Posts Tagged ‘2009: Historical Fiction’


Onstage at the San Carlos

01/09/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

The view from the balcony of this year’s set, designed by Michael Boyer, working with portrait painter Elenora Hinds. Thanks to [Michael Blades]( for the photo.

Geraldine Brooks delivers Keynote Address

01/09/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

We’ve asked some friends and family to help post to Littoral for the next week and a half while the Seminar is underway. Here’s the first, from Nancy Klingener, a member of our board of directors and creator of the Bone Island Book Blog. –ed.

Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of "March" and "People of the Book," opened the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar with a terrific keynote address Thursday evening, and she opened the address with a terrific line. "You don’t have to be a necrophiliac to write historical novels," Brooks said. "But it helps." In giving the John Hersey Memorial Address, Brooks paid tribute to Hersey, whom she never met but who is buried on Martha’s Vineyard, where Brooks lives with her husband, fellow writer Tony Horwitz. (Brooks noted that she loves graveyards and was encouraged to move to the island by one stone with the inscription "At Last, A Fulltime Resident.") Hersey, she said, was a model for her as a journalist and a novelist. "He wrote about heroes but never about heroics," she said.

The address was followed, as always, by a gathering in the lovely gardens of the Audubon House from which we sincerely hope everyone made it home safely before one of Key West’s regular, if inexplicable, power outages darkened the island.

A Party at the Tennessee Williams House

01/09/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

The 27th annual Key West Literary Seminar is underway. We got things rolling Wednesday night with a small party for Gore Vidal on Duncan Street, at the former home of Tennessee Williams. Here’s a few pictures; you can find more or upload your own on our facebook page.

Gore Vidal and Robert D. Richardson

The Kaufelts, our founding family: Lynn, Jackson, and David

Jane Holding and Allan Gurganus

Bob Richardson, Megan Marshall, and Miles Frieden

Arlo Haskell and Mark Hedden

David Levering Lewis and Evan Corns

A Brief Interim of Sheer Possibility
a conversation with Rachel Kushner

01/03/2009  by Arlo Haskell  5 Comments

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner writes frequently for Artforum and coedits the literary, philosophy, and art journal Soft Targets, whose focus is political inquiry, poetry, and literature-in-translation. Her debut novel, Telex From Cuba, was nominated for the 2008 National Book Award.

Telex from Cuba takes place in Oriente Province and Havana, Cuba, during the 1950s. We learn about the American businessmen in charge of the country’s sugar and nickel mining operations, and the Cubans, Dominicans, and Haitians who work in the mines and cut the cane in a form of indentured servitude. Meanwhile, from their base in the mountains above the sugar and nickel operations in Preston and Nicaro, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army battle the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose surrender on New Year’s Day fifty years ago introduced hope to the Cuban underclass and fear to the businessmen who relied on their cheap labor.

Kushner will join us for the second session of the 27th annual Key West Literary Seminar, January 15-18, in the theater of the historic San Carlos Institute, which stands today as a museum to an earlier Cuban revolutionary, José Martí. In this final interview of our 2008 series, conducted by email over the holiday season, Kushner talks about the experiences of her mother’s family living in Cuba, the real Christian de La Mazière, and the process of creating fiction from the Cuban revolution.

Littoral: From the book jacket, we know Telex From Cuba is based in part on your mother’s experiences as a child in Oriente, on land owned by the United Fruit Company. How much of the book is family history? Are there characters that are closely based on your mother’s family, and the people they knew?


