by Kyla Shoemaker
“I thought if you had a boat and a bicycle, it [Key West] would have just been a great place to grow up.”
Speaking about his new book Wrecker, Carl Hiaasen sat in front of over 800 Key West High School students and staff on Friday morning to kick off the first full day of the 41st Key West Literary Seminar. Hiaasen’s newest novel is about a 15-year-old boy who goes by the nickname “Wrecker” living in Key West during the pandemic in 2021. Hiaasen grew up visiting the Keys and visiting as an adult; he always imagined what it must be like to live here as a teenager. While the book is not based on a true story, it does include historical information that, while maybe not well-known to many on the island, is very true. Woven into the narrative of Wrecker’s island life are the stories of island history including the past occupation of wreckers as well as racial issues, naming the true story of the KKK’s murdering and lynching of a man on Christmas Day 1921. The book also weaves in the current island issues such as the cruise ship blockades and pandemic vaccination controversies. As a resident of Key West and a local teacher, I know my students can identify with Wrecker and his island life.
After talking about his new book, Hiaasen took questions from a very curious audience for over thirty minutes. One student asked about Hiaasen’s book Hoot, which is very familiar to the students both because it is a young adult novel and one that was turned into a movie. Hiaasen talked about his life being similar to that of the book’s main character. Growing up on the edge of the Everglades meant that Hiaasen saw the impact on the environment of the growing concrete jungle. He got a lot of laughs from the students as he reminisced how he would jump over the fence of the surveyed land and rearrange the survey sticks to confuse the construction workers in order to save the owls and the field where they lived. His actions “stalled the project for a while, but, in the end, the owls died” and Hiaasen knew the ending had to be different for his book. He reminded the writers of the audience that what they write are their characters, their stories, and their books. “If you want a happy ending, you write a happy ending.”
Many students asked about his writing process, character development, and use of figurative and descriptive language. He reminded the audience that the more you write, the more you will like to write and that their writing will get better. Hiaasen said that he “writes the noise in his head” so that he has something to write. Often students want their first draft to be their final draft and Hiaasen reminded them that “First drafts are not it” and writers need to take time to make it better. He mentioned how he reads each chapter written at least fifty times, finding something to change and make better. He also reminded students that you don’t want your dialogue to be “canned Hollywood dialogue” but to be intentional about the dialogue being authentic, real-life dialogue. A few students asked about writer’s block and what does he do when stuck with progressing the plot. He said that sometimes he has to walk away and it could be days before it gets going again. While many authors grind out book after book, Hiaasen said that he’s not that kind of writer and “If it’s a nice day, I’ll probably go fishing.”
After his talk, over a hundred students lined up to receive a personal copy of Wrecker and to meet and have Hiaasen sign the books.