Miami Pt 2: James Hall

Into The Badlands Chapter 1 (second half) 

James Hall: 


It's late in the afternoon. Carl Hiaasen has suggested I take a look at Bayside Market, one of Miami's latest developments, says its a pleasant place to go, get something to eat or drink. It's no more than half a mile from the Herald so I decide to walk. Walking is clearly an ultra low-rent activity, there are virtually no pedestrians on the roads apart from a couple of black guys waiting for cars to stop at the traffic lights so they can manically clean windscreens and demand ready cash in exchange. The sidewalks that connect these high-tone downtown developments are derelict and overgrown with weeds.


           Bayside Market is a typical waterside/dockland development, a dead ringer for countless other such places from London's Hays Galleria to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, designed to look 'traditional', thus a mock-industrial setting for a collection of boutiques, bars and restaurants, dominated by brightly lit stores selling ersatz Americana, readymade kitsch at inflated prices. Stopped for a coffee and a sandwich at a Cuban-style cafe. I ate a Media Noche, a Cuban sandwich apparently constructed by taking two thick slices of Cuban bread, and about a dozen slices each of cheese and ham, then compressing then savagely. However what is remarkable about Bayside Market is how much it appeals to an Anglo idea of good taste. It's clientele are as lilywhite as you'll find in Miami. I found myself wondering what Hiaasen meant when he said he thought I might find this place 'fun'. Still, sitting on what could probably be described as the dock of the bay and listening to a Latin band strive to sound pop it's a pleasant enough place to take a breather and wait for evening to come down.


           Then it's a bus ride back to Miami Beach to pick up the rental car I'd fixed up that morning, and get ready to take a ride round Little Havana. Driving through Miami is great, wide roads, not much traffic, I've got the radio tuned to the loudest, nastiest hip hop (or urban dance as they're calling it these days) station I can find, they're playing De La Soul, hip-hop surrealism which sounds oddly out of place here, too clever by half. Listeners phone in, say 'that's wack' - in Miami music has got to be upbeat, American flash and brash, like the next record, Ton Loc's sassy and suspect Wild Thing. Soon enough, having figured out the one-way system I'M driving down South West Eighth St, Calle Ocho, window down, radio up, looking for Little Havana and... there's nothing there. Not quite true, there's a bunch of other people driving along with their radios on and there's a couple of drive-thru Macdonalds, and some flash funeral parlors and a whole heap of car showrooms and even a couple of cantinas, but an all-singing, all dancing Latin version of Chinatown it is not. Partly this is for reasons of topography. Four-lane highways tend not to be too atmospheric. Partly it's a result of the economic success of the Miami Cubans; what was a ghetto is now just a place you come back to from the suburbs to go for a meal or buy a new car. Finally, though, it's simply a reflection of the fact that Miami is now a predominantly Latin city and to isolate one area and call it Little Havana has little resonance any more - you'd perhaps do better to call the whole city Great Havana.


           I park by the side of a funeral parlor and take a walk along the street looking for somewhere to eat and, at close quarters, I'm able to admire the window displays of the shops selling religious artefacts with no sense that the holy and the gaudy should be divisible. Eventually I pick on a basic cantina, a working men's place where everything is written in Spanish only. The waitress is a voluptuous teen with an extravagantly punk coiffure. She doesn't speak English nor me Spanish and more by luck than judgement I end up with a Mexican beer and a plate of shrimps, black-eyed beans and rice with a side order of fried plantain. As I'm struggling to finish this lot I realise that I have no cash, just travellers cheques, on me. This kills off what's left of my appetite, so I get the bill and present a cheque to a reaction of considerable incomprehension. Oh shit! Time to start washing up, chopping the chilis and so forth... but no, with great courtesy the cheque is passed round the staff until it reaches a white-haired guy in a suit who pockets it and leaves. Five minutes later he's back, presumably having visited one of the more tourist oriented establishments up the street. The cheque is cashed and all is smiles.


           By now there's a few more youngbloods cruising the street but still a little less than action, so time to head back to Miami Beach and catch Ed playing records, Latin night at the Wet Paint. Its a cool breezy evening so I find a Quiet Storm station on the radio, soft soul music from Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, maybe a little laid-back jazz from the likes of Grover Washington; it's the smooth, sophisticated sound of middle-class Black America relaxing just a little, soulful but refined. Arrive at the Wet Paint only to find a small gathering out side and hear some bad news; Ed's had a bad diabetes attack, so no show tonight. So back to the hotel to sleep before tomorrow's meeting with James Hall, the hottest new property on the Florida writing scene.


