Sockless in high-mileage loafers and faded khakis, looking more like his fictional protagonist John Deal than like the director of the top-rated creative writing program at Florida International University, novelist-screenwriter Les Standiford is grudgingly wearing a sleeveless sweater over a long-sleeved shirt as he greets PW at the Miami airport. It's an unusually chilly January morning that has Florida residents and "snowbirds" alike shivering.

Dodging noisy taxis and airport buses on the way to the parking deck, Standiford confesses self-consciously that he's nervous at the prospect of the interview, occasioned by Putnam's February release of Deal with the Dead (Forecasts, Dec. 4), the sixth thriller in his popular series featuring intrepid Miami building contractor hero John Deal, and his eighth novel overall. Appearing after the 30-month-long hiatus that produced Black Mountain , an interim Deal-less action thriller, this newest Deal caper promises to have legions of Standiford faithful burning midnight oil as their "Galahad with a nail gun" uncovers secrets about his father's murky past.

Mindful of the attendant buzz, e-publisher Live READS is publishing Standiford's Internet debut, Opening Day , a novella featuring an octogenarian baseball player from the old Southern Negro league who, as a batboy with a Double-A team, is called upon to save the day. Berkley's January mass market paperback of Black Mountain adds icing to the cake.

Standiford's hard-used, industrial-sized SUV is cluttered with a scattering of crayons, a Molly doll, a regulation basketball, a pink-sheathed tennis racket and an assortment of carpentry tools, offering mute evidence that the busy owner has a wife and kids at home. Buckling up, Standiford politely inquires if PW would mind if we stopped by Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan's fabled book emporium, on the way to Standiford's home, where our interview is to take place. It seems that Kaplan—widely credited as founding muse of the Miami Book Fair International—is moving his celebrated bookstore across the street from its old location in Coral Gables. In his alter-persona of John Deal, Standiford has been summoned to take a look at a balky commode in the Men's Necessary at the new location.

At the new Books & Books, Kaplan is relieved to see his favorite plumber come to save the day. Leaving Standiford, aka Deal, with the cantankerous toilet, Kaplan conducts a tour through the chaos of his truly impressive new layout. By mid-tour, Standiford reports the toilet fixed; however, he's distressed that the hardcover edition of Black Mountain seems glaringly absent from Kaplan's shelves.

"Not to worry," Kaplan soothes as the computer reports eight copies in stock. A search, however, suggests the copies are lost in cyberspace. Ever unflappable, Kaplan promises that Black Mountain will be found before the wounded writer can say "plumber's helper" three times fast.

Over lunch, Standiford recounts an anecdote from his ongoing misadventures acting as building contractor for a major addition to his home. "I gave my electrician a copy of Presidential Deal , which he read over the weekend. He told me I should deduct my construction costs as research on my next Deal adventure. I told him John Deal's too savvy to play chicken with the IRS."

Homeward bound, Standiford—who also wrote Coral Gables: The City Beautiful Story (Riverbend, 1998)—turns tour guide, pointing out the rococo spire of the historic Biltmore Hotel. Standiford's residence is nestled in an acre of lush foliage, less than a quarter-mile off the Key West Highway in southernmost Miami. Seemingly folded into a wrinkle of time, the unpretentious neighborhood fairly reeks nostalgia for the simpler, '50s-era Florida revisited in Deal with the Dead .

Pulling into the drive, Standiford describes how the house was falling down when he first saw it in 1990. "Everybody thought I was crazy, but I'd already built houses in Utah and Texas. I knew that hard work could make this a paradise. We had just moved in when Hurricane Andrew hit. It cost $15,000 just to cut and haul away the fallen trees."

Life imitates art. Standiford's handiwork is in evidence everywhere as he proudly leads the way out across the patio, around a blue-tiled pool and spa ("my brother-in-law is in the tile business"), alongside the all-weather tennis court, to his converted toolshed studio at the back of the spacious lot. Dominated by a computer workstation, the cozy studio is furnished with a chair, couch, mini-refrigerator and coffeemaker. Original jacket art, posters promoting the movie version of Spill and reference books dominate the wall space as, as if on cue, the chimerical John Deal metamorphoses into Les Standiford, writer/bon vivant.

Born light-years away in Cambridge, Ohio, on Halloween in 1945, Lester Alan ("only my mom called me that") Standiford grew up in a mining hamlet; his mother worked in a spark plug factory, and his father drove a truck. "I made up my mind early that I could never work in a factory or a mine," Standiford says, fondly crediting hometown librarian Helen Sunnafrank for opening his mind to a world of possibilities through books.

Graduating high school in 1963 as class salutatorian, young Les was the first of his family to attend college. Dreaming of studying law, he blundered, choosing the Air Force Academy over a scholarship to Ohio State University. "I was already in Colorado for summer indoctrination when I realized I would have to serve four years as an air force officer after I completed four years at the Academy. It was a miracle that the commandant let me talk my way out of my enlistment." Standiford shakes his head, remembering.

