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NPR Arts & Life

Author Carl Hiaasen Skewers Palm Beach And Florida Life In 'Squeeze Me'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. If you want to know what's going on in Florida, the land of hanging chads, exotic wildlife and baseball's biggest COVID-19 outbreak, a good place to start is with Carl Hiaasen, a Florida native, a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of 15 novels. His latest is a hilarious crime story set in Palm Beach involving wealthy widows, the president and first lady, a scrappy wildlife relocation specialist and some very large Burmese pythons, which probably have something to do with the title of the book, "Squeeze Me."

We last spoke to Carl Hiaasen about his novel "Bad Monkey," involving a show business primate whose career was on the skids. We decided with Florida facing a viral pandemic and another potentially contested presidential election, it was time to talk again. Carl Hiaasen joins me via an Internet connection from his office in Vero Beach, Fla.

Carl Hiaasen, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

CARL HIAASEN: I'm glad to be here.

DAVIES: This story is set in Palm Beach, Fla., which a lot of people kind of just - it's a name they hear. Maybe they confuse it with, you know, Palm Springs. Describe Palm Beach and this place, why it's a good setting for the story.

HIAASEN: (Laughter) Well, it's an island. It's a barrier island right off of the city of West Palm Beach, and it's very exclusive. And its lore goes back to the Kennedy compound and beyond, you know, when JFK was president. And Joe Kennedy had a place there. And then way beyond that, generations of wealth have fled to Palm Beach in the wintertime from the Northeast. It's sort of a traditional enclave for old money mainly. And it's very beautiful. And it's very silly at the same time which is, you know, what attracts, you know, the eye of a novelist. I mean, it is a gorgeous place, but the social scene is - it's challenging if you're writing satire.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You know, this story begins with the disappearance of a woman, a wealthy widow who's a bit of a swinger. And she's last seen...

HIAASEN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...At a high-end charity fundraiser on the grounds of a place called the Lipid House. The fundraiser is - what? - to raise money for - was it irritable bowel syndrome? (Laughter).

HIAASEN: Yes, it's an IBS thing. It was called the, you know, the White Ibis Ball. It's synonymous sort of with the disease - or disorder, I'm sorry. I forget what they call it (laughter). Anyway, they have charity functions, you know, on a nightly basis in Palm Beach. So I had to sort of come up with some ideas for maybe some causes that had not been - and had not been, you know, fully publicized. So I - but it's hard to make up something wilder than what - I mean, it's literally a nightly thing during the season, these big events. And they raise lots of money for good causes. But all kinds of stuff goes on there and, you know, local island scandal and romance and intrigue. So it seemed like a good way to start the book.

DAVIES: All sorts of stuff goes on at these high-end fundraisers?

HIAASEN: Well, yeah. You know, it's just the society world. I mean, you have - you know, this is the - this is like the Hamptons with extra sunblock, really. And there are more plastic surgeons per square mile in Palm Beach, I suppose, in the Hamptons. But other than that, you know, it's this - it's a scene. So as a writer, you're attracted. I don't get invited; don't get me wrong. They're not crazy enough to invite me to a lot of these events, but the ones I've attended have been colorful and inspirational enough that I sort of filed what I was watching away and thought this would be a fun way to open a book.

DAVIES: One of the things that's interesting is that the president and first lady are characters in this story because this president, like the current occupant of the White House, has a big place, you know, in Palm Beach. His is called Casa Bellicosa rather than Mar-a-Lago. Tell us a little bit about the president's connection with Palm Beach in your story and these ladies who are so enamored of him.

HIAASEN: Well, in the novel, the president vacations here frequently, and he has a fan base in Palm Beach that includes this group of ladies who are incredibly loyal. They dress patriotically and flamboyantly whenever he comes to town, and they always try to be at the club when he's there. And they also throw an annual ball or a gala for him. And they live for just seeing him on property. He's like one of the Beatles to them. And he always is kind enough when he's standing in line at the pastry table to wave to them as they sit at their own table. And they're wealthy. They're older. They - some of them are divorced, some of them widowed, some of them both divorced and widowed. And they have a lot of free time.

And the book opens with one of them disappearing at this big fundraiser. And, of course, it is - so it isn't just anybody who vanishes. It's somebody who is particularly loyal to the president. So there's a higher level of interest taken in this disappearance than there would be if it was just an ordinary citizen that vanished. This is one of his group. This is - and I don't want to use the term groupies, but it's one of his loyal female fans.

