It all started when a writer needed a character who was a hermit.
“I was writing about murder and corruption on the professional bass fishing circuit,” said bestselling novelist Carl Hiaasen. “It was territory I pretty much had to myself in the literary world.”
And so he created Skink, who first appeared in “Double Whammy,” one of Hiaasen’s brilliant satirical novels set in his native Florida, published in 1987.
People liked Skink, aka Clinton Tyree. They rooted for him. A former governor of Florida who went raving mad (“the only rational approach to Tallahassee,” Hiaasen said), Skink stripped off his clothes and went rogue, popping up from time to time in the Everglades for an eco-terrorist action here and there through six more novels.
Now he’s back in “Skink — No Surrender,” a book for the teen market, but adults who love Skink will love it too.
And who wouldn’t love a character in a flowered shower cap with eyes that go off in different directions, with gleaming white teeth and turkey vulture beaks woven into his beard, a renegade who metes out vigilante justice where it is needed?
Hiaasen, a take-no-prisoners newspaper columnist for The Miami Herald, has become a literary staple for those who love the Sunshine State and bemoan the actions of developers and corrupt politicians and those with no respect for the environment. His columns have been collected in two books, “Dance of the Reptiles” and “Paradise Screwed.”
But several books back, an editor suggested writing for middle schoolers.
“Have you read my other books? Why would you want to expose the youth of America to this stuff?” Hiaasen wondered.
But the editor thought Hiaasen’s humor would appeal to that age group and that his environmental message would strike a chord. She was right.
For his first young-adult book, “Hoot,” Hiaasen was a finalist for the prestigious Newbery Award. Now, for “Skink — No Surrender,” he’s been nominated for a National Book Award.
The narrator of “Skink — No Surrender” is Richard Sloan. He’s on a mission to rescue his cousin Malley, who’s gone off with someone she met online who turns out to be an unsavory character. Along the way, Richard meets up with Skink, and the two join forces. It’s an unlikely alliance, but a memorable one.
Hiaasen has a healthy respect for his young readers. “I started getting this mail. And they’re funny and so sharp, and as cool as you can imagine,” he said. “And almost every one ends with ‘When are you going to write another book?’ It’s one audience I just can’t say no to. I try to answer every one. They’re a lot more enjoyable than the newspaper mail I get. Some of that comes with crayoned labels from prisons.”
Hiaasen, a longtime print journalist, is philosophical about the revolution in reading. He sees people reading everywhere he goes on his travels.
“If they’re reading on Kindles, who knows if they’re reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or Tolstoy? But they’re reading!” he said.
And his longevity as a writer has brought results.
“I had a book out last year — ‘Bad Monkey.’ And a guy came to a reading and said, ‘I started reading you back in middle school.’ It makes you feel you’re ancient, but you’re glad they hung in there.”
He’s less sanguine, however, about the decline in newspaper publishing, saying “Local news is essential to democracy.”
“My concern is that you can pretty much go online and find out what’s happening in Syria or Baghdad,, but how will you know what is happening on your city commission or zoning board? Here in Florida what that means is that the crooks have gone wild.”
And the only upside of that? It’s fodder for more Carl Hiaasen novels.
Susan Larson hosts WWNO-FM’s ‘The Reading Life’ and is the author of ‘The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.’ You can reach her at email@example.com.