           Next morning James Hall shows up at the hotel around eleven. He's somewhere around the bottom end of medium height, wearing docksiders, shorts and a polo shirt, plus a baseball cap over a hairline in retreat and a light beard. He's very upfront friendly and quickly launches into an apology for not being entirely himself as he's only half recovered from a vicious bout of flu. James Hall is a 'Hey! I'm a nice guy' kind of chap, very concerned to be liked.


           He's also an English Professor at Florida International University, a poet who has published four volumes of modernist verse and the author of an elegantly mean first novel, Under Cover Of Daylight, that moves from the pastoral to the vicious with disquieting ease. Under Cover Of Daylight is the story of a man named Thorn who is trying to live a completely natural life, outside of society, in the remotest part of Key Largo. The reason for his remoteness is a self-inflicted penance for a terrible act of vengeance he wreaked as a teenager upon the person who had killed his parents in a traffic accident. Twenty years later Thorn is finally forced to face the consequences of his actions as he returns to the world to help a conservation battle on the Keys and finds himself mixed up with ruthless developers, a pair of psychopathic but semi-competent hitmen and a woman who almost loves him but has good reason to hate him.


           Under Cover Of Daylight achieved the rare feat of reviewing well and selling well. It was the right book at the right time. Its  mixture of thriller plot and lowlife characterisation, combined with an elegantly crafted style that evokes Thomas McGuane at least as much as Charles Willeford, has struck a chord at a time when readers are finding serious fiction unbearably parochial, but are unwilling to put up with the formula writing that characterises too much crime fiction. Hollywood has bought the film rights and, if Hall had a day job that required him to work more than two evenings a week, then he would no doubt have given it up. As it is, he's just finsihed a second novel called Tropical Freeze in the States and Squall Line in Britain (the publishers thought Tropical Freeze sounded like a brand of ice cream), again featuring Thorn, and is now starting work on a third, this time with a new cast of characters.


           James Hall drives a distinctly flash red convertible. We're driving across town to his house to pick up his boat and get out on the water where much of the action in his novels occurs. Coming to an intersection there's some frantic blowing of horns and a couple of guys yellng abuse at each other out their window. "Jesus", says James Hall, "you see that? Miami's like a wild west town, all the time there are these encounters  in traffic where everyone is packing a weapon. I just had one recently -  a guy cut me off two feet in front of my front bumper going 60 miles an hour, I shot him a sighn of disgust! He was in a red BMW. He immediately got behind me and followed me for 20 miles to where I was going. I couldn't remember where a police station was in that part of town so I pulled into a the parking lot of a bank thinking there'd at least be someone there with a pistol. Then the BMW drew up next to me, the guy was a Latin with a pained regretful look that kind of said 'I hate to have to discipline you dumb fucks' and told me I shouldn't shoot birds at people in traffic'. I said 'why?' - I live in Miami and I ask why! - and he said 'because you could get shot'. That was it. When I got home I realised that I'm driving this kind of cocaine-dealer type car and the guy must have figured that I was armed, so when he said what he did, he must have had his gun ready. Jesus!"


           By now we've crossed over the causeway into Miami and we're driving up Biscayne Boulevard, round about the neighbourhood they call little Haiti, basically a standard piece of run-down, genteel gone sleazy,inner city real estate, with enough traces of economic actvity to raise it a notch above the next-door Afro American neighbourhood of Overtown in the good ghetto stakes. The Haitians in fact are being trumpeted as the latest immigrant group to make good in Miami, this latter day El Dorado for downtrodden Caribbean and Latin American populations. James Hall tells a joke that neatly captures the fragility of Miami's self-publicity:


           "A tourist comes to Miami to  see if it is a suitable place to bring his family on vacation, he stops a guy on the street and asks him, the guy says 'yeah it's a wonderful city'. The tourist says 'what about the riots, the blacks burning down part of town?'. The guy says 'ah no, that's just a very small number of people, a localised problem'. The tourist says 'what about the Cubans, the Marielitos?'. The  guy says 'no problem, the Cubans are very hardworking industrious people who've added an incredible energy to the community'. The tourist says 'what about the Haitians, all the pictures I see of the Haitians coming in on their little boats?'. The guy says, 'ah no, they're an artistic, colorful, interesting people who bring a cultural vigour to the community'. So the tourist says 'well that sounds good, I certainly am sold on Miami. By the way what do you do for a living?'. The guy says 'I'm a tail gunner on a bakery truck'. That's a typical Miami story."


           James Hall lives in Miami Shores. A couple of miles from Little Haiti. It's in a different world, the world familiar from family sitcoms, where the Cosby-Huxtables and the Van Dykes live in perpetual harmony -  bar-b-qs. picket fences, bungalows with neat front lawns. Just to complete the picture of PLeasant Valley Sunday style suburbia, when James Hall opens the door, a big, cute dog leaps up and starts licking our faces. Past the doggy embraces and I'm introduced to Evelyn, the high school teacher Hall lives with and has passed on his virulent flu to. Inside, the house is light and roomy; an open-plan living area, with a heavyweight Hemingway biography left strategically on a coffee table, gives on to the garden, which in turn gives on to a canal. Moored in the canal we find James Hall's boat. This is his pride and joy, the treat he bought himself with the profits from Under Cover. Knowing doodley squat about boats all I can report is that it's 20/30 foot long, motorised and seems to go very well.


           Hall navigates us deftly along the canal past ever more upmarket suburban gardens and ever flashier boats. We come out into Biscayne Bay to be faced by some severe choppiness, but, Hemingwayesque to the last, we decide to brave it and are rewarded by a rapid decline in turbulence.Over the bay Hall points out Indian Creek where the likes of Julio Iglesias live in a community protected from the outside world by armed guards. We turn north - idly following Hall's route to work, as FIU is conveniently located on the waterfront of Biscayne Bay - and Hall directs my attention to some of the more apparently green and charming parts of the shore. Explains that the trees are growing to camouflage a toxic landfill. Inevitably the conversation turns to the ecology and the writing of Under Cover:


           Like Hiaasen, Hall is appalled by the crassness with which Florida is despoiling its natural beauty, and he explained that his time spent living on the Florida Keys, a couple of hours drive south of Miami, provided the background for the novel: "That was the sociological ingredient, my new awareness of the fragile and extraordinary beauty of the Keys, coupled to a growing awareness of how endangered it was. I started going to conservationist meetings and it came out of that.",


           The other strand that fed into the writing of Under Cover, however, and which gives the novel its edge of bitter violence is taken from Hall's emotional rather than political life: "My 18 year marriage was breaking up and I had this sort of love/hate betrayal thing with that woman and I brought that to the story - do you love this person or do you want to murder this person? That was the psychological ingredient of Under Cover."


           Thorn, however, is far from being a simple projection of Hall and he is not used as any kind of fictional vindication of his creator's private life. In fact he is viewed with a distinctly critical eye.This is one of Hall's stengths - too many crime writers will create lone wolf heroes who no woman can tie down, and slip all too easily into an apparently unquestioned misogyny. Hall, while imbuing Thorn with some of his own emotional ambivalence, has resisted the temptation to make him a kind of superhero alter ego, working out his relationships for him by proxy a la Robert.B.Parker: "Thorn is somewhat based on a neighbour of mine who was a sports fisherman there, but he is also Henry David Thoreau living in Walden Pond - trying to discover what's it like to live absolutely naturally, close to the rhythms of nature, I don't think that is possible, so he's really a fantasy character. I don't take him too seriously, I see him in some ways as slightly comic. He's an aging hippy, who doesn't realise it, he's going to be by God true and natural, almost a parody of Hemingway. He's going to do things exactly by the code. I admire that but I also see it as somewhat unreal. Though I must say I felt it myself, when I lived there. In Key Largo my life was much more adapted to a natural pace than it is here."


           Hemingway is clearly the literary lion that looms largest for Hall, himself a fisherman and possessed of a considerable ambivalence as to whether he wants to be seen as an intellectual or a man's man, suspecting them to be mutually exclusive. In Squall Line Thorn spends a lot of time in a bar called Poppa Joe's, presided over by Poppa Joe, himself, a man who fished with Hemingway and has the morality of a conger eel. Hall comments," Poppa Joe's is based on a number of bars. Poppa Joe, himself, is based to some extent on Tony Terrassino of Captain Tony's in Key West which is really the bar that Hemingway used to drink in. There's another bar, Sloppy Joe's, that claims to be where Hemingway drank and everybody goes there. Actually he drank everywhere! But Captain Tony is an old conch renegade sort of guy. I found him fascinating and thought I'd like to have a character whose values are pirate values, who believes that anything you can get away with goes. There's a good deal of America that believes that still, as you can see from Wall Street. Then there's this other set of people who are puritanical and are relentlessly trying to punish these other guys and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle trying to figure out who's right - the Captain Tonys or the FBI? Is his maverick sensibility noble? I'm interested in that moral ambiguity."


           Hemingway's desire to be a 'great writer' is a pull too for Hall. He dreads being seen as simply a genre writer, "I have a longstanding interest in thrillers, and as a fan I wanted to partricipate in the genre, but my training is more in literature. I come to this more from the Hemingway tradition via Hammett and Chandler. What interests me in crime fiction is to deal with the  issue of a human being's existential struggle, a human being thrust into a situation where his life and values are in extreme danger. Writing would be a lot easier if I just said 'I'm going to write a genre book using a formula I know exists' or if I said 'Screw it. I'm going to write Farewell To Arms. I'm not going to bother with this melodramatic bullshit'. But I'm interested in both things. I'm interested in the romantic tradition which is the detective story and the realist tradition which is the novel."


           By now Hall has turned the boat round and we're heading directly towards the Downtown Miami skyline. The Bay is getting busier, tugs and customs boats pottering about their business. Suddenly to our left a boat appears going like a bat out of hell. Behind it comes a Coastguard boat, both are travelling at a speed that would be dangerous on land and looks lethal on water. In little more than a minute they're out of sight behind one of the little islands that dots the bay. Miami Vice, phew! Hall points out the opening of the Miami River to me: "I took a trip down there the other day, it's where the ships come from the Caribbean. I was looking at these ships that are ready to go back and they're stacked with the strangest stuff... stolen bicycles, plastic buckets... All these things you can't believe another culture places a value on, thatthey'll allbe saying in Haiti, 'oh, great a ten gallon bucket'."


           Next morning the Miami Herald does an expose on this river traffic. Ships flying the flags of Honduras and Haiti are coming in to Miami, bringing in Columbian cocaine, and then returning to Haiti loaded up with items as diverse as school buses, rice, beans and, as Hall observed, stolen bicycles, all hidden under tarpaulins stolen from pest control firms. None of this strange cargois listed on any manifest, and all disappears on arrival in Haiti. The sinister part is the identity of the people running this Miami River traffic - none other than Baby Doc's infamous Tonton Macoutes. Now minus their trademark sunglasses, they are currently upping the craziness stakes in Miami drug wars. A guy from the Sherrif's Office, quoted in the Herald says, 'The Macoutes don't think they can die. They think they're immune to bullets. They do drug deals based on info fron voodoo priests'. The man from the DEA then chips in with the less than reassuring word that, 'We know there are some Tonton Macoute-type individuals controlling drug trafficking. But we don't know if they're out and out running the port or not.'


           Echoes here of Squall Line in which the main villain is an FBI renegade who specialises in smuggling Latin American bad guys into Florida and giving then legit new identities. As the book opens he is processing a former drug enforcer from Haiti, a green-eyed albino called Claude who is scary even to people used to dealing with severely anti-social types. Squall Line keeps the same central character, Thorn, as Under Cover, but this is far less his story. Here there are a whole range of protagonists looking for the limelight, and all morally compromised to some degree. There's no easy identification with good guys or simple condemnation of bad. In this world we all do bad things, the most we can hope is that some decency is left in our hearts. Typical is Ossie, a Florida country boy obsessed with making it as a Florida country singer (allowing James Hall to indulge himself in writing a neat parody of one of Key West country singer Jimmy Buffet's epic Florida ballads) and smitten from afar with a TV weather girl who is in turn smitten with Thorn. Ossie is in the employ of the dangerously amoral Poppa Joe. Ossie buys Poppa Joe's romantic outlaw schtick wholesale and he's ready to kill, but underneath all he wants is to use his songs to get out from where he's been, and to that degree he has something in common with James Hall.


