Posts Tagged ‘2009: Historical Fiction’


Brooks and Unsworth to give Keynotes

Gala Evening with Gore Vidal Planned

06/13/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian novelist Geraldine Brooks will deliver the John Hersey Memorial Address on Thursday, January 8, 2009, during the first session of our twenty-seventh annual Key West Literary Seminar: Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth. Booker Prize-winner Barry Unsworth will have the honors for the second session, delivering his keynote on January 15.

Each year, we begin the Seminar with The John Hersey Memorial Address, established by members of the literary community in fond remembrance of Hersey (1914-1993), a much-loved figure in Key West, where he lived with Barbara, his wife, for many years. Hersey’s writings include the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano, Hiroshima, A Single Pebble, and Key West Tales.

On Saturday, January 10, we will host a special Gala Evening with Gore Vidal. The famed iconoclast and prolific writer returns to the island he came to know as a friend of Tennessee Williams in the 1950s. This event is in memory of John Malcom Brinnin (1916-1999), another greatly-loved Key West figure, the author of several collections of poetry, as well as biography and social criticism including Dylan Thomas in America, The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World, and The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic.

Click here for pictures of John Hersey and John Malcolm Brinnin from the KWLS archives.

Image of six year-old newsboy, "Little Fattie," is by photographer Lewis Hine, 1910. It is in the public domain.

Peter Matthiessen Returns for KWLS 2009

06/10/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

We are delighted to announce the addition of Peter Matthiessen to Session One of our 2009 Key West Literary Seminar: HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth. Matthiessen is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction and nonfiction, including At Play in the Fields of the Lord, which was made into a major motion picture in 1991, and The Snow Leopard, which won the National Book Award in 1979. His new book, Shadow Country, is a revision of his acclaimed trilogy about the legendary life and death of Floridian Edgar J. Watson, originally published separately as the novels Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone. As a young man in the 1950s, Matthiessen co-founded The Paris Review, worked as a commercial fisherman off Montauk, NY, and, it was recently revealed, served in the CIA. He is no stranger to South Florida, nor to our stage, having previously appeared at the Seminar in 2006, 2002, 1999, and 1991. You can find Matthiessen’s author page here, with biography, bibliography, and links to interviews, reviews, and features from around the Web.

2009 Session Assignments Announced

06/10/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

We are happy to announce which panelists will be appearing at which session of our twin bill 2009 Seminar: HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth.

**Session One**, from January 8 – 11, will include Geraldine Brooks, Peter Ho Davies, Eric Foner, Alan Gurganus, Ursula Hegi, Tony Horwitz, Samantha Hunt, Jane Kamensky, Jill Lepore, Megan Marshall, Peter Matthiessen, Ivy Meeropol, Michael Meeropol, Patricia O’Toole, Barry Unsworth, Gore Vidal, and John Wray.

**Session Two**, from January 15 – 18, will include Russell Banks, Andrea Barrett, Madison Smartt Bell, Alan Cheuse, Elizabeth Gaffney, Francisco Goldman, William Kennedy, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Anchee Min, Mary Morris, David Nasaw, Marilynne Robinson, John Burnham Schwartz, and Barry Unsworth.

We will likely add a few more panelists over the summer. Speakers and session assignments will be announced as they’re added to the roster— right here in the News category of Littoral, and also on our Speakers page, where you can see all of our current speakers, with links to their biographies, bibliographies, and other information from around the Web.

You are welcome to attend either or both sessions of the Seminar, which run from Thursday to Monday. If you are interested in registering for the Seminar, we urge you to act soon, as seats do fill quickly. We will hold your space for a deposit of $100. Click here to register.

Did Gore Vidal father a Conch love-child?

06/05/2008  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments

Gore Vidal ca. 1945. Photo by Carl Van Vechten

“Possibly,” he says, in this recent interview from The Independent.
Will they re-unite this January, when Vidal joins us for Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth? It seems, well, unlikely:

“There are rumours that you have a daughter from a relationship with a woman living in Key West, Florida [in the 1950s]; are they true?”

“Possibly. I don’t believe so. The father was either me or a German photographer. I believe the mother is dead. The child was a girl. Every Christmas, I would receive a picture of them all around the tree, and there’s the little girl, looking like me. I could have a daughter, yes.”

“Have you tried to contact her?”

“No. Why would I?”

“Because you might have a sense of responsibility, which, in the age of DNA…”

“I sent her mother money for an abortion. Which she used to go to Detroit, where she found a rich man.”

Gore Vidal Wants to Kick John McCain

05/28/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


When the 2009 Seminar begins, we will have elected a new United States president. For the sake of the children and the delicate-eared in our audience, let us hope it is Mr. Obama. Because panelist Gore Vidal will probably have something to say about the president-elect, and it may not be nice. Last week, he called Hillary Clinton "more or less insane." This week, in an interview with Mike Sager at, he assesses presumptive Republican nominee John McCain:
I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little a–hole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him.

