Young Writers in Key West find an “Island in the Works”

Young Writers Studio participants at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in July 2018. Left to right: Teacher’s Assistant Sabrina Walsh, Executive Director Arlo Haskell, Shalhevet Sanchez, Lead Teacher Kate Peters, Lucy Lannigan, Daniella McCausland, Carly Neilson, Sonya Griffin, Mercedes Da Silva, Julie Powers, Kayleigh Reed, Delaina Ross, Hemingway Museum Director Dave Gonzales, Co-Teacher Nick Vagnoni, Mysty Anthony, Leland Hurd, and Christina Tong. Photo by Nick Doll.

This summer, twelve South Florida high school students participated in “Island in the Works,” our innovative new studio program for young writers. The week-long session offered a curriculum rooted in great American writers who have lived on this subtropical island, including Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and James Merrill, and in the dynamic natural landscape that inspired them.

“When you grow up here, the experience of reading and writing in school can be disorienting,” says Key West Literary Seminar Executive Director and author Arlo Haskell, a Florida Keys native. “The world described in schoolbooks is full of things like apples and ice storms, but what you know are mangos and hurricanes. It makes it feel like literature is something that gets made somewhere else, that writers are different from the kind of people you know.”

With funding from Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, KWLS set out to counter this bias. Haskell headed a curriculum development team with former Bard College classmate Kate Peters, a veteran educator who focuses on interdisciplinary study and experiential learning. They were joined by Nick Vagnoni, a Key West native and poet who teaches writing at Florida International University. With input from a student advisory committee, made up of current and former Key West High School students, the team drafted an immersive, five-day program that emphasizes experimentation and self-discovery, and pairs classroom exercises with excursions to local sites of interest. Finally, they recruited novelist Victor LaValle, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts, to lead a daily craft workshop on the basics of fiction.

“Our student advisors were very clear about one thing,” remarks Peters. “A summer program has to be fun. It can NOT feel like school. Today’s students are so busy, and with summer jobs, family vacations, and everything else, you have to make something that compels their attention.”

Writing exercises invited students to sample local fruits including Spanish lime, soursop, and mangosteen; and to describe their taste, aroma, and the memories or emotions they aroused. Students wrote about their families’ experiences during Hurricane Irma, which ravaged the Keys during the summer of 2017, by modeling “Who Murdered the Vets?,” Hemingway’s account of the devastating 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. They explored rare documents at the Key West Public Library and visited Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and its pine-shaded beach to swim and write letters and poems modeled after works by Merrill and Bishop. But the highlight of the week for many was a daylong excursion to Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West and accessible only by boat or seaplane, where participants enjoyed an immersive experience in regional history and ecology.

The class of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old writers hailed from across our 100-mile-long chain of islands, and included students from each of Monroe County’s three public high schools. “I challenged myself to write things I have never written before,” one student remarked. “I learned how to not dwell over everything and just write more naturally what came to me,” said another. “There’s so much to write about just by staying where you live!”

Congratulations to the twelve graduates of our first Young Writers Studio: Mysty Anthony, Mercedes Da Silva, Sonya Griffin, Leland Hurd, Lucy Lannigan, Daniella McCausland, Carly Neilson, Julie Powers, Kayleigh Reed, Delaina Ross, Shalhevet Sanchez, and Christina Tong.

The next Young Writers Studio will take place June 24-28, 2019. Thanks to ongoing funding from Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, the Keys Open Doors Foundation, and the KWLS Patrons Circle, tuition fees will once again be waived for all accepted students. Look out for faculty announcement and open application in early 2019.

Announcing the 2019 Emerging Writer Award Winners

We are thrilled to announce the winners of the Marianne Russo Award, the Scotti Merrill Award, and the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award.

