people, why does Florida bear the brunt of weird? Why don’t we hear about Arkansas Man?

I think a lot of weird stuff does happen in other places, but not in the abundance and concentration that we have here. First of all, it’s a function of having a huge population — 20 million people — and second of all the nature of the population, which is transient; You have this incredible collision of cultures here. It’s one of things that makes Florida kind of a combustible place. It’s also the nature of who you’re attracting. For two centuries, this place has been a magnet for dreamers, and also for fast buck artists and also for outlaws, going back to the 1800s. It’s always attracted the fringe element,, along with the people who were chasing a dream who wanted to come to a nice warm place and get out of the cold. But on the edge of herd are the predators.

What’s the biggest threat facing Florida?

The water crisis is the biggest threat, but there is a corrupting element in all of that and it’s the money. You have a legislature and a governor… The leadership, for the most part, and the rank and file, for the most part have all taken money. Rick Scott can’t get enough of Bid Sugar. His PACS have taken huge amounts of money… somewhere over $700,000.

None of these folks have the spine to take on Big Sugar or the sugar subsidies.

Everything from Kissimmee River on down is in crisis.

When did you realize these novels were going to be something, that this was going to be the issue you were going to pick up and carry?

One of the reasons I got into journalism was to be able to write about issues that were important to Florida. I’ve never wanted to work anywhere but Florida, or live anywhere or write anywhere but Florida. 

It’s way too lofty and noble to call it any kind of a crusade. The narrative voice in those novels — even the kids novels — is really, truly the way I look at things, the way I look at the world. It’s an honest reflection of the way I see things. It’s unavoidably cynical… it’s also using humor as a way to underscore the folly, the absurdity of all this greed, this great engine of greed that runs this state. If you go into journalism or you go into any kind of writing thinking you’re going to change the world or change the course of events, you’re out of your mind, you’re gonna end up disappointed and crushed. If you go into it thinking ‘OK, maybe someone who thinks the same way will know after reading this that they’re not alone’, if you just go into it thinking you’re going to give voice to people who maybe don’t have any sense of a voice, that’s a good thing. That’s a little more realistic. You’ve got to be realistic about it but at the same time you don’t want to get so beaten down that you give it up.

Do you eat sugar?

I don’t have a thing of sugar sitting the refrigerator at home, but it’s hard to avoid it. You’re shocked to find out how many things have sugar that aren’t sweet products. It’s certainly something we could survive with a lot less of; it’s nothing your body needs. I’m not going to tell someone don’t drink a soft drink; that’s your business.

The objection I have is all these folks got rich because of the taxpayer subsidies that they don’t like to call subsidies. It’s a price support system; they’re guaranteed x amount of dollars for each pound of sugar they grow. Small businesses don’t get that kind of- it’s supposed to be a free market system we live in; it’s not. The system is rigged. It isn’t just to make a living; these people are wealthy. They got rich off these price supports. That’s my objection.

Yeah, they pollute, that’s bad, we go after them for that, but it’s even worse because we finance them. You and me and everybody that goes to the grocery store and buys anything. Thats the thing that’s so outrageous. It’s one  to have used Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades as a toilet for all those years when it was pretty flagrant, but its another thing that they got subsidized by American taxpayers unwittingly, and the morality of that is pretty hard to justify.

You have to keep reminding [people] — as I do in the columns, when I can — that this is basically coming out of your pocket and this is really, truly the opposite of what we tell our kids about a free market economy. It isn’t; it’s punishing other countries that produce sugar and propping up a totally bogus price for sugar, just to enable a couple of gigantic companies to get richer and richer and richer. It is corporate welfare; that’s exactly what it is. Our present house speaker has declared war on corprorate welfare, but I suspect he won’t be taking on that particular issue, Mr. Corcoran, I don’t think he’ll be taking on the sugar companies.

And finally, a beautiful quote that simply didn’t fit anywhere in our feature, but it bears repeating: 

There’s a lot of things that could happen. We could not use the Everglades as a toilet.

This article originally appeared in print and online at Creative Loafing Tampa.