Posts Tagged ‘2013: Writers on Writers’


Conversation with Phyllis Rose
Keynote Speaker for Writers on Writers

08/29/2012  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

Photo by Ed Lefkowicz.

Phyllis Rose has been named keynote speaker for the first session of the 31st Key West Literary Seminar, “Writers on Writers.” She will deliver the annual John Hersey Memorial Address at the San Carlos Institute on Thursday, January 10, 2013.

Rose’s 1978 biography of Virginia Woolf was in the vanguard of feminist reevaluations of literary figures and the first Woolf biography to examine in equal measure the life and work of the great modernist. In Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages Rose continued to explore the intersection of life and art by considering the institution of marriage through the examples of the marriages of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Her humanist impulse as a writer and reader is suggested in the prologue to Parallel Lives: “we are desperate for information about how other people live,” Rose writes, “because we want to know how to live ourselves.”

We had a brief chance to talk with Rose this week, about her forthcoming book, The Shelf, her plans for the keynote address, and about writers riding their bicycles in Key West.


Littoral: You told us a few months ago that your next book, The Shelf: An Adventure in Reading, will explore “the actual ground of literature” by reading and reporting on an entire shelf of fiction (LEQ–LES) at the New York Society Library. What else can you say about it?

Phyllis Rose: I chose that shelf more or less at random and set myself the task of reading all the books on it. Random—or alphabetical order, which amounts to the same thing—is a radically democratic selection device. I wanted to consider the experience of reading fiction, of what we get out of it, of the many ways in which it works on us. I also wanted to dwell on the shape of writers’ lives, and this is where the book meshes with the topic of this year’s seminar, “Writers on Writers.” But who is a writer? Biography favors the famous and successful; literary biography no less so. My shelf reveals that a writer can be many things, a person who is read by many, a person who is still read after hundreds of years, or a person who, however great their work, is not read at all—among others.

L: Did you know John Hersey? What can you tell us about the talk you’ll give in his name?

PR: I am keenly aware as I prepare this talk that it is the John Hersey Memorial Lecture. I am inspired by the moral seriousness of his writing as well as its elegance. I used to see John Hersey riding his bicycle in the streets of Key West, although I did not know him. Later I knew his widow Barbara and loved her, as everyone did who had the honor of knowing her. I think of her, too, in writing this talk, wishing she were with us to hear it and hoping she would think it worthy of her husband.

In my working title, “Can Writers Ride Bikes?”, it’s John Hersey I’m referring to. It’s important to my talk that we live in Key West in a community in which great writers are part of our daily life. We see them at Fausto’s, at the airport, at the library book sale, on bikes. Is the man we see on a bike in any meaningful way the same man who wrote Hiroshima? Or do we have wholly separate selves, our social selves and our writing selves?


Phyllis Rose’s address on January 10 will mark opening night of the first session of “Writers on Writers,” which continues through Sunday, January 13. The second session takes place January 17-20.

Join us in January for “Writers on Writers”

08/22/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

There is still space available for the second session of this year’s seminar—“Writers on Writers”—taking place January 17-20, 2013.

For four days in January we’ll be joined in Key West by some of the keenest and most perceptive writers working today. They will be our guides into the lives of some of the great writers of the past two centuries: from Emily Dickinson to D.H. Lawrence, from Sylvia Plath to John Cheever, from Henry James to Flannery O’Connor. “Writers on Writers” will be a deep and lively exploration of the literary imagination, a meditation on the crossroads between life and art, and a transcendental exercise bringing the historical record to vivid life.

Click here for more information about this year’s group of esteemed panelists. You’ll find a list of lodging recommendations here, many of which offer discounts for Seminar registrants. You can find a great example of the ideas at the core of “Writers on Writers” right here on Littoral, in our recent interview with Robert D. Richardson.

