Still not finding much to laugh about in these post-pandemic times? America’s funniest satirist Carl Hiaasen has the solution with two titles that deliver humor and hope for the whole family.
On the adult shelf, his New York Times bestseller “Squeeze Me” catapults us into a post-pandemic, petulantly pompous, presidential Palm Beach posh pit, perfectly titled Casa Bellicosa. In this faux Mar-a-Lago, a Botox-infused gaggle of grand dames who call themselves the Potussies serve up cultural mayhem for the POTUS, known herein only by his Secret Service moniker, Mastodon. The ultra-rich roast of this Trump really takes off when one of the ’tussies falls into a pond during an Irritable Bowel Syndrome gala and is devoured by a 20-foot Burmese python.
For the kiddos, Newbery Award Winner Carl has conjured up “Squirm,” in which Florida teen Billy Dickens flies across the country to Montana in search of his father Dennis, who left his mom when Billy was 4. Once in Livingston, Billy is welcomed by Summer Chasing-Hawks, his stepsister and daughter of Little Thunder-Sky, his Crow mother-in-law. Billy will hike a mountain, dodge a grizzly bear, save an endangered panther and oh yes, shoot down a spy drone, to not only meet but save his father.
Both books jump straight out of Hiaasen’s own life. As a reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald newspaper since he was 24, Hiaasen had met Donald Trump prior to his presidency, and he chronicled the Mar-a-Lago high-dollar social scene for years. As for Billy’s adventures in Livingston, Hiaasen, a native Floridian who now resides in Vero Beach, knows well whereof he speaks.
Montana Press: How did you discover Montana?
Carl Hiaasen: Well, I am a fly fisherman and I love to fish. I’d grown up in Florida with all salt-water flyfishing, bonefish and tarpon, but I hadn’t done any trout fishing in the mountains, for rainbows or cut throats or anything, and I’d been reading about Montana. So in the early 1980s, I actually decided I was going to go see Montana. I went out and I landed in Great Falls and ended up in the Bob Marshall (Wilderness Area), on like a dude ranch up there that you also could fish in.
I almost drowned in the Sun River; I was fishing alone and I just crossed a spot where I shouldn’t have but I fell in love with it. And just a few years later, I went to Missoula and that whole area around the Upper Clark Fork, and so I’ve been going out there since the early 80s. And for years, I had a summer home outside of Livingston so I spent lots and lots of time out there. I fell in love with it the minute I stepped off the airplane. I think that’s the way most people react to Montana.
MP: Much like the character of Billy Dickens in “Squirm?”
Hiaasen: Yes, exactly. It just takes your breath away. As beautiful as Florida is, the flatness of it and the humidity and just the massive numbers of people, you step off the plane in Great Falls or Bozeman and your jaw drops. When you look around, if you’re from Florida, the first thing you think is, it’s amazing they haven’t wrecked this place yet! Because if there was anything that beautiful in Florida, they would have paved it already. Just the proximity to nature, there is hardly a turn that you can take off any road in Montana and not park your car and have one of those raw moments. It’s just the natural beauty of it. I’ve been going out there for a long time.
MP: That same influx of neighbors ultimately drove you out of the Florida Keys, where you and your wife Fenia lived for years.
Hiaasen: Yeah, I left Islamorada with mixed feelings, but it was just getting stampeded with people. Now, it’s even worse. I have too many memories of what it was like when you could take your skiff out on the water and pole around in evenings without getting run over by jet skis and morons. When your good memories start getting infected and soured by what you see happening, it raises your anxiety level to where it’s not worth staying anymore. I do a lot of fishing in the Bahamas now, where there are still places you can go where you don’t see another boat all day.
MP: The timing of “Squeeze Me” somehow feels almost preordained in light of President Trump’s Covid missteps. Have you ever experienced such a satirist’s jackpot?
Hiaasen: No, I haven’t. I’ve done a lot of novels where I’ve had politicians and incompetence. When you write about Florida, you have to write about corruption, you have to write about incompetence, even if you’re writing a funny novel. I mean, that’s sort of the point. With a satire, you have to have targets like that; you have to have reasons for writing the satire. The difference between that and slapstick is that satire has a point, and a point of view. And obviously in Trump World, and because he’s spent so much time in Florida, that idea has been kicking around. The stories coming out of Mar-a-Lago were so ripe for satire.
MP: Were there any scenes you wish you had added or omitted, given this unprecedented Presidential campaign?
Hiaasen: If I was writing the novel and I had thought to write a scene where Trump holds an event in the Rose Garden and infects eight or 10 people, including himself, I would have thought, well, even he wouldn’t do that; even he’s not that stupid and selfish. So that wouldn’t have been a scene that I would have put in. But now that has happened.