           "I grew up in Kentucky with guys like Ossie who talk lahk thi-i-is, where every one syllable word is actually three. It was a kind of backwoods moonshine environment so until I was 17 years old I was this hick from Kentucky. Then I went to Europe and I saw the cathedrals and I developed this other part of me that thought I was cultured. Then I went to college and got a civilised education, so part of me is at war over who am I? Am I this redneck Ossie, or am I this other person who is talking now, who talks to my students? I can go home and talk to my friends in Kentucky and I slip back into the old twang. But there's still a lot of Ossies in Florida because Florida's got a real rural side to it. If you go about 20 or 30 miles inland people listen to country music, bluegrass, they ride around in pick-up trucks with the shotgun up on the rack behind the window - we call them Florida crackers. They could be from anywhere rural - Nebraska, Indiana... but here they are, 20 miles from the ocean."


                                                                We're heading back to James Hall's house. We moor the boat and go inside where he makes enormous sandwiches for us and Evelyn. We go outside to eat and drink some California white wine, talk about how much Hall enjoyed his trip to England; as evidence of this last he shows me his Wimbledon Tennis baseball cap, blandly tacky as only British souvenirs can be. James Hall is a major tennis fan. Kentucky redneck days are long gone. Tennis is Florida's sunshine sport, up at Fort Lauderdale is Nick Bolletri's(?) production line where baseliners from Chris Evert to Monica Seles are launched to the top.


                                                                Later in the afternoon we take a drive south through Miami.The interstate takes us safely over the Overtown ghetto. Major roads through ghettoes always seem to come with Berlin Wall type security to prevent the natives from dumping rocks on passing Mercedes. Underneath the interstate. Hall tells me, live a fair percentage of Miami's too numerous homeless. Then we pass through downtown. It's hard not to be impressed here by the sheer modernity the sense of being in a place that has not given up on the idea of progress, that believes you can still build high and build new. Best evidence of this are the two Architectonica skyscrapers. These are a completely contemporary mix-up of the aesthetics of the shanty town with those of postmodernism. One of them leans too far to the tired Postmodern convention of painting your piping in bright colours, and ends up looking like 'something from a Mexican suburb where they had a lot of specials on different colour paints' - as James Hall puts it. The other skyscraper works triumphantly; rounded, tall and primary coloured, its masterstroke is the conceit of incorporating a huge hole 2/3 of the way up. This hole houses a large atrium with a spiral staircase and a potted palm tree. TD Allman puts it on the cover of his excellent book. Miami: City Of the Future, and well he might; it's brash, funny and beautiful, designed by an Anglo/Latin team and makes you think for once that the future might not be too bad a place.


                                                                Driving down towards Coconut Grove, the conversation roams over a melee of subjects: Oral Roberts, the TV evangelist - "he's the guy who puts his hands on peoples' heads and says 'Heal, Heal' and they throw away thir crutches and stuff. On Sunday I saw him on TV and he was healing people's wallets!" - or Charles Willeford


                                                                Maybe the quintessential Miami crime novelist, Willeford died last year. Willeford was a spectacularly crusty twenty-year Army veteran turned novelist who finally hit the big time in his sixties with his first Florida-set crime novel, Miami Blues, which appeared in 1984, (his publishers choosing the title in the hope of getting a free ride on Miami Vice's coat-tails). His speciality was bad guys. If Elmore Leonard produced a blueprint for the bland, blond Florida psychopath with the moral sense of a horsefly, then Willeford refined the characterisation and added an appalling sense of humour. First off, in Miami Blues, Willeford created an amiable psychopath called Freddy 'Junior' Frenger, a nice guy till he's crossed. Junior, however, is easily crossed. As he arrives at Miami Airport, at the book's opening, he is confronted by a disguised Hare Krishna pinning a stic of candy on his lapel and asking for money. Junior reacts by grabbing the guy's middle finger and bending it back, then further back till it breaks. Unfortunately the guy goes into shock and dies five minutes later. This sets the tone for one of Willeford's distinctive ultra-black comedies, Junior just wants to settle down to a quiet respectable life of petty crime, but fate keeps conspiring to provoke him.


