Early Key West Account Found in Charleston

07/22/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
David Henry Mordecai, 1849 ey West travel diary

Page three of David Henry Mordecai’s 1849 travel diary, including his sketch of “a cocoanut tree.” From the Lowcountry Digital Library of the College of Charleston. (Click for the complete digitized version.)

One of the earliest known travelogues of the Florida Keys and Key West has been uncovered in South Carolina at the College of Charleston. It establishes, among other things, that Key West’s reputation for drunkenness and questionable behavior has done nothing to dissuade talented writers from visiting the place for 165 years.

The 1849 account is contained within the pages of a diary written by a fifteen-year-old boy named David Henry Mordecai. He was the son of Moses Cohen Mordecai, a prominent South Carolina businessman and politician whose shipping company held a contract to supply Key West with delivery of the United States Mail. Prior to the Civil War, Mordecai’s “Isabel,” a three-masted paddle steamer, represented a vital connection between Key West and the outside world, providing twice-monthly mail, cargo, and passenger service to Charleston and Havana.

Donated to the College of Charleston as part of the Thomas J. Tobias Papers in 1994 and added to their Lowcountry Digital Library in 2010, young David’s handwritten document transmits an impressive breadth of sense-impressions and acute observation. And though the section devoted to the Keys is just four pages long, its detail makes it one of the important documents of Key West’s early history.

As the diary begins, Mordecai describes his surprise at sailing through the wild and fecund waters of the Florida Straits, while acknowledging the armed conflict then underway between the U.S. government and Florida’s native population:

     About noon we passed a part of the gulf stream, this is a great natural curiosity for it is a current running north I believe about 60 miles broad and its waters are of a different color than the ocean and they do not mingle with it. I am ignorant of the cause. In the stream we saw turtles, sharks, flying fish & some dolphins. During all this day we sailed along the Florida Coast and passed two keys belonging to Father one called Indian Key and the other Salt Key. Indian Key has some houses of fishermen upon it. We also passed Cape Florida and the place where stood the light house in which the keeper was smoked by the Indians in the Seminole War.

Upon arriving in Key West, Mordecai conducts a survey of the island and its natural and man-made features:

     About 7:00 we arrived at Key West an island and a safe place for vessels in distress. It contains about 3,000 inhabitants. We walked about the place and here I first saw a cocoanut tree. It is beautiful from 50 – 60 – 70 feet high and no leaves except at the top… All the tropical fruits grow in Key West except the Orange which does not thrive on account of the Salt air. The houses are some wood and some stone all with piazzas and no chimneys except in some kitchens or placed for ornament for they never need fires there.

Finally, Mordecai turns to the inhabitants, describing the human character of the frontier island, whose remoteness from the rest of the world his father’s shipping company had just begun to lessen:

     We strolled along the different places and found in almost every place men as drunk as they could be. The population is composed of but few really respectable persons, a great many wreckers, sailors and negroes who when they get a chance generally take more than their fill in intoxicating drinks.

Mordecai left for Cuba the next day and filled the remaining 150 pages of his diary with vivid and arresting descriptions whose sound composition belies his young age. The precocious youth would soon go off to Harvard, where he presumably met some “really respectable persons,” and travel widely throughout Europe and North Africa. He died, tragically, at 25.

Mordecai & Co.'s three-masted paddle steamer, the "Isabel," provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War.

Mordecai & Co.’s three-masted paddle steamer, the “Isabel,” provided mail service to Key West during the years before the Civil War. From the Monroe County Public Library in Key West.

Bookleggers Library comes to Key West

05/20/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 

Bookleggers
One of our favorite Miami literary upstarts is finally coming to Key West, for a not-to-be-missed event this Saturday from 3:00-8:00 at the Green Parrot Bar.

Bookleggers Library is a community mobile library founded two years ago with a mission to provide the South Florida reading public with access to free books. Through partnerships with public, private, and academic libraries as well as private book collectors, Bookleggers identifies desirable deaccessioned titles and gives them to readers at no charge in environments that recreate the spontaneity and surprise of a great book. Their one-night-only giveaways have been established in galleries, bars, museums, schools, and wide-open spaces from Miami Beach to the Everglades, exchanging thousands of books with thousands of people.

Now, finally, Bookleggers comes to Key West and the Green Parrot Bar, with the support of the Florida Keys Community College Library. “Here’s how it works,” says free-book impresario and Bookleggers founder Nathaniel Sandler. “Everyone gets one free book. More books are available for trade or for a small donation. Come out for a book, a beer, and a laugh!”