DAVIES: It turns out that the wealthy widow who's disappeared at this high-end fundraiser met an end which involves a snake, a huge Burmese python. And in a way, pythons are kind of this - kind of a central character in this story. And that comes from something that's really going on in Florida. Tell us about pythons and their effect on the state.

HIAASEN: Well, we've had - all you have to do is Google Florida and pythons, and you'll get ones. Yesterday, a story ran - this is true - a story ran - a woman down in South Florida opened her washing machine, and there was a big-ass python curled up in her washing machine. And they've proliferated. They started out in the pet trade. And people - they get - this particular species gets huge. And they let them - they just let them go. And Hurricane Andrew scattered a bunch of sort of - there were reptile farms on the edge of the Everglades. And they were destroyed during Hurricane Andrew. And all the babies got loose.

And ever since then, the Everglades and points onward have been - these snakes have taken over. And it's actually quite a serious story. They've devastated a huge part of the food chain in the Everglades. They eat everything, including deers and alligators. And any snake that can eat an adult alligator is worth paying attention to. So those are real. Everything in the book about the pythons is absolutely true. And they are moving northward. As the climate gets warmer, they're moving northward out of the Everglades. And so in my view, it's only a matter of time before they show up in Palm Beach. And I sort of wrote this book for people who couldn't be there when it happened.

DAVIES: (Laughter). We don't know them actually eating a society matron, do we?

HIAASEN: Not yet, no. But here's - they did find one that had a 74-pound white-tailed deer in it. And so my thought was that's not a big jump up to, you know, an heiress, a petite heiress. And being somewhat elderly, not particularly quick a foot, you know, if you - I have held - I've been a part of a group that held a python that was 16 feet. And I'll tell you, it's formidable (laughter).

DAVIES: And in this case, the society matron, Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons, disappears. And I don't think it's giving away too much - this all happens pretty early in the book - to say that this huge python is discovered by the gardening staff which noticed this massive bulge in the middle, concluding, oh, my heavens. That's Kiki Pew in the middle.

HIAASEN: (Laughter). I know. It sounds - it actually sounds sick when you describe it like that. I thought it would...

DAVIES: No, it is funny.

HIAASEN: ...Come off a little funnier. But the point is nature, you know - I mean, in all the novels I've written, nature is always sort of its own character. And I always root for - just growing up in Florida, I always end up rooting for Mother Nature. And the pythons are now a part of that. And they really are kind of unstoppable. And so I just thought, well, what if this happens? And what if it happens at one of these events, especially when you have the kind of security levels that you have when the president is in town and all that stuff? So that just opened a lot of sort of subplot possibilities as well. And, you know, at one point in the novel, this first lady is in her - in a motorcade going down the street in West Palm Beach. And they have to all break to a stop, which they never try to do in those motorcades, because there's a big, dead python in the road. And that has actually happened. And they're - I mean, this is how prolific these things are. But those are scenes that you sort of pick up and figure out a way to use.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Carl Hiaasen. He's a columnist for The Miami Herald and a novelist. His latest is called "Squeeze Me." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTEFIORI COCKTAIL'S "GNE GNE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Carl Hiaasen. His latest novel is called "Squeeze Me."

You know, maintaining appearances is important in Palm Beach. And the groundskeeper of this place that hosted the event, the Lipid House, the last thing that they need is to have the world learn that (laughter) a guest somehow ended up being digested by a python.

HIAASEN: Yeah. Bad for business, very bad. Yeah.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You know, this must be avoided at all cost. So they summon a wildlife relocation specialist, who kind of becomes a central character in this book, Angie Armstrong. Tell us just a little about her.

HIAASEN: Well, I like her tremendously. When I started writing "Squeeze Me," this character of the wrangler - and we have these businesses in South Florida because there's so much interaction with wildlife still that you call up somebody. You know, you got a raccoon on your porch, you got a snake, you got, you know, a bobcat in your backyard - whatever it is, they come. And they're trained to humanely capture and remove these animals. But most of the businesses are run by guys, you know? They're guys with gaily decorated pickup trucks that you can call critter removal experts.

But I - so that was the character when I started. But then I thought, God, it'd be so much more fun and interesting if it was a woman. And I - and so then I went back and started over With Angie. And I liked her tremendously. She's not very big. And she's, you know - she's not what you would imagine as someone that could remove, you know, a 10-foot alligator from your swimming pool, but she can. And so I just - the more she was around I liked her as I was writing the novel.

