Posts Tagged ‘2009: Historical Fiction’


Barry Unsworth, Conjurer of Lost Worlds

06/08/2012  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment
Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth, 1930-2012. Photo by Curt Richter (2009).

Barry Unsworth, who explored the ethical complexities of humankind in novels distinguished by scrupulous historical research and compelling narratives, died on Tuesday in Italy, where he had lived with his wife, Aira, for many years. He was 81.

We interviewed Unsworth in 2008 and had the pleasure of his and Aira’s company at the 2009 seminar, where he delivered the John Hersey Memorial Address. He had told us of wanting “to break away from the solitude that is the normal condition of writing and have an audience, people who are well-intentioned, who are interested in what I am trying to do and even in why I am trying to do it. When it goes well, it can be exhilarating—to feel the response, to have it brought home to you that you have touched people’s minds and feelings. On occasions like that, there is a genuine sense of unity, of shared value and common endeavor.”

Three of Unsworth’s presentations from the 2009 seminar are preserved in our audio archive, including one called “Why Bother With The Past?,” in which is contained, as we mark the passage of a great writer and generous man, the following balm:

“The past is another country, we know. It’s not recoverable. Even our own past, our own childhood is not recoverable. We know that we can’t get back to it, but we know at the same time that we’ve never lost it. We know it belongs to us because it has made us what we are.”

Barry Unsworth @ KWLS:
• Interview: Intensity of Illusion
•Audio: “Why Bother With The Past?”
•Audio: A reading from ‘Land of Marvels’
•Audio: “The Economy of Truth”

KWLS 27 on C-SPAN’s Book-TV

03/06/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

C-SPAN screenshot of Gore Vidal and Jay Parini at the Key West Literary Seminar

Video coverage of the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar has begun to air on cable television channel C-SPAN’s Book-TV and is available on their website. Our entire January 10 program will air Saturday March 14, 2009, from 10:00 a.m until 3:45 p.m.; again (for the nightowls) on Sunday March 15, from 11:00 p.m. until 4:45 a.m.; and again during the weekend of April 4, 5, 6. The nearly six hours of programming from our January 10 sessions includes Gore Vidal in conversation with Jay Parini, Eric Foner’s dazzling lecture "Who Owns History?," and a fascinating conversation between W.E.B. DuBois scholar David Levering Lewis and Michael and Ivy Meeropol, the son and granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Check your local listings to find out what channel Book-TV is on in your area, and the program listings for times. Links to videos at are listed below. (Please note that the C-SPAN video player will launch in a pop-up window, so you may have to disable your pop-up blocker in order to see them.)

    • "Writer Against the Grain": Gore Vidal with Jay Parini
     (you can also see a shorter excerpt of this on YouTube)

    • Eric Foner: "Who Owns History?"

Michael and Ivy Meeropol in conversation with David Levering Lewis

Barry Unsworth reading from Land of Marvels

"How Can We Know (and Tell) What Happened in the Past": panel discussion with Eric Foner, Jill Lepore, David Levering Lewis, Megan Marshall, Patricia O’Toole.

    • "The Boundaries of History, Historical Fiction, and the Limits of Invention": panel discussion with Peter Ho Davies, Sena Jeter Naslund, Megan Marshall, Michael Meeropol, Patricia O’Toole, and Barry Unsworth.

    • Alan Cheuse reads from To Catch the Lightning

Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore: "Taking Liberty– Fiction and the Archives"

One more look at the 27th KWLS

02/07/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

San Carlos Institute photo by Curt Richter
The San Carlos Institute panorama. Photo by Curt Richter.

As we unpack the boxes, the discs, the jump drives, and the emails from our 27th Key West Literary Seminar– Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth– we’ve uncovered this fine collection of pictures and quotes (thanks, Nan Klingener). Visit our podcasts page to listen to readings and talks by Allan Gurganus, Geraldine Brooks, and Barry Unsworth; and check back often for many more in the year ahead.

