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)