And she has a past and a history. And she started out as a - you know, as a veterinarian and worked with her dad, and then went to become a state wildlife officer and got in some trouble with - when she punished a poacher that she caught, and punished him in somewhat of an unusual way. And so - and she ended up in this job just driving this pickup truck, answering calls. And so she gets a call that there's a python. You know, it's another python call. So she drives out to Palm Beach and finds out it isn't really just another python call.

DAVIES: Right. She has a real sense of right and wrong. Did you spend time with people that do this business to prepare for this book?

HIAASEN: No. I have a friend who wrangles animals. He's not an animal removal expert. But he does it for movies and stuff, you know, and for documentaries. But I see the guys around. And I've - growing up down here, I've done, I mean, you know, a couple months - you know, I mean, I've done some of it (laughter) not as a profession, but just out of necessity. You know, there was a opossum under the barbecue the other - you know, a couple of months ago, so I just grabbed him. I mean, you're just - that's what - when you're a kid and you grow up in a place like Florida, you learn how to do that stuff. But now there's a whole little industry because so many people had moved here from up North. You don't get a lot of people that naturally know how to pick up a opossum. You know, I mean, most people just pick up the phone.

DAVIES: Right. How do you grab a opossum?

HIAASEN: By the tail (laughter).

DAVIES: That's what I figured. And they're by definition laying...

HIAASEN: In case - just in case by - just in case by the tail. But, you know, I mean, I was a kid. I had pet raccoons. I had all kind - I mean, there just wasn't - you know, it was sort of on the edge of the Everglades where we lived. And there wasn't - there weren't - you know, there weren't skate parks and shopping malls and stuff. You just got on your bike. And you went out into the woods. And so it was a different kind of childhood. And, you know, I think that has a part in all the books I write, even the kids' books, because I wouldn't have traded it for anything. But it certainly gives you a range of experiences that a lot of normal kids probably (laughter) don't have.

DAVIES: There's a moment in the book where this wildlife officer, Angie, is lamenting the way, you know, out of control development has taken away habitat and endangered so many species. And I read that. And I said, that's Carl Hiaasen talking.

HIAASEN: Yeah. No. Absolutely. It's something. Ever since I - people ask me when I started - I mean, I can remember being, like, 6 years old, 7 years old and having the same feelings. To just see the development coming and see, you know, the places that were kind of wild and remote and special to me and my friends, to see them paved over, I think it has an effect.

And it certainly creates, you know, I think, satire. A lot of satire comes from the sense of anger and injustice. You know, it's supposed to be funny. But there's also, I mean, it's - the great thing is having readers who know why it's funny, who are - who get it, that it isn't slapstick. It's, you know, it's a form of commentary. It's also a form of, I think, grieving for the damage that's been done to this place.

DAVIES: You know, Florida has long been fascinating and weird and a politically divided state. And this is a broad question. But how has nearly four years of the Trump presidency affected the state?

HIAASEN: Well, I mean, it's hard to say if it's affected it worse than the rest of the country. But because he spent so much time here, I think his presence is felt. And, you know, our governor, you know, Ron DeSantis, is a big Trump guy. And, you know, he's like a little mini Trump and extremely loyal. And so a lot of what's been happening the last few months with the pandemic has been guided by him listening more to Trump than listening to actual people with medical degrees. And the whole country's seen the product of that.

DAVIES: I was going to ask about that. The pandemic has blazed a unique trail through Florida in some respects. And your governor, Ron DeSantis, who was a congressman until 2018, he was a very active supporter of President Trump in Congress and then won a very close governor's race in 2018. For people who don't follow this closely, just give us a thumbnail of how he has handled the pandemic and its effects.

HIAASEN: Well, I mean, he's - you know, he's a smart dude. He went to two - he went to Harvard and Yale. And he's good - you know, he likes the numbers. So the numbers would be coming out early on in the pandemic. And no matter how bad they were, he was able to say, look at this trend. It's going this way. This trend - just be patient. We've got to...

And then back in May, he basically did a victory lap and said, look at - we flattened out. We beat this thing. All you guys in the media said it was - and he just went on a rant about the media creating all this hysteria about COVID. And then, of course, it went through the roof. There was - he went up to the White House, did a little dog and pony show. He brought some poster boards for the president and had a photo op and talked about how Florida conquered it all. And then Florida, we just exploded with the stuff 'cause he opened up - we opened up too fast. The state opened up too fast. And...