The seminar is different from most literary events. It is a relatively small and intimate affair, with a total audience of no more than 400 people. All talks, panels, etc. take place in a single location, in the grand theater at the historic San Carlos Institute, so there’s no shuffling from room to room, no hard decisions to make about which author or panel to see, and no chance of being shut out of a talk you had hoped to attend. Our one-size registration fee provides access to all talks throughout the four days, and you can easily attend every single one (although the beach and Key West sunshine may lure you away from time to time).

The registration fee also includes high-spirited receptions where you can enjoy literary-inspired cocktails while getting to know our panelists and brilliant readers from around the world. The intimate size of the seminar means you’ll never feel lost in a sea of people, and you’ll be treated the same whether you’re a Nobel Prize winner or a noble reader. Light breakfasts each morning and the annual conch chowder luncheon are also included.

Teachers, librarians, students, and writers are encouraged to apply for funding support through our Scholarship Program, which offers subsidies toward the cost of registration.

Register for “Writers on Writers”

the 31st annual Key West Literary Seminar
January 17-20, 2013
Paul Alexander, Blake Bailey, Billy Collins, Geoff Dyer, Jennie Fields, Brad Gooch, Lyndall Gordon, Claire Harman, Joyce Johnson, Christopher Lydon, Paul Mariani, Kate Moses, Ann Napolitano, Robert D. Richardson, Alexandra Styron, Colm Tóibín, Edmund White, and Brenda Wineapple.

Concord Is Where You Are Right Now
a conversation with Robert D. Richardson

07/25/2012  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments
Robert D Richardson

Robert D. Richardson. Photo by Curt Richter.

In his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind ) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects—the founding fathers of American intellectual life—is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the recent weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”


Littoral: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?

Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High St. and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!

L: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”

RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.
     Biography certainly has an autobiographical element in that what’s interesting to the reader is the subject seen through the eyes of the writer, but most readers want the eyes of the writer to be pretty clear lenses with not a lot of ego involvement. Still, you can’t avoid asking who is doing the writing, and while a writer may try, as I do, to write by the historian’s rules (there should be evidence for any statement or claim), the writer is on his own when he chooses how to start, where to stop, what to foreground, what to ignore, what to quote, what to describe, and so on.

Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord.

L: After Medford, your family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, famous hometown of Thoreau and Emerson. Did their spirits still animate the place? Did you know their work at that time?

RR: When we moved I was already away at a boarding school, so Concord was summers, vacations, and holidays. And for a 15- or 16-year-old, Concord was pretty dull. No movie theatre, no bowling alley, no public tennis courts, no public swimming pool, no pool hall or community center. Walden Pond was there if you cared to walk all the way out there or could cadge a ride, but the best swimming was White’s Pond which was privately owned and you had to belong. Concord was in many ways a great bore. Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past. We drove to Maynard for fun. My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau, but getting a car and meeting girls.
     I read Thoreau later, in college. I didn’t get through the first chapter. When he said “Many of you lead mean and sneaking lives,” I put the book down. “I don’t need this,” I said. I couldn’t face having been found out.
     Many years later, with a PhD in hand, I went to teach in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to teach American Literature so I read a lot of Thoreau, and one day I read a description of where to look for muskrats feeding along a stream. I went out and walked down to the stream 50 yards from my home in Denver, a stream called Harvard Gulch. It ran under a shopping center in a concrete box, then it came out and wandered west amid weeds and urban rubble. Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord. That’s where I lived and work and where I eventually, around the age of 40, wrote a book about Thoreau.

L: You describe Bronson Alcott as lacking “even a hint of negative capability,” Keats’s phrase for the essential poetic faculty, or as you put it, “the ability to set aside (one’s) own personality and enter imaginatively into the lives and situations of others.” What is the role of the creative imagination in the crafting of biography? (more…)

Paul Hendrickson & ‘Hemingway’s Boat’

07/13/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


“A writer’s life can contain two conflicting existences, one of purely original genius and one of irreversible destructiveness.” That’s journalist Howell Raines on the crux of the story Paul Hendrickson tells in Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost. Through an exploration of the one constant in Ernest Hemingway’s life—his beloved boat, Pilar—and through a series of relationships not fully explored in previous Hemingway studies, Hendrickson brings remarkably fresh insight into one of the most chronicled literary figures of the 20th century.

