Paparazzi Take Center Stage In Hiaasen's 'Star Island'

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"I’ve always wanted to write about the paparazzi subculture," says author Carl Hiaasen. "It's such a peculiar, predatory way to make a living -- chasing pseudo-celebrities from club to club, hoping they stumble out the door drunk so you can snap a photo." Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Salma Hayek

"I’ve always wanted to write about the paparazzi subculture," says author Carl Hiaasen. "It's such a peculiar, predatory way to make a living -- chasing pseudo-celebrities from club to club, hoping they stumble out the door drunk so you can snap a photo."

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Star Island
Star Island
By Carl Hiaasen
Hardcover, 352 pages
Knopf
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

"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.

Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has been writing for The Miami Herald -- first as a reporter, now as a columnist -- since he was 23 years old. Fenia Hiaasen hide caption

itoggle caption Fenia Hiaasen

"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.

Excerpt: 'Star Island'

Star Island
Star Island
By Carl Hiaasen
Hardcover, 352 pages
Knopf
List price: $26.95

On the fifteenth of March, two hours before sunrise, an emergency medical technician named Jimmy Campo found a sweaty stranger huddled in the back of his ambulance. It was parked in a service alley behind the Stefano Hotel, where Jimmy Campo and his partner had been summoned to treat a twenty-two-year-old white female who had swallowed an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener — in all respects a routine South Beach 911 call, until now.

The stranger in Jimmy Campo's ambulance had two 35-mm digital cameras hanging from his fleshy neck, and a bulky gear bag balanced on his ample lap. He wore a Dodgers cap and a Bluetooth ear set. His ripe, florid cheeks glistened damply, and his body reeked like a prison laundry bag.

"Get out of my ambulance," Jimmy Campo said.

"Is she dead?" the man asked excitedly.

"Dude, I'm callin' the cops if you don't move it."

"Who's with her up there — Colin? Shia?"

The stranger outweighed Jimmy Campo by sixty-five pounds but not an ounce of it was muscle. Jimmy Campo, who'd once been a triathlete, dragged the intruder from the vehicle and deposited him on the sticky pavement beneath a streetlight.

"Chill, for Christ's sake," the man said, examining his camera equipment for possible damage. Stray cats tangled and yowled somewhere in the shadows.

Inside the ambulance, Jimmy Campo found what he was looking for: a sealed sterile packet containing a coiled intravenous rig to replace the one that the female overdose victim had ripped from her right arm while she was thrashing on the floor.

The stranger struggled to his feet and said, "I'll give you a thousand bucks."

"For what?"

"When you bring her downstairs, lemme take a picture." The man dug into the folds of his stale trousers and produced a lump of cash. "You gotta job to do, and so do I. Here's a grand."

Jimmy Campo looked at the money in the stranger's hand. Then he glanced up at the third floor of the hotel, where his partner was almost certainly dodging vomit.

"Is she famous or somethin'?" Jimmy Campo asked.

The photographer chuckled. "Man, you don't even know?"

Jimmy Campo was thinking about the fifty-two-inch high-def that he'd seen on sale at Brands Mart. He was thinking about his girlfriend on a rampage with his maxed-out MasterCard at the Dadeland Mall. He was thinking about all those nasty letters from his credit union.

"Whoever she is, she's not dead," he told the photographer. "Not tonight."

"Cool." The man continued to hold out the wad of hundreds in the glow of the streetlight, as if teasing a mutt with raw hamburger. He said, "All you gotta do, before loading her in the wagon, just pull down the covers and step away so I can get my shot. Five seconds is all I need."

"It won't be pretty. She's a sick young lady." Jimmy Campo took the crumpled money and smoothed it into his wallet.

"Is she awake at least?" the photographer asked.

"On and off."

"But you could see her eyes in a picture, right? She's got those awesome sea-green eyes."

Jimmy Campo said, "I didn't notice."

"You really don't know who she is? Seriously?"

"Who do you work for, anyway?"

"A limited partnership," the man said. "Me, myself and I."

"And where can I see this great picture you're gonna take?"

"Everywhere. You'll see it everywhere," the stranger said.

Eighteen minutes later, Jimmy Campo and his partner emerged from the Stefano Hotel guiding a collapsible stretcher upon which lay a slender, motionless form.

The photographer was surprised at the absence of a retinue; no bodyguards or boyfriends or hangers-on. A lone Miami Beach police officer followed the stretcher down the alley. When the photographer began snapping pictures, the cop barely reacted, making no effort to shield the stricken woman from the flash bursts. That should have been a clue.

Sliding closer, the paparazzo intercepted the stretcher as it rolled with an oscillating squeak toward the open end of the ambulance. True to his word, Jimmy Campo tugged down the sheet and stepped away, leaving an opening.

"Cherry!" the photographer shouted at the slack face. "Cherry, baby, how 'bout a big smile for your fans?"

The young woman's incurious eyes were open. They were not sea-green, mint-green, pea-green or any hue of green. They were brown.

"Goddammit," the photographer growled, lowering his Nikon.

The woman on the stretcher grinned behind the oxygen mask and blew him a kiss.

Grabbing at Jimmy Campo's arm, the photographer cried, "Gimme back my money!"

"Mister, I don't know what you're talking about," said the paramedic, elbowing the sweaty creep back into the shadows.

Excerpted from Star Island by Carl Hiaasen. Copyright 2010 by Carl Hiaasen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.

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