Bookleggers will be posting up on the porch in front Green Parrot Package Goods and Spirits at 609 Whitehead Street on Saturday, May 24th from 3:00-8:00 PM. Follow @bookleggers on Twitter for more info.

David A. Kaufelt, 1939-2014

05/11/2014  by Arlo Haskell  34 Comments
 
David Kaufelt

David A. Kaufelt, 1939-2014.

David A. Kaufelt, a novelist who founded the Key West Literary Seminar and did more to establish the island city as a fixture in the national literary consciousness than anyone since Ernest Hemingway, died this weekend at his Flagler Street home. He was 74.

He arrived in Key West from New York in 1974, fresh off the success of his debut novel, Six Months with an Older Woman, which was soon adapted into a made-for-TV movie starring John Ritter. Here, Kaufelt and his wife Lynn fell in with a community of distinguished writers that included poet James Merrill, journalist John Hersey, novelist Thomas McGuane, and playwright Tennessee Williams.

Kaufelt’s idea for the Key West Literary Seminar grew out of a disappointing meeting in New York, where he and literary agent Dick Duane had failed to persuade a group of publishers to send top writers south for a lecture series organized by the Council for Florida Libraries. New York publishers were convinced, said Kaufelt, that no one in Florida cared about books.

“I said we have so many writers of so many persuasions in Key West, we could have our own literary festival,” Kaufelt later recalled. And within a few years, that’s what he did, creating the event that, more than thirty years later, continues to present some of the most acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world to standing-room-only audiences.

While serving as president of the KWLS board of directors, Kaufelt continued to work as a novelist, producing books including American Tropic (1986), a historical-fiction account of Florida’s development, and the series of murder mysteries featuring lawyer-cum-detective Wyn Lewis, among them The Fat Boy Murders (1993).

Kaufelt also created and led a beloved literary walking tour, whose popularity owed as much to the intimate view it provided of the homes of Key West writers as it did to the dapper enthusiasm and infectious charm of its guide. “A lot of tourists come to Key West and they only see Duval Street or the Pier House,” Kaufelt said of his inspiration for the guided tour. “I wanted them to see what Key West really looks like.”

National Public Radio sent a reporter to Key West in 1990 to profile the walking tour. On the recording, which is available in its entirety in our audio archives, Kaufelt explains what attracted him and other writers to the island where he had made his home:

“I have a theory why we all live here—it’s called the Peter Pan theory. Freud said that we are at our most creative when we are in our very early youth, before we’re five years old. That’s where we are here. We wear shorts, we ride bicycles, we have the water, a great symbol of the unconscious, and we’re free to be children here and let our spirits go. There’s nobody in suits and ties telling us what we have to do.”

Kaufelt is survived by his wife, Lynn Kaufelt, and by their son, Jackson Kaufelt. A memorial service will be announced.

Listen: David A. Kaufelt’s Peter Pan Theory (excerpt)

Play

Click here for full audio.

NEA Grant to Support Digitization Project

04/23/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 

nea

We are excited to announce that the Key West Literary Seminar has been chosen as one of 886 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Art Works grants support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and enhancement of the livability of communities through the arts.  The NEA received 1,515 eligible applications under the Art Works category, requesting more than $76 million in funding. Of those applications, 886 are recommended for grants for a total of $25.8 million.

The $10,000 award from the NEA will allow us to complete the digitization of archival audio recordings created at seminars during the 1980s and 1990s. These include presentations by Annie Dillard, Elmore Leonard, Barbara Ehrenreich, Joseph Heller, Tony Kushner, Jamaica Kincaid, and Robert Stone. Digitization is a crucial component of our Audio Archives Project, which produces unique presentations by some of the world’s most influential writers for use by educators, students, and readers worldwide. The project began in 2007 and received a major boost in 2009 with funding from the Florida State Department’s Division of Cultural Affairs. We are honored to have the support of the National Endowment for the Arts as we embark on the final push to preserve these important recordings.

The Real Lives of Writers

01/19/2014  by Cara Cannella  Comment on this Post
 
Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Alafair Burke, and Michael Koryta. Photo by Nick Doll.

Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Alafair Burke, and Michael Koryta. Photo by Nick Doll.

Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, and Michael Koryta came together yesterday afternoon to share behind-the-scenes revelations and anecdotes in “Real Life: What did you make out of yours?” Even the self-proclaimed introverts onstage opened up bravely to let curious KWLS attendees in on the magic and the mundane in their creative lives, and what they would do if they weren’t writers. In this peek under the kimono, we experienced the same satisfied delight found in reading the Paris Review interviews series (George Plimpton’s exchange with poet Billy Collins is among our favorites). In its intimacy and humor, the candid conversation among these fascinating writers captured so much of what makes KWLS unique.

Tess Gerritsen and Michael Connelly. Photo by Nick Doll.

Tess Gerritsen and Michael Connelly. Photo by Nick Doll.

Tess Gerritsen

Alternate career: Botanist

On being the only Chinese kid in her childhood town: “My father said, they’re never going to accept you, so you have to be better than they are.”

On writing as a passport to amazing experiences—like viewing a hospital CT scan of an Egyptian mummy as research for one of her books: “It took months to arrange because the hospital attorney cited the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The museum said, ‘We’re the parents,’ and signed the form.” (more…)

John Banville & Benjamin Black: ‘Two Hats’

01/19/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
KWLS_Banville_Black-4837

James Gleick and John Banville, a.k.a. Benjamin Black.

Friday evening’s John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event, entitled “Two Hats,” was coyly presented in the KWLS program as a “conversation” between John Banville and Benjamin Black, moderated by James Gleick. As Gleick noted after taking the stage, the audience would be forgiven for expecting three chairs where there were only two. It turns out, of course, that Banville—Booker Prize-winning author of The Sea, regular book reviewer for the New York Review of Books, and perennial favorite for the Nobel prize—is one and the same with Black, whose series of crime novels set in 1950s Dublin feature Quirke, a charismatic loner and the chief pathologist in the city morgue.

Gleick embraced the conceit of Banville’s dual literary identity as the interview proceeded. How would Banville, the noted reviewer of Kafka, Rilke, and Vargas Llosa, assess the works of Benjamin Black? What does Black, a quick-working craftsman who has authored eight novels, think of the famously painstaking John Banville? And where, if at all, do the two dissimilar writers meet?

The full conversation will soon be available in our audio archives. In the meantime, a few highlights from the event in image and word:

KWLS_Banville_Black-4846

John Banville on the novels of his alter-ego, Benjamin Black: “It’s a different way of working. It’s craftsmanship. I like to think of it as a beautifully polished table that you can use but also admire.”

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John Banville: “A sentence can always be better. That’s the point of art. You keep striving to make it better, to get the perfect ringing sentence.”

(more…)

The Beauty and Grace of Language and Plot in Crime Fiction

01/18/2014  by Nick Vagnoni  Comment on this Post
 
Mary Morris, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran and John Banville. Photo by Nick Doll.

Mary Morris, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran and John Banville. Photo by Nick Doll.

On Friday afternoon John Banville, Thomas H. Cook, Elizabeth George, Sara Gran, and Mary Morris had a wide-ranging conversation entitled “The Beauty and Grace of Language and Plot in Crime Fiction.” Morris, who moderated the panel, opened with a quote from W.H. Auden, in which the poet describes the work of Raymond Chandler not as a writer of “escape literature,” but as an artist. A conversation about this distinction ensued, and John Banville made the point that any kind of writing could be beautiful, citing as an example the beautifully written instruction manual for his first dishwasher. Sara Gran added that a text need not even be particularly intelligible to the reader in order to be powerful, citing her formative experiences reading Jacques Lacan. Thomas H. Cook spoke of his early reading experiences with Stevenson’s Book of Quotations, and how that, combined with his readings of Dickens and Shakespeare in the Alabama public schools, gave him the desire for his writing to “say something and be something.”

Morris then posed the question of structure, and whether or not it sometimes got in the way one’s writing. Elizabeth George replied that she always feels as if she’s breaking free from the structure of a plot, but at the same time, it lends a sense of security and the ability to play. She went on to say that at times she feels as if she’s “diving beneath the current of the narrative and letting it pull [her] along.”

