Keynote Speaker Jeff Vandermeer gives the John Hersey Memorial Address

by Catherine Manfra


On this gloomy Thursday, the weather did not keep the crowd away from attending the opening of the 41st annual Key West Literary Seminar held at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater.

Arlo Haskell, executive director for the Key West Literary Seminar made sure that the event began on time, so much so that as he began to introduce the keynote speaker the bugle call at the naval base began to go off.

For someone like myself, who must admit has not read anything from Jeff VanderMeer, I did not know what to expect other than the short biography provided to us, which included relative facts such as his first novel was Annihilation. It also mentioned that he is a “weird Thoreau” due to his writings that connect him with nature.

Jeff VanderMeer was called onto the stage and right away made the crowd feel at ease by cracking a joke about himself, admitting that the last time he was in the Keys was when he was 11 years old. Yet, it is all relative in the grand scheme of things as he began to discuss how Florida and the water around us, under the ground and running through it connects us all. From discussing his first published piece about a freshwater squid to his most recent novels, it is clear that VanderMeer loves the environment and through his writing wants to try and preserve the Florida we know before it becomes the Florida we knew.

Vandermeer mentioned how important memory is in fiction. A character’s experience with their environment can make an impact not just on the story, but on the reader as well. It can help us recognize our errors and possibly stop us from continuing the destruction of it.

His sarcasm was refreshing and at different points during his speech the audience could not help but laugh. He shared a personal story of when he was on a hike at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge and decided to take a path he had not taken before only to end up getting stuck and in between one thing and another having a close encounter with an alligator nest. Luckily nothing happened, but the experience is ingrained in his memory.

He ended with the idea of thinking about what is visible and invisible to us, which definitely connects to the overall theme of this weekend, which is “Florida: The State We’re In.”

Jeff  VanderMeer called the weird Thoreau” by the New Yorker, is a four-time World Fantasy Award winner.

Jeff Vandermeer “Water Lives Here”

Photo Credit: Nick Doll

Catherine Manfra is a Miami native and high school English teacher for Miami Dade Public Schools for the past 20 years. She is a recipient of the 2024 Teacher & Librarian scholarship.

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