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.


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.


“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.


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

KWLS - Afternoon Group--11

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.


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

KWLS- OatesSantlofer--2

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

KWLS - Afternoon Group--17

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.

KWLS - Afternoon Group--16

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.


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

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.


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


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


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


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.


The Dark Side of Key West

01/09/2014  by Nancy Klingener  1 Comment
    Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel with Dr. DePoo and attorney Louis Harris. From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook, Monroe County Public Library.

Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel with Dr. DePoo and attorney Louis Harris. From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook, Monroe County Public Library.

Key West, which sells itself as a sunny resort, is taking a detour into the Dark Side. Over the next two weekends, the Key West Literary Seminar will examine mystery, crime, and the literary thriller with a line-up that includes Gillian Flynn, Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Scott Turow, Alexander McCall Smith and many more. Both sessions are sold out, but on the next two Sundays there are programs that are free and open to the public.

As the enthusiastic registration for this year’s Seminar shows, readers have a strong fascination and—odd as it is—fondness for stories about murder and violence and deception. Those topics are as old as human history and certainly of literature—according to the book of Genesis it only took two generations of humans before murder entered the picture and it was a fratricide at that. The myths of every culture are full of violence and drama, as full of those elements as our own history, the pages of our daily newspaper, and the popular entertainments that occupy our film and television screens. Not to mention, of course, our reading. These books are often described as mysteries, and that may mean a puzzle to be solved, a perpetrator to be caught. But a mystery can also be a much bigger question, almost a spiritual question about the search for motive and meaning in human life, as expressed through our actions and their occasionally catastrophic consequences. As much as we might wish otherwise in our more enlightened moments and insulate ourselves in our daily lives, this interest in the dark side seems to be in our DNA. We are, on a fundamental level, fascinated with transgression.

Key West seems like a particularly appropriate setting for this exploration. This small but legendary island has has been the setting for so many stories from Don Balasco of Key West in 1896 to Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey, published last year. In between we had Hemingway and his tales of desperation and violence in To Have and Have Not, his only novel set in the U.S. We had Thomas McGuane creating homicidal fishing guides in 92 in the Shade. We even had some real-life episodes that would defy belief, even in a Hiaasen novel—like the German émigré radiologist in the 1930s who fell desperately in love with a tubercular young Cuban girl—so desperate that after she died he stole her body from the crypt and kept it in his homemade plane fuselage on the beach. He gave himself the title of Count Von Cosel and played organ music for his love, whom he was convinced awoke, spoke to him and would fly with him to the moon. When her semi-preserved body was discovered—SEVEN YEARS LATER—Key Westers were shocked—but made sure to put the waxy remains on display at the funeral home for a public wake that everyone in town attended. Including the kids. Von Cosel didn’t even face criminal charges—the statute of limitations on grave robbing had expired and they couldn’t figure out anything else to charge him with. This tale is an extreme example of the ethos that gives our island its refreshingly non-judgmental attitude—an attitude that lets things get far enough out of hand that historically the feds have had to descend once a decade or so to issue some indictments and restore some semblance of respect for outside authority. It can be disconcerting, certainly, but it’s also kind of fun to live in a place that elects the local strip-club owner to the city commission and celebrates one local guy’s elaborate Christmas display made entirely out of vodka bottles.   The most popular website in town has to be the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office arrest log, which features mugshots, charges, and an entertaining array of occupations. In the last month, that page received more than nine hundred and fifty thousand hits—and this is a county with fewer than eighty thousand residents. As one friend of mine told me about Key West, “we don’t care what you do. We just want to know about it.”

    Count von Cosel's laboratory near the end of Flagler Avenue C 1940. From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook, Monroe County Public Library.

Count von Cosel’s laboratory near the end of Flagler Avenue C 1940. From the DeWolfe and Wood Collection in the Otto Hirzel Scrapbook, Monroe County Public Library.

Nancy Klingener is secretary of the Key West Literary Seminar and works at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West. She reviews books for the Miami Herald, and contributes the “Letter From Key West” to WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station.

Darkness rushing in …

01/07/2014  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Artwork by Jonathan Santlofer adorns this year's poster and program book. This one, "Out of the Past," is from a series of drawings of scenes from classic film noir.

This year’s poster and program book features the artwork of Jonathan Santlofer. This image, “Out of the Past,” comes from a series of drawings of scenes from classic film noir. Click for full-size version.

