The Books Interview: Carl Hiaasen

Why did you decide to focus on celebrity culture in Star Island?
I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of the celebrity culture in America. My background is as a news journalist, and newsrooms in the US are shrinking - investigation teams are being terminated or shrunk on newspapers all around the country. The one aspect that's expanded is coverage of celebrity culture. We're spending more and more time and energy on the Kardashians, the Lindsay Lohans, who in another day and age would have been utterly forgettable. They've now been elevated to the status of subjects of news. I just thought it was a good canvas to take a look at all this.

Do you base your characters on real people - the troubled starlet Cherry Pye, for instance?
She's a composite of a lot of people who have managed to achieve notoriety in this country with very little or no talent. She's a spoilt brat who from a very young age has been told she has talent and hasn't manifested any, but nonetheless believes it. We've always been fascinated with movie stars and singers, but the fascination with people who really have nothing to offer is something new.

Do you ever like your characters?
Liking them isn't the right word. I understand and have some sympathy for them. The paparazzo in the book, Bang Abbott, is a character I use to symbolise the sleaziness, because his is a predator-ish, vulture-ish job. On the other hand, he makes the very good point that if nobody was buying these pictures, buying these magazines, he wouldn't be doing this for a living. He's really not the problem, and so you do have a little sympathy for him.

You bring back two characters - Chemo and Skink - from previous books. Why?
Chemo was in a book called Skin Tight. He went to prison at the end. I always wanted to bring him back, so I did the maths on it and he was just getting out of prison. It was like I was casting for who'd be the ultimate bodyguard for this impossibly derailed young singer and I thought
Chemo would be great at it. Skink seems to be a favourite of the readers - I get a lot of mail about him and I bring him in and out of the novels. For him there is no greater torture than to leave the solitude of the Florida swamp and be surrounded by tourists and traffic and smog. It's the way
I feel when I have to drive to Miami.

Do you consider yourself to be a crime writer?
All novels are about crime. You'd be hard pressed to find any novel that does not have an element of crime. I don't see myself as a crime novelist, but there are crimes in my books. That's the nature of storytelling, if you want to reflect the real world.

Do you think the suspense form is a good framework for satire?
It works for me. The one thing a lifetime in the newspaper business teaches you is pace - you spend all your time trying to make sure that the reader's going to finish what you're writing. I enjoy reading books that move, that keep you turning the pages, so that's what I decided to try writing. They're not whodunnits because you know pretty much who done it by page 50, but there is an element of suspense: how are these characters going to get out of this? Where are they going to end up? By that point you have to have the readers invested enough in the characters, caring enough that they want to turn the pages and see what happens to them. That's the art of it. It's not just who is going to get arrested for the murder because that's too easy and too formulaic. If the characters don't work, the book doesn't work.

How does being a journalist affect your fiction?
It affects not just the pace of the writing, but how you put together a scene. All the senses you use covering a news story are the same senses you use when creating a scene for a novel. You have to bring the scene to life in the same way in fiction as you would when you go back to the newsroom and empty it out of your notebook into a story or a column. The training that you get in a newsroom is very valuable for the writing of fiction. That's probably why so many novelists have come from a journalism background.

Carl Hiaasen's "Star Island" is published by Sphere (£14.99)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis