Les Standiford: On Bringing Adam Home

Les Standiford is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, Washington Burning, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, as well as ten novels. His latest book, Bringing Adam Home, will be on sale March 1, 2011. About Bringing Adam Home, Scott Turow wrote that “This tale of the most significant missing child case since the Lindbergh’s—that of TV host John Walsh’s son Adam and the 25 year search for his killer—is truly terrific. A taut, compelling and often touching book about a long march to justice.” Recipient of the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Les Standiford is director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife and children.

Les was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine
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MJF: Why did you choose to write this particular book?

LS: Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews accomplished something that hundreds of cops, including those from several police jurisdictions, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, before him could not: he solved the kidnapping case that changed the world. In the aftermath of  six-year old Adam Walsh’s abduction and slaying in 1981, everything about the nation’s regard and response to missing children changed.  The shock of the crime and the inability of law enforcement to find Adam’s killer put an end to innocence and altered our very perception of childhood itself—gone forever are the days when children could run outside  with a casual promise to be home by dark.  And, due in large part to the efforts of Adam’s parents, John and Reve’ Walsh, the entire mechanism of law enforcement has transformed itself in an effort to protect our children.  Before Adam went missing, there were no children’s faces on milk cartons and billboards, no Amber Alerts, no national Center for Missing and Abused Children, no national databases for crimes against children, no registration of pedophiles—in fact, it was easier to mobilize the FBI to search for a stolen car or missing horse than for a kidnapped child. 

All that is sad testimony to the weariness of our modern world, but there is also an uplifting aspect to the story—the 27 years of undaunted effort by decorated Miami Beach Homicide Detective Matthews to track down Adam’s killer and bring justice to bear at long last.  I wanted to tell the story—the good, the bad, and the ugly—of what it took for one cop to accomplish what an entire system of law enforcement could not.  Matthew’s achievement is a stirring one, reminding us that such concepts as hard work, dedication, and love survive, and that goodness can prevail.

MJF: Tell us about your writing process for Bringing Adam Home and about the research involved.

LS: I had access to several hundred pages of case notes that Joe Matthews had compiled in going through the more than 10,000 pages of reports in police files about the matter.   My central concern was with transforming those investigative notes into a narrative that a general audience could appreciate.

Beyond what Joe had already unearthed, I needed to create a societal context for the case and its significance to the world at large.  My model for this was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  And the sources were wide-ranging, everything from interviews with cops of the day to digging through news archives at libraries and museums to watching old television shows and listening to music of the day.

MJF: I’m assuming that you met with the Walsh family at some point. How did they feel about the project? How cooperative were they?

LS: The story naturally references the Walshes, but it is really the tale of how a good cop managed the seemingly impossible.  Of course the Walshes feel greatly indebted to Joe Matthews for giving them some measure of justice at last.  As they point out, nothing could have brought Adam back, but at least, “the not knowing is over.”  Both John and Reve’ (Ruh-VAYE) were and continue to be extremely helpful with this project.

MJF: As a parent yourself, tell us about the emotional toll of writing this book.

LS: My own eighteen year old son Alexander died as I was finishing up work on this manuscript.  I was already emotionally exhausted by the work on Bringing Adam Home, but after my wife and I had weathered this new emotional storm, the first thing I did was to go back and check the manuscript of Bringing Adam Home to be sure I had paid the proper respect to the Walshes and their irreplaceable loss.  This is a club that no parent wants to join.

MJF: How do you know when a piece of your writing is done?

LS: When the story has been told.  Of course you are tempted to nip and tuck at things forever.  But once I realized that what a writer really does is tell a story—beginning, middle, and end—it was a great liberation for me.  I have a destination from the outset, and while that destination may change in mid-journey, I still am aiming at something all along.  Once the destination’s been reached, all that remains is the inevitable pinching and patting, and I rely on friends and editors to tell me when enough of that is enough.

MJF: What else do you have in the works?

LS: I’m working on a book about the seeds of the American Revolution, Desperate Sons, due to the publisher late this year.  And I have a memoir, Seven Dogs to Enlightenment, about how my dogs have trained me, ready to go right after that.  Scribble, scribble, scribble!

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