The discussion then turned to the idea of imagination, and its relationship to research and realism in fiction, and crime fiction in particular. Gran described her experiences writing police procedurals as “a drag,” because she was often required to keep those procedures true to life. Banville went even further, calling research “the death of fiction.” A story shouldn’t be “weighed down by research,” he said, adding that “imagination is the most powerful weapon, tool, and gift and we should use it as much as we can.” Gran said that one should simply speak with authority, or at least “carry a clipboard.” Elizabeth George said that she actually suffers from a lack of imagination, and needs to do what her editor calls “topographic gumshoeing,” walking around a place she plans to write about in order to really get a good sense of it. Banville added that James Joyce often spoke of a similar lack of imagination, having to draw his inspiration not from his own mind, but from the people around him. (more…)

Word & Image: Final Chapter, Day 1 & 2

01/18/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
KWLS_Keynote_Elizabeth_George--11

Elizabeth George: “I write about the dark to make sense of things. I look for answers to the whys of life in its most extreme moments.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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John Banville, aka Benjamin Black: “There are just good books and books that are not so good. If I had my way, bookstores would be ordered completely alphabetically. There would be no crime section, no literary fiction section.”

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Lee Child: “Something hardwired in the human brain loves fear, danger, and peril, especially when we know it will all work out OK.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Lisa Unger: “Darkness is everywhere if you’re looking for it. And I’m definitely looking for it.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Percival Everett: “Starting to write a novel is like knowingly entering a bad marriage. I try to make myself smarter by writing my novels.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press and New York’s Mysterious Bookshop talked about his “life of crime.” Photo by Nick Doll.


(more…)

Basic Instinct: Lee Child on Story’s Roots

01/17/2014  by Cara Cannella  2 Comments
 
Lee Child. Photo by Nick Doll.

Lee Child. Photo by Nick Doll.

When Lee Child’s daughter was a small child, she loved the appearance of danger, he told a packed house this morning at the San Carlos Institute during his address on the “Prehistoric Roots of Storytelling.” When he threw her up in the air, she would shriek in delight and terror. Ultimately, she knew she was safe, and nothing was more satisfying.

“We love to experience fear, danger, peril as long as we know things will be all right,” he said of the universal hard-wiring that has drawn human beings to suspense stories since the advent of language 200,000 years ago. In his talk of the inborn hunger for thrilling narrative, there were echoes of last night’s keynote address by Elizabeth George to open the “Final Chapter,” the second session of “The Dark Side.”

“I have to write as I have to breathe, eat, and drink,” George said of recognizing the instinct in childhood amid the profound loneliness of her family. “Through storytelling, countless psychological burdens are lifted from me, and I am free.”

In Child’s case, it was freedom from professional routine that propelled him to begin writing suspense stories in earnest in 1995, when at the age of forty, he was laid off from a job in the British television industry. With six dollars’ worth of paper and pencils, he began to write Killing Floor, the first in his now eighteen-book Jack Reacher series with more than a billion dollars in gross sales.

“Because of language we prospered,” he said, zooming back in time to point out that a single homo sapiens is useless, but a like-minded crowd can be the most powerful, dangerous thing in the world. Empowered through communication to kill off the Neanderthals, our species was saved, he explained, exhibiting the “simple, immaculate logic that makes this [Jack Reacher] series utterly addictive,” as described by New York Times book critic Janet Maslin in a 2007 review of his novel Bad Luck and Trouble.

It’s unclear whether the enlarged brains that accompanied our acquisition of language were cause or effect in such a profound, relatively rapid progression in human history, but Child is certain of one thing: “Nothing happened 100,000 years ago unless it had an evolutionary function.”

If you told and heard stories, you had a slightly increased chance of survival, and much of that learned perseverance was based in emotion, he said. The encouraging, empowering, and consoling qualities of storytelling—“A guy was chased by a tiger! He killed the tiger!”—resulted in a more confident and resilient population (and in the instance of Elizabeth George, a more determined child writer).

“There are only two kinds of books. Those that make you miss your stop on the subway, and those that don’t,” Child commented during the Q&A that followed his talk, inducing laughs of recognition from his audience. Those “propulsive, tremendously readable” stories that you’re annoyed to put down? Listen to that elemental urge, and stay with them against all odds, he advises. We survived because of thriller fiction, and he’s happy to be a part of the tradition.

Chapter One Audio Up; Final Chapter Begins

01/16/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
Quiet on the set. For now... Set design by Cayman Smith-Martin. Photography by Nick Doll.

Quiet on the set. For now… Set design by Cayman Smith-Martin. Photography by Nick Doll.

Three standout presentations from Chapter One of the 32nd annual Key West Literary Seminar are now available in our audio archives. In the laugh-out-loud “Florida Freak Show,” bestselling novelist and journalist Carl Hiaasen recounts his favorite Florida news items, including the suspicious disappearance of legendary Key West Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto—“a character no one could have created.” Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, and Laura Lippman team up for “Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True-Crime Movies,” which explores the gender bias that influences how novels and films catering to women are presented in popular culture and perceived by audiences. And in “My Quest for Heroes: Voice and Voicelessness,” groundbreaking mystery writer Sara Paretsky discusses contemporary social and political issues as they relate to mystery and crime fiction.