                                                                Three more novels featuring Miami cop Hoke Moseley, the least style-concious man in Miami, followed before Willeford's death in 1987, at a hard lived 67 years old. The third of them, Sideswipe, features a character called Troy Louden who is pretty much a reductio ad absurdum of the Florida psychopath; blond, thick sideburns, cowboy clothes, six foot one or two with a broken nose and an easy charm. He also has a neat lime in self-analysis, "I'm a professional criminal, what the shrinks call a criminal psychopath. What it means is, I know the difference between right and wrong and all that, but I don't give a shit".


                                                                So it was with some curiosity that I asked Hall if he'd known Willeford. "His wife was in a class of mine", he tells me, "and I had him come to some of my classes in mystery fiction, so I got to know them socially. He was a funny guy, he was such a cantankerous personality, he made people think by being aggressively provocative, he could come in and be extraordinarily insulting, like a radio talk show host, just trying to stir people up. He wasn't that way privately, he was a very sweet man with his friends, but in a group, when he was performing, he would put on this hostile baiting attitude that would make a lot of people angry. I never related to his work as much as I felt I should. When he tried to use ideas he wasn't very good, his strength was this withheld Hemingwayesque thing, and the tone. He found a lot of absurd things very amusing."


                                                                Coconut Grove is where Willeford's cop, Hoke Moseley moves when he's forced out of the SOuth Beach Hotel he's been living in by the sudden arrival of his daughters, pissed off by their mother's re-marriage. Coconut Grove used to be the Bohemian area of Miami, its Greenwich Village, but that was years ago when James Hall, like Hoke Moseley, lived in a garage apartment. Now, like Greenwich Village or Hampstead, but without the literary self-regard, the Grove is a place for trendy rich people. The architecture and the look of the residential parts  is similar to the Keys, Spanish-style houses and clapboard cottages shrouded in a forest of greenery, the streets have coral walls and all around is dense overbearing nature. The focii of the area are the shopping malls with the boutiques and discos which attract the Latin playboy crowd and their female associates, places to be seen to spend money, cash money not credit cards, nightclubs full of guys who think Al PAcino in Scarface - one man with a machine gun taking on an army before diving suicidally into a huge mound of pure cocaine - was a tragic hero.


                                                                I asked James Hall how he saw the morality of crime writing, why he didn't write about a cop but an outsider, a lone wolf: "Maybe I would have written about a cop if I had a greater sense that I knew what a cop was like - I don't know any cops. People in America have this strong contempt for the judicial process, so the individual is given a license to do these Dirty Harry/Bernard Goetz kind of things, but I don't really believe in that vigilante ideal, I think it's anarchic and scary and dangerous when you have a lot of people packing guns. The problem I have with these books is that they play on that kind of cynicism. I'm trying to figure out a way of having my character be heroic and find some form of justice in an individual situation, and at the same time be humane. I'm trying to figure out what is appropriate moral behaviour in a world where people are eating Lobster Thermidor on the top of a slagheap."


                                                                Hall is careful to avoid the cosy morality that too many crime writers slip into, with idealised cop or P.I. heroes (they may be flawed but you can be damn sure they are lovably flawed) and plots in which the really good guys never die, always win through at the last. The strength of these conventions is made brutally clear in both Under Cover and Squall Line when in each case the most lovable character available - in both instances a an elderly and doughty woman - has to fight for her life, and in both cases loses. I asked Hal whether this reflected a desire to break the conventions or simply homicidal feelings towards old ladies: "Oh God!", he says, "I feel guilty about that, I guess I want to give the reader a feeling that no-one is safe, that anything can happen. When I first started writing I was under the influence of some of the 60s avant garde writers - John Barth, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, even Richard Brautigan - people who by today's categories would be magical realists. The problem with that legacy is that I have to resist a strong temptation to write something surreal, which would come out silly in this kind of book, but the good part of that is that it does make me break the conventions - killing the old ladies and stuff!"


                                                                Whether killing loveable grannies will feature in the Hollywood version of Hall's novels is a moot point, as of course is whether there will be a Hollywood version. Hall is going through the classic drama of almost every novelist with their first hit book; the saga of the film rights. It starts every time with a whirlwind courtship and peaks with the exciteent of the purchase before precipitately hurtling downhill into despair (it doesn't get made) or disillusion (it does get made) and ending with a moral dilemna - to scriptwrite or not to scriptwrite. Here's James Hall's account.


