When there is a good story to tell, Les Standiford knows how to tell it great.
This fall, the founder and director of FIU’s Creative Writing Program tackles the transformation of Florida’s island of Palm Beach — once a tangled landscape of mangroves and Palmetto brush that would become an exclusive resort destination lined with mansions of the societal elite. Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, and the Rise of America’s Xanadu will be released in November.
His latest book comes on the heels of the 2018 publication of another historical account by Standiford, Center of Dreams: Building a World-Class Performing Arts Complex in Miami. That book recounts the convoluted 34-year journey to build Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center.
Standiford is the essential South Florida storyteller. His non-fiction works include a narrative on the people and places that make Miami unique, a historical reflection of Coral Gables, and a gripping account of the decades-long search for justice following the abduction of Adam Walsh in the 1980s. Among his most notable Florida narratives is 2002’s Last Train to Paradise, which recounts the extraordinary construction and spectacular demise of the Key West Railroad — one of the greatest engineering feats ever undertaken, destroyed in one fell swoop by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, one of the strongest storms ever to hit the United States.
In his 45-year career, Standiford has celebrated the often-forgotten experiences that are so uniquely Florida. But the eclectic storyteller has never limited himself to just one genre or one state.
Standiford artfully captures the small moments in life that can forever change history. His 2008 The Man Who Invented Christmas is a reminder of how Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol came into existence, saved Dickens’ career, and forever changed how Christmas is celebrated. A film of the same title and based on Standiford’s book was released last year to critical acclaim, starring Christopher Plummer as Scrooge.
Before he became a New York Times best-selling author of non-fiction works, Standiford was a best-selling author of fiction. His first book, Spill, took eight years to get published. The ecothriller centers around a germ-warfare agent dumped into Yellowstone National Park. The terrain is not unfamiliar to the writer who, before he launched a career in creative writing and moved to South Florida, was a seasonal park ranger in Yellowstone, taking tickets and scouting fires among the park’s hydrothermal wonders.
While teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, he found an agent who started shopping Spill to publishers.
The rejections soon followed. Standiford then went to the American Film Institute to study screenplay writing in the early 1980s. That experience inspired him to rework Spill. He found a new agent and sold the manuscript to the Atlantic Monthly Press shortly after. The book was optioned for film in the early 1990s and the movie, starring Brian Bosworth, was released in 1996.
“I always thought it was a good story,” Standiford said with a chuckle.
Standiford’s South Florida crime thriller series came next, following John Deal, an average-guy protagonist with a knack for getting in and out of trouble. Without fail, these novels capture the true essence of Miami. To date, Standiford has written eight John Deal novels and hints he might have another plot or two still brewing in his head.
When he is not writing, you can find him sharing his craft with others. Since 1985, he has been a member of the faculty in FIU’s Department of English. In 2018, his contributions were honored with the FIU Worlds Ahead Faculty Award. A busy year, he also moderated a conversation at the end of last year between former president Bill Clinton and novelist James Patterson about their new political thriller The President is Missing. But that’s not all. Standiford has helped organize literary seminars in Key West, directed an annual writers workshop, developed the Monthly Writers on the Bay Reading Series and is the creator of the annual Lawrence A. Sanders Award in Fiction. Past recipients include Isabel Allende, Pat Conroy and Amy Tan.
Standiford finds his greatest calling in his students, which have included now-famed authors Dennis Lehane (another recipient of the Lawrence A. Sanders Award), Barbara Parker and Ginny Rorby, to name a few.
“You would like to think the work, the books, are staying around,” he said. “But we’re also passing the torch of this creative undertaking. I really enjoy seeing the students experience their own successes.”
Those same students also remain a great source of inspiration and gut-checking for the seasoned storyteller.
“The students give me ideas,” Standiford said. “And sometimes, when I mention things in front of them and they frown, I realize maybe it’s not the great idea I thought it was.”
But with more than 20 books to his name and countless other publishing credits, it’s apparent that his good ideas still outnumber the bad ones. And as long as the good ideas keep coming, Standiford will keep telling great stories.