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Carl Hiaasen Gives The Graduation Speech No One Will Hear

Illustration by Roz Chast
Illustration by Roz Chast

Thousands of graduates from South Florida colleges and universities will receive their diplomas in the coming weeks during winter commencement ceremonies.

Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen saw his youngest son graduate recently and wants to make sure new graduates are entering the next stage on their life with a "realistic" perspective. "You need to hear that you may think you're a great musician and you're going to grow up and become the next Bruce Springsteen. But you're not, you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning, " said Hiaasen.  

Hiaasen's book is called, "Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You'll Never Hear." It challenges some of the traditional wisdom given at commencement cermonies, like not to judge people. " [Judging] is a survival skill. It's like telling a wild beast in the savannah, 'don't judge that lion until he's got you by the throat.'"

Sundial host Luis Hernandez caught up with Hiaasen at the Miami Book Fair before his event with longtime fellow Herald columnist Dave Barry. We also discussed his new children's novel Squirm, about a teenage boy leaving Florida to search for his father in Montana. 

WLRN: When you were writing this book, I'm wondering if you were sitting in front of a mirror practicing and saying this is what a speech should be. What inspired it?   

HIAASEN: Well, first of all, I just I get a little tired of all the upbeat graduation speeches because I don't think you're sufficiently preparing graduates for what the real world is like. And the real world is tough. And it's great to be optimistic. But you have to be ready to get stabbed in the back and tripped and fleeced, and you've got to be on alert. And I didn't think they were sufficiently. So I wrote "Assume the Worst." 

I had my own youngest son in mind, that is graduating from high school. I also had relatives who had just graduated and I was thinking somebody needs to hear that. I wanted it to be, and it's the subtitle of the book, 'the graduation speech you'll never hear' because no one would ever ask me to go give this or anyone give this speech to a bunch of young, hopeful, bright kids. But that's what they need to hear: is it's a tough place.

You need to hear that. You may think you're a great musician, [that] you're going to grow up to be the next Bruce Springsteen, but you're not. You have a better chance of really getting hit by lightning than ever playing in the E Street Band. It ain’t happening for you, kid. Somebody has got to shake him and say, 'hey, get realistic. You know, manage your expectations and know your limitations,' but no one wants to hear that. But that's what the real world is. You know? So I just thought I would throw a damper on the whole graduation season if I could. That was my main mission. 

You presented with Dave Barry at the Miami Book Fair. The two of you have had the opportunity to work in this unique market. Tell me a little bit about that working relationship. I'm curious how you guys have ended up together and how you've even influenced each other? 

Well, I've known Dave for 30 plus years. Whenever he came to Florida and he started working at the [Miami] Herald, he and I were on staff at Tropic , the Sunday magazine, at the same time. I mean, we've just been friends that long. And it's sad now because he was so much funnier than me. It's sad to watch him fade like this. But if I could just tell people, he really was sharp back in those days. Just kidding, Dave!

But you keep in mind, in those days, in the 80s and 90s and late 70s, Miami was on fire as a news town. In the best and the worst ways. It was violent,  it was corrupt. But everything was happening. This great collision of cultures was coming because you had people moving here from everywhere. So it's a very exciting time to be working at that newspaper.

Let's talk about the kids books. The latest one is called "Squirm." Tell me a little bit about Billy Dickens. This is a fascinating journey. He's out to look for his father. But where did the idea come from? And I wanted to get a sense of like from you where your success has come from writing for young readers. 

Credit Penguin Random House

There are a lot of people out there that come from, I don't think I'd say broken homes, but divided homes. Divorce is a big common thing. And this was a kid that his father had always been a sort of mysterious figure that sort of vanished from Florida and gone out to Montana. Nobody knew what had become of him and Billy hadn't been able to visit him. And so I wanted Billy to make this journey, hop a plane and go out there and try to find him in Montana, which is a huge state, and sort of follow up on rumors. What's he doing? There was all the secret stuff and the possibility he might be working for the government. I just like the idea of the kid making the journey and then in a sense, getting out into a real dangerous situation that his father happened to be in and having them bond together again and then coming back to Florida. 

Going even back to your popular book "Hoot," you tackle some very dark, very serious issues for young readers. How do you feel about writing some of that stuff for young readers? Are they sophisticated enough to handle this and how do you how do you approach that? 

I do it very delicately because of the kids in my own family. There are a lot of novels being written for young readers now that get into weigh heavier stuff than I write about.  I don't know how I would tackle a novel about child abuse, for instance, or about human slavery. These things, there are very brave writers who do it and the kids handle it just fine. The kids are in many ways more able and more open about coping with it than the grown ups are. That's not the issue. The trick is you never write down to them. That's the mortal mistake you can make as a writer, if you think you can write for kids and all you have to do is write down. They'll catch it right away and you have no credibility. You have to write as if they were adults. 

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