We continue to be amazed by the overall quality of the submissions we receive for our three Emerging Writer Awards. We thank all who applied, and we encourage you to keep writing and keep submitting. Our three-round review process is thorough, and we’d also like to thank each of our reviewers for reading along with us. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Without further ado:

The winners are…

Emerging Writer Award winners Ross Feeler, Michelle Peñaloza, and Joe Dornich (left to right).

for a novel-in-progress

Ross Feeler’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, Hypertext, New South, Story|Houston, The Common, Arcadia, and elsewhere. He reads submissions for The Masters Review. In 2013, he received his MFA in fiction from Texas State University, where he now teaches composition and literature. From 2013 to 2014, he served as writer-in-residence at the Clark House in Smithville, Texas. He lives just south of Austin.

for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

A proud daughter of immigrants, Michelle Peñaloza was born in the suburbs of Detroit and grew up in the suburbs of Nashville. She is author of two chapbooks, landscape/heartbreak and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes. Her work can be found in places like New England Review, Vinyl, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and The Collagist. Michelle lives in rural Northern California.

for a short story

Joe Dornich is a PhD candidate in Texas Tech’s creative writing program where he also serves as the Managing Editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Joe’s stories have won contests with South Central MLA, Fresher Writing, Master’s Review, and Carve Magazine. In addition to writing, Joe is also taking a mail-order course in veterinary medicine. His mailbox is often filled with sick kittens.

The Key West Literary Seminar Emerging Writer Awards recognize and support writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers. Each winner will join us in Key West for the 2019 Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program, and receive a prize package that includes a $500 honorarium, the opportunity to appear on stage during the Seminar, and full support for travel and accommodations.

Announcing The Writer’s Toolkit

We’re delighted to announce a new addition to the 2019 Writers’ Workshop Program: The Writer’s Toolkit.

Author Katrin Schumann will lead three optional add-on workshop sessions, which will be held Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons from 2:30pm-4:00pm during the week of the workshop program. These sessions are designed to help writers with self-promotion, media interaction, and book marketing.

Registration is open to everyone. Sign Up Now.


Cost is $75 per session, or $200 for all three sessions. Registration is limited to 16 participants per session.

Enrollment is open to writers of all levels. All sessions will be held at the Customs House 3rd floor meeting room. Please contact kschumann [at] with any questions.

The Writer's Toolkit

Session 1: How to Talk About Your Writing at a Cocktail Party 

In this interactive session, we will discuss how to talk about your work in order to achieve a specific goal, such as compelling an agent to ask for more, getting a reader interested in your themes, or even pitching the media for a story about you or your work. We’ll discuss various examples, brainstorm your writing’s core themes, and do helpful exercises. You’ll leave with tools to craft your own one-liner.

Tuesday January 15, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

session 2

Session 2: Media Training for Writers: Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Nerves can get in the way of telling a story that will get people interested in your work. How do seasoned authors do it? In this discussion-based class, we’ll be learning how authors (in various genres) talk about their work on television, radio and in podcasts to analyze what works and what doesn’t. No matter how close you are to publication, it helps to understand how to effectively talk about your writing. You’ll take away lessons about how you can prepare for your own future in the limelight. This is a great follow-up to Session 1.

Wednesday January 16, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

Announcing The Writer's Toolkit

Session 3: A Unique Approach to Book Marketing: The Logic Model

It’s really never too early to start thinking about your writing career in a holistic way that allows you to prepare for building a “platform” that works for you while also being strategic about marketing decisions. In this session, we’ll look at a tool called THE LOGIC MODEL as a way to help you define your goals, consider what success means to you, and think about opportunities.

Thursday January 17, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

Katrin Schumann is the author of the novel The Forgotten Hours (Feb. 1, 2019) and five nonfiction books. Katrin has been teaching writing for the past ten years, most recently at GrubStreet, the largest writing center in the US. She helped design and teach Grub’s innovative program for debut authors, “The Launch Lab.” Before going freelance, Katrin worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. She has been granted multiple fiction residencies and her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times. She writes a monthly column about books and publishing on GrubWrites. 

“Call Me David” — How David Wolkowsky Showed me the World

David Wolkowsky at Ballast Key in 1994. Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders for L’Uomo Vogue.

Key West lost one of its defining figures with the death of David Wolkowsky on Sunday, September 23, 2018. He was 99.

Wolkowsky was a member of the Key West Literary Seminar board of directors from 1988-1991 and a member of its honorary board since 1992. But his impact on Key West and its literary and cultural scene was far greater than these official contributions. Among other things, Wolkowsky was a legendary host and matchmaker without peer, who brought an astonishing assortment of writers, artists, and “interesting people” together in the subtropical island city where his grandfather had arrived as a penniless immigrant following Key West’s great fire of 1886.