Elizabeth Gaffney and Calvin Baker
“The true parts of my story are the least probable, the most unbelievable,” said Elizabeth Gaffney, author of Metropolis, shown here with Dominion author Calvin Baker. Photo by Nick Vagnoni.

Michael Meeropol
Michael Meeropol after a discussion with his daughter, Ivy about the complicated legacy of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Photo by Nick Vagnoni.

Andrea Barrett and Samantha Hunt
Andrea Barrett, at left, responding to a question about what she’s working on now, said she started researching the delay and eventual spread of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, aided by Sir Arthur Eddington, which led her down many pathways of reading (“To say I start incoherently would be generous,” she said)– and one of her major realizations so far is that “everything begins with an E.” This would include Einstein, eclipses, Eddington, the ether of space (which she said started her off on the first place) and, of course, e=mc².

Samantha Hunt explained the genesis of her novel The Invention of Everything Else– she was at a museum exhibit that included a reference to Alessandro Volta, realized she didn’t know much about him and should look him up when she returned home. But once in front of her computer, she found herself instead looking up Nikola Tesla, the man who invented radio and AC electrical technology and is at the center of her novel. She said she thinks she looked up Tesla because she was thinking of “the 90s hair metal band.” “I actually sent them copies of the book, but never heard back from them,” she said.
Photos by Nick Vagnoni.

David Nasaw
“History is told from the present and that present changes.”– David Nasaw, historian and biographer, at the opening of the second session. Photos by Nick Vagnoni.

Rachel Kushner and Chantel Acevedo
Rachel Kushner and Chantel Acevedo discuss Cuba and the politics of historical fiction. Photo by Nick Vagnoni.

William Kennedy
William Kennedy reading from a work-in-progress. Photo by Curt Richter.


Friday Night Writers’ Party

01/17/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

For the writers who join us each January, one of the highlights is the Friday night writers’ party. Seward and Joyce Johnson hosted this one at their southernmost home. Photos by Curt Richter

Thomas Mallon and Phyllis Rose

Calvin Baker and Andrea Barrett

Barry Unsworth and Lily Prigioniero

William Kennedy


KWLS Round 2 in Off the Page

01/17/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

We should have some pictures and words about Session 2 later today. In the meantime, check out Chauncey Mabe’s coverage in Off the Page, the books and culture blog for the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Curt Richter’s Still and All opens Thursday

01/14/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

An innovative collaborative project, combining Curt Richter‘s Key West portrait photography and the literary talents of over a dozen writers, is now on view at the Key West Armory, 600 White Street. Entitled “Still and All,” the exhibition comprises 18 exquisite images, each with an accompanying biographical text panel. An opening reception will be held on Thursday 15 January from 5 to 9pm, and the public is invited.

Still and All has been produced as a partnership between The Studios of Key West and the Key West Literary Seminar, and began during Curt Richter’s initial visit to the island as Artist-in-Residence in January 2008. Based at the Mango Tree House, on the campus of The Studios of Key West, Richter shot over 60 subjects ranging from local shop-keepers to notable visiting writers. As a first-time visitor to the island, he found inspiration in both his new subjects and his temporary tropical home.

“I came to Key West without any preconceived goal or ambition. I began meeting people, and then started asking them to sit for a portrait with my 8 x 10 camera. After the first dozen, I realized how special this place is. My entire understanding of the island, and its sense of place, emerged from the experience of taking these portraits.”

Back at his home base in Helsinki, Finland, Richter processed and printed his Key West portraits throughout 2008. And after editing hundreds of images, he began planning a new body of work to coincide withe the 2009 season.

“The Literary Seminar announced its upcoming theme, ‘Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth’, and that inspired us to invite writers to contribute new biographies for each portrait,” says project coordinator and director of The Studios, Eric Holowacz. “We wanted to play around with the notion of what is being perceived and what is considered true, and we wanted to add a strong literary component to the exhibition. We wanted new, impossible stories.”


