Brenda Wineapple: Why Biography Matters

01/19/2013  by Laurel Tuohy  Comment on this Post
Brenda Wineapple on "Why Biography Matters."

Brenda Wineapple at KWLS on Friday afternoon.

Brenda Wineapple took the stage yesterday with a cup of Throat Coat tea and the beginning of what sounded like a nasty cold. She apologized to the audience and joked that they would not get to hear her normal voice, which is “quite beautiful.”

Attendees of the Key West Literary Seminar were treated to her insights on the importance of biography. Her stories and references came furiously, from her introduction to the form at her grandmothers’ bedside table (“It was a genre I didn’t understand or much care for”) to her former professors’ naysaying about writing others’ stories. She quoted Emily Dickinson and Geoff Dyer. She defamed biography as an invasion of privacy.

And yet it matters to those who read it and write it. Biography is more than the sum of its parts; more than an “unbearable sequence of happenings” or “dreary resuscitation.” It allows us to perceive the private sides of those in the public eye, and to empathize with them.

In closing, she said, “It’s as hard to write a good life as to live one.”

A Writer’s Life is a Special Life

01/18/2013  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments

Photos by Nick Doll from the morning of Friday January 18, during the second session of the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.

Alexandra Styron discussed her father, William Styron, and recounted the awkward experience of reading the sex scenes at the beginning of his great novel Sophie’s Choice as an elementary school student.

Blake Bailey recounted the troubled lives of writers John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson. On why he has focused on writers with shared histories of alcoholic self-destruction, Bailey acknowledged being driven by the example of his own brother, who hanged himself in jail. “He’s the person I’m most like. I want to get to the bottom of it.” 

Among the morning’s audience were Key West High School English teacher Kerri McLean and 16 seniors enrolled in her Advanced Placement English class.

KWLS board member, famed author, and anti-censorship advocate Judy Blume in the audience at the San Carlos Institute.

Poet and biographer Paul Mariani read a selection from his work.

Tóibín Keynote Discusses Bishop & Gunn

01/18/2013  by Cara Cannella  Comment on this Post
Colm Tóibín delivering the keynote address for Session 2 of "Writers on Writers."

Colm Tóibín delivers the John Hersey Memorial Address to open the final session of “Writers on Writers.”

In Colm Tóibín’s revelatory keynote address to launch Session Two of the thirty-first annual Key West Literary Seminar last night, he shared his experience of reading and identifying with the works of the English poet Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop, who did much of her best work on this subtropical island.

Tóibín opened the talk, titled “On Grief and Reason,” by recounting an interview in which Gunn referenced “The Gas Poker,” one of the few poems he had written about his mother, who had committed suicide when Gunn was a boy. “Obviously this was quite a traumatic experience; it would be in anyone’s life,” Gunn had said of finding the body. “I wasn’t able to write about it ’til just a few years ago. Finally I found the way to do it was really obvious: to withdraw the first person, and to write about it in the third-person. Then it became easy, because it was no longer about myself.”

Session Two Begins Tonight w/ Colm Tóibín

01/17/2013  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Colm Tóibín. Photo by Curt Richter.

The final session of the 31st Key West Literary Seminar begins tonight with Colm Tóibín set to deliver the John Hersey Memorial Address. A handful of tickets are still available; register in person at the San Carlos Institute at 516 Duval St.

The session concludes this Sunday with a program that is free and open to the public. Internationally acclaimed authors including Geoff Dyer, Edmund White, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will explore the lives of literary greats including David Foster Wallace, Jane Austen, and Edith Wharton. Authors will be available for a book signing at the conclusion of the program. Seating is first-come, first-served. All locals and visitors are encouraged to attend.

Highlights of Session One Slideshow

01/17/2013  by Ian Rowan  Comment on this Post

#WoWbio Invented Biographies

01/17/2013  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post

During the first session of the 31st Annual Key West Literary Seminar, we had a little fun online with portrait photographer Curt Richter. Each morning, we tweeted out a new picture and asked you to write a 140-character invented biography inspired by the photograph. Here’s two entries we enjoyed.

@NSUShark: Professional storyteller, artist Antonio LaFitte noted for carribbean travels. Resides with wife, daugher, parrot in New Orleans.

@KeyWestAuthor: Emily was born shy. As she grew, she continued to withdraw into herself. Then into the wallpaper. Finally she disappeared.

Join us during the second session of the Literary Seminar January 17-21 as we continue with the invented biography fun using hashtag #WoWbio. We’ll tweet a new photo by Curt Richter on Friday at 10:00 a.m. Stay tuned for updates.