DAVIES: It was bars, beaches, even Disney World. Right?

HIAASEN: Bars, beaches - yeah. It was a cluster. And the result was that no sooner had that happened that within weeks, they were shutting down bars. And they were - and become more restrictive on some of the beaches. And there's still places where this was going on. And now they're - now they've had to go back and shut down the bars, and they're even yanking liquor licenses of some of these places. But to hear him tell it, it's just been a natural trajectory of the disease, you know, which is baloney. It could have been prevented. In the meantime, we're now over eight thou (ph) - we're going - coming up on 9,000 deaths in the state of Florida - 9,000 deaths. And those are seldom mentioned when Ronnie gets up to give his pep talk once a day. The deaths are seldom discussed.

And you know, we seem to have sort of written off the elderly. There's a sense of oh, well, they were going to die anyway. But that's not true. Some of the folks that this is ravaging in the nursing homes and the care facilities, they weren't sick. They were just - their only crime was being old. And for every one of those 8,000-plus who have died, there's families that have been devastated because of this. And so there will be a - I mean, there is being a political cost to this sort of, you know, this rosy, glass half-full attitude. Now we're opening the schools. And guess what's going to happen. I mean, guess what's going to happen with the COVID testing in the public schools.

It's just - you know, and it's sad because there will be - the cost of this is not just in, you know, teachers leaving because they're scared and kids who desperately need to get back to school not being able to. The cost is - there's actual cost in human lives that isn't funny. And it isn't anything but callous and cold-blooded to say this is going to be the cost of keeping a few Tiki bars open. Yeah. We'll just take the hit. We'll bury a few people and keep the Tiki bars open.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that he is in some ways a lot like President Trump and is very close to President Trump. And I read that in the early weeks of the pandemic that he tended to rely on a very narrow group of people, only - I guess his wife and his chief of staff.

HIAASEN: Still does, still does.

DAVIES: So I was just going to ask if that had changed since obviously...

HIAASEN: No.

DAVIES: ...Things have gotten more serious.

HIAASEN: No. We have a surgeon general in the state nobody's heard from. We've got - no, it's been strictly political. In fact, they said when they ordered all the schools to reopen that individual counties could - individual school districts could make the decision to keep classrooms closed if their county - if their area of the state was having a spike. All they needed to do was get the health department - their local health department to approve it. And then DeSantis went to the health departments and said, don't approve it. So what he said publicly and then what was done was to basically muzzle the health departments.

And every place is different. Every part of Florida's a little different. There are counties in Florida where it might be safe to physically reopen schools. And of course, in South Florida, they're delaying. They're doing online, but they still have to open some of the buildings. And everybody wants the kids to go back to school. Everybody wants the schools to reopen. But you don't want your kid to get sick or to bring a disease home that kills one of his siblings or his grandfather or his grandmother or an aunt or their parents. I mean, that's just common sense. You don't want...

But at this point, the local health departments can't give advice to the local school districts about whether it's safe or not. The governor's people won't let them. So that's where we are. And there's not a medical voice to be heard on this anywhere in Florida. DeSantis is - it's just a bunch of political hacks around him.

DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen's latest book is "Squeeze Me." He will be back to talk more after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAN VACHE AND WARREN VACHE JR.'S "JUST SQUEEZE ME (FEAT. EDDIE HIGGINS AND HOWARD ALDEN)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in this week for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Carl Hiaasen, a native of Florida who's written about the state's politics, culture, wildlife and development for decades. He's a columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of 15 novels. His latest is "Squeeze Me."

You know, it's been 20 years since the Bush-Gore presidential election came down to the Florida recount, but the state has kind of remained a place of closely contested elections. I mean, the last two presidential races, the last three governor's races were margins of about 1%. What should we expect in November?

HIAASEN: Oh, everything's going to go smoothly...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

HIAASEN: ...And wonderfully here. What do you think you can expect? Here's what we do. Every four years in Florida, collectively as Floridians, we all pray that it doesn't come down to Florida. We - this year, we're betting on Georgia. Georgia looks like it's going to screw this up even worse than Florida did. And we're looking for another scapegoat. We do not want to be the butt of Colbert's jokes every night.

