Thursday, April 1, 2021



George Garrett 1929-2008

I'm getting myself ready to beat the drums for a new book that comes out in June:  BATTLE FOR THE BIG TOP:  P.T. BARNUM, JAMES BAILEY, JOHN RINGLING & THE DEATH-DEFYING SAGA OF THE AMERICAN CIRCUS.  I would sum it up in a phrase:  the circus is the distilled essence of the American Experience and add that I had a ball writing it.  Who else gets to spend a paying day writing about the snake lady and the ballet-dancing elephants?  So far as I am concerned it fits perfectly into my historical oeuvre that--so far as I am concerned--has been one long look at what makes us tick, and may even be the fitting summary to the endeavor.  But as James Lee Burke cautions, it is not such a good idea to get caught up in taking your own measure.  I'll just be content to roll it out there on stage and let folks make of it what they will. 

Still, as I contemplate trying to help the publisher (Public Affairs/Hachette) move a few units, I find myself thinking of my dear departed friend and mentor George Garrett, consummate writer, scholar, and gentleman.  In that paper's 2008 obit, the New York Times described George as, "a highly regarded Southern novelist who never received the wide literary renown that his decades of glowing reviews would suggest."  Later in the piece, the writer suggests a reason for that oversight:   "One reason for this was that Mr. Garrett was a literary shape-shifter. The publishing business prizes easy classification, and his work, as a glance at his bibliography makes plain, was beyond category. Besides fiction, he wrote poetry, essays, memoirs, biography, criticism and screenplays. He also edited many anthologies of fiction and poetry."

George's books number in the dozens, marking him as surely a Renaissance man of letters, and I thought about him and the Times obit as I was searching for a title for the new book at the suggestion of the publisher, who were not wild about my working designation:  THE RAPTURE OF ELEPHANTS.  I get it--my title is more suggestive of an LSD trip than the struggle of business titans to create and control a storied form of popular entertainment.  It simply does not lend itself to efficient Google searching and I didn't think it would do a whole lot of good to point out that my book on Golden Age railroading in Florida has sold 200,000 or so copies with its highly inefficient title of LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE.  I am trying to get with the program, folks.

But back to George, who, as  it turns out, is really responsible for my taking up space on these pixelated pages.   Way back when, I stumbled a minute or two late into a session he was teaching at the University of Utah Summer Writers Conference, to which I had been awarded a fellowship whilst laboring through graduate studies in a high-powered Ph.D. program in Social Psychology at Ohio State University, a stop-gap following my decampment from the Columbia School of Law, and not much of one at that, since there was nearly nothing "social" about the maze of rats and stats I found myself immersed in.  What I had been most assiduously studying in those days was an exhaustive Dun & Bradstreet rundown on the likelihood of making a living running an independent bookstore, thinking that I might be able to stave off a complete mental breakdown by that manner of sidling up to literature.  Certainly, I didn't think I was capable of actually creating any.  

I sent off a kind of note in a bottle to that Summer Writers Conference (I didn't really understand what such a thing was) at the suggestion of an OSU instructor of Creative Writing into whose class I had inveigled myself after the second quarter of the opposite-of-social psychology.  This instructor (Robert Canzoneri, and not such a bad writer himself) was mightily suspicious that a grad student from the sciences should want to take up a seat in his senior writing workshop, but he took a look at something I had written and agreed to let desperate me in.  (I suspect he saw the glint of mad despair in my eyes.)  At the end of the class, he allowed, in Robert Fitzgerald manner, that what I had offered up was a mixture of NTB (not too bad), with the occasional bit of NAAB (not at all bad), and that maybe I should keep at it.  Alas, however there were no classes that would be offered there on the banks of the Olentangy during the looming summer.  He took me up to the department offices and showed me a bulletin board stapled full of brochures for summer writers' conferences, explained briefly what they were, and said, "Pick an interesting place to go."    

