Paradise Found

British author Alexander Stuart exiled himself to South Beach before writing the aptly titled Life on Mars

These days, Stuart seems to be hitting the big time once more. A few weeks ago, wooed by Hollywood hotshots, he flew to Los Angeles. While sitting in a producer's office with Kiefer Sutherland cinching a deal to write a screenplay adaption of a book called Among the Thugs, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was actor and would-be director Tim Roth, who asked Stuart to write a script of his own book The War Zone. Stuart has lately completed the latter project and begun the former. In his spare time, he's writing a story for the London Times Sunday magazine, researching a novel set in post-World War I England, and preparing to teach a film course this fall at the University of Miami. The other night he turned on his shortwave radio and heard the BBC do a rave review of Life on Mars, introduced by the soundtrack to Miami Vice.

"He's got a terrific voice and a great ear for dialogue, and really some insightful observations," says Matthew Levy, vice president of Stillwater Productions, a Los Angeles film company. "I'm about a hundred pages into Life on Mars. It's basically a very well-written account of a stranger in a strange land, which is the same sort of thing we're trying to do with Among the Thugs. It seems like a universal theme, one man's observation of a foreign land. I can't imagine why the book hasn't been published in America."

"It's a great examination by an outsider of a peculiar and very sexy city," says Paul Chung, Stuart's representative at the Lantz-Harris Literary Agency in New York. "Everybody's in love with his writing, but I think some American publishers aren't sure about an outsider commenting on their home turf. They look at him as a Brit, and that's what seems to be setting him apart from these other books that have been written about Miami and Florida. It's unfortunate.

"Several of the major trade houses here in New York are looking at the book now, and I'm confident I'll be able to sell it. It's a compelling read and a very thorough, intricate piece of journalism. I think it's an important book. Miami is a phenomenon -- socially, politically, architecturally, and in many other ways -- and I think Alexander has captured that."

Stuart says he'll probably keep writing about Florida for foreign publications. But a sore spot has appeared, a paradox that besets all those lingering too long under the palms. "One of the problems I have now, actually, is I know Florida and America well enough that I don't necessarily notice immediately the things they want me to pick up on and write about," he says. "It's harder for me now. Friends come from Europe and comment on things, and I realize they don't even seem strange to me any more. Have I gone native? I think there's an element of that.

"Someone recently asked me: Why are you here, if you're not going out to clubs any more? I thought about it but I'm not sure I know the answer. I'll be lying in the grass sometimes listening to Mozart or jungle music or whatever, and I could be anywhere, but I like being here. Even I don't know why. More than anything else, I love the beach. If I'm feeling sort of tense or depressed or whatever, all I have to do is get on my bike, I usually go get a cafe con leche at this little place on Eleventh Street and go down to the beach. That's it. It really chills me out. I take a book sometimes and sit on the wall and read. It's like sanity. I like all the distractions, the music from the cafes across the street, the Rollerbladers. Then sometimes there aren't any distractions. If you go there when it's raining it's also really beautiful. I love swimming in the sea and seeing pelicans fly over."

The sculptor Mark Handforth, one of Stuart's few English friends in Miami, adds: "To me Miami seemed like the most random place I could possibly go after London. I got a thrill telling my friends that I was coming here. By virtue of being so far away from culture with a capital C, it opens up a world of opportunity. Alexander wanted to get a breath of fresh air. You can do that here and no one's going to stop you. That's part of what his book's about.

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