Wolkowsky’s annual writers’ party, held during the seminar each January, was a glittering affair at the penthouse apartment Wolkowsky built atop his father’s former Duval Street department store. A guest list of renowned writers mixed with celebrated artists, filmmakers, politicians, and A-listers from around the world, along with the local bartenders, tradespeople, fishermen, and friends for whom it was the most coveted social occasion of the year. Even more coveted was an invitation to Ballast Key, Wolkowsky’s private island, where he hosted friends in the heart of the 200,000-acre marine wilderness known as the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, far from the bustle and noise of the downtown district whose once-dusty streets he had known since childhood in the 1920s.

I was lucky to know Wolkowsky and count him as a friend throughout my adult life. From the moment I met him, in the winter of 2001-02, I was charmed by his unique combination of refined elegance and deep informality. I had returned to the Florida Keys that December after graduating from college and was drifting about, with vague ambitions of being a writer and an even vaguer idea of how to earn a living. My mom, who had known Wolkowsky from her time as director of the Seminar, suggested I call him and ask if he was looking for any help. I looked him up in the phone book and placed a call.

“Hello, Mr. Wolkowsky?,” I said, nervously.

“Call me David,” he said, deeply familiar and kind before even knowing who I was. “Who is this?” he asked, brusquely now.

“Hi, David, this is Arlo Haskell, I’m Monica Haskell’s son.”

“Arlo,” I was struck again by his familiar tone, and his distinctive, almost Mid-American accent, whose type I’d only heard in movies. “Yes, I was hoping you might call. How are you?”

I offered a brief recent history: graduated college, home again, looking for work. I told him my mom had said he might be looking for someone.

“She did?” David asked, seeming surprised. “Well, yes, I might. How would you like to come over for lunch on Friday?”

“Um, sure,” I said, “that’d be great.”

“Let’s say one o’clock, then, at my house. O.K.? Ten-fourteen Flagler.”

“O.K., great. One o’clock—” the phone clicked as David hung up—“on Friday. Thanks, David.”

I called him David ever after.

David's father and grandather, Isaac and Abraham Wolkowsky, ran a men's clothing store around the turn of the century. It appears at right in Mario Sanchez's "Old Island Days No. 23, 'Golden Era,'" shown here at David's home. Photo by Michael Adno.

Arriving for lunch that Friday, I entered the property through an ornate set of teak doors, removed from a Thai temple during the early 1980s, when David had been a partner in Kavanaugh’s furniture store, whose dusty storerooms full of strange, large, and wonderful eastern relics, I used to love to wander. Directly through these doors, which were set in the concrete block wall that hid his grounds from the passing public, was a swimming pool the size of which I’d only seen in hotels. On the left of the pool was a grand-seeming house, whose interior could partly be seen through the wall of sliding glass doors that fronted the pool.

No one answered when I knocked and called out, but the front door was standing open so I walked in. A single large room, with two sides of sliding glass and a high, vaulted ceiling, from which slowly whirring fans descended. The fans hanging through such volumes of space drew your eyes up, as in a cathedral, to the little windowed cupola that formed the apex of the room, where every surface seemed to overflow with fascinating items. On top of the grand piano were black-and-white photographs of Tennessee Williams, drinking and laughing in a Key West garden along with some glamorous-looking women and other men. Upon the table, a mound of reading material: the New York Times lay open, rifled through and obviously well-read, and dozens of books ranging from large-format coffee-table art books to biographies of historical figures. A striking wooden sculpture by the local artist Duke Rood—the vertical figure of a man descending headfirst—was situated among flowering orchids on a table at the center of the room, giving the impression that he he was diving, or had fallen, from a perch in that airy cupola. A drawing, signed “Picasso,” was on the back wall, near the porch, obviously neglected. There were a few Russian-constructivist-ish collages, and, scattered about, several of the colorful painted wood reliefs created by Mario Sanchez, a folk artist of rare talent and humor who had chronicled the Key West of David’s boyhood.

