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Carl Hiaasen talks well-placed sea urchins, paparazzi and Florida

August 18, 2010 | 11:26 am
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Carl Hiaasen (pictured, center) signs books after speaking at Track 16 Gallery in Bergamot Station on Tuesday night, when he graciously answered my questions in front of a full room. It was part of the new Live Talks Los Angeles series, founded and produced by Ted Habte-Gabr (pictured, right).

Hiassen mostly talked about his new book, "Star Island," a satire of celebrity culture. Star Island is an actual place off Miami's South Beach, where celebrities -- and, he recollected, a church whose form of prayer was smoking massive amounts of marijuana -- maintain residences. Of course, it also serves as a metaphor for the strangely insulated world a pop starlet inhabits, orbited by paparazzi, Botoxed handlers and, in Hiaasen's novel, Annie, a stunt double whose job is to traffic red carpets when her starlet is too bombed to function.

Annie is the heart and brains of "Star Island," which also features the welcome return of two dangerous characters from Hiaasen's earlier novels. You wouldn't want to get too close to Chemo, the man with a weed whacker as a prosthetic hand, but when he seethes with anger, he makes sense. And Skink, the former Florida governor turned swamp hermit, wields a terrifying vengeance on those who, well, deserve it.

Hiaasen talked about how anger drove his writing. He's an editorial columnist with the Miami Herald, where he has worked for more than two decades, and often focuses on misdeeds and mistakes of Florida's political establishment. He's got no love for developers, either, and is an outspoken opponent of the rampant growth that has fueled Florida's economy while harming its environment.

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Before the event began, people milled around Track 16 Gallery, owned by Tom Patchett. He explained how he wound up with the original Brown Derby sign -- years ago, he outbid Arnold Schwarzenegger for it. Before opening the gallery, Patchett was a successful comedy writer and television producer. But Hiaasen remembered him in his earlier incarnation: as one half of the comedy duo Patchett and Tarses. The softspoken Patchett was surprised. Apparently, people know him better as an art collector and gallery owner and as the guy behind "Alf" than for his '60s stand-up. Each man complimented the other on being funny, and I stood there wondering why on earth I hadn't brought a tape recorder.

Carlhiaasen_signingInstead, I got to sit under the bright lights and ask Hiaasen questions about his book. At one point, he was explaining the punishment wielded against a minor villain -- a sea urchin placed in a very sensitive area -- when I asked if we could switch gears and mentioned that I'd solicited questions for him on Twitter. "Here we go," he said with a sigh, perhaps expecting the worst. It wasn't bad at all -- the question was about writing for adults (sea urchin torture) versus writing for kids.

In 2002, Hiaasen published "Hoot," and he told the audience that it was based on his own childhood experience with burrowing owls and the developers whose bulldozing often buried and killed them. Hiaasen and his friends moved survey stakes at night, leading to some confusion, but in the end, the developers continued their destructive work. The thing about fiction, Hiaasen explained, is that you can give a story like that a happy ending.

Calling himself a crusty old newspaper man, Hiaasen said he was nevertheless touched by all the letters he'd received from kids who'd read "Hoot," which sold more than 2 million copies.

Each evening in Live Talks L.A.'s reading series benefits a different nonprofit; last night's was Reading to Kids, a literacy program that targets schoolchildren in some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods and has provided children with close to 90,000 books, supplying another 15,000 hardcovers to school libraries.

Maybe because he's been writing about the "vortex of weirdness" that is Florida and its local politics for so many years, Hiaasen has more funny synonyms for the word "idiot" than any other person I've ever met. But one thing he wasn't able to joke about was the BP oil spill. He's been asked over and over on this tour if he'll make the oil spill the target of a future satire. No, he said, "it's too close." After Hurricane Andrew, which also devastated Florida's environment, he eventually found a way to make it funny by talking about the deluge of people who came in for the repair and cleanup. Maybe there will be an angle like that for the oil spill -- maybe.

Audience questions were great, although I sometimes sounded silly because I had to repeat those queries for recording purposes ("When I was a boy, in 1950, I took a ferry to Cuba ...). A video of my conversation with Carl Hiaasen will be posted on the Live Talks Los Angeles website, where you will soon  be able to learn about events coming up this fall.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos, from top: Carl Hiaasen and Ted Habte-Gabr at the Track 16 event; the original Brown Derby sign in the Track 16 Gallery; Hiaasen signs books. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg


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