                                                                                "My agent put Under Cover up for auction,  a bunch of people bid on it including Bruce Willis. It came down finally to two similar deals, one from this guy who produced Butch Cassidy, Carrie and a bunch of big movies, and the other from a Canadian company who had made Atlantic City, one of my favourite movies. So I went to Hollywood which was a mythic journey for me, something I've always dreamed of. I even rode first class. I got out there and stayed at the Beverly Wilshire. I went out jogging in the morning, through Beverly Hills, looking at the houses and wondering which one I was going to own. I got back form the jog and was sitting in my hotel when a 6.8 earthquake hit Los Angeles. The hotel rocked, windows broke, down the street people were screaming. I didn't know what was going on, I thought I was having a heart attack. I thought 'Holy SHit, would you know, on the brink of all this success I'm dying in this hotel room'. Then I realised what was happening and ran downstairs, wondering what do you do in an earthquake? It was a real existential moment and it made me think I'm getting carried away with this. What always mattered was that writing this stuff was fun, not the success. So I went and had that day with a whole differeent attitude, it didn't matter any more, which was a good thing because those guys are every bit of what all the myths suggest."


                                                                "The first words out of this producer's mouth were 'are you ready to be rich'. I said 'Well, I don't know'. That was the wrong answer - I should have said 'yes, yes, pleeeasemake me rich!' Almost the next words were 'you're not planning to write any more novels are you'. I said 'Yes, what else would I write?' They can't understand it; a wildly successful novel might make 150,000 or 200,000 dollars, but write a screenplay which may never see the light of day and you make 100,000 dollars minimum and it only takes a couple of months. So they bought the film and they had me write the script, paid me 25,000 dollars to write it and then shitcanned it right away and stuck an expensive screeplay writer on it. They told me the reason they didn't like my script was because it was too much like the book. Which had me confused, 'Sorry, you paid me all this money, I thought you liked the book, but you want a different story. OK, sorry, my mistake'. Then I started reading all these books about Hollywood and realised I'd had the classic Hollywood experience for the schmuck with the Underwood. They steal his little precious thing, his novel - they pay 40/50,000 dollars for it, then turn around and sell it to a studio for 500.000 dollars. They make 450,000 for just turning round and selling it to their buddy and meanwhile you think you're the luckiest person on earth." As for Under Cover's chances of actually making it on to film Hall is phlegmatic, "They've just bought up the option for another year, but its unlikely it'll ever see the light of day. Nine out of ten books that are bought don't."


                                                                On this rather sombre note we arrive back on Miami Beach. As we drive down 21st street he says, 'you know this is really a bad neighbourhood'. Apparently a police reporter friend took him down here to investigate the crack trade. Then, remembering that this is where I'm staying, he diplomatically adds 'of course the worst part is down the street a little'. We pull up to the hotel and he says, 'Uh, can I just see inside your hotel room'. So in we go, James Hall to research interior life in a crack street hotel room and say goodbye ('tell them I'm a nice person') and me to rest up and watch some TV (a teenage soap pussyfooting around the abortion debate).



                                                                That night the heavens opened and I went briefly down to Ocean Drive where I ate a pizza in the Cardozo Hotel, the first of the SOuth beach deco hotels to be refurbished. It's tastefully done, but tonight the place is empty and I have to deal with a theatrical waiter who had just discovered what he called 'English music' and determined to share this fondness with me by a playing a tape of an old Art Of Noise Lp unreasonably loudly. Combined with the weather this seemed like God's way ot hinting that an early night was in order.


                                                                Next morning it was up early for breakfast in Wolfies, the great American meal served with a spectacular assortment of home-baked rolls but delivered by a waitress who won't see 75 again yet still clings to baby doll make-up and matching manner. On hearing that I was bound for New Orleans next she cooed 'oh, but its so dangerous there'. This said in a diner from which you only needed to look out of the window to see crack deals made.