That is to explain how I arrived in Utah, whose brochure featured a dramatic sweep of the Rocky Mountains as backdrop, awakening every romantic nudge from a childhood spent watching Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd gallop across the high, wide, and lonesome.  I arrived on campus, breathless after an overnight drive out of the Kansas plains and through Colorado and was directed to a room where, as a stern department secretary informed me, the conference had already begun.  I did my best to sneak in, was of course unsuccessful, but dismissed the annoyed glances and found a seat.  I listened in astonishment for the next hour or so as Garrett spoke about the writing life, suggesting to impressionable me that one might make a career out of dropping by a classroom a few times a week for a chat about life and art and spend the rest of the time reading and writing.  By the time he was wrapping up, I had nailed down my direction in life.  It was not that I wanted to be like George Garrett.  Absolutely not.  I wanted to be George Garrett.  And truly, just about everything I have done since that day has been dedicated to the theme.  Furthermore, as you might imagine, the fact that Garrett more or less took me under his wing in the years that followed, seemed about the most merciful and bounteous gesture I could have possibly received.  Dear, dear shapeshifting George Garrett, who to be honest about it, gave me my most fortunate life.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


--Always great to start a tour with lots of familiar faces in the crowd, including my sainted-mother-in-law Rhoda Kurzweil and good friends Stephan Placido and Karen Sattinger and many others.  The store proprietor Diane Sinchuk has been boosting the work of yours truly since the days of John Deal and she continues on, despite the fact that I am now out of mysteries and into histories.  The audience was about as engaged in the Q&A as any I have ever seen, largely because of the current drought conditions in California (and the looming shortage caused by over-development in South Florida as well.)  The focus of WATER TO THE ANGELS is primarily on what happened in Southern California 100 years ago, but, history has a way of repeating itself.  Mulholland built the LA Aqueduct as a way out of a drought that had plagued the city for more than a decade.  He would never have dreamed that one day the population would surpass 10,000,000--as he often told city commissioners, "growth has its limits here."  But, unfortunately, developers paid about as much attention back then as they do today.

Friday, April 10, 2015


--The touring on behalf of WATER TO THE ANGELS is about to begin.  Please come by and join the general hilarity, which includes a little chat, some Q & A, and a book signing.  If you can't make it, any of the stores will be happy to take your order for a signed/personalized copy.
Saturday, April 11, Delray Beach, MURDER ON THE BEACH 6 PM (272 NE 2nd Ave.  561-279-7790)
Monday, April 13, Coral Gables, BOOKS & BOOKS 8 PM (265 Aragon, 305-442-4408)
Sunday, April 19, Los Angeles, LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS 12:30 PM (USC campus,booth signing at Skylight Books #138, 305-778-6068)
Tuesday, April 21, La Jolla, WARWICK'S 7:30 PM, (7812 Girard Ave, 858-454-0347)
Wednesday, April 22, Pasadena, VROMAN'S 7 PM (695 E. Colorado, 626-449-5320)
Thursday, April 23, Corte Madera, BOOK PASSAGE 7PM (51 Tamal Vista Blvd., 415-927-0960)
Friday, April 24, Mendocino, GALLERY BOOKSHOP & BOOKWINKLES 6:30 PM (319 Kasten St., 707-937-2665)
I will also be dropping by to sign copies at COPPERFIELD'S in Sebastopol (707-823-2618), at BOOKS, INC. (415-776-1111) in San Francisco and at COMPASS BOOKS (650-821-9299) in the San Francisco Airport.  If you would like to have a copy signed or personalized, just call the store.
Check back for updates, including an event TBA at THE BOOK MARK in Neptune Beach/ Jacksonville (904-241-9026)
 Also in California, sort of:
June 6-June 13, Tecate, Mexico, RANCHO LA PUERTA, Writers Week, with co-faculty Madeleine Blais and Ellen Sussman.  This is the place where "spa-dom" began.  Put it on your bucket list.
September 25-27, Kalispell, WRITERS OF THE FLATHEAD, Annual Conference. Couple days talking about life and art in the shadow of Glacier National Park.  What is not to like?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