Thanks to Jason Rowan for the tip. Rowan is the KWLS digital pioneer who oversaw the redesign of our site and started this blog. The podcasts were his idea, too. He’s writing for these days. Check out his review of the Sooloos, a machine which will totally simplify your growing KWLS podcast collection.

Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits

05/23/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


Familiar Spirits is Alison Lurie’s 2001 memoir of two men with whom she was friends for nearly 40 years– celebrated poet James Merrill, and his partner David Jackson. According to Lurie, the young Jackson was as talented as the unpublished Merrill. As the years wear on, however, Merrill attains fame and the highest of literary honors while Jackson’s novels are regularly rejected by publishers. Frustrated, Jackson retreats, ceasing his literary aspirations beyond the Ouija-board collaborations which result in Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. As he slowly and then suddenly becomes a shell of his former self, Jackson seeks solace in impersonal sex and substances of abuse, earning Merrill’s complaint: "…He doesn’t realize, he doesn’t think– he doesn’t use his mind anymore. And you know, if you don’t, it’s like any muscle, it atrophies." Merrill, for his part, later falls in love with Peter Hooten, rendered by Lurie as a shallow clone of Merrill’s younger self, selfishly intent on keeping Merrill from Jackson and the friends they share.

I was struck by much in this account– the utter destruction sown amongst a once-loving couple, the decades-long sacrifice of Merrill’s creative energies to the Ouija board, Lurie’s acute descriptions of the fabrics and colors of clothing worn by her subjects– and especially by the candor whereby Lurie paints a portrait that is both love letter and character assassination. Her tale is tender like a bruise, displays great affection and yawning disappointment, is as complicated as only old friends can be. One has the clear sense that the heartbreak of "Jimmy and David" was not only their own, but was felt by many. In the end, Lurie questions whether Merrill’s estimable body of work is worth the price he and those close to him paid in life. This is the harshest of critiques, plausible and relevant only because of the obvious quality of Lurie’s friendship, and the more damning therefore.


William Kennedy Joins Seminar for 2009

05/22/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post


We are most pleased to announce the addition of William Kennedy as a panelist for January’s HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth. Kennedy’s writing centers on life in his native city of Albany, New York. He has published seven novels in his Albany Cycle, treating life in Albany during the 19th and 20th centuries. These novels are Legs (1975), Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978), Quinn’s Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), The Flaming Corsage (1996), Roscoe (2002), and Ironweed (1983), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a PEN-Faulkner Award, and was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It begins:

Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death: illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.

You can see the up-to-date roster of panelists here. Click here to register for the 2009 Seminar.

In Order to Make Bones Live:
a conversation with Alan Cheuse

05/20/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Alan Cheuse

As a book reviewer for National Public Radio for more than a quarter-century, Alan Cheuse has been called “The Voice of Books on National Public Radio.” Cheuse is also the author of several novels, a memoir, two short story collections, and a collection of essays on reading and writing. He last joined the Literary Seminar in 2003, and will return this January as a panelist and writers’ workshop instructor when we explore Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth. Cheuse’s forthcoming book, To Catch the Lightning, is a historical novel about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) and his struggle to complete “The North American Indian,” his epic project of photographing all of the native tribes of the western United States. I had a chance to talk with Cheuse recently, about NPR, Curtis, and the role novelists have in the writing of history.


Okuwa-tse ("Cloud Yellow")—1926

Littoral: Why did you choose to write about Curtis? And why did you write it as a novel?

Alan Cheuse: I first encountered Curtis’s photographs of the American Indian while I was in college. In fact I remember the first time I saw them. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a great old rerun house, mounted an exhibition of them in the lobby in the late nineteen fifties. That was the first time I saw Curtis’s work. I have long forgotten what movie I saw that evening in Cambridge, but I never forgot the faces and tones and settings of those portraits.


Navajo Medicine Man—1907

My research led me to Curtis the historical figure– photographer, self-made ethnographer, naive entrepreneur, difficult husband, and, through it all, devoted father. My novel, I hope, knits this all together in an inventive, forward-moving, uniquely presented way, giving especially the feel of his life, which narrative by historians doesn’t usually do. Which is to say, historians usually work from the outside in, and novelists move in the other direction. I don’t mean to pick a fight with historians here, but this is the way I see it. I suppose some of them might see a novelist waltzing through the field, picking up forget-me-nots and knotting them into a necklace and calling it history. But I’m not calling my novel history. I’m calling it a novel. I’ve written a novel about American journalist John Reed, and about an American woman painter based mostly on the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The Curtis novel forms, at least in my own mind, the third in a kind of triptych about American artists, larger than life, but, I hope, still alive in our imaginations.

L: As I understand it, Curtis’ photographic negatives were awarded to his ex-wife Clara in the divorce settlement. Rather than see this transaction through, he destroyed them. Was the relationship between Curtis’ professional and personal lives always so fraught?


