“Wrecker” is Carl Hiaasen’s seventh book for young readers, his 28th book overall. But his current book tour for “Wrecker” included a first.
Three of Hiaasen’s author appearances with students were canceled because of questions about the book.
Hiaasen is no stranger to controversy. He wrote for the Miami Herald for 45 years, much of that time as a hard-hitting columnist on politics, the environment and other contentious issues.
But his novels, for adults and for kids, have been beloved bestsellers that combine crime, comedy, satire and Hiaasen’s own passions, such as the Florida environment.
The real name of the 15-year-old title character of “Wrecker” is Valdez Jones VIII. He’s an eighth-generation native of Key West, descended from Bahamian salvage divers. The book is set in 2021 as Wrecker deals with his fractured family, a mysterious girl he sees in the old Key West cemetery, a gang of smugglers, a community crusade against giant cruise ships and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hiaasen, who retired from the Herald in 2021, talked to the Tampa Bay Times via Zoom about “Wrecker,” book bans, Key West, his next book for grownups and the upcoming streaming series based on his book “ Bad Monkey.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- You’ve been on a book tour for “Wrecker,” and some of your events with kids were canceled. Why?
I did several group student visits, and a couple were canceled. None in Florida yet. One was a school board district in Georgia, one in Virginia and one in North Carolina.
For one of them, they were afraid the pro-vaccine message in the book would offend children. Really.
Then one was because I wrote a book called “Strip Tease” about 30 years ago, and somebody thought anyone who would write a book called “Strip Tease” shouldn’t be allowed to talk to children, even though I’ve been writing these books for younger readers for over 20 years.
The third one I didn’t get a reason on. Really, it could have been anything. They don’t need much of an excuse these days. Now you just have this aura of fear and anxiety by the board members, so I can’t even say if it was a specific complaint.
Now I’m hearing that when you do these events for kids, they want to see the book way in advance. It used to be if the American Library Association approved a book, everybody thought it was OK, but that’s not true anymore.
A lot of the people standing up at these (school board) meetings aren’t even parents. They’re self-deputized vigilantes who are on a crusade to purify.
- Have you ever had any of your books for young readers questioned or banned before?
No. I’ve had books taken out of the middle school library and put in the high school library. But I’ve never had an event canceled.
I did get a letter once that one of my books for adults had been banned in the Texas prison system. It was “Double Whammy.” It’s about bass fishing.
You kind of wonder how that would imperil the moral judgment of somebody who’s already sitting in prison.
Then in Waco, one of the school librarians got upset about “Hoot” (his first book for young readers), said it had profanity in it. When they pinned her down it was the word “butt.” Like, I think one of the characters says somebody fell on his butt. That was the profanity she was objecting to.
- Do you think you might get blowback in Florida?
Well, the Moms for Liberty got their start here. Then they set up branches or franchises or whatever you’d call it all over.
I don’t think they can use the vaccine stuff as an excuse, but I think they might use the backstory about the Ku Klux Klan hanging Manuel Cabeza in Key West in 1921.
It really happened. Until I got into the research, I didn’t know the KKK controlled that island for several years in the 1920s, and then they vanished, or at least they put their robes away. That was new to me, and I imagined what it had to be like to be a young person and learn that about one of your relatives, however distant the relative might be. (One of Wrecker’s friends learns a relative participated in the lynching.)
The guy is buried in the Key West cemetery. Finally, a few years ago, they put up a proper headstone for him because the guy was a veteran. He’d fought overseas, then come back to live in Key West.
The real reason (people might want to keep “Wrecker” out of schools) is they don’t want to remind anyone that white people were hanging people. This guy was from Spain, but he was living with a mixed race woman, and that was scandalous. He’d been beaten, then they dragged him behind a car and hanged him.
That doesn’t really go with that laid-back image of Key West.
The Klan was very active then. Per capita, there were more racial hangings in Florida than in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas. Florida was not as populated at the time, but per capita.
Now that’s something that should have been taught in schools. Someone might say, oh my god, these are disturbing stories. Yeah, it’s history. Lots of history can be disturbing.
- Was the setting the starting point for “Wrecker”?