You may have come here from the new landing page that the good folks at Harper Collins/Ecco have created to help spread the word about Water to the Angels:  William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct and the Rise of Los Angeles.  Or maybe you were looking for the order form for the executive model of the Hurricane Floor Mop.  In any case, I am glad you dropped by.  I am not the greatest blogger--my excuse is that I only have so many words in me--but I keep vowing to do better.  I will start my promised semi-regular posts having to do with the launch of WTA by pointing out that when I started work on this book four years or so ago, there was no drought in California (well, aside from the fact that California has basically always been in a drought compared to Eastern states).  I simply wanted to write the story of the formidable accomplishments of a character who my research showed me was one of those larger-than-life types from another era, a man who conceived of and built the most significant civil engineering project in American history:  the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  When I began working on this project I did not know the full contours of Mulholland's achievement.  I was simply guided by a chance comment made by Robert Towne, Academy Award winning screenwriter of CHINATOWN shortly after that terrific film came out in 1974.  Towne's statement (says my failing memory) was something to the effect of, "I wish I could have told the true story behind Chinatown because that is as fascinating as what we made up."  That comment stuck with me for many years until it was time to begin a new book, and when I began to dig into the historical record, I saw exactly what Towne meant.  All this Chinatown material forms one of the later chapters in my book, so if you are intrigued, there is just one more reason to go buy your copy now.  One thing I will tell you is that, as I suggested to Towne when he and I talked, the real William Mulholland (he was a colorless pipsqueak called Hollis Mulwray in the film) was the same imposing, powerful type as was bad guy Noah Cross (John Houston).  I wondered to Towne if he might have derived his portrayal of Cross from the real-life Mulholland.  "I never thought Mulholland was a bad guy," was all the answer I got.  More to come, including a breathless blow by blow account of the author's tour through California, including a stint at the Los Angeles Festival of Books on Sunday, April 19.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


If you have a minute (and 56 seconds), please take a look at this great YouTube video that the good folks at Ecco have put together on behalf of BRINGING ADAM HOME.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


publishers weekly--11/29/2010

*(starred review)

Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America

Les Standiford with Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews, Ecco, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-198390-0

On July 27, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh disappeared from a Sears store in Hollywood, Fla., and his partial remains were found in a canal two weeks later. Novelist and nonfiction author Standiford (Last Train to Paradise) charts with devastating precision the decades-long search for the killer and the evolution of Revé and John Walsh (John is executive producer and host of America's Most Wanted) from grieving parents into powerful advocates for missing children. In 1983, Jacksonville police arrested drifter Otis Toole for arson and murder, and he began talking about a little boy he'd killed in south Florida. Myriad confessions (and retractions) followed, containing details only the killer would know, but evidence disappeared, potential witnesses were never interviewed, and Toole was never charged. Convicted on other charges, he died in prison in 1996. Twenty-five years after Adam's abduction, the Walshes asked Matthews, a renowned polygraph investigator and retired detective, to conduct an independent investigation; Matthews concluded that Toole was the killer. Standiford's account is riveting, heartbreaking, and supports John Walsh's statement: "it's not about closure; it's about justice." 8 pages of color photos. (Mar.)

The current issue of Continuum, the magazine of the University of Utah, contains a nicely written piece by Chicago journalist Dave Wieczorek about yours truly and the writing of Bringing Adam Home. In the piece, I talk about the awful irony: just as I was finishing a book about a family who had lost a son, my wife Kimberly and I suffered our own tragedy. This is a club no one wants to join, my friends. But it also explains why I feel Bringing Adam Home is the most worthwhile book I have written. Kudos to Dave for his fine work. Here is the link to the piece, "Lost Innocence."