Nez Perce Baby—1911

AC: There’s a scene in the novel in which Curtis and his daughter Beth (she took Curtis’s side in the quarrel) and a few friends have a destroy the negatives party. Like most artists he found it difficult to draw a line between his professional life and personal life. He gave thirty years of his adult life to the project, but he was in spite of everything devoted to his family. Early on it was easier than later, when he became the Curtis history knows (who was the Curtis who knew history and its effects). He tried heartily to keep his family intact, but he couldn’t. He tried to be a good man– as his oldest child and only son said toward the end of the photographer’s life, “he was the best man I knew.”

Allan Gurganus on Marilynne Robinson

05/08/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

If you’re thinking about attending the Seminar in January, or if you’re a fan of either Marilynne Robinson, Allan Gurganus, or both, you’ll enjoy what’s going on over at Reading Room. It’s an online panel discussion of Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. Gurganus is an unabashed fan, and takes an enthusiastic and omnivorous approach to the book. His initial post suggested it may be "the greatest novel of our last quarter century." He’s compared Robinson’s artistry to silent-film star Buster Keaton, to metaphysical poet John Donne, to Emily Dickinson. And he’s permitted the Times to reprint a fan letter he wrote Robinson after his book group read Housekeeping in 2006. In part, it reads:

After much study, I don’t know how you did it. The book is so much about its making and yet all traces of construction seem obscured. “Housekeeping” seems the least autobiographical work I know and yet it’s also the one closest-in. It’s theological, but it always pertains as immediately as any fairy tale does. Harsh in its outcomes, it’s also a psychological work of such density, restraint. The limpid acceptance of death finds reflection in all its aqueous properties. There are few living males in it and little dry land. Somehow it starts with death and moves toward life, a reversal of most books I know.

Check out Reading Room for more. You can read my brief review of Housekeeping in this post.

Goldman, Cheuse, Hunt, Wray added for ’09

05/06/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Four more authors have been confirmed for our 2009 Seminar: HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth.

Francisco Goldman is the author, most recently, of The Art of Political Murder: Who killed the Bishop?, a non-fiction work on the Bishop Gerardi murder case in Guatemala. It was named a "Notable Book" by The New York Times for 2007, and a best book of the year by the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Economist. His three earlier novels are The Long Night of White Chickens, The Ordinary Seaman, and The Divine Husband. He last joined us in 2004, for Crossing Borders: The Immigrant Voice in American Literature. We happily welcome Francisco back to Key West.

Alan Cheuse, "The Voice of Books on National Public Radio" has been "reading for America" every week on NPR. He is the author of The Bohemians, a historical novel about John Reed and Louise Bryant, Fall Out of Heaven, which focused in large part on the life of his father, a pilot in the Red Air Force, during the 1930s, and the novels The Grandmothers’ Club and The Light Possessed. His forthcoming novel To Catch the Lightning (October, 2008) follows the career of turn-of-the-century photographer Edward S. Curtis and his quest to photograph the western tribes of North America. Alan last joined us as a moderator in 2003 for Poetry: The Beautiful Changes.


Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange

04/30/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Tony Horwitz’s new book, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, was released yesterday. You can read The New York Times’s review of the book and profile of Horwitz, here. From his publisher, Random House, you can hear an .mp3 of Horwitz reading from the new book.

We’re looking forward to Horwitz’s contributions this January, when he’ll join us for HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth.

Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

04/30/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

There’s an excellent discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1980), going on right now at Reading Room, the New York Times blog which hosts two-week-long online panel discussions led by editors of its Book Review. Participants include Allen Gurganus, who, together with Robinson, will join us in January as we examine HISTORICAL FICTION and The Search for Truth. I read Housekeeping for the first time last week. What follows is how I found it.

Housekeeping tells the story of two sisters growing up in the isolated western town of Fingerbone. Madness runs in their family, and men are mostly absent but for the memories adumbrated by fading photographs, dried flowers, and unread letters. Their mother’s suicide has delivered young Ruth and Lucille to the care of her sister Sylvie, a drifter, whose "housekeeping" is a hodgepodge of inabilities to come to terms with domesticity. When the girls are still quite young, Sylvie’s child-like capacity for make-believe makes her an excellent playmate; they become close friends and confidantes. As the girls grow older, however, they become more aware of Sylvie’s aloofness from ordinary human society. They battle over an allegiance to Sylvie, on the one hand, and the pressures of societal norms, on the other. It’s the story of sisters torn apart by adolescence, overwhelmed by the complexities of an adult world, handicapped by a family history riddled with unexplained absences. Here’s Ruth, our narrator:

When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain. Or it was at my conception.

This is a mysterious book, a fiction which feels as if it could be fact, a tale of a human family rendered exotic by tethers to an other-world. "All this is fact," Ruth tells us. "Fact explains nothing. On the contrary it is fact that requires explanation." Robinson was a poet before writing this novel, and it shows in lucid, elusive prose wedded to a story of life as apparition. It is a gem, and gem-like, reading like the spare and opulent product of considered elisions, yielding luminous glimpses.

Go to the Reading Room for the New York Times discussion of Housekeeping.
Buy the book.

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