But the odds are, of it going smoothly here, are very, very slim, which is interesting because the president, who says, you know, mail voting is fraudulent - but no evidence whatsoever that that's true - suddenly somebody sat him down and said, you are not going to win Florida without the mail-in vote because your demographic wants to mail it in. So then he comes out and says, well, OK, it's safe in - Florida is the one state that's done it right. And we all fell out of our chairs laughing. Florida is (laughter) the one. It's perfectly safe in Florida - because he realizes that he's going to lose if there's - without the mail-in vote, and somebody finally did the math for him. And so apparently, all the other 49 states, mail-in voting is bad, but Florida is great.

So, you know, it can't possibly go well. You know, because first of all, the pandemic, people are scared to go to the polls. This is going to be true everywhere, so they're - just even finding poll workers to go is going to be difficult because people are afraid of getting COVID-19. It can't possibly go well here, and our only hope is that it goes worse somewhere else so that we don't have all the attention on the day after the election.

DAVIES: Wow. That's not exactly encouraging. You know, one of the things that has happened since the last election was there was a state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences.

HIAASEN: Passed by an overwhelming majority of Floridians and ignored and sabotaged as best - every way that Republicans could possibly do it. This isn't the first time a popular amendment has been subverted, and that's what they're trying to do here.

DAVIES: Well, the specific issue here was fines and court costs that ex-offenders may owe, right? You have to have those paid before you can register. And so far, that's held up in the courts, right?

HIAASEN: It has held up in the courts, but that doesn't mean that - I mean, I think DeSantis is going to keep pressing it. I think, you know, this is part of the vote suppression thing, and it's going on in the whole country. And so they'll spend a ton of money taking it from one court to another, but so far, the legality of the amendment and of letting people vote even if they haven't paid their fines yet - because you've been in prison, so you're not going to walk out and be able to write a check for your court costs. I mean, that's just not realistic, and it's not fair. But they're going to attack whatever they can. They're going to do everything they can to keep as many people as they can away from the polls. That's a given. I don't know what - how it's going to shake down between now and November, whether - so far, they've been, you know, they've been - the Republicans have been unsuccessful in court, but they're not going to give up.

DAVIES: Apart from the pandemic and politics, what else are you paying attention to in your column in the Herald now?

HIAASEN: Well, there's - I wish there were more to pay attention to than that. It's just - it's because of this resurgence of the virus. You know, there was a time when you could go back - I mean, I used to write a fair amount about the environment and about environmental issues, but that hasn't been the focus of legislation and hasn't been - and truthfully, the general public has been more focused on their own safety, as they should be, and the safety of their children. So you write about education. You write about the - sort of coping with the pandemic. And then politics is all meshed into that. But other than that, there's not a lot you can write about. There's some - sometimes there'll be some - you know, some of the travel restrictions or something. But it's all tied into those things because those are the - that's the headlines right now. You've got this election.

DAVIES: My heavens. You have to leave the developers alone (laughter)?

HIAASEN: Yeah. I mean, it's killing me. But here - the other side of the coin is a lot of that stuff has slowed down, too, because of the economy. You know, so you - one of the things in Florida that we've written about and the Herald has done some great stuff on is the unemployment, the backup in unemployment payments because of the incompetent administrators of this of this website where are you signing up.

I mean, there are just thousands and thousands and thousands of Floridians who had their unemployment checks delayed, including the ones from the federal government because it comes through the state. They were delayed, and they still have - some still haven't gotten them yet months after this started, people that lost their jobs, because the system - the website kept crashing, wouldn't let them on. The stories - I mean, it's unbelievable how many people couldn't pay their grocery bill or their rent, for sure, or anything because they couldn't get their first unemployment check.

That's been a huge scandal here, and DeSantis has complained and complained about the company that got the contract to do that years ago, got the contract to run the unemployment program here. And yet, the same company was just awarded a $135 million contract for another job in his administration (laughter). So...

DAVIES: To maintain Medicaid data, right? Yeah.

HIAASEN: Yeah. So, I mean, that stuff is out there. I think that - there's going to be huge stories and lots of columns to write about how much of the aid money, the - you know, the money that was given out to fight the pandemic was just stolen. We had that classic Florida story of the guy that, you know, got a bunch of money from the government, claiming all these unemployed people, claiming this company. And then he went out and bought a Lamborghini, first thing he did. And it turns out he didn't have as many employees as he told, and yet, he got the check, and he went out and bought some purple Lamborghini or something. That's a classic Florida story, of course. He probably moved here just to do that.

