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Author Talk: July 30, 2010

Carl Hiaasen has made a name for himself publishing timely, biting satires like NATURE GIRL, FLUSH and SKINNY DIP. His latest work of fiction, STAR ISLAND, takes jabs at celebrity and media culture through the story of a 22-year-old celebutante whose “undercover stunt double” is kidnapped by an obsessive paparazzo. In this interview, Hiaasen explains what inspired this quirky plot and reflects on the importance of sympathizing with even the sleaziest characters he’s created. He also gives his two cents on the rabid popularity of tabloid news and shares a humorous personal experience on the red carpet.

Question: Where did the idea for STAR ISLAND come from?

Carl Hiaasen: I’ve always wanted to write about the paparazzi subculture. It’s such a peculiar, predatory way to make a living --- chasing pseudo-celebrities from club to club, hoping they stumble out the door drunk so you can snap a photo.

From a novelist’s point of view, bottom-feeders like Bang Abbott --- the paparazzo in STAR ISLAND --- are fun to invent. Sleazy characters are usually more intriguing than morally upright characters.

Q: Have you ever had any first-hand experiences with the paparazzi?

CH: Like most writers, I don’t have the problem of being dogged by the media: This is because people like me, who sit in small rooms and type all day, aren’t particularly interesting, even to their own families. In fact, I don’t know a single novelist who has a bodyguard, much less an entourage. Dan Brown sells more books than almost any human alive, but I seriously doubt if he gets mobbed by the paparazzi when he goes to the Pizza Hut.

Back in 1996, when the film version of STRIP TEASE came out, I attended the big premiere in Manhattan. All these flash bulbs were going off as I was walking up the red carpet, and the paparazzi shouted for me to stop for the cameras. When I was done, about five different voices yelled out from the pack: “Who ARE you? Could you spell your name?”

I think I told them I was Dave Barry.

Q: Do you have any sympathy for the Bang Abbotts in the media wolfpack?

CH: I’m sure they all have good stories about how they ended up in that particular line of work. Some of them undoubtedly enjoy it. Others, like Abbott, might dream of being the next Avedon or Annie Leibovitz.

As a writer, you need to understand your most loathsome characters, even if there’s no possibility of sympathy. Abbott’s not the worst creep I’ve ever created, but he’s probably in the top three or four. Still, he has a few moments of semi-humanity.

When you drop a toad like that into a book, you’re obligated to arrange for something poetically awful to happen to him. The more unsavory a character is, the more rabidly your readers want justice. I’m not giving anything away by saying that Bang Abbott definitely gets what’s coming to him in the end.

Q: But isn’t the novel also about fame, the other side of the camera lens?

CH: Well, it’s about how ridiculously easy it is to become famous today. No talent whatsoever and very little charm is required. All you’ve got to do is sleep with a certain professional golfer or crash a White House dinner party or marry (then cheat on) an Oscar-winning actress. There are a thousand other grimy ways to end up in the tabloids, which is the first step to getting your own reality show.

Q: The singer in the novel, Cherry Pye, seems to resemble at least one troubled real-life pop star.

CH: Oh, more than one. You could fill a dump truck with all the hot young singers who can’t yodel their way out of a grocery sack. If you’re good-looking enough, and you can learn how to lip-synch, the sky’s the limit. These days, the technology for counterfeiting talent is mind-boggling --- they could put my dog in a recording studio and make him sound like Pavarotti.

Q: Cherry’s offstage adventures get more attention in the novel than her inner thoughts. Why is that?

CH: The drugs, the tatts, the partying, the multiple rehabs --- true, it’s part of the cliché. However, the cliché happens to be reality-based.

As is occasionally true with celebrities, there is less to Cherry Pye than meets the eye. She’s mainly in the game for the fun of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Like more than a few young stars, she’s basically a product, manufactured by her parents, promoters, and of course the media: The least boring aspect of her life is the bad behavior.

Q: Why do you think the media is so rabidly fixated on celebrity news?

CH: Because it sells. Naughty excess is a valuable commodity, even empty-headed excess. Check out the magazine stands at the airport. The industry of creating and sustaining new celebrities is huge, from the tabloids all the way up the rack to People and Vanity Fair. And most people do read that stuff, no matter what they tell you.

I’ll bet more Americans can name all the Kardashians than can name the president of Afghanistan.

Q: Talk a little about Ann DeLusia, the young actress who is essentially the heroine of STAR ISLAND.

CH: Annie is hired by Cherry’s handlers as a sort of stunt double. Her job is to go out and pretend to be Cherry when Cherry’s too wasted to go out. The idea is to make Cherry’s fans believe she is completely rehabbed, healthy, fit and ready for her new concert tour. In reality, she’s still a train wreck.

Ann’s role in the charade is a closely guarded secret, even from Cherry herself. This becomes a major problem when the paparazzo, Abbott, goes off the deep end and abducts Ann, whom he mistakes for Cherry. It’s less confusing than it sounds.

Q: Why did you decide to bring back Skink, the ex-governor of Florida?

CH: I’ve always wanted to turn Skink loose on South Beach, which is where most of STAR ISLAND takes place. The governor is getting pretty old, so I needed to make it happen while he was still ambulatory.

After twenty-odd years, he’s still the character that readers most often ask about. The fact that he lives alone in the mangroves and feasts on roadkill seems to give him a broad appeal, strangely enough. I’m very fond of him, as well, but I have to be careful about when I let him out of the woods.

Q: Explain Skink’s relationship with Ann DeLusia.

CH: Skink first encounters Ann when she crashes her car in a swamp on the way to Key West. Skink rescues her and then enlists her in one of his trademark assaults on a tour bus full of real-estate speculators. Ann turns out to be a pretty good sport about all that.

Later, when she gets kidnapped on South Beach, Skink charges off to find her. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly blend in with the Ocean Drive crowd. And, as always, he leaves a trail.

Q: In STAR ISLAND, you bring back Chemo, another memorable character who’s been gone a long time. What made you decide to do that?

CH: Chemo first appeared as a hit man in a novel called SKIN TIGHT, which came out in 1989. He was one of the few bad guys I haven’t killed off, though I did arrange for a barracuda to bite off part of his arm. However, I gave him a very nice Weed Whacker for a prosthesis.

At the end of that novel, Chemo goes off to prison for second-degree murder. I’d always wanted to use him again so, when I was working on STAR ISLAND, I did the math and figured out that he would have finally finished his stretch in the slammer. In other words, he was available.

Q: Do you spend much time hanging out on South Beach?

CH: No, I don’t. Like Skink, I’d much rather be out in the mangroves among the crocodiles and buzzards. I’m dead serious.

© Copyright 2010, Carl Hiaasen. All rights reserved.

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