Hendrickson joins a dazzling cast of biographers, novelists, and poets taking part in our 31st annual seminar this coming January—“Writers on Writers”—which will investigate the relationship of life to art and offer the opportunity to re-experience some of the world’s most enduring writers through the eyes of those who know them best. Registration is open now.

Focus 2013: Lyndall Gordon & Paul Mariani

05/16/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Lyndall Gordon

Lyndall Gordon. Photo by Nina Hollington.

“Writers on Writers” continues to attract a remarkable cast of panelists. Today we profile South Africa-born Lyndall Gordon and New Englander Paul Mariani. Both will appear at the second session, January 17-20, 2012. Registration is open.

Lyndall Gordon is the prize-winning author of six biographies, whose subjects hold in common an almost mythic fascination for contemporary readers. They include Emily Dickinson and Henry James, as well as the 18th-century proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Modernist poet T.S. Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf, whose works dramatically changed the way women were seen in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Each of Gordon’s biographies, she says, “has been a different experiment with the genre—and subjects were chosen in part because they had something to teach about our life-span, the shapes it can take, its silent spaces and invisible presences.” She has spoken of striving toward “a new form of biography” and writes that “imaginative truth must coexist with documentary truth if we want to bring a subject to life and avoid a dead shell, the compendium of fact.”

Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani is a poet and the biographer of poets including William Carlos Williams, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane, and—most recently—the 19th-century prosodic innovator and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. A former poetry editor of the national Catholic weekly America, Mariani’s work evinces a fascination with the “poetic/spiritual journey” undertaken by poets, whether explicitly Catholic, as with Hopkins, Lowell, and Berryman, or ostensibly secular, as with Williams and Crane.

“If you ask me about God and poetry, I really can’t separate them,” Mariani has said of his own motivations as a poet. “That doesn’t mean that all my poems are God-filled; in fact some of them deeply question the reality of it all. But the poems that most deeply satisfy are those in which I confront the mystery.”

Mariani is currently at work on a biography of Wallace Stevens, whose reputed deathbed conversion to Catholicism belies his somewhat less Catholic adventures in Key West, and in whose late poem “Final Soliloquy Of The Interior Paramour” we find the words “We say God and the imagination are one…”

“Writers on Writers” adds Brad Gooch

04/23/2012  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments
Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch. Photo by Tom Ackerman.

We are delighted to announce that Brad Gooch will join us in Key West January 17-20, 2013, for the second session of our 31st annual seminar—“Writers on Writers.”

As the acclaimed biographer of two American writers with radically different life stories, Gooch will bring to the program an especially broad sense of the relationship between life and art. His first book, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, explores the brief, bright life of the poet whose candor and direct sensibility helped define the postmodern poetic voice, and whose glamorous career at New York’s Museum of Modern Art helped bring about the styles of a new American painting. Gooch’s most recent book is a biography of Flannery O’Connor, the southerner and devout Catholic whose battle with lupus kept her home-bound throughout her brief adult life, during which she nevertheless wrote some of the most influential short stories of the 20th century. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a New York Times bestseller. For his next biography, Gooch travels to Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, to uncover the life of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet Rumi.

Gooch joins an impressive roster of panelists at the second session, including Blake Bailey (biographer of John Cheever & Richard Yates); Geoff Dyer (whose essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction); Kate Moses (whose novel Wintering reimagines the last days of Sylvia Plath); and Brenda Wineapple (author of books on Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others).

Registration for “Writers on Writers” is open now.

Blake Bailey, Kate Moses join KWLS 2013

04/17/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Blake Bailey

Blake Bailey. Photo by Mary Brinkmeyer.

The second session of our forthcoming seminar, “Writers on Writers,” has gained two extraordinary talents, whose work offers insight into the complexities of artistic creation.