Last-minute preparations are underway for Chapter One of The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime, and the Literary Thriller. It all kicks off at the historic San Carlos Institute on Thursday night with Sara Paretsky’s keynote address, “My Quest for Heroes: Voice and Voicelessness.”

The full schedule of events is here. All ticketed sessions this weekend and next are completely sold out, but admission is available on a first-come, first-seated basis to the free public sessions this Sunday, January 12, and next Sunday, January 19.  Click here for the schedule of free events.

We’ll be posting photos and commentary throughout the weekend right here on Littoral, with guest posts from Cara Cannella and Nick Vagnoni and photographs 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.


When Faced with Impossible Options:
a conversation with Lyndsay Faye

01/06/2014  by Nancy Klingener  Comment on this Post
Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.

Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.

Lyndsay Faye is the author of three inventive, intriguing, and carefully researched novels that interweave fiction, the historical record, and popular culture. Her debut novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson is a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, and follows his attempt to solve the real-life killings of Jack the Ripper. In The Gods of Gotham and its sequel Seven for a Secret, Faye tracks the development of the New York City Police Department in the 1840s through the eyes of bartender-turned-lawman Timothy Wilde.

This interview with KWLS board member Nancy Klingener took place over email during the past few months. In it, Faye and Klingener discuss the parallels between acting and writing, the joys and sufferings of historical research, and the appeal of characters both fictional and real. Along the way they rank love over crime, adventure over mystery, and we learn a few secrets of Faye’s forthcoming novel, the third and—spoiler alert—final installment of the Timothy Wilde series. (Editor)


Nancy Klingener: I guess I’ll start out by asking how you came to writing, generally, and writing crime fiction specifically. You started out as an actress, right? There are obvious similarities in the work—you’re dealing with words and portraying characters, many of them fictional. Do you find them to be similar jobs? How do they differ?

Lyndsay Faye: Interesting question. Well, as is the case universally, I came to reading before anything else. It’s impossible to come to writing without owning a deep admiration for some story or other, and I was bullying my little brother into staged plays I’d written when we were quite young—dressing him in khakis and gluing cotton balls to his chest and declaring him Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that sort of thing. My parents were big into reading to us, big into storytelling. I’m very lucky I grew up in that environment. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t around tales of high adventure.
    Being trained as an actress was extremely useful to me as a novelist, and on a macroscopic level they’re exceedingly similar while on the microscopic level they’re as different as creatively possible. In the broad scope, skills I learned—mimicry, attention to detail, a feel for dialogue, sense of dramatic tension, importance of mood, the value of making specific and detailed choices, how crucial it is to create the strongest emotional dilemmas possible for your characters, I could go on all day really, all that’s quite similar. Conversely, on a small scale, theater is a collaborative process. It’s all about interaction. When I’m sitting at my laptop, it’s just me and the nutters in my head. Not to de-emphasize the roles of my agent or editor at all, but the manuscript, that’s all on me, baby. It’s extremely solitary, especially by comparison.

NK: How did you move from acting to writing? Had you been writing all along or did you make a decision to focus on writing instead of performance?

What I want to explore are the choices people make when faced with impossible options. Their hearts are going in one direction, their responsibilities in quite another, the odds against them extreme. So now what do they do? How do they mess everything up, how do they take the high road, how do they stand in their own way?


LF: None of this was planned. My career is perennially a surprise when I wake up in the morning. I hadn’t been writing at all—auditioning in New York City is simply very, very difficult. I wasn’t smart enough to create my own work, to do showcases or write cabaret acts for myself. I just kept marching into hallways where there were dozens of me. After a while, I felt as if I lacked autonomy over my career entirely. Of course, I’m still proud of how far I made it, still pay my Actor’s Equity dues every six months. But I didn’t have the drive—I can still be happy without being on stage, telling tales in another way, and some folks can’t.
    There wasn’t any conscious decision to focus on writing either, certainly never ever ever as a career. My first novel is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it was an unabashedly dark rip-roaring fanfiction pitting him against Jack the Ripper with scads of the true-crime elements incorporated. I thought maybe a Sherlockian small press might pick it up, or lacking that avenue I could publish it as an e-book for my own gratification. No one was more shocked than myself when I found a talented agent and was published by Simon and Schuster. And I mean no one.

