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A funny thing happened on the way to Carl Hiassen's career

Hiaasen still writes a weekly op-ed column in the Miami Herald. One of his latest targets was BP.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It was while attending a suburban high school near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. that Carl Hiaasen first got the inkling that there just might be a career in being funny.

This would have been in the late 1960s or the early 70s when Hiaasen was a contributor to what he calls "this little underground newsletter, a sort of radical counterpoint to the 'rah-rah' high school newspaper." Hiaasen would craft a line, a lampoon or shtick he thought was irreverent and funny but then he'd wonder, 'Was it really?' He would get his answer walking down the high school's halls, when he'd be stopped by "these jocks, these big campus heroes, who'd say, 'Hey, I really like what you wrote; I laughed.'"

The other day, during an interview in Toronto, Hiaasen called this affirmation "a wake-up call."

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"Before, every time I used to get stopped in the hall, I thought I was going to get beat up," he chuckled. "Now I'm having these people say, 'That was good. I'm glad you did it. How'd you get away with it?' That was maybe the best part , the 'how'd-you-get-away-with-it.' That's when I knew, Man, this was something I wanna do. If I can get away with it, I'll keep trying to get away with it."

It's safe to say that Carl Hiaasen has gotten away. At 57, he's one of America's most successful authors, with more than 20 books to his credit -- almost all of them bestsellers, almost all of them still in print and almost all of them (yes!) funny. His 12th and latest novel for adults, Star Island, was published last week in hardcover, four years after his last hit, Nature Girl, and just in time for inclusion in this summer's beach tote bag.

If you're doing it right, it shouldn't be easy.

Predictably enough, Star Island's locale is Florida where the lean and lanky Hiaasen continues to live, in Vero Beach, about 200 kilometres north of Miami on the state's east coast, with his second wife, Fenia, their young son and a Labrador retriever named Toby. In the last 25 years or so, Hiaasen has, in an admittedly off-kilter, satirical, frequently ribald way, made Florida the venal equivalent of Thomas Hardy's Dorset and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

The action in Star Island, for instance, takes place mostly in South Beach, which Hiaasen populates with an unseemly cast of characters. They include an over-sexed, under-talented, mayhem-creating pop star named Cherry Pye, Cherry's salaried double, Ann DeLusia, an overweight, obsessed paparazzo who answers to the handle Bang Abbott, plus Chemo, a psychotic body guard whose barracuda-severed arm has been replaced by a weed-whacker prosthesis.

With the exception of his three novels for children and a smattering of non-fiction, most of Hiaasen's oeuvre can be found in the crime or mystery fiction section of your favourite bookstore, racked like so many boxes of brand detergent in bright, candy-coloured covers. Yet it's a berth Hiaasen finds rather, well . . . mysterious.

"My books are character-driven. They're not driven by the story," he explained. "There's not this precise, linear plotting . . . And there's no mystery really. If anything, the mystery is how are these people going to get out of this fix or end up."

In the late 1980s, Hiaasen's editor at Random House pressured the writer to take a character from his third novel, Skin Tight -- a state's attorney investigator -- and hook all his future novels around the investigator's exploits. Hiaasen begged off becoming a serialist, even though, sipping a big glass of Coca-Cola, he acknowledged it likely would have "made an easier road."

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"Y'see, I get so bored so easily. I like to start with a clean slate each time. Sure, I'll have characters drop in and out of books but the main cast of characters always changes. Maybe I'm wrong but I think if had the same joe detective guy or gal, I wouldn't write them as well; I wouldn't do as good a job."

"If you're doing it right," he added, "it shouldn't be easy."

The son of a lawyer father and teacher mother, Hiaasen began writing professionally as a reporter after university graduation, eventually joining the Miami Herald in the mid-1970s. Amazingly, he still writes a weekly column for the newspaper's Sunday op-ed pages even though, as a millionaire author with a summer home on Montana's Yellowstone River, there's no financial reason to do so. Hiaasen admitted he often thinks of giving up columnizing. "But then something like the BP oil spill comes along and how would I feel being relegated to the sidelines and not having that column handy to tee off on those guys? I would've been drooling like some rabid wolverine," he laughed, "not being able to do something on that."

Hiaasen's novels have brought him fame, of course, and over the years he's come to claim musicians, writers and celebrities such as Jimmy Buffett, Tom McGuane, Tom Brokaw, Jim Harrison and, most famously perhaps, the late Warren ( Werewolves of London) Zevon as pals or acquaintances. Yet Hiaasen, with his tidy haircut, Bass Weejuns and neatly pressed checked shirt, remains very much the aw-shucks/awe-struck fan who's still thrilled when someone just as famous -- or more so -- proclaims his or her fandom for him.

"A couple of years ago, I got a call from someone saying, 'You've never met the Stones. Woody and Keith would like you to come by before the concert.'" Hiaasen, his wife and stepson dutifully showed up back-stage in Fort Lauderdale at the appointed time. "They'd given us tickets, like, right in the front, which was great," Hiaasen recalled, "but I had no expectations this was going to result in any kind of meeting."

Then a woman appeared to lead him through a warren of hallways, eventually stopping at a room with a little sign on its door saying Snooker Room. "Behind it were Keith Richards and Ron Wood, playing snooker, cigarettes hanging, this thick haze of smoke. And they're saying, 'We're big fans of Warren [Zevon]and we love your books and dah-dah-dah and afterwards, I'm walking out, thinking, 'Holy crap, I've just met Keith Richards.'"

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Hiaasen smiled. "The point is, none of this stuff is anything you expect when you start writing this stuff. It's been a great fringe benefit and I'm always tickled -- surprised! -- to find out anybody well-known has even looked at it."

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