Blake Bailey is the author of definitive biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, two greatly troubled writers who produced some of the 20th century’s most enduring fiction. His Cheever: A Life (2009) won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize, while being nominated for a Pulitzer. His forthcoming book, Farther and Wilder, explores the life of Charles Jackson, whose own battles with alcohol served as the model for his 1944 breakthrough novel, The Lost Weekend. Bailey has said that his investigations of such dissolute characters are driven by a compulsion to uncover the secrets of “writing that makes us see the world afresh—the kind of writing that is better than actual living.”

Kate Moses

Kate Moses. Photo by Ramona Pedersen.

Kate Moses is author of the internationally acclaimed novel Wintering, a reimagining of the last days of poet Sylvia Plath, including the momentous weeks in late 1962 when she assembled the manuscript of Ariel, the feverish outpouring of artistic bravado which Plath rightly predicted would “make my name.” Published in 15 languages and recipient of numerous commendations, including the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, Moses’ Wintering was praised as “a brilliant, fervent book” that returns humanity to the iconic Plath through its unprecedented rendering of “the poet newly envisioned—fixated on living, not on dying.”

With the addition of Bailey and Moses, “Writers on Writers” gains the context of an important group of iconic writers, in whose life and work we witness the struggles, pressures, and newfound freedoms of the 20th century.

Session Two Added; Scholarships Available

04/03/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Writers on Writers Session 2
Due to extraordinary demand, the 2013 seminar, “Writers on Writers,” has expanded to include two sessions. Session One will take place January 10-13, 2013; it has been sold out since early March. Session Two will take place the following weekend, January 17-20, 2013; registration is open now.

Confirmed authors for Session Two include Geoff Dyer, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award this year for his essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition; Edmund White, whose biography of Jean Genet remains the definitive study of one of the most notorious figures of twentieth-century literature; former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins; and Robert D. Richardson, the acclaimed biographer of America’s three central writers: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James. Additional panelists will be announced in the coming days and weeks.

Scholarships are available for teachers, librarians, students, and writers who can demonstrate financial need. The application period is open now; there is a new priority deadline this year of June 30. Click here for more information.

“Writers on Writers” adds Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer, & Colm Tóibín

02/02/2012  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments
Writers on Writers. 31st annual Key West Literary Seminar.

"Writers on Writers." 31st annual Key West Literary Seminar. January 10-13, 2013.

Each year the Key West Literary Seminar explores the world of literature through a particular unifying theme. For our 31st annual seminar, “Writers on Writers,” we investigate the rich and varied lives of those who make this formidable craft their life; and, in doing so, we explore the work of writing itself.

Writers on Writers” will be an exploration of some of the world’s most enduring authors and an investigation of the relationship between life and literature. As we turn the lens on the contemporary writers on stage, we will also explore the creative act of recreating a life, and consider how an engagement with great writers of the past affects the literature of today.

The latest additions to our roster of panelists include Pico Iyer, Colm Tóibín, and Geoff Dyer. Iyer is an essayist and novelist whose newly-released The Man Within my Head explores his obsession with English author and playwright Graham Greene. Tóibín is an Irish novelist and short story writer whose acclaimed works include The Master, a novel based on the life of 19th-century American writer Henry James. Dyer is the author of four novels, two essay collections, and five genre-defying titles including Out of Sheer Rage, which may best be described as a book about trying to write a book about English novelist and poet D.H. Lawrence (comedian Steve Martin calls it “The funniest book I have ever read”).

Other confirmed panelists for “Writers on Writers” include James Atlas, founding editor of the Penguin Lives series of short biographies; Rosalind Brackenbury, author of Becoming George Sand; Jay Parini, whose novel about Leo Tolstoy was later adapted for the film The Last Station; Robert D. Richardson, acclaimed biographer of American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; Phyllis Rose, author of A Life of Virginia Woolf; Julie Salamon, author of the recent bestselling biography of American playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Wendy and the Lost Boys; Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman; Edmund White, whose books include biographies of French writers Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud; and Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

We will name additional panelists in the coming weeks. Registration is open now and filling up fast. Writers’ workshops and scholarship opportunities will be announced in the spring.

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