NK: I want to get back to Sherlock and Dust & Shadow but first I’d like to ask about your own creation, Timothy Wilde, the protagonist in your most recent two books The Gods of Gotham and Seven For A Secret—and I hope many more in the future. Where did Timothy come from, and did you start with him, or the setting, or perhaps with George Washington Matsell, who really was New York’s first police commissioner and who appears as a character in those two novels?

LF: Thank you! Timothy came from an abstract concept, which was day one, cop one of the New York Police Department. It’s such an infamous law enforcement body, known the world over, and I simply wanted to see what this group of ragtag men looked like who were meant to defend the populace, but before they had any notion of what they were doing. I wanted the first day of school, not Civil War-Era or Roosevelt reform. Michael Chabon says we write fiction to fill in the gaps in the map a la Heart of Darkness, and I think that’s entirely true—I’d read fantastic books about the NYPD during other time periods, but never about their mythical beginnings. Beginnings are powerful stuff. So research into the world of 1845 New York all began with my wanting to know the NYPD’s origins. If the force had been founded in 1826 or in 1852, The Gods of Gotham would have had a different plot line, and it would have taken place in 1826 or 1852.
    The rest of Tim came out of a combination of research and personal experience, as I think any historical character does. I write fairly unabashed hero stories, so I needed Timothy to be his own moral compass—that meant he wasn’t a Tammany insider, and thus needed an older sibling to get him on the copper-star force, who were entirely complicit with the Democratic Party’s agenda. That also meant he resembled some of the contemporary radical abolitionists I researched. Every investigator is indebted to Sherlock Holmes, so to draw a strong line between them, Tim wears his heart on his sleeve and finds his own police work much less competent than it actually is. He’s sympathetic and self-deprecating. I needed him to be observant, and I worked in restaurants for years, so he’s a former bartender. I borrowed his face from a musical theatre friend. He hates city fountains that don’t work because I hate fountains that don’t work. He’s passionately verbose because he’s a 19th-century diarist and I’ll never be able to get away with this sort of language again, so I’m wallowing in it.
    You mention Matsell, whom I adore, and who really was a fascinating human. During his time, he was thought everything from a Tammany bully to a liberal reformer. He was both, of course, but he did the unthinkable—he actually created a competent standing police force. It was unprecedented. Every other effort had failed miserably.

I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page


NK: When you researched that time period, was that when you learned about the stresses that Irish immigration was placing on America in general and New York City in particular? How did that issue come to drive the plot of The Gods of Gotham? Also, how did you conduct the research—was it going to the library and looking at microfilms of old newspapers? Reading books? Digging up other kinds of primary sources? Did you read novels and plays of that period? Or listen to music? And how did you resist going down the research rabbit hole? It can be so seductive, to just follow one more thread, check on one more connection or look for one more account of a person, event, place, or time.

LF: Yes, when I discovered that the Great Irish Famine landed the same year the NYPD was founded, my mind was blown. Here was a cataclysm begging to be novelized, and one I’d not seen approached from the police department’s perspective before. The Gods of Gotham quickly became a book that encompassed Catholic persecution, civil unrest and economic disparity, fighting for religious freedom in the land of the free. Unfortunately, the topic is still quite relevant—most of the truly hostile arguments against Mexican and Muslim Americans are couched in perfectly interchangeable phrases to those lobbed at the Papists. Modern day scrapping and partisan politics lend my books some immediacy, I hope, because we have a lot to learn from past mistakes.
    My research period lasts for six months and is altogether omnivorous, though I vastly prefer primary sources once I have a grasp of the general situation. Old police documents, diaries, plays, travel guides, menus, housekeeping tomes, obviously Matsell’s slang dictionary Vocabulum, Or the Rogue’s Lexicon. I read the Herald newspaper on microfilm pretty much back to front for whatever year I’m covering, which gives me current events, editorials, economics, anecdotes, politics, satire, and advertisements all at once. I probably wouldn’t be writing about New York if I didn’t live here, but the richness of resources I have at my disposal between the Bryant Park Research Library, the New York Historical Society, the smaller museums—I’m like Scrooge McDuck in a swimming pool full of gold.
    That being said, falling down the research rabbit hole isn’t an issue for me at all. I have plenty of other issues, but after six months in a microfilm department, I’m desperately tired of it and my fingers are itchy to tell stories. Besides that, I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page. He’s interested in the street life of New Yorkers and how they treat each other and manage to survive. So that’s what he sees.

