Florida: Stranger than fiction
Seen through Carl Hiaasen’s eyes, Florida is far from paradise. Instead, it is pockmarked with fat-cat businessmen, bumbling tourists, corrupt politicians and sunburned rednecks—real-life characters who pop up not only in Hiaasen’s column for the Miami Herald but also in his outlandish novels (Star Island, Skinny Dip). The few characters that are not constantly tripping over themselves are kids, the resident brains of Hiaasen’s four children’s novels, including the Newbery Honor-winning Hoot.
Hiaasen’s newest environmental thriller for kids, Chomp, features Wahoo Cray, son of animal wrangler Mickey Cray. He and his father are hired by “Expedition Survival!,” a reality TV show similar to “Man vs. Wild” but starring the dangerously stupid faux-survivalist Derek Badger. When Badger foolishly insists on doing stunts with only wild animals, Wahoo, his dad and the “Expedition Survival!” crew head into the Everglades. Add a girl named Tuna, an array of swamp life, a lightning storm and plenty of laughs, and Chomp is only getting started.
In an interview with BookPage, Hiaasen told us more about how he turns Florida's wacky real-life happenings into compelling fiction for young readers.
The strange truths in Florida always make for great fiction. What headlines found their way into Chomp? Frozen iguanas falling from the trees?
The falling iguana story is a perfect example of me poaching shamelessly from the headlines. South Florida had a bad winter freeze a couple of years ago and the cold weather killed lots of exotic fish and reptiles. Dead iguanas started falling from the trees, and my first thought was: “I’ve got to put this in a novel.” And I did.
All the trouble in Chomp comes from “Expedition Survival!” reality TV star Derek Badger. Do you find all reality stars ridiculous, or is there a special place on your blacklist for fake survivalists?
"I write about ordinary kids with no superpowers, just guts."
Reality television is so ridiculous that it’s addictive. The “survivalist” fad is quite humorous because everybody wants to be Bear Grylls, eating stir-fried maggots for breakfast and rappelling across 500-foot gorges. In Chomp, Derek Badger is just a lame Bear wannabe who ends up in the first authentic survival challenge of his life, and of course he’s a basket case.
Badger is bitten by a bat and, having read a terrible vampire book series, becomes convinced he will turn into a vampire. What's your take on the vampire craze in YA fiction?
The vampire book craze is baffling but also fascinating. Having Derek bitten by a bat seemed like a good way to get a piece of that action and also have some fun with the genre. It would be difficult to write a serious vampire novel set in Florida because of the climate—what would be more pathetic than a vampire covered with sunblock? They’d have to use about a 2,000 SPF, right?
Although alligators, bats and other Florida wildlife get some of the best scenes in Chomp, the creature in the most danger is actually Tuna, a little girl running from her abusive, alcoholic father. How did this heavy social issue enter into a kids' eco-thriller?
Sadly, lots of kids go home every night wondering if one of their parents is going to get drunk and hurt them. Tuna’s in a tough situation, but it’s reality. I’m not imaginative enough to create young wizards and dragon slayers in my books; I write about ordinary kids with no superpowers, just guts.
Your adult novels tend to create characters out of the real-life scumbags in your newspaper columns. Do your clever kid characters really exist? Is there hope for Florida yet?
Even in the adult novels, the characters tend to be rough composites of people I’ve known, or known about. Few characters are based on a single real-life person. In the young adult books, the characters tend to resemble a type of kid that I admire, kids with a conscience, a backbone and a love of the wild outdoors.
Based on the many letters I get from young readers, I think there’s definitely hope for the future of Florida—as long as my generation doesn’t wreck the place first.
What was it like to grow up in Florida as a kid, and what challenges do Floridian kids face today?
I had a great childhood because every free minute was spent outside, exploring what in our minds was a true wilderness on the edge of the Everglades. The biggest challenge facing a young person growing up today where I did—near Fort Lauderdale—would be finding a place to hang out that wasn’t paved over with asphalt and concrete. It’s tragic but true.
What is one thing you would tell a kid who is interested in becoming a wild animal wrangler?
Animal wrangling isn’t a profession for those who are squeamish about getting chomped, because animals do bite. They’ve got their moods just like people do. Not only do wranglers need quick reflexes, they also must be able to sense when their favorite alligator or rattlesnake is having a bad day.
What's the craziest thing you've ever seen out in the Everglades?
Once I had a large water moccasin try to eat a fish off a stringer that I’d set in the water. Moccasins are very poisonous and they have a rotten disposition, so I had to be careful when I chased it off. Another time we were floating in inner tubes down a long canal, and a state trooper stopped to warn us there was a big alligator swimming right behind us. Somehow we hadn’t seen the darn thing.
Any plans for your next book?
I’m in the middle of writing another novel for grownups, which I’m too superstitious to talk about until it’s finished. “Tastefully warped” is the best way I can describe it, as usual. After I’m done I’ll get started right away on another young adult novel. My 12-year-old son is already throwing me plot ideas.