Photos from Session One

01/13/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Here’s a selection of photos from Session One of the 27th annual Key West Literary Seminar. See more– by photographers Curt Richter, Oliver Parini, Michael Blades, and Nick Vagnoni– and upload your own photos on our facebook page.

Gore Vidal and Jay Parini onstage for the John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event. Photo by Oliver Parini.

This year’s stage was designed by Michael Boyer with portrait painter Elionora Hinds. Photo by Curt Richter.

In the crowd for Gore Vidal. Faces, left to right, include Peter, Marc Mewshaw, Mike Mewshaw, Linda Mewshaw, Donald Stewart, Luisa Stewart, Peter Matthiessen, Marie Chaix, Harry Mathews, Lincoln Perry. Photo by Michael Blades.

At the Sunday conch chowder luncheon in the garden of the Oldest House: Allan Gurganus, John Wray, Sarah Sarchin. Photo by Curt Richter.

Fabian Bouthillette and Oliver Parini at the lighthouse dinner Friday evening. Photo by Curt Richter.


In the Shadows of Edgar Watson

01/13/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Photo of Peter Matthiessen onstage at the Key West Literary Semianr by Michael Blades. Story by Nan Klingener.

Peter Matthiessen, winner of the 2008 National Book Award for fiction, returned to the Seminar with a talk and reading about Shadow Country, the novel that reworks the story he told in the Watson trilogy, Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone.

Matthiessen said it’s not a revision but a distillation and in some ways an entirely new work. “Virtually every sentence is changed,” he said.

He spoke about the research and imagination that went into telling the story of Edgar Watson, who was gunned down by the residents of Chokoloskee in 1910. “Very little is known about him, but a great deal was written about him,” Matthiessen said. “It was all myth and legend…. The only hard facts, literally, were what I could find on gravestones.”

Watson was reported to have killed dozens of people, and he did get into a lot of disputes– especially when drunk, Matthiessen said.

“He was very good about everything he did except keeping his temper,” Matthiessen said. Some of those fights took place right here in Key West, where Watson would come to trade and buy goods. “He had a notable fight on Duval Street with somebody or other,” he said.

Watson usually behaved respectably in Fort Myers, where his daughter was married to a banker. “When he was in Key West or Tampa, he was a demon– especially in Key West.”

Why Bother with the Past?

01/13/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Photo of Barry Unsworth by Nick Vagnoni. Story by Nan Klingener.

Barry Unsworth made it worth getting out of bed Sunday morning with an illuminating talk explaining why and how he writes historical fiction, and why we read it. The talk was titled “Why Bother With the Past?”

“We haven’t got any choice in the matter,” Unsworth said in answer to that question. “The past is being forged moment to moment as we live.”

Each of us is the result of choices made in the past by our parents, grandparents, and beyond– in Unsworth’s case, his father’s decision to leave the mining work where sons followed fathers under the ground, go to the U.S. and Canada, and, upon returning to England, work in the insurance business. With those decisions, “he rescued my brother and me from that long chain of continuity, which is what happened in mining villages,” Unsworth said.

In his own life, he can trace back the influences not only of his father’s choices but of 1930s economic conditions, the aftermath of World War I, 19th century labor disputes, and beyond. Everyone has these “tracks and traces behind us which give us our identifty,” Unsworth said.

Our understanding of the past relies on and requires narrative, lines that we can follow to understand who we are, why we’re here. “Without this facility, without this necessity of story, we would be lost in the labyrinth,” Unsworth said. “We wouldn’t find our way.”

Unsworth said he writes historical fiction because he has lived outside of England for at least half his life– in Greece, Turkey, and now in Italy– so he doesn’t feel the flavor of contemporary English life and chooses not to write about fellow expatriates. And in the places he has lived “the past is always there, lying in wait for you, just around the corner. It’s screaming out at you,” he said.

