The novelist Carl Hiaasen has homes in breathtakingly beautiful American surroundings. He spends most of his time in Florida, which is the setting for his most recent novel, Bad Monkey–a rollicking crime book that embraces the Sunshine State’s innate weirdness–and home to a stunning array of flora and fauna. During hurricane season, he decamps to the mountains of Montana, near Yellowstone Park. And yet, Carl Hiaasen always works facing a blank wall. “If I had to look out at the Yellowstone River and mountains, I’d never get work done,” Hiaasen says in a phone call from Montana.
It’s a highly effective trick, since Hiaasen is prolific. He continues to write a weekly column for the Miami Herald, where he’s been working for over 30 years. At the same time, he is in a constant state of writing either a novel or a children’s book. Since he started writing books in the 1980s, he’s written more than a dozen, along with a handful of those books for kids.
Hiaasen cites his training as a reporter as one of the reasons he’s so productive–you can’t become paralyzed when you’re constantly on deadline. “One of the great benefits of growing up in a big city newsroom, is [paralysis] isn’t allowed to happen. Everyone is hollering, the phone’s ringing, and you learn to write through all of that because the copy’s got to be in at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m.,” Hiaasen says. Here are four more work tips from Florida’s cleverest chronicler.
[In addition to facing a blank wall] I wear earmuffs you’d wear on a shooting range, Smith and Wesson. Even if there’s no noise, I get on the earphones. It started when we had construction work. There’s no music coming out of them, they’re just straight out earmuffs, like if you were shooting a 20-gauge shotgun. It looks goofy as hell, I’m sure. A lot of writers have one or two idiosyncratic things like that to get into the warm-up process.
I don’t multitask at all. When I’m working on a column, I really drill down and focus on the column. I never work on more than one book at once, but I’m always working on one. This new novel, Bad Monkey, came out a month or so ago—by the time, it came out I was working on a new kids’ book.
I’m not pathological about working, but the older I get the harder it gets to take time off from the writing. It’s a muscle that you flex, so I can’t say I’m going to take two months off and go fishing, because I find it takes longer to get back into it. I’m not one of those writers who writes from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. If I did that, the last four hours of my day, I’ll have to throw everything away. Particularly with the fiction. With the columns, it’s automatic. I know the pace of the column, I know if it’s good and it’s not working. With the novels, I’m trying to reign in plots and subplots. Some days, you might write 1,500 words, if you’re really cranking along. With some days, you’re lucky to crank out 250 words worth saving. I don’t go by word count or page count. Some days, I’m happy for one really good sentence. The most important is to be locked down in the process.
I feel lucky to be born and raised in Florida, and have genuine family roots there. It affects the way I work–it affects the degree to which I care about the place. As much as I write about the crazy aspect and what’s wrong with it, I have tremendous affection–all my grandkids are here, it’s not a throwaway location for me. There are very few places in the state that don’t have an emotional attachment for me. It helps the writing, it helps the satire; I have a lot of strong feelings, and it’s a great sharp edge. When you grow up in Florida where it’s completely flat, it’s so vulnerable to development and exploitation. I’ve always said that in writers’ groups, I couldn’t write—or be as funny in my writing about Florida—if I didn’t care about it so much. I’m angry about a lot of things, pissed off. I’m frustrated and that’s the source of a lot of satirical humor.
When the wheels are kind of spinning–it could be a plot point that’s not working or a scene that ‘s a hurdle in your path or a character who’s not coming to life as well as you’ve hoped–I take breaks all the time. I’ll stretch, I’ll walk down to the post office. My office is about a block and a half from the beach, and I can walk down to the boardwalk, I’ll watch the porpoises and manatees and the sharks, and It’s always a nice break. You’ll recharge the battery. I don’t think it’s healthy to sit there and stare. The words turn wooden and dead right before your eyes if you stay too long.