DAVIES: (Laughter). Florida is a state that - kind of known for extremes, as you've said. And it's - there have been some kind of notable details that have come out, like the guy who dressed up in a hooded black robe carrying a scythe who walked around beaches. And then I just read recently that the sheriff of a north-central county issued an order banning his deputies and visitors to the sheriff's office from wearing masks.

HIAASEN: Yes, he did - Sheriff Billy Something-or-other (ph). But Marion County, yeah. He (laughter) - he said you cannot wear masks in the sheriff's department. You can't wear them in a normal course of duty. And anyone who comes to the sheriff's department - for instance, if you wanted to come to file a police report - let's say your car was stolen. Or let's say, you know, you have any reason to come in. You have to take your mask off before walking into the sheriff's department. He's like - if you elected the Tiger King sheriff, that's what this dude would be.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you again. We're going to take a break here. We're speaking with author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. His latest novel is called "Squeeze Me." Since we recorded our interview, Sheriff Billy Woods has modified his ban on face masks a bit. Visitors to the Marion County, Fla., sheriff's department are now permitted to wear masks if they so choose. However, deputies and other staff in the sheriff's office are still forbidden to wear masks while on duty. We'll hear more of my conversation with Carl Hiaasen after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI, BILL FRISELL, J ANTHONY GRANELLI AND ROBBEN FORD'S "AIN'T THAT A SHAME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Carl Hiaasen. His latest novel is called "Squeeze Me."

This latest book is dedicated to your brother, Rob, who was one of five journalists killed two years ago in a mass shooting at the Annapolis, Md., Capital Gazette, where he was an editor and a columnist. He was your only brother - six years younger than you, right? Just tell us a little bit about growing up with him.

HIAASEN: Well, Rob - we called him Big Rob because he was the baby of the family, but (laughter) he was 6'5 and just, you know, the gentle giant, as they say. And he was a very gifted writer, a tremendous journalist. He worked for many years at the Palm Beach Post, the Baltimore Sun and then became an editor and columnist. And he didn't want to leave Maryland. He loved Maryland. And he went to the paper in Annapolis.

And it was - he was in the newsroom that day and - the day this guy walked in with a gun and just started shooting. And it was, you know, something that's still hard to talk about because, you know, it was his wife's birthday. And, you know, the kids are all close by. And they were grown. But they - I don't want to make it sound - there's so many families - tragically, so many families - that are part of this community of survivors of, you know, victims of mass shootings. When something like this happens, whether it's in a workplace, whether it's in a factory, whether it's in - at Parkland - wherever it is, it's hard to know when you're watching the news or appreciate is the ripple effect of these tragedies on families. It just goes on and on and on.

For every victim, there's so many people that are affected by the shooting. And we've become part of that community and been able to appreciate what everyone else goes through. Nothing's going to, you know, bring Rob back, obviously. But all I ever wanted was for people to know that he was such a gifted and funny guy and a great writer, tremendous, tremendous talent. And I just - you know, there isn't a day that goes by that we don't think about him and try not to think about what happened that day, you know?

DAVIES: Right. You know, it's - I know you've written a lot about mass shootings. And I think you went to high school not far from the Parkland high school.

HIAASEN: Yeah. Both Rob and I and my sisters all went to high school at Plantation High School, which is not far at all from Parkland. And Rob and I had talked after the - you know, Parkland was a few months before the shooting in Annapolis. And he and I, of course, had talked about it - and having kids especially and just, you know, how shocking and overwhelming. And I don't care how many of these stories you cover or write about - I mean, you know, we had the Pulse Shooting in Orlando. There's just been so many of these horrible, horrible things. And we talked on the phone. And, you know, there isn't much to say except I can't believe it happened so close to where we grew up and everything. And then, of course, it happened to him.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, your grief is now part of a national story. And I just wondered, God, what must that be like? And will you cover the next one differently? Or will you avoid covering the next one?

HIAASEN: Well, as a columnist, you know, I - it's not like I have to go to the crime scene, thank God. But you still have to try to put it in perspective. And I have written about, you know, alluded - I wrote one - it took me a long time - a couple months - to be able to write about it after Rob died. And then, in subsequent columns when there's been these other tragedies, of course, I've alluded to the fact that, you know, I have some personal experience with this stuff.