In his work, Unsworth said he looks for “patterns in the past which can be applied to the present, given the differences” so that “contradictions and paradoxes serve to illuminate in some way the present.”

“The past is another country, we know. It’s not recoverable,” Unsworth said. Each of us realizes this about our own lives in remembering childhood. “But we know at the same time that we never lost it– it belongs to us; it made us what we are.”

Not entirely random quotes from Session 1

01/13/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Thanks again for the following to board member Nancy Klingener. Photo by Curt Richter.

“The line between historical fiction and historical scholarship is not as hard and fast as we might think.”

–Eric Foner, Columbia history professor

“History is not and should not aspire to be a science.”
–Eric Foner

“You actually get a time and place if you get their jokes.”

–Jill Lepore, Harvard professor, New Yorker writer, and Red Sox fan

“History has so little inevitable about it.”
–David Levering Lewis, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

“Truth is often stranger than fiction, but it’s worthwhile pursuing it. I don’t like arranging marriages for my historical characters.”

–Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winner and KWLS keynote speaker

“Trouble is our subject matter and it’s never-ending.”
–Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Gore Vidal in Key West

01/11/2009  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

Thanks to Greg Needham for permission to reprint the following from his blog. Greg’s agency, Needham Fatica, designed our site.

Gore Vidal spoke in Key West last night and it was a magnificent event. He was here for the 27th Annual Key West Literary Seminar and he packed the house. Vidal was generous with both his thoughts and his time, speaking on the topic of historical fiction for some time, then taking questions from the audience for a good deal longer. C-SPAN was there covering it, so you should be able to see a rerun at some point on one of their three channels.

Gore is one of those towering figures who can relate anecdotes that span such a great swath of American history that you find it hard to believe the man in the stories is sitting in front of you. Last night he told tales of helping his blind grandfather into the Senate Chamber during the Roosevelt administration, chatting with Amelia Earhart and looking over a map of her flight route over the Pacific and of sending a note to Barack Obama, urging him to focus on restoring the Constitution.

He was witty, sharp, caustic and devastatingly funny when he wanted to be. In the midst of the Earhart story mentioned above, he said, off-handed and almost off stage, “She really wasn’t that great a pilot… (pause a beat) …and that was a problem.”

He saved his most vicious remarks for the Bush administration and its follies and crimes. When asked about Sarah Palin, the republican vice presidential pick, he was dismissive, saying he felt “she talked like she thought the working class talked, which ended up sounding like she was talking down to them.” And although he reminded the audience that he had predicted many years ago that Bush would leave office the most hated president in history, he wouldn’t be brought out on predicting the future of the economic crisis. “I don’t do that kind of black magic,” he said.

History’s reason needs fiction’s dreams

01/10/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Allan Gurganus delivered a talk Friday morning called “A Still Small Voice Under the Cannonade: Field Notes toward Fiction’s Pact with History.” Photo by Nick Vagnoni. Thanks to [Nancy Klingener]( for the following

Allan Gurganus’s talk Friday morning was part literary lecture, part stand-up routine. Sources cited included Homer, John Cheever, Grace Paley, Oscar Wilde and, most liberally, Rodney Dangerfield. For anyone who missed it, or wants to recapture the full context, keep a look out for the podcast but here are some excerpts:

    “Liars like historians and politicians tend to overdocument.”
    “Myth is gossip grown old.”
    “History is agreed-upon hearsay granted tenure.”
    “American history is so recent that you can still, from a seated position, touch either wall.”
    ” … the term historical fiction sounds as pitifully redundant as, say, creative writing. … It’s like having ‘oxygen breather’ stamped on your driver’s license.”
    “History’s reason needs fiction’s dreams.”
    “If I had happened to have been born heterosexual with a trust fund in Akron, Ohio, would I have even been a writer?”
    “Unlike in life itself, in literature powerlessness can win.”
    “Who could not love this mutt, history?”
And the all-important closer:
    “We need history so much, we historians and novelists, we keep making it up. And history returns the favor.”

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