After two years at OSU, Standiford transferred to Muskingum College (a liberal arts school boasting Agnes Moorehead and John Glenn among its alumni), graduating in 1967 with a B.A. in psychology. That fall, Standiford enrolled at Columbia Law, where he quickly became disenchanted. Back at OSU in a Ph.D. program in social psychology, Standiford was seduced by a course in creative writing. Fyers advertising summer writing workshops prompted him to submit a writing sample to the University of Utah Writing Conference, "because I liked the pictures of the Wasatch Mountains." To his surprise, Utah offered him a scholarship. "In 1968, I scarcely knew Ernest Hemingway from Mickey Spillane. At the conference, I listened to this guy named George Garrett for about 15 minutes when it burst over me like a blinding light that I wanted to be George Garrett."

To his everlasting gratitude, at the end of the conference Utah offered Standiford an assistantship in the graduate program in creative writing. He completed his M.A. in 1970 and promptly married a former student. "Masters degrees in writing weren't in great demand, so I took a job managing a restaurant back in Columbus. It wasn't long before it dawned on me that I needed to go back and get my Ph.D."

Ph.D. in hand in 1973, his first teaching job came by accident. "Visiting Ohio after graduation, a freaky Midwestern blizzard rendered travel directly back to Utah impossible. I detoured through Texas because I remembered a job being advertised at the University of Texas at El Paso. I phoned chairperson Tony Stafford, unaware that he had lost the opening due to cutbacks. Tony felt guilty, believing that I'd driven all the way from Salt Lake City to El Paso through a blizzard just to apply for his now-extinct position. We hit it off, and he made it his business to hire me in spite of the hiring freeze."

At UTEP, Standiford gave Raymond Carver his first job in 1976, when Carver was recovering from his infamous alcoholic crash and burn. Standiford was writing feverishly, but his few successes went mostly unnoticed in literary journals. Sometime around 1980, he completed The Summer We Lost Yellowstone , a novel about the attempted cover-up of a disastrous chemical spill—the inspiration coming from moonlighting as a forest ranger during grad school in Utah. Literary agent Knox Berger liked the novel, but had no luck selling it.

To add to Standiford's mounting sense of frustration, in 1980 his childless marriage ended. Standiford had maintained a close friendship with James W. Hall, an old sidekick from the Ph.D. program at Utah. Hall was in Miami directing the writing program at FIU. As much for the change of scene as for the chance to gain perspective, in 1981 they agreed to trade jobs for a year. Back at UTEP in 1983, Standiford took leave and enrolled at the American Film Institute in Hollywood. "At AFI, trying to write screenplays, I finally began to understand why my novels didn't sell. I heard AFI dean Tony Vellani synopsize The Bicycle Thief : 'This fellow steals a poor man's bicycle and the rest of the picture is about getting the bicycle back.' It finally dawned on me that the secret to storytelling was structure."

Completing AFI in 1985, Standiford heard that Hall was interviewing for someone to take over as director at FIU. "I like working with Jim. That's how I came to Miami."

Recalling studio mogul Sherry Lansing's interest when he pitched The Summer We Lost Yellowstone , as soon as he settled in Miami Standiford revised the novel by applying what he'd learned in Hollywood.

"At FIU's inaugural writing conference in Key West in the late 1980s [number 14 is scheduled for Seaside, Fla., in October 2001], agent Nat Sobel had just sold Jim Hall's debut novel Under Cover of Daylight . Nat read the Yellowstone manuscript and loved it. Within weeks, Nat sold it to Carl Navarre at Atlantic Monthly Press. Navarre published it in 1991, under the new title Spill ."

NPR ran a review of Spill on All Things Considered and Hollywood agent Dick Shepherd at the Artists Agency logged 64 phone inquiries. Eventually, AEI Productions bought movie rights and Standiford was hired to write the screenplay.

That Standiford settled upon a building contractor as the hero of his second novel, Done Deal, was not an idle whim. "I modeled Deal after Barton Swapp, the Utah contractor who hired me as a framing carpenter in grad school. Barton is the kind of guy you want around when it looks like the world is coming to an end."

When Sobel took Done Deal to Navarre, Atlantic Monthly was having problems. Navarre recommended that he shop it around. Standiford could hardly believe it when Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins offered six figures for a two-book deal. Done Deal came out in 1993. Raw Deal (1994), Deal to Die For ( 1996), Deal on Ice (1997) and Presidential Deal (1998) followed in rapid succession.

When Presidential Deal fulfilled his contract with HarperCollins in 1997, Standiford decided to leave Sobel and HarperCollins. "Given all that Nat and Harper had done for me, it was anguishing, but I felt I needed to change the pattern."

About that time, Scott Waxman contacted Standiford, saying he was starting his own agency. "I already knew Scott as Larry Ashmead's assistant. I was keen to do a 'no-Deal' thriller. Scott pitched my idea of 'Ten Little Indians meets Absolute Power in a Rocky Mountain setting' to Neil Nyren at Putnam. Neil had been my editor on the Miami team-written mystery Naked Came the Manatee . The result was a new agent, a new publisher and Black Mountain ."

Crediting Waxman for the idea, Standiford is currently writing The Last Train to Paradise for Robert Mecoy at Crown. Described as Ragtime meets The Perfect Storm , this nonfiction epic recounts Florida pioneer Henry Flagler's dream to build a railroad to Key West, a Herculean undertaking which met disaster when the 1935 hurricane wiped out hundreds of railroad workers stranded in the Keys. His next book with Putnam takes John Deal on a foray inside Castro's Cuba. Ever the pragmatist, at the airport Standiford contemplates unfinished business, saying, "I think I'll just go see if Mitchell Kaplan has found those copies of Black Mountain ."