Rachel Kushner: The original spark, my idea to write the book, was due to the fact that my mother had lived in Cuba as a child, and I’d gone there with her and two of her sisters to see the strange, former American colony in northeastern Oriente Province where they’d spent part of their childhood. The historical circumstances upon which I attempted to build my novel– an American colony in Cuba, and the various roles the people who lived there played in the revolution– was a fictional schematic that I borrowed from real life, the lives of my mother’s family and the people they knew and that I discovered, independently, through my own research. I did, at least initially, draw heavily from the mountains of archival material my grandparents had left behind: every letter they’d written from Cuba had a carbon, they saved every calling card and receipt and budget book and party invitation– I mean everything– so I had access to this very rich archive of the lives of the Americans who managed and controlled Cuba’s sugar and nickel– the country’s most valuable resources. But the novel itself is a work of fiction. I am a fiction writer, not a memoirist, not a historian. As a literary figuration, it is ruled by the imagination, and structured by it, too. If the book were simply a fictionalization of my family’s history, it would have been a rather dreary exercise– not because their lives were in any way dreary, but because fiction has to rise up organically and reconfigure the past on its own terms, via a logic that’s aesthetic, not factual. I learned this the hard way. At first, I was rather attached to some of the details I found in my (long-deceased) grandparents trove. But those details so often caused problems. They weren’t invented, and so they lacked the suppleness of context. The invented detail fits with the mind’s own contextual logic. The “real” detail, by contrast, is often so much less believable. Much of what creates “my” Oriente Province is a synthesis, a false reality I was only able to generate after sifting through the details of the real place.


Overall, the proposition of Americans of various sorts leaving the States to live in a colonial outpost, running away to become more themselves, or get their share of what they think they deserve, and the tacit race and social hierarchies they encounter, and comprise, is a proposition I worked out after having thought a great deal about my own grandparents’ lives. So in that sense the whole project is subtended, or ghosted, by the experiences of my family. But as I said– fiction is fiction, and not “about” any real person’s life. And because of the mysterious process of writing fiction, and its special integrity, I wince a little when people describe my novel as “based on.” Publishers rely so heavily on back-story to promote novels these days– because they think it sells, and maybe it does– but novels don’t simply enact the real as it took place. They do something else, stranger and more complicated.

L: Where did your mother’s family go after the revolution? Did they ever return? Did you grow up with an awareness of Cuba and Castro, or did this come later?

RK: My family actually left before the revolution. I think my grandfather was fired. He was very disappointed to leave Cuba. My grandmother, far more closed-minded, was happy to leave the “natives” and their lack of love for iceberg lettuce and proper English. The episode in my book of the Americans who get rescued by aircraft carrier because the town is being strafed by Batista’s military planes is drawn from a situation that really occurred in Nicaro, but my own family was not there for it. They ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after having first moved back in with their own parents, in St. Louis. They had to split up their children because my grandfather was unemployed. Although this occurred before the Cuban revolution that ejected the Americans from Nicaro, the predicament is in some sense the same: having escaped the US only to wind up returning, jobless and on some level estranged.

After my grandfather regained his footing, got a job and re-established a life in Tennessee, I know that he was very amused by Castro. He saved all kinds of clippings from the early sixties, and paid attention. He’d spent his time there, of course, and he was not surprised by the comeuppance– especially because Nicaro played a particular role in the whole thing. The rebels were right above Nicaro, and Fidel later railed against the Americans for owning and controlling Cuba’s incredibly valuable nickel mines.


My mother and aunts are all quite far to the left, politically, which is unusual for Americans who lived in Cuba, but for them, it is that experience that politicized them. I had heard about Cuba my whole life, my mother always cooked Cuban dishes, played Cuban music, talked about her childhood as this wonderfully free time in her life. I went with them to Cuba, for the first time, in 2000, which is when I started writing the book. They were the only ones of the Americans who had lived in Preston and Nicaro ever to go back to the United Fruit and nickel enclaves, respectively. Most of the people who lived there were unsympathetic to the revolution and had no desire to see what became of their once-elegant world, the sovietization, the pollution, the shabby state of their country club and manager’s row. But my mother and her sisters still feel very connected to the place. Quite simply, they’re rather pro-Fidel, (more…)

27th Seminar Coming Soon- Tickets Available

12/16/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

"Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth" is now less than a month away. Writers of historical fiction, historians, and a few hundred guests will come together for two long weekends of readings, panel discussion, and lectures at the historic San Carlos Institute; while informal gatherings and parties will take place each evening at local cultural institutions and lush gardens.

The first session, as expected, has been completely sold out. Tickets are still available for the second session, which opens with a keynote address by Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth on Thursday January 15, and closes on the afternoon of Sunday January 18. Unsworth, who begins the book tour for his new novel Land of Marvels at the Seminar, will be joined by Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Rachel Kushner (Telex From Cuba), two of this year’s nominees for the National Book Award; as well as Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, Thomas Mallon, and many more.