I never really have a plot in mind. I always start with a collection of characters, and really with the place. I always thought it would have been really cool to grow up in Key West in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even now, if you were a kid all you’d need is a bicycle and a little boat. It’s one of the places where you have the Atlantic and the Gulf colliding.
I wanted to set a book there but also have a generational history in the place. Wrecker’s great-great-great-something grandfather was a diver on the salvage boats. Commonly they used divers from the Bahamas. There was no scuba. You had to have someone who could dive sometimes 30 feet down, in rough water, and attach chains or ropes and then come back up and get a breath.
Even though the book takes place in 2021, still pandemic times, I wanted to have a character born and raised there, whose family had generations there, and he doesn’t want to go anyplace else.
- Wrecker is what’s sometimes called a free range kid — he has more independence than a lot of 15-year-olds. You and I might have had that kind of childhood, but do you think fewer kids do now?
Oh yeah, my childhood was when your mom said, go fishing, just be back in time for dinner. Not many kids in highly developed areas of Florida get that kind of freedom to hop on a bicycle or get in a boat and go. Wrecker goes out a couple of miles and it’s like it was a thousand years ago, there are the mangrove islands and open water.
He has a cell phone but it’s for practical purposes. He’s not looking at TikTok or playing games, because if you have that world of Key West and you come from a family of mariners, every free moment you want to be out on the water. If you don’t like the water you’re in the wrong place.
- Why did you choose to set the book in 2021?
I’d started writing it before then, so I was going down more and more often to Key West. They actually closed the Keys. They only had 19 ICU beds. If you were really sick, if you needed to be on a ventilator, they were running helicopters and ambulances to Miami. You had to go to Miami to be treated.
I wanted people to see what I was seeing. There were deep divisions on masks and vaxes. There was one county commissioner who was very ill, his daughter did die, his wife was extremely sick, they all had COVID. I knew a boat captain who thought it was all a government conspiracy. He was fairly young, in his 40s, and he caught COVID and died.
So many families who were if not shattered were badly broken by this. That’s the path Wrecker has to navigate.
- How did you decide to have Wrecker trying to outwit smugglers?
Smuggling — it’s just classic Key West. It’s always been a paradise for smugglers, going back a long, long time.
There are all those boat captains with local knowledge about how to navigate. You see that in the book — people who didn’t know the waters that well tried to do it and they ended up on a mud flat.
- Are you working on your next book for adult readers?
I’m about halfway through a new grownup novel. The hardest thing about the book tour is I’m pulled away from the manuscript for periods of time. When I get back I’ll have to read the whole thing to get up a head of steam.
- Can you talk about the book?
I’m kind of superstitious. There’s no title yet.
But as you know, the Proud Boys got their start here in Florida. Post Jan. 6, some of the guys who didn’t perform well or kind of missed the boat, they’re restarting under a new name. They’re trying to reignite the flame, but there’s problems. They’re not all that reliable. That’s one of the elements.
I don’t know how it’s going to end. I never know until about two-thirds of the way through the manuscript.
I kind of envy writers who stick to an outline. (Elmore) Dutch Leonard wrote like I do; he never had an outline. Dutch’s great line was, ”Why would I write it if I knew how it ends?”
- Is there any interest yet in a TV series or movie based on “Wrecker?”
No, because of the strike. Even if you send it they’re not reading it. I guess they’ll start now. When I write books I don’t think in terms of that at all. I don’t cast it in my head
The “Bad Monkey” series (based on his 2013 novel) that Apple TV is doing, the first ten episodes are done, but the post-production, putting in the music, some of the editing, as soon as the writers went on strike they stopped. It’s a solidarity thing.
It was supposed to be out this fall. I may be the last to know when it comes out, but everything’s been pushed back.
Bill Lawrence, the producer, has also done “Ted Lasso,” “Shrinking” with Harrison Ford. He’s really, really good, so my inclination is to let him do his thing.
- Will you keep writing books for kids?
I love writing for kids. Kids are so much smarter than I was at that age. They ask the best questions. I’m fairly cynical, but I come away from it with a feeling of hope. They get issues, they ask you about the environment, about overdevelopment. A lot of them have an innate love of nature.
They’re real fans. They read closely, they ask good questions. Makes you feel lucky as a writer.