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John Banville & Benjamin Black: ‘Two Hats’

01/19/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
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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:

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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.”

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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
 
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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.


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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.

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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…)

Shop Talk with Reporters-Turned-Novelists

01/12/2014  by Cara Cannella  Comment on this Post
 
Once We Were Journalists: Truth & Fiction. John Katzenbach, Laura Lippman, and John Sandford. Photo by Ian Rowan.

Once We Were Journalists: Truth & Fiction. John Katzenbach, Laura Lippman, and John Sandford. Photo by Ian Rowan.

Any reporter worth his or her salt knows the value of a strong quote. The flavor of a source’s voice, expressed accurately and with nuance, can be the key that makes a story come alive. In the colorful KWLS conversation “Once We Were Journalists: Truth & Fiction,” John Katzenbach, Laura Lippman, and John Sandford came together on Saturday afternoon to reflect on the career path that led to their current work as novelists.

John Katzenbach, once a reporter for the Miami News and the Miami Herald, has written twelve novels, along with First Born, a nonfiction true crime book. Laura Lippman, the author of eighteen novels, wrote her first seven in a series about Tess Monaghan, a Baltimore reporter-turned-private eye, while working full-time as a Baltimore Sun reporter. “John Sandford,” a pseudonym for John Roswell Camp, who won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, is the author of more than thirty books, including the detective novels Prey and Virgil Flowers.

Here are excerpts from their talk, in their own words. If they prompt you to analyze, to criticize, to comment—to engage you to the extent that you form your own opinion—then their work here as journalists is done.

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“I wasn’t meant to be a reporter…My journalistic instincts were mediocre at best. I had been raised by Southern parents who taught me, ‘Don’t ask people how old they are. Don’t ask people how much money they make.’…I just wanted to be off by myself writing my own stories. But as a result, no one has more respect for journalism than someone like myself, who knows what it takes to be good at it.” (more…)

You can’t make this stuff up

01/11/2014  by Nick Vagnoni  2 Comments
 
Carl Hiaasen delivers "The Florida Freak Show" at the John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event. Photo by Nick Doll.

Carl Hiaasen delivers “The Florida Freak Show” at the John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event. Photo by Nick Doll.

Long before the Internet had Florida Man to catalog the misdeeds of men and women in the Sunshine State, there was Carl Hiaasen. At last night’s John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event, entitled “The Florida Freak Show,” Hiaasen gave us a hilarious retelling of some of the news stories that serve as both blessing and curse for fiction writers trying to draw inspiration from their surroundings. Any writer, and especially anyone writing about crime, has “an embarrassment of riches,” here in Florida, Hiaasen said. At the same time, he pointed out, one must try to strike a balance between the outlandish and the plausible. Here in Florida, our news tends toward the outlandish, and as Hiaasen explained, it’s difficult to write stories that don’t eventually come true. And, should they come true, most fiction readers, let alone editors and publishers, would find most of our stories too strange for a work of fiction.

Hiaasen then launched into a list of Florida news stories, both recent and now-legendary, to illustrate his point, beginning with the disappearance of Key West Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto—“a character no one could have created.”

More recently, there was the Broward woman (formerly a Broward man), arrested last year for doing unlicensed cosmetic surgery in people’s homes by injecting her clients’ rear ends with a mixture of Fix-A-Flat and rubber cement. “Creative as it might be,” Hiaasen wondered, “how do you put that in a novel?”

And then there was the story of a Miami-Dade man whose neighbors, suspicious that something strange was going in the man’s trailer, put in a call to the local game warden (not the police, Hiaasen noted). When the authorities arrived, they found the man bloody and pocked with bite marks, and two alligators beneath the sheets of his bed. The reptiles were removed for their own protection, but their former bed-mate then hired a lawyer to try (in vain) to get them back. (more…)

Day Two of Chapter One: The Dark Side

01/11/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
Scott Turow: "Writers write. They don't sit in barrooms with other writers, they don't talk about what they're going to write. They write." Photo by Nick Doll.

Scott Turow: “Writers write. They don’t sit in barrooms with other writers, they don’t talk about what they’re going to write. They write.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Gillian Flynn: “Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Attica Locke: “Books teach us how to say goodbye. You learn to love these people and let them go, and you also flex the muscle that’s accepting of contradiction. You get a sense that, in life, we’re not always going to get the right answers or experience a sense of justice. It grows us up.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Dare Me author Megan Abbott poses a question from the audience to Gillian Flynn. Photo by Nick Doll.

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Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Santlofer on Literature, Shadows, and the Dark Side of Life. Photo by Nick Doll.

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Joseph Kanon: “What really interests me are those decisions where there isn’t one right thing to do. Maybe there are only bad choices.” Photo by Nick Doll.

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Stephen L. Carter is a law professor at Yale, and his most recent book is The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. He was joined by Attica Locke and Joseph Kanon in conversation about The Moral Impulse in a Shadowy World. Photo by Nick Doll.


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Sara Paretsky’s Keynote Quest for Heroes

01/10/2014  by Cara Cannella  2 Comments
 
Keynote speaker Sara Paretsky, whose address was entitled "My Quest for Heroes-Voice and Voicelessness." Photo by Nick Doll.

Keynote speaker Sara Paretsky, whose address was entitled “My Quest for Heroes-Voice and Voicelessness.” Photo by Nick Doll.

People often ask writer Sara Paretsky if V. I. Warshawski, the female detective at the center of her #1 New York Times  bestselling mystery series, is her alter ego.

Despite clear similarities between the two (both like to run and drink a good whiskey, live in Chicago, and work stubbornly in pursuit of truth), last night Paretsky told a rapt audience gathered for the thirty-second annual Key West Literary Seminar: “She is not. She’s my voice. She says things I’m not strong enough to say myself.”

Following opening remarks by KWLS president and co-founder Lynn Kaufelt and San Carlos Institute president Rafael Peñalver, Paretsky began this year’s exploration of “The Dark Side” by weaving together contemporary social and political issues as they relate to mystery and crime in her John Hersey Memorial keynote speech, “My Quest for Heroes: Voice and Voicelessness.”

Setting the KWLS stage for this year’s insights by authors including John Banville, Lee Child, Gillian Flynn, Joyce Carol Oates, and Alexander McCall Smith, Paretsky linked the experience of writers continually trying to cut closer to the bone along their journeys from silence to authentic speech. She also answered her own question “What is the role of the writer?” by warning of the dangers of self-censorship amid government surveillance.

More than ever in an age of increased distraction by digital devices and the diminishment of libraries and other reliable sources of information, it’s essential that we strengthen the ability to sort truth—“that slippery, unknowable trickster,” in Paretsky’s words—from lies. Fiction can tell us essential truths—“emotional lodestars that help develop your own moral compass”—about what we fear, what we want, and what we need. (more…)

Images from Opening Night of The Dark Side

01/10/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
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The podium awaits keynote speaker Sara Paretsky, whose address was entitled “My Quest for Heroes: Voice and Voicelessness.” Set design by Cayman Smith-Martin. All photos by Nick Doll.

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The main auditorium of the historic San Carlos Institute as viewed from the balcony. Opening night brought a capacity crowd of avid readers.

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A crowded house awaits the introduction by KWLS president Lynn Kaufelt and San Carlos presifent Rafael Peñalver.

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Sara Paretsky takes the stage and the 32nd annual Key West Literary Seminar is underway.

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The opening-night party at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum featured classic Cuban daquiris served beside the swimming pool where the great novelist once swam.


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