The other thing is, he isn’t the center of the novel at all; he’s a large, gaseous presence that sort of floats in and out, but he’s not at the center of the plot. I wish I could say I was shocked that he got this (Covid-19), but if you look at his behavior, you can’t be shocked. He was almost like daring the virus to infect him, the way he was acting. And the worst part is, he was making everyone else act that way around him and not wear a mask.
MP: How has the Covid pandemic impacted your writing?
Hiaasen: I was just busting my ass to finish the book when the real Covid outbreak started in March , and I still had a lot of writing to do. I had the advantage and felt almost guilty about the fact that, as writers, we’re self-isolating anyway; we’re in a room by ourselves, we’re not out socializing. It just gave me more time and more incentive to get the work done. There were so many people I know who were laid off or worried about losing their jobs completely. I knew people who got sick, and my own schedule didn’t change that much, you know? I was lucky, first of all, to have a job, and to have a job that kept me out of harm’s way.
Most writers are not socializers anyway; most writers are pretty cranky and private. This was just a period when it serves us well.
MP: You had written “Squirm” prior to the pandemic. How did you come up with this bicoastal charmer?
Hiaasen: I alternate between the so-called grownup novels and the kid books for my young readers. I remember when I wrote “Hoot,” which is the first kids book I wrote, it was about a kid who had moved to Florida from Montana. That character is much different than the character in “Squirm,” but I wanted a kid who had to go to Montana, in this case to try to find his father. He’s sort of a Florida kid who has spent his life the opposite of the “Hoot” kid, who had never been to the Everglades or seen an alligator. I wanted a kid who was familiar and cool with all that, who would go out and catch a snake or didn’t mind getting swarmed by mosquitoes. And in “Squirm,” he’s got this mission where his dad just kind of disappeared on them. There’s some bitterness in the family about that, and he decides he’s going to go out and track down his father, who it turns out is kind of an heroic figure, or at least a figure who has his heart in the right place. It also selfishly gave me a chance to write scenes both in parts of Florida that I love and parts of Montana that I love. It helps to be setting the action and having your characters in a place that you care about.
MP: Regular readers will sense they’re entering Hiaasen Land when a drone suddenly appears in the picture.
Hiaasen: (Laughs) One of the last summers when I was in Montana, my youngest son was a teenager at the time and I got him a drone, because where we lived in Florida, you’d hit power poles; you’d have to drive a ways to get to a place where you could really safely put a drone in the sky without endangering somebody if it got out of hand. But in Montana, you have all of that open space. We had a place on the Yellowstone where you could really get some incredible visual stuff. But the thing we found out kind of the hard way: you forget about how windy it is in Livingston, you know? When you have this great idea, this drone, you forget that it blows 40-50 miles an hour steady sometimes in Livingston. So he put his new drone up one time and it had a little homing thing on it where it would come back, and I could see the thing struggling up there and struggling up there…
MP: Did it end up in Big Tomber?
Hiaasen: You know, it didn’t end up exactly where he wanted it to, but he was able to get it back within walking distance or jogging distance,. It was clearly a navigational challenge to put a drone up when it was blowing. That’s where I got the idea of having a kid who knew how to use a drone, because my kid is very tech savvy. I would have crashed that thing up in a cottonwood in two seconds if I’d been at the controls.
MP: I’m guessing that entering the world of descriptive Native American names proved equally enticing.
Hiaasen: Oh, they were great! We had a wonderful scholar help with the names because I wanted to get everything right. Sometimes I know right away and other times I’ll have to write a few chapters and see how the names fit on the characters, and if they don’t fit, I’ll find something that does because I want them to be distinctive. I remember reading books, and it would drive me nuts when they would have five or six similar names. Even Dostoyevsky, I would have to thumb back and go, who’s that one? I would forget the name; there would just be so many and there would be similarities to each. So I always felt when I was writing that I wanted the name to stick with the reader from the first page, so they would never have to guess who that character was or couldn’t recall which one is which. As a result, I’ll go through several versions of a character’s name as I’m writing, and luckily with the word-processing programs that we have now, if I want to change a name and see how that looks, it’s just a few clicks to see if that’s working better or not.
MP: Do you still get homesick for your second home?
Hiaasen: Oh yeah.... Because of Covid, I was out there only eight or nine days and very remote. But one of my great regrets is that I never got to be out there in the fall. In Florida, kids start back to school in mid-August. In Livingston, you’re just coming out of 90 degrees every single day then. Everybody said, ‘You’ve got to be here in September,’ but I never was. But one of these years, I’m going to make a point of being there in September, not just for the fishing but because it’s just so gorgeous.
It’s still a magical place for me. I know the weather can be miserable. I have friends, contractors who can’t work in the winter, and it can be tough economically for them. But I still think if you’re lucky enough to live out there, it beats the hell out of the other 99.9 percent of the places you could be living.