As we leave January for the month ahead, here’s a look at some of the highlights from Session Two of “Writers on Writers.” All photos by Nick Doll unless noted.
D.T. Max, New Yorker staff writer and author of Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, peppered his talk about the communal grieving of the gifted and troubled writer with plenty of levity. An anecdote about DFW’s mother Sally elicited much laughter from the crowd. She was such a grammarian, Max said, that if she saw a grocery checkout sign that said “10 Items or Less,” she would go to the manager and say, “No, no, it’s 10 Items or Fewer.”
Max balanced the lightness of his talk by recalling the big questions that haunted him as he worked on the biography, published within five years of its subject’s suicide. “Can you do proper work in this timeframe? What are you losing?” he wondered.
“I think it’s odd to talk about a grieving biographer, but it’s true. It happens. I loved David, and I missed him in this world. In writing the book, I was reanimating him. I wanted him for a friend. His death was so new, it still seemed possible for me.”
On Saturday morning, Kate Moses began her talk, titled I write as if an eye were upon me: On Empathy and Responsibility, by describing a dream in which she found herself consoling a distraught and weeping Sylvia Plath. The two sat together, surrounded, Moses said, by “all the books”—those written by Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, as well as Moses’s fictionalized account of the last months of Plath’s life, Wintering.
Photos by Nick Doll from the afternoon of Friday January 18, during the second session of the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.
How to feed hundreds of voracious readers? Ask Jennifer Cornell, chef-owner of Small Chef at Large, now in her fourth year of catering the Key West Literary Seminar. If you missed the food before she took charge, you’re lucky. The plucky and petite Cornell has brought the sustenance up to par with the seminar itself. And she knows it.
With a menu as nourishing and interesting as the ideas shared on stage, over breakfast, and at all the cocktail receptions and parties, Jennifer has become a key character in the story of KWLS.
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.”
Photos by Nick Doll from the morning of Friday January 18, during the second session of the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.
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.”
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.
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.