The Real Florida Men: A Chat with Carl Hiaasen & Tim Dorsey
Two literary legends talk about the viral hashtag, social distancing and life as a Florida writer
Last week, we sat down with three Florida musicians to talk about how music can be a source of comfort in the midst of the pandemic. How lyrics can express the thoughts and feelings we struggle to string into words. Today, we turn to a different but equally effective form of escapism and the people who craft these worlds we love to get lost in.
Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have been spinning convoluted characters and tales inspired by the Sunshine State for much of their lives, and it doesn’t seem like they’ll run out of ideas anytime soon—largely thanks to the endless material Florida produces. “Florida Man Tries to Burn Down Ex-Boyfriend’s House with Spaghetti Sauce.” “Titusville Grandmother Pops Out Teeth to Scare Off Nude Man on Back Porch.” There’s a reason Hiaasen says there is no better place to be a writer; the stories practically write themselves.
But that doesn’t undermine the skill it takes to weave these Florida oddballs into award-winning works of fiction. These two literary legends have amassed an impressive collection of accolades, from Florida Book Awards to major motion picture spin-offs of Hoot and Striptease. So what have these Florida fiction titans made of the COVID-19 pandemic? Is it the perfect spark of inspiration for the next novel or a creativity killer? We spoke with both of them to find out.
This bestselling author, scathing columnist and sometimes actor (we haven’t forgotten that Hoot cameo) is arguably the real Florida man. The longtime Sunshine State satirist has cranked out acclaimed novels for adults and teens alike, regularly runs his beloved state through the wringer in his Miami Herald Op-Eds and even managed to get one of his novels banned from Texas state prisons. With a new book on the horizon, Squeeze Me, and Floridians behaving more, well, Floridian than ever, we can’t help but wonder if this strange new reality will worm its way into Hiaasen’s work. After all, there are so many more state prisons left to be banned from.
Why writers are so good at quarantine: I’m not hanging out at the tiki bars with the college kids. The one thing about writers is that we’re generally not the most sociable members of society anyway because it’s a solitary job. You’re sort of self-quarantined by nature. You’re in a room all by yourself writing all day.
What he thinks about the “Florida Man” cliché: Some of it’s legitimately bizarre and it should be noted. It is entertaining and sometimes harrowing to read. But some of it is grim, and some of it is just funny. There’s stuff that happens here that really doesn’t happen anywhere else, and it’s not just the occasional thing; it’s the sheer steady volume of it that makes it so unique. Weird stuff happens all over the country, but it doesn’t happen with the frequency and reliability that it does here. Here you’ve got to wait one or two news cycles to have something come in that you just shake your head and go, “Unbelievable.” And then, turns out, of course it really happened. It happened here.
If his next novel will be about a global pandemic: (Laughs) No, no. I certainly mention some of the changes afflicted by the pandemic in it, but it’s not about the pandemic. It’s set in Palm Beach, and it involves a president who has a mansion there. It’s all fiction, of course, it was clearly out of my imagination. Palm Beach is an extremely silly place and a very rewarding place to go if you’re a writer of satire. The challenge is really trying to make things more weird than they already are in Palm Beach, for fictional purposes, because it’s plenty weird without it. Of course, there are pythons involved. It’s hard to write a novel in Florida these days without throwing in a few gigantic, mutant pythons.
Why Florida is the perfect place for satire: If you live in Florida, it very much shapes—in some cases overwhelms—your writing, and I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else. It is more comfortable writing about a place I know so well and also about a place I care about. It helps even with humor and even with satire; it helps to care about what you’re writing about. Otherwise, it’s just writing slapstick humor or writing comedy sketches. Most novelists who have written satire over the ages have had a pretty good flow of anger in their veins as well, because that’s where that comes from. That’s what the whole point of satire is: to lacerate somebody or something, an institution, something that’s wrong, an injustice. And all of that is a way of exposing and ridiculing it; that’s a way of fighting it or commenting on it. It’s good for the soul if you can pull it off.
His socially distant activity of choice: It’s turtle nesting season, so you can go out at midnight, you can walk the beach and look for turtles laying their eggs. You’re pretty much alone doing that. You don’t have to worry too much about bumping into crowds of 10 or 12 or 15 people. There are ways in a state like Florida to get away from the risky behavior. We’ve still got enough outdoors to get lost in without putting yourself at risk.
Why there is no better place to be a writer: Can you think of a more fertile place for this? If you are a Florida writer, there was a time you had to sort of explain yourself and say, “No, no. That was inspired by a real news event. No, that really happened. I just took it and turned it into this chapter. I turned it into this character.” But now, maybe because of the “Florida Man” hashtag thing and maybe just because people are reading a lot, people seem to know that there isn’t anything you can make up about Florida that isn’t eventually going to come true. Nothing.
Jamaican mobsters, dirty dancing contests and hard-luck gigolos have all made an appearance in the iconic Serge Storms series, but global pandemics are where Dorsey draws the line. While we might not see Storms romping around the state with a face mask on, the comedic crime writer assures us there’s plenty more Florida revelry to be had in Tropic of Stupid. Dorsey took advantage of the pandemic to work on Serge’s upcoming escapade, and he carved out some time to chat with us about how he became a Sunshine State literary staple.
Why you won’t see COVID-19 in any of Dorsey’s books: I think we need an escape from this, and I think that’s what books are. When people want to read Florida books, they want the books out in the sunshine and to visit interesting places and take their minds to those places that we are so rich with in Florida.
How he became a defining voice of Florida: I had a great upbringing that just kind of got it into my bone marrow. It’s almost like a subtropical Huck Finn. I would be barefoot on my bike as a kid back in that time, and I would just ride around, get out in the sunshine all day. There weren’t any digital gadgets. So I would get my fishing box and ride my bike down to the bridge to fish. Literally I remember cracking coconuts open and drinking coconut milk out of coconuts.
What it’s like to channel creativity during a pandemic: It’s easier, maybe, and more difficult at the same time. It’s really quiet. But I get to lose myself in what I love, and so it’s working out. I’m probably going far less stir crazy than other people, as a matter of fact, I’m not going stir crazy at all. It kind of became my job and my routine over a course of years. So, I’ve almost been in training for this.
What a Sunshine State of Mind means to him: Well, one of the reasons that I love Florida so much is it’s just visually intoxicating. It brings my memories back to childhood, and I am always just looking around at how beautiful it all is, and that totally affects my state of mind. I’m very visually imaginative when I’m writing; so when I’m writing, I lose myself in the Florida outdoors, even though I’m indoors. I guess a Florida State of Mind is just in your mind’s eye, picturing these places that you’ve been to and you want to get back to or new places you want to go to in Florida. It’s just all these possibilities that are right there. The Florida State of Mind is freedom.