Admission for the entire weekend, including receptions (with open bar and passed hors d’ouevres) and a light continental breakfast each morning, is only $495. If you have any questions about the Seminar or would like to register, please call Miles at 888-293-9291, or send an email to

We endeavor to make our website as useful and informative as possible to anyone who is planning to attend the Seminar. Here is a brief guide.

    • Complete Schedule of Events for the first and second sessions.
    • Complete list of Speakers, with biographies, bibliographies, and links to resources on the web
    • Key West Lodging Guide, including discounts at hotels and guesthouses for Seminar registrants
    • Our Interview Series– with Barry Unsworth, Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Mallon, and more
    • Our podcast series: free, downlowdable recordings from past events, perfect for the drive or flight to Key West

National Book Awards to Matthiessen, Doty

11/20/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Congratulations to our friends Peter Matthiessen and Mark Doty, who each picked up a National Book Award at the ceremony in New York last night. Matthiessen, who also won the award in 1979 for The Snow Leopard, was honored in the fiction category this year for Shadow Country. The now-definitive overhaul of his so-called Everglades trilogy was cited by the judges as a "masterpiece" and "an epic of American rise and descent." Doty, our keynote speaker this past January, received the committee’s esteemed award for poetry for his Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems. The NBA citation calls Doty a "master" whose work conveys "ferocious compassion."

Visit our podcasts page to hear Doty’s 2008 keynote address, and his reading of several Key West-inspired poems. To see and hear Matthiessen reading from Shadow Country, visit the Seminar in person this January.

Scholarships Awarded to 3 Writers

11/11/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Top to bottom: April Puciata, Martha Otis, Patricia Engel

We are delighted to announce the winners of our three named scholarships. April Puciata has been awarded the Scotti Merrill Memorial Scholarship; Martha Otis has received the Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award; and Patricia Engel has won the Marianne Russo Scholarship.

The annual scholarships are given by the Key West Literary Seminar to recognize excellence in a manuscript submission from a new or emerging writer. They provide full tuition to our 2009 Seminar and writers’ workshop program, financial support for travel, lodging, and living expenses while in Key West, and an opportunity to appear onstage at the Seminar. We are sincerely grateful to Joyce Johnson, The Dogwood Foundation, and The Rodel Charitable Foundation-Florida for the endowments which will continue to make these scholarships possible for years to come.

April Puciata, a poet, lives in New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New York Quarterly, New Orleans Review, Salamander, Mangrove, and Salonika. This will be her fifth visit to Key West and her first to the Seminar. Martha Otis lives in Miami and first visited Key West two years ago with her daughter. She teaches writing at the University of Miami and has published fiction in Best New American Voices 2000, the Indiana Review, and Moment Magazine. Patricia Engel also lives in Miami; she learned about the Seminar last year and attended a few of our free-and-open-to-the-public events. Her fiction has been published in Harpur Palate, Driftwood, Slice, and the Boston Review (here and here). In 2007, Engel was selected by Junot Díaz as Featured Emerging Fiction Writer at CLMP’s "Periodically Speaking" at the New York Public Library.

Congratulations to April, Martha, and Patricia. We look forward to meeting you this January in Key West.

Schedules Announced for Sessions 1 and 2

10/24/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

David Kaufelt, among others, in the audience at a Seminar in the 1980s. Photo by Jeffrey Cardenas.

The daily schedule for our 2009 Seminar has been announced. The first session begins at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, January 8 with a keynote address from Geraldine Brooks. All day Friday and Saturday will be given over to readings and discussions, including Ursula Hegi reading from Stones from the River, David Levering Lewis discussing W.E.B. DuBois, Peter Matthiessen reading from Shadow Country, and a special gala evening with Gore Vidal. The first weekend concludes on Sunday afternoon, with a free-and-open-to-the-public program featuring Sena Jeter Naslund, Allan Gurganus, and Barry Unsworth.

Unsworth returns to deliver the keynote address for the second session, which begins on the evening of Thursday, January 15. The second weekend will include readings by two of this year’s National Book Award nominees, Rachel Kushner and Marilynne Robinson; and an on-stage discussion between William Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Russell Banks. The free-and-open-to-the-public event on the final Sunday features Anchee Min, Madison Smartt Bell, and Francisco Goldman, among others.