                                                                After breakfast the Everglades beckoned. The quickest route turned out to be back over the causeway into downtown Miami than get on to Calle Ocho (symptomatically reanglicising to SouweSayda now Spanglish replaces Spanish in the new generation) and keep going. As Calle Ocho leaves Miami it becomes the Tamiami Trail, the Seminole route to the Everglades. Miami disappears in a welter of superstores and gas stations and the swamplands take over. First Everglades attraction you hit is Frog City, real old time folksy tack, rustic surreal on the outside, credit card machines on the inside, frogs and delapidated boats out the back. A while further on down the road you encounter your first Indian Tribe, the Miccosukee - Seminole Indians who were once farmers in Northern Florida and are now reduced to making a living off tourists by wrestling alligators and manufacturing nick-nacks. It's to one of their villages that, near the beginning of Squall Line, Haitian psychopath Claude takes the car salesman whose Porsche he's test driving and stakes him out as alligator meat.


                                                                Maybe its at the same place that I stop to eat some very bad truck-stop food and drink some diabolical coffee. It's an unhappy place. The woman on the cash register not only doesn't speak English, which is common enough in Florida, but doesn't understand money, which is rare and makes you wonder why she should have to, there's precious little dignity in being sat behind a tourist cash register but ther'es little option once you and your people have been consigned to a swamp. Actually there is one option; enterprising Indian leaders have discovered that the peculiar sets of laws governing their reservations have loopholes which allow them to have legal bingo (unlike the vast bulk of the States) and to sell tax-free cigarettes. In Tourist Season one of the terrorists is a Seminole Leader called Tommy Tigertail who has made a fotune out of this legalised bingo. I asked Hiaasen about this character and the role of the Seminoles in Florida.


                                                                "I have only passing contact with the Seminoles", he told me, "they don't have namy dealings with white culture. By and large they distrust white people, and who wouldn't after all they've been through. I get a perverse satisfaction that we're all upset because they're selling cigarettes and bingo. They've taken advantage of every loophole the law has given them - you go by one of the Indian reservations round 5 o clock, there's a line of cars waiting to buy tax-free cigarettes. Seminoles don't have to pay tax on the cigarettes they buy -  so what do they do with them? Sell them to white people. Cancer sticks! Great idea!. You go into a bingo parlor in Hollywood Florida, huge aircraft hangar of a place, and there's all these blue haired old white ladies playing bingo... I just  can't imagine the shock when it was explained to them. You have this silly little board game, put it in a giant arena and all these white people will come to win 4 or 5 bucks a pop. They've got to be thinking these people are nuts. I find great poetic justice when you drive by a Seminole village and you see all these Cadillacs with their free license tags. That's one of their little perks - the state, after literally raping them and driving them out of any piece of property that's worth anything, gave them  free licence tags. Which I think is pretty generous! But now you see them on Cadillacs. Great! People say they're cheating the state out of taxes, but they were here first, we should be paying them taxes. God knows they have enough problems with alcoholism and severe depression. Let them have the loopholes, whatever's left."


                                                                "I know a writer who spent a year with them to research a book and he said they never opened up, he was lucky to get a hello, which is very strange for an American. We're used to being gregarious, 'be my buddy, tell me what it's like to be an Indian'. I'd love to know more about them but they want to be left alone and I can respect that. Their history is a metaphor for how Florida has screwed people from day one. They bnever wanted to be in the Everglades; they were in cattle country in the north part of the state, they were great ranchers and they've been driven south and south into the hottest, swampiest, most dangerous part of Florida, the Everglades. They're left with nothing .- spearing fish - when these were tremendously industrious people."


                                                                Declining the chance to watch the dubiously  traditional Indian entertainment on offer, I head to the National Park. Here you pay and park and set off on a a nature trail. Now, call me naive, but I was not expecting to walk along a path and then see, a couple of yards to my right, lying by a little stream, a basking alligator. This is a situation where etiquette failed me, and I wished I'd been more interested in natural history. Was the right reaction to a)run screaming back to from whence I came or b) pat the critter on the head and have my photo taken with it? I went for the middle course,  hoping that, if it was too hot for me to run, the same would apply to the gator. Fortunately this seemed to be the case, and throughout the trail he only gators who were prepared to do more than roll an eyeball were the ridiculously cute, foot-long baby gators frolicing in the stream. Savouring an unaccustomed and entirely ridiculous Hemingway-style, big-game hunter, 'I saw the gators and lived' buzz, I got back in the car and drove to the airport, pausing only to buy a green enamel lapel gator from Frog City..