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Satirist tells tales of truthful fiction

The violent and deranged characters who are the signature to Carl Hiaasen’s novels aren’t figments of a sick imagination, as some have surmised of the satirical author. He often pulls bits and pieces of plots straight from the paper for which he writes a biweekly column, The Miami Herald.

Hiaasen, author of novel-turned-movie, Striptease, stood on a bare stage in a Cooper Hall auditorium Thursday night to lend a word of advice to aspiring writers, talk about the origin of his novels and explain why Florida is such a unique state.

“Florida attracts writers for the same reason it attracts retirees … airplane hijackers and O.J. Simpson,” Hiaasen said. “It has this axis of weirdness.”

Hiaasen poked fun at a gruesome murder in St. Petersburg Monday in which a man beheaded another man and placed the head on the hood of the victim’s car. He said a crime of such absurdity is not uncommon in Florida.

“Let’s just say that probably didn’t happen in downtown Tulsa last night,” he said.

Hiaasen offered some advice to those who wish to make a career out of writing.

“Read everything you can get your hands on,” he said. “Read great writing, and also read bad writing” because it can make a struggling writer feel “like Shakespeare.”

Hiaasen balanced questions from the audience with off-the-wall tangents for more than an hour. One student asked if it was therapeutic for Hiaasen – who has also done investigative reporting for the Herald – to satirize crime.

“(As a reporter) we don’t get to write the endings we would like. Too many times the story ends badly,” Hiaasen said. “There’s a desire to have some kind of control on how things work out.”But some stories specific to Florida – such as the 2000 presidential election and the ensuing role of Fla. Secretary of State Kathryn Harris and the controversy concerning Elian Gonzalez – Hiaasen said should just be left alone.

“Some events, like these, cannot be improved upon in fiction,” he said.

Hiaasen said the perfect example of pulling a story from the headlines and making a novel from it can be found in his newest book, Basket Case: the story of a reporter demoted to the obituaries page, trying to work his way back on to the front page by attempting to uncover the real reasons behind the death a rock star. Hiaasen said the inspiration for the book came from a New York Times obit about the mysterious death of’ ’70s rock star Jimmy Stoma. So mysterious, Hiaasen said that the article hung on a bulletin board in his office for 15 years. It was just a matter of time, he said, before he did something with it.

Famous for killing off characters in absurd, often disturbing ways – having a pit bull head clamped to a villain’s arm and being “romanced to death” by a hormonally-crazed and angry dolphin to name two – Hiaasen said that’s what his reader’s like, and sometimes it’s what the characters deserve.

“If I’m writing a novel with Osama bin Laden, it wouldn’t be good enough to have him have a heart attack and keel over in Chapter 17,” Hiaasen said. “It just wouldn’t work.”

In a December column, Hiaasen wrote a mock-up of what a bin Laden family holiday letter would look like, in which he talked about (from a family member’s perspective) Osama’s bad moods since the U.S.-led bombing campaign and how the family cave was decorated for Ramadan.

“It was the right time to do that,” said Hiaasen, who said he used David Letterman and Jay Leno as a barometer for when it would be OK to speak humorously of events following Sept. 11. “Humor is a great way to work out aggression. What’s better than making (the terrorists) the butt of a joke?”

Hiaasen said he believes the attacks on America have made the nation grow impatient and less tolerant of crime. He referenced an incident a few months ago wherein a high-speed chase down U.S. Hwy. 1 in the Keys ended when citizens, who had seen the story develop on the news, waited for the driver to pass and threw rocks at his car, breaking his windows and eventually forcing him to surrender to police.

He also alluded to an incident Thursday in which a passenger who was trying to break down the cockpit door on a plane that took off from Miami was struck on the head with an ax by the pilot.”People just don’t take a lot of bull—- anymore,” Hiaasen said.