Carl Hiaasen has never really understood America's fascination with celebrities or, for that matter, the industry that sprung up around feeding it. So one day, instead of rolling his eyes at the latest Hollywood headline, he decided to write a book about it — a satire.
In Star Island, the author and Miami Herald columnist takes aim at American celebrity and paparazzi culture. It's the story of vacuous celebrities being stalked by a hygiene-challenged freelance photographer; corrupt land developers and the politicians they've bribed; and an altruistic, if flawed, hero.
With its sunny Florida setting, Star Island could easily be mistaken for a light beach read, but there are serious issues in there — starting with the book's title.
"Star Island is an actual place in Miami Beach, and a lot of celebrities live there," Hiaasen tells NPR's Don Gonyea. "It's also sort of a double meaning because the star, this young singer, is isolated and detached in a way that she might as well be on an island — she's not very connected to reality anymore."
That star, whose thoughtful mother stage-named her Cherry Pye, is a talentless wreck who, according to Hiaasen, we've all seen before.
"You see them every day if you watch [Access Hollywood]," he says. "There's just a parade of them, and they become faceless after a while, but it's part of the machinery. We crank out these celebrities and wait for them to implode."
It's a mechanism that relies heavily on paparazzi like Hiaasen's character Bang Abbott, and their zeal for chasing after the stars. Hiaasen says he's wanted to write a character like lowlife Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Abbott for a long time now.
"You know novelists ... we're drawn by sort of lowlifes and bottom feeders. They're such interesting characters, and they're fun to write about, and they're fun to bring to life on the page," he says.
One of the first glimpses readers get into the life of Abbott comes through the messages left on the photographer's cherished BlackBerry. There's the valet who called to report a Katie Holmes sighting, a dry cleaner who had been visited by Johnny Depp, and a waitress who had had an unpleasant encounter with Star Jones. The informants aren't Abbott's friends so much as his collaborators — people he has bribed for access to precious information.
"He corrupts them and co-opts them in any way possible, because information is the coin of the realm," Hiaasen says. "They live and breathe on rumor and gossip, and Bang is right in the middle of it."
But Hiaasen's characters aren't all as depraved as Bang Abbott, or as clueless as Cherry Pye. Loyal readers may remember ex-Florida Gov. Clinton "Skink" Tyree, who, in Hiaasen's earlier novels, proves so honest and incorruptible that his time as governor drives him crazy and sends him fleeing naked into the mangroves.
"He's a character that I get more mail and questions about than any other," Hiaasen says. "I'd always had a fantasy of turning Skink loose on South Beach, one of the more pretentious and silly places you can go — and colorful and interesting. But nonetheless, it would be such a collision of values that I thought I've gotta find a way to get him to South Beach. And so this novel, this story, seemed like a good way to do it."
Hiaasen doesn't deny that as one of the book's few well-intentioned characters, Skink and he have some things in common.
"In every novel, there are characters who I think say and do things that I wish I could say and do and get away with. And he certainly shares my political views of what's happened to Florida, and I think he certainly shares my views about the shallowness of the culture," he says. "I don't know that he's an alter ego. I think in some ways he's more grounded than I am."
That's not entirely surprising considering what it takes for Hiaasen to stay ahead of things in his satire when real celebrity drama — of the Lindsay Lohan or Mel Gibson variety — keeps upping the ante.
"I can't get ahead of the curve, because the reality is too weird," he says. "All you can do is try and hope that whatever you write doesn't come to pass between today and the day that it's published."
Considering the story Hiaasen tells in Star Island, that shouldn't be a problem.