Click here to view the schedules for the first and/or second session of the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar.

National Book Award Nominees Include Matthiessen, Robinson, and Kushner

10/16/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

This year’s National Book Award finalists were announced yesterday. Among the fiction nominees are Peter Matthiessen, who will join us during the first session of our January 2009 Seminar; Rachel Kushner, and Marilynne Robinson, who will each join us for Session 2.

Matthiessen, who has been nominated four times for the award (winning in 1978 for The Snow Leopard), is nominated this year for Shadow Country, a new novel which consolidates his trilogy about legendary Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson. Robinson is nominated for Home, the successor and sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. Kushner receives the esteemed nomination for her debut novel, Telex From Cuba, a portrait of the American colonies in pre-Revolutionary Cuba and their collapse in the face of revolutionary change.

Tickets are still available to see Marilynne Robinson, Rachel Kushner, and a host of other distinguished writers during Session 2 of our 2009 Seminar, “Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth.” Click here to register.

The Work Becomes Visible:
a conversation with Hilma Wolitzer

09/20/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels including, most recently, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, and Summer Reading; and a book on the craft of fiction titled The Company of Writers. She has taught writing workshops at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, New York University, Columbia University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and right here at the Key West Literary Seminar. She will return to Key West and the Seminar for a third time this January, as a moderator for our 27th annual Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth, and as a faculty member in our writers’ workshop program. In a telephone conversation yesterday, we learned what to expect from Wolitzer’s workshop, and gathered some tips about how to assess the quality of a manuscript.

Littoral: How would you explain your approach to teaching a writers’ workshop?


Hilma Wolitzer: I was in my 30s when I took my first workshop, at the New School with Anatole Broyard. The very first thing I ever heard about my work, the first comment in the class, was “That’s the most boring thing I ever heard.” Broyard stepped in and said “I don’t see how your comments are useful to the writer. You have to say why you were bored, and what you would do to make it less boring.” In that moment, I learned how to teach.
Honesty and charity have to prevail. You have to ask questions of the manuscript: Do I believe this? Do I care? Am I compelled to keep reading? I encourage everybody to comment on everybody’s work; and I ask the person who wrote the manuscript to not defend his or her work against criticism until everyone has spoken. It’s not exactly a courtroom, but certain evidence comes out– if 10 people say they don’t believe in a character, this is evidence against the manuscript. On the other hand, writers are not always aware of what they do well. If you can point out one good sentence in an otherwise not-so-good manuscript, that’s very helpful to a writer.

2 Added to Session 1. New Workshop Added

09/12/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Sena Jeter Naslund
Sena Jeter Naslund

Hilma Wolitzer
Hilma Wolitzer

We are buoyed by the news that Sena Jeter Naslund and Hilma Wolitzer will join us for Session 1 of our upcoming Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth, January 8-11 2009. Wolitzer also joins the faculty for our writers’ workshop program January 12-15.

Naslund is the current Kentucky Poet Laureate and editor of The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-Lis Press. She is the author of 4 novels, including the immensely popular Ahab’s Wife, which tells the story of Una Spenser, wedded to Melville’s white whale-hunting captain; and her most recent book, Abundance, which reimagines the world of Marie Antoinette.

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels including, most recently, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, and Summer Reading; and a book on the craft of fiction titled The Company of Writers. She has received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; and has taught at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and right here at the Key West Literary Seminar.

To register for the 2009 Seminar or Writers’ Workshops, click here.

New Admission in Rosenberg Case

09/12/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury. World Telegram photo by Roger Higgins.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after being found guilty by jury / World Telegram photo by Roger Higgins.

In an interview with The New York Times, Morton Sobell, a co-defendant in the 1951 espionage case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, has admitted to passing on military secrets to the Soviets. Sobell, 91, who fled to Mexico before the trial and later served time in Alcatraz, had maintained his innocence for more than half a century. The article includes reactions from Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of the Rosenbergs, who were executed by the federal government at Sing Sing in 1953. Meeropol, his brother Michael Meeropol, and Michael’s daughter, Ivy Meeropol, have each made significant contributions to the research on the Rosenberg case, which, as today’s article shows, continues to test previously accepted versions of history. We’re proud to present Michael and Ivy Meeropol together in Key West this January, as we examine Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth.

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