NK: When I read “The Gods of Gotham,” I was so struck by the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter—quotations from various publications of Protestants deploring the Irish Catholic immigration in shockingly blunt language. I suspected they were authentic but they sounded almost too emblematic to be real. How did you decide to start using those and did you collect them along the way or go back and hunt them down when you were writing the novel?

LF: Yes, those are all absolutely word-for-word real. I actually recorded them as I discovered them because I couldn’t believe the contents myself. I don’t want to convey the impression that I write social justice novels, I don’t even really write crime novels exactly, I write novels about love and heroism and revenge and self-sacrifice, but certainly politics and prejudice play major roles, and those quotes under each chapter title seemed essential to me.
    See, I can easily do the research and write a semi-fictional character who says, for example, “All the persecutions which the true church has suffered from Pagans, Jews, and all the world beside are nothing compared with what it has endured from that unrelenting murderer of men, the Pope.” And people will read that and say, all right, that’s certainly a narrow view, but the author is surely exaggerating for dramatic effect. But if I quote that passage from a speech made by the Orange Country Reformation Society in 1843, and they actually did say that—which they did—the reader automatically understands that these opinions, while grotesquely extreme, did exist. And what’s nuts is I have buckets of these quotes in reserve. Narrowing down the pithiest is much harder than finding them.

NK: What do you mean you don’t write crime novels? Or social justice novels, since issues of social justice figure so largely in the plots of the Timothy Wilde stories? Do you see yourself as fitting within a tradition/genre, or blending such, or doing your own thing entirely?

I would ask anyone who thinks of crime fiction as a guilty pleasure to identify another genre that cracks open the human condition so thoroughly, read Crime and Punishment, and fly your crime-reader flag high. Fantasy novels get thrown in the same basket, but point at another novel that explores loyalty and self-sacrifice more thoroughly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re not meant to limit ourselves when it comes to the human imagination.


LF: What I mean is that there are some crime novels—brilliant ones, ones I devour like Thai spiced potato chips—in which the crime is the star of the show. These books, I can’t help but surmise, are written by people who are far cleverer than I am. Take for example Agatha Christie’s tour-de-force The. A. B. C. Murders. Now, when I picked that book up as a teen, it mesmerized me. I could never have written it myself. A serial killer by all appearances is offing people whose first and last names each begin with the same letter as the name of the town they live in, as I recall. Simple enough premise, but my god. The points of view shift enough to keep T. S. Eliot happy, the writing is sublime, the characterization pinpoint-exact. When I reached the solution after practically snapping the book’s spine, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the clues and of the plotting. (more…)

2014 Seminar now full; Announcing 2015

12/17/2013  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

The 33rd annual Key West Literary Seminar will take place January 8-11, 2015.

Less than one month before the opening of the 32nd annual Seminar, both sessions of “The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime, and the Literary Thriller” are now completely sold out. The response to this year’s lineup has been overwhelming; we are thrilled by the support. If you’ve waited until now to register, you can still sign up for the waitlist.

As one door closes, another opens, and we are excited to announce the theme for our 33rd annual seminar, to take place January 8-11, 2015. “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit” will explore literature’s relationship to the inexplicable. “Our hope,” writes program co-chair Pico Iyer, “is to talk about essentials—what lasts and what is at the heart of us—through poetry, essay, fiction, and even silence; to push words as far as they can go and then to respect what remains when they give out.”

Confirmed speakers for 2015 include A. Manette Ansay, Coleman Barks, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, Marilyn Nelson, Robert Richardson, Marilynne Robinson, and Steve Stern.

Register now for “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit.”

KWLS @ the Miami Book Fair

11/21/2013  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Cargo sloop, Key West, 1900. Monroe County Public Library Collection.

We’re loading the boat and setting sail for the metropolis to the north, where the 30th annual Miami Book Fair International takes place this weekend.

Visit us in Section B of the street fair (NE 2nd Ave. between 3rd and 4th) to learn more about this year’s seminar and get our tips for navigating the amazing embarrassment-of-riches MBFI schedule of events. We’re looking forward to reuniting with some of our favorite KWLS veterans, including Junot Díaz, Sharon Olds, Dave Barry, Patricia Engel, Geoff Dyer, Robert Pinsky, Brenda Wineapple, Amy Tan, and Paul Auster, as well as Key West friend and neighbor Meg Cabot and “The Dark Side” panelist James W. Hall.

On Sunday at 2:30, be sure to catch our own Arlo Haskell as he interviews Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo in the Auditorium (Bldg. 1, 2nd Floor).

See you in Miami!

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