Tweet Us A Story with Geoff Dyer

01/15/2013  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post

Here’s Geoff Dyer’s first line based on this photo. Let’s fill in the rest starting at 5:00 p.m. EST!

Imagine if you looked in the mirror and saw someone who bore no relation to the person who’d greeted you each time you’d done this  before.

Tweet Us A Story

01/15/2013  by Shayne Benowitz  Comment on this Post

Tweet Us A Story based on this photograph by Curt Richter and a first line by Geoff Dyer.

The first session of the Key West Literary Seminar’s “Writers on Writers” has concluded, and now we’re preparing for the second session, January 17-20, 2013. In the meantime, we’ve partnered with South Florida’s NPR station WLRN for a creative, interactive project on Twitter, and we hope you’ll join us. Following their success with “Tweet Us A Story” and the Miami International Book Fair with Junot Diaz, we thought we’d get in on the fun.

Join us on Twitter this evening at 5:00 p.m. as author Geoff Dyer tweets us the first line of a story inspired by the above photograph by Curt Richter. With the seminar’s focus on biography, the idea is that we will create an invented biography inspired by the subject of the photograph.

Here’s How it Works:

Paul Hendrickson on “Hemingway’s Boat”

01/15/2013  by Shayne Benowitz  3 Comments

Paul Hendrickson during the panel discussion, “Re-imagining a Life.”

Paul Hendrickson read Sunday morning from the prologue of his book Hemingway’s Boat. The biography focuses on a 27-year period of the author’s life from April 1934 when he bought Pilar from a Brooklyn shipyard until the end in July 1961 when he took his own life in Ketchum, Idaho.

A Washington Post journalist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Hendrickson explained the approach to his book as “averted vision,” a sailor’s term whereby looking at a subject off to the side—and not head on—enables one to see the subject more clearly. Pilar was significant, Hendrickson notes, because she endured three marriages, and was perhaps the thing Hemingway loved most as he spent his days in Key West, Bimini, and Cuba sport-fishing on the Gulf Stream in search of marlin, sailfish, and tuna.

the Valves of her attention —

01/15/2013  by Kate Peters  Comment on this Post
Wineapple during lecture, "Hidden in Plain Sight: Emily Dickinson's Not So Secret Friend" Photo by Nick Doll

Wineapple during lecture, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Emily Dickinson’s Not So Secret Friend” Photo by Nick Doll

Brenda Wineapple reminded us that Emily Dickinson was a woman “eminently capable of saying no”; she considered it a radical act. “No is the wildest word in the language.”  So what about when she didn’t say no?

Dickinson chose Thomas Wentworth Higginson “from an ample nation” to be her reader, and she initiated the relationship with a letter, the seductive description of which begins Wineapple’s book White Heat.  Dickinson wanted him to say if her poems were “alive.” The language and format of the letter were as original as the poems enclosed, but most remarkable, in Wineapple’s description, is the fact that Dickinson enclosed her name on a tiny card in its own tiny envelope, separated from both the poems and the letter.  In the context of our seminar, the eccentric gesture becomes a potent symbolic representation of the complex relationship between the author, the person, and the work.

How to Drink Like a Writer

01/15/2013  by Margit Bisztray  Comment on this Post

Sean Hoard’s Whisky Priest combines Scotch, soda, and Brooklyn Hemispherical apple cider bitters.

Reading Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head is one way to get under the influence of Graham Greene. Another is by sampling the cocktails at this year’s seminar.

Sean Hoard (bartender, Teardrop Lounge, Portland Oregon) and Jason Rowan (mixologist, Men’s Journal contributor) read deep into Greene’s work for inspiration, “which was a fun break from the cocktail books and food magazines I usually read,” said Hoard. The two then devised liquid tributes to characters, moments, and “vibes” drawn from the literature.

Last Thursday night’s menu, for example, offered the Aunt Augusta, inspired by Travels With My Aunt. A blend of local calamondin marmalade, Beefeater 24 gin, lemon juice, honey, and Champagne, the concoction embodied the free-spirited, worldly, classy character in the novel. It even resembled her: an orange-y redhead.

Kicking the Tires of Biography: James Atlas

01/14/2013  by Laurel Tuohy  Comment on this Post

James Atlas at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar. Photo by Nick Doll.

For those thinking that life as a literary biographer is a cakewalk, James Atlas is here to school you.

In his delightfully humorous address, “The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale,” at the seminar on Saturday January 12, Atlas recounted the sometimes difficult, often bumbling and always confusing relationship between a biographer and his subject.

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