Audio recordings can be downloaded for free or streamed directly from our audio archives. You can also subscribe to the free KWLS podcast via iTunes.

The final chapter of “The Dark Side” begins tonight at the San Carlos Institute with Elizabeth George’s keynote address and continues through Sunday. Sunday afternoon’s program is free and open to the public.

We’ll have coverage all weekend with posts here by Cara Cannella and Nick Vagnoni and photography by Nick Doll. And we’ll be abuzz and up-to-the-minute on Twitter @KeyWestLiterary as well as on Facebook. Please follow along and chime in, whether you’re here, near, or far.

Crime & Punishment in the Conch Republic

01/16/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 

Despite heavy action this week as we turned from Chapter One to the Final Chapter of The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime, and the Literary Thriller, we found a few quiet moments to troll our favorite fishing hole for highlights of Key West crimes and punishments past. All images courtesy Monroe County Public Library; click through for full-size versions.

A gambling raid on the Rock in Marathon. Wright Langley Collection, Monroe County Public Library.

Weapons, cash, ammunition, and playing cards seized during a gambling raid on the Rock in Marathon. Wright Langley Collection, Monroe County Public Library.


 
A Florida Highway Patrol Officer and his car in Key West C 1950. Monroe County Library Collection.

A Florida Highway Patrol Officer and his car in Key West circa 1950. Monroe County Library Collection.


 
Fire Chief Bum Farto and Capt. Earl Ingraham sitting at the radio desk of the Fire Department in August 1968. Gift Alex Vega, Monroe County Public Library.

Fire Chief Bum Farto and Capt. Earl Ingraham sitting at the radio desk of the Fire Department in August 1968. Gift Alex Vega, Monroe County Public Library. Farto was later charged with drug-related offenses and disappeared under mysterious circumstances.


 
A gambling raid at the Sports Center 513 1/2 Fleming Street C 1960. Wright Langley Collection, Monroe County Public Library.

A gambling raid at the Sports Center, 513 1/2 Fleming Street, circa 1960. Wright Langley Collection, Monroe County Public Library.

(more…)

Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon

01/12/2014  by Nick Vagnoni  Comment on this Post
 
Jonathan Santlofer, Les Standiford, and James W. Hall dissolve the barriers between crime fiction and the literary canon. Photo by Nick Doll.

Jonathan Santlofer, Les Standiford, and James W. Hall dissolve the barriers between crime fiction and the literary canon. Photo by Nick Doll.

On Saturday afternoon, James W. Hall, Les Standiford, and Jonathan Santlofer had a conversation entitled “Crime Fiction and the Literary Canon: Why everyone has forgotten that Crime & Punishment, An American Tragedy, and Lolita are crime fiction.” The three novelists, all professors of creative writing as well, sought to challenge the lines that have been drawn by readers, writers, and publishers between genre fiction, specifically crime fiction, and the literary novel.

“Crime fiction gets consigned to the low road,” Standiford said early in the conversation, while Hall wondered if his work wouldn’t be taken seriously in a university just because it featured a corpse. Santlofer also shared several stories of readers and fellow authors regarding crime fiction as their “guilty pleasures.”

In addition to the novels mentioned in the title of the talk, Standiford pointed out that The Great Gatsby is really a detective story, with the central mystery being the true identity and personality of Gatsby himself. Hall took this further by challenging the audience to find a canonical novel without a crime in it. In any story, Hall said, “something must be knocked out of balance,” whether by crime of passion or some other  transgression.

The discussion then moved to the writer’s perspective. “Plot is the math, the logic,” Standiford said. “It’s the most difficult to master.” Santlofer added that, for an author, writing crime or mystery requires a strong collaboration between left and right brain, with creativity and logic working closely together to create stories that are both detailed and also airtight. All three agreed that genre writers don’t think any less of their sentences, but, Standiford added, it’s really the plot that holds those beautiful sentences in suspension, like a Christmas tree holding up its ornaments. “You could go over to someone’s house,” he said, “and if they had a pile of lights and ornaments sitting the corner, you’d say ‘What the hell is that?’” In some circles, he pointed out, plot might be relegated to a lower life form, but for him and his fellow panelists, it was of the utmost importance. (more…)

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