Q: How did you decide on the title of your new novel, SKINNY DIP?
A: My late and dear friend, Warren Zevon, suggested the title as he was reading the manuscript a few weeks before he passed away. One of the main characters, Mick Stranahan, had appeared in an earlier novel of mine called SKIN TIGHT. Warren thought SKINNY DIP would tie the books together for readers, and would also be appropriate because the heroine of the new novel ends up naked in the ocean in the first chapter. My editor loved the title, but I wasn’t surprised. Warren’s songs had some of the best titles ever written in rock and roll.
Q: Was there a specific motivation to write SKINNY DIP?
A: Yes, it’s called a contract. If I don’t write, they send nasty letters and turn their lawyers loose on me.
Seriously, the idea for the plot came from a true story about a young woman who vanished off a cruise liner in the Caribbean during her honeymoon. She was never found, and to this day nobody knows what happened.
Q:Have you ever taken a cruise?
A: I’m proud to say I’ve never been on a cruise, which is probably the main reason I still weigh only 165 pounds. The main recreation on cruise ships is eating, which is apparently a 24-hour activity. By the time your trip is over they’ve got to roll you down the gangplank.
Q: Which writers have influenced you over the years?
A: Certain writers — Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, John D. MacDonald — made me want to become a writer myself. Others like John Irving and Tom Wolfe opened all kinds of doors in my head as I was reading them. I feel that way now when I read Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane and Martin Amis. They are all capable of that perfect, untouchable sentence.
Q: How did you decide to become a journalist?
A: I thought it was would be a cool way to learn how the world worked, and I was right. There’s nothing that compares to working for a big-city newspaper, the breadth of experience you get in a very compressed amount of time. It can be grueling and aggravating and sad as hell, because so many true stories end badly. But it’s also a terrific education for a young writer — and it teaches you how to write fast, and how to write on days when you don’t feel like writing.
Q: Tell us about Chaz Perrone.
A: He’s one of my favorite dirtball villains. Chaz is a crooked biologist who goes to work for a ruthless agri-business tycoon. He infiltrates the Everglades restoration project and fakes water-quality tests to make the farm baron look legal. But the thing I really like about Chaz is that he so ill at ease in nature. He can’t stand the swamp, the gators, the snakes, the bugs — he’s managed to choose the single vocation for which he’s completely unsuited, and in the end he regrets it. Deeply.
Q: Besides Chaz, do you have a favorite character in SKINNY DIP?
A: I love Joey Perrone, Chaz’s wife. I love the idea of her refusing to die when Chaz heaves her off the cruise ship in the first chapter. She’s a romantic but she’s also a pretty tough girl. She’s not just after revenge — she desperately wants to know why her husband would try to kill her on their second anniversary. This is a woman who realizes that she’s married the ultimate creep, and by God she’s going to get some answers.
Q: How do you decide when to reintroduce characters from previous novels?
A: I bring back old characters only if they fit into the new story. Skink, the crazed ex-governor, makes a memorable cameo in SKINNY DIP simply because some of the characters wander into his swampy domain. Mick Stranahan was a very interesting guy but I couldn’t fit him into another novel until now. He seemed like the perfect choice to rescue Joey Perrone because he still lives on an island in Biscayne Bay, not far from where she’s floating.
That’s how it works. If everything fits together and the timing is right, I’ll bring back a familiar face or two from the earlier books.
Q: Tell us about your children’s book, HOOT, which was just released in paperback.
A: HOOT is a story that I borrowed from the pages of my own childhood. It’s about three kids who are trying to save a colony of little burrowing owls from being destroyed by a big company that’s putting up a pancake house in their town. When I was kid growing up in South Florida, those little owls were all over the place. Now they’re practically wiped out.
I wrote HOOT for my stepson, nieces and nephew, who were all in that ten-to-fourteen year old bracket. Because the book was personal, it was fun. I was astonished when it won a Newbery Honor. Completely blown away. Let’s face it, if you looked closely at my grownup novels, I’m not the kind of writer who seemed a likely choice to cross over smoothly into children’s fiction. It was sort of like asking Sam Peckinpah to do a re-make of "Mary Poppins."
By some miracle, though, HOOT turned out well. I’m still amazed.