But I don't know. You know, they're going to - the thing is, they just keep happening. And they're going to continue to happen. And there's just too many nuts with guns, too many. And I - you know, and I say that as a gun owner myself. I mean, it's just insane how easy it is to get a gun in this country. And whether it's an automatic weapon or a shotgun or whatever, it's just lunacy how easy it is and how easy it is for bad people to do it and people who have mental issues.

And, I mean, we've heard these stories again and again about how, like, the Parkland shooter, how his family - you know, everybody knew he was unstable. And everybody was afraid this was going to happen. And they even called the FBI and said, this kid's going to shoot somebody. I mean, you have all that, and you still can't stop it. So there's not an easy solution you can put into a column or into any kind of op-ed piece because the tragedies just keep coming, you know? I'm not sure that you add anything to the debate or help the feelings except to keep reminding people that not all countries are like this. Not everybody goes through this like we do in this country. They just don't. And it's normal - it becomes, you know, routine here. It's not routine anywhere else.

DAVIES: You know, the column that you wrote after your brother's death, I guess, it was in September, which - and I think the shooting was in June. So it was a little while. I really commend this to listeners. You can find it on the Internet. And in it, before you reveal that your brother had died in the Annapolis attack, you mentioned the other four journalists who died - Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Becky Smith, Wendi Winters. And then you note that your brother Rob was also killed, and you write, I mention him last because that's what he would have wanted. He also would have wanted me to write more about his colleagues than about him. Do you want to share another couple of points that you made in that column?

HIAASEN: It's hard. I...

DAVIES: Well, I'll tell you two things that come to my mind (laughter) if you - one is that, as you said, it was his wife Maria's birthday that he was murdered on. And he left her present on the dining room table before he made his last trip to the newsroom. The other thing you wrote is that he was not somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

HIAASEN: No. He was right where he wanted to be. He was putting out the daily newspaper. And that's - he did not stumble into a crime scene. He did not - he didn't come in - he wasn't coming in on his day off. He was doing exactly what he loved doing, which was sitting in the newsroom with other reporters and editors putting out a daily newspaper for a community that he loved, the people of Annapolis. I mean, he was devoted to those readers and that community, and that's - he wouldn't have been anywhere else on that day.

So when CNN broke in with the story about the shooting, I have to say that there was no - I was praying he was out to lunch. I was praying he wasn't there, that he had he'd stepped out, or he used to go to the park sometimes to throw a football around with some of the other guys or something. I was praying that, but deep down I knew that he was there because he was always there, you know? And that's what - that's what you do. That's - if that's your job and that's what your passion is, that's what you do.

So he wasn't a random victim. He was - and he was killed because he was there, because he was a journalist at a newspaper that this guy had a grudge with. And none of the people he shot had anything to do with the story that he was upset about, which had happened years earlier. None of the people there had anything to do with either editing or putting that story in the paper, but he just decided to shoot everybody anyway. So...

DAVIES: And you made the point that there's a lesson here about the way we regard and treat journalists these days.

HIAASEN: Yeah. I mean, this was at a time when, of course - Trump is not the first president to demonize journalists. I mean, that (laughter) - and not in my lifetime. There was a guy named Nixon who did a lot of that, too. I mean, the press is never beloved, has never been a beloved institution. And you don't go into it as a profession because you want glory or adulation or you want people to look up to you or love you. You go in it to write the truth, to put facts out there. That's what - a democracy can't function if the public is not fully informed. And nobody goes into it to make money, by the way, because it doesn't pay, you know, very much.

It's - so that the people that are doing it and doing the grunt work are there because they believe that it's an important part of this country to have a free press and to have - to get information into the hands of people who need it before they go to the polls to go to vote, before they take their kids to school, before - all this stuff. It's just the bare essential of a democracy. So yeah, I mean, you know, it is bothersome that we now have not just a contempt for the press but, you know, a hatred and these conspiracy clowns that see - if they ever saw a newsroom really work (laughter), it would be amusing to them.

DAVIES: Right. I know. (Laughter) Having spent time in newsrooms myself, I know what you mean. Well, Carl Hiaasen, I wish you comfort and good things for your state. Thanks so much for speaking with us again.

HIAASEN: No, Dave, it was great talking to you. And I appreciate you taking so much time.

DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His latest novel is "Squeeze Me." Coming up, John Powers reviews a new documentary about the U.S.-supported coup which overthrew an elected government in Iran in 1953. This is FRESH AIR.

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