Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with the Author

As we get closer to One Island One Book, we had some questions for the author of Last Train to Paradise, this year's selection. And Les Standiford graciously agreed to answer them. We hope this interview whets your appetite for this year's One Island One Book. Remember, the Readalong begins the week of Jan. 22 -- we'll be posting about Chapters 1-4 here at the blog, and hope you'll chime in with comments and questions -- and Les will be in Key West Feb. 26 and 27.

Why and how did you choose to write this book?

Actually, I wrote the book after a talk with my agent from New York who drove the Overseas Highway at my suggestion and found the story of the railroad and the hurricane that destroyed it fascinating. I had written 9 novels by then, but LTTP was my first stab at book length non-fiction. I was stymied for a while after doing all the research, wondering what I was going to do with all those factoids. Finally, I decided to do what I had been trained to do: tell a story. The only difference was that this one is true.

How did writing a work of nonfiction differ from your earlier writing experience?

When you get to a point in your novel where you need a fact, as I am fond of telling my students, you can just make it up. However, if you get to a point where you don't have a fact to support the non-fiction story narrative you are trying to construct, you have to go back to your sources and find it, or you have to change your story to fit the facts you have. Of course, if one were just listing facts about a subject instead of trying to tell a story about a subject, it would be a lot easier, but that is encyclopedia writing, not narrative non-fiction.

What kind of research did you undertake for the book? How long did it take you?

I read the few pamphlet-styled books about the building of the railroad and the three biographies of any consequence about Flagler. The rest came from contemporary newspaper and journal accounts of the building and destruction of the Oversea Railroad as well as interviews with local historians and a very few people who had endured the hurricane. And of course I drove the highway many times and simply poked around. This all went on for about a year before I began the writing itself, which took about another year.

Why would Henry Flagler, who must have realized he was an old man, take on this project?

His purported justification was the approval of the Panama Canal by Congress. The Oversea RR was to connect with a deep water port in Key West also proposed by Flagler which would be by far the closest to the eastern terminus of the Canal. However, I think that was just an excuse for his deciding to do something that everyone else thought was impossible. He'd been in railroading in Florida for almost 25 years when he announced he was extending his line to Key West, and he well knew how difficult it was to make any money at the endeavor. But he was forging the trail through the last American frontier, and I believe he simply found such a project interesting. The port was never built, incidentally, due to the US Navy's objection.

Is this a story of triumph (finishing this project against the odds) or of tragedy (because of the destruction by the hurricane – or because it took away the Keys’ identity as true islands)?

I think that someone would have built a road--if not a railroad--down the Keys to "The Rock" sooner or later. Key West was after all the largest and most important city in Florida at the time Flagler began his project. So I don't see this undertaking as any more tragic than the building of the Interstate Highway system, which essentially erased the character of small town America, for instance. Whatever one thinks about change, it seems to be inevitable. Given the geography, the limitations of existing infrastructure and the lack of any previous model for such an undertaking, however, Flagler's accomplishment in building the railroad at the time that he did is truly remarkable.

Where do you think the railroad is most visible in the Keys today?

In the vestiges of the original broad channel bridges: Long Key, Seven Mile (never referred to as such by the railroad builders), and especially at Bahia Honda. They appear to me like bits of some modern day Stonehenge jutting up out of the sea.

How did the Over-Sea Railroad change the Florida Keys and South Florida in general?

Well, the railway that was touted as a boon to Key West--supposed to bring even more development to an already burgeoning economy--turned out in the end to provide an escape route for thousands eager to leave the island and travel to a part of the state where lands were available for expansion of business, for homesteading, etc. By the time the hurricane blew the railroad away in 1935, the population of Key West was about half what it was when the project was announced. A number of factors had to do with Key West's economic decline, of course, but the Oversea RR never turned a dime's profit. Passenger traffic (never profitable outside the urban corridors) was brisk and helped popularize Key West as a tourist destination, however.

Do you have any other recommended reading for people who are interested in Henry Flagler, South Florida or Keys history or the Over-Sea Railroad?

I'd recommend Seth Bramson's Speedway to Sunshine as a compendium for those interested in the development of the entire Florida East Coast rail system and Michael Grunwald's The Swamp for an excellent and exhaustive treatment of the Everglades and their historical and ecological importance to this region. There are many wonderful books about the Keys, far more than I can name, including Willie Drye's Storm of the Century, Joy William's lovely guidebook, and all the delightful mysteries that so adroitly mine Keys geography and culture, including those by James W. Hall, Lawrence Shames, John Leslie, and Tom Corcoran.

1 comment:

  1. This was a fascinating article.

    I aim going to buy the book now. Thanks for posting