I found David in the middle of all this, sitting and talking on a white couch with his friend Tom Schmidt, who owned one of David’s favorite restaurants, the Rooftop Café. The three of us exchanged pleasantries and I noticed another man standing in the entryway to the kitchen, who seemed to be a little older than I was. He was dressed in white tennis shorts and a polo shirt, with white tennis shoes, white gardening gloves, and sunglasses, and he stood quietly in place, with his head and its artfully disheveled afro pitched slightly down.

“Arlo, this is Zach,” Zach raised his head and smiled beatifically, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth, two plated in gold. “He helps out here,” David said.

“Hi Zach.”

“Hello,” Zach said, and he seemed to float away on the word, smiling at some memory, of what I didn’t know.

“Perhaps you could give Zach a hand in the kitchen,” David suggested.

“Sure,” I said.

“Let me show you.”

I followed David into the kitchen and watched as he opened the refrigerator. Zach remained in his original position.

“We’re just going to have a little salad,” said David, “I buy this salmon salad from Publix, and here’s Boston lettuce. I like just a scoop of the salmon on a bed of lettuce, with a little olive oil. There will be three of us.”

“Sure, David. No problem.” As David left the kitchen, I saw my lunch invitation transform into an audition for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted.

“Zach, where are the plates?” I asked. “In the cabinet,” he said, indicating the corner, and smiled again, without moving from the spot where I’d first seen him.

I prepared, quickly and artfully, in the fashion of the restaurant line cook I had been off-and-on through college, three simple salad plates, drizzled with olive oil, topped with ground pepper, and garnished with a lemon slice. David stepped back into the kitchen at this moment.

“Arlo? Join us in the other room, won’t you?”

It was a test, I suppose, and everything seemed like a test for a while, but eventually I guess I passed, as that shift in the kitchen marked the beginning of my employment as David’s roaming man Friday and caretaker of his various properties.

Ballast Key, roughly nine miles west of Key West in the Key West Wildlife Refuge.

During the year I worked for David, my duties tracked his interests and eccentricities, mapping a social tableau that spanned from high to low. At night, I was his driver, delivering dinner guests that included U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Hersey’s widow Barbara Hersey, to whom David was deeply devoted, to and from dinner at the Rooftop Café. In the early morning, I accompanied him to Simonton Beach, where a group of homeless men slept in the shadows of the Pier House, the fashionable resort David had developed in the 1960s. At that first lunch with David, I had told him about my experience as a stonemason in upstate New York, and without exactly telling me, David had decided that I would build a stone retaining wall at Ballast Key, where storms and shifting tides had eaten away at the beach where his dear departed friend John Malcolm Brinnin had once sat and read the New York Times while the Gulf of Mexico lapped at his feet. There was plenty of limestone surrounding the island, David pointed out to me on my first visit there, and indeed there was. The fact that it was underwater at all but the lowest tide, and would require a great deal of hard labor to extract, went unmentioned.

David’s methods were inscrutable, but somehow, among the tall grasses of the sea oats and empty vodka bottles at Simonton Beach, offering $5 an hour plus room and board on his private island, he always found one or two men who said they were willing to put in a few good days’ work. In the afternoon, I ferried men whose names were Miles and Popeye, and whose weathered skin and full beards made them look older than they were, aboard the smaller of David’s two boats, which pitched and rolled uncomfortably in the current-driven chop of Northwest Channel, out to Ballast Key, where we established a work camp. Against the incoming tide and in the blazing sun, they worked with heavy iron bars to break jagged slabs of limestone from the shallow waters that surrounded the island and carry them in overloaded wheelbarrows to the beach where I was building the wall, piece by piece. Lunch was hot dogs and potato chips, the same again for dinner. Who knows what the men thought after the sun went down and they found themselves alone on this otherwise deserted island—a millionaire’s paradise and private retreat, or something wild and forbidding? Ballast Key always seemed a bit of both, and while Miles and Popeye returned for multiple engagements, it wasn’t for everyone. One morning, I found Rudy, a gentle, bearded man who lived as a hermit in the Maine woods in the summer, and in the Key West cemetery in the winter, desperate to “escape,” as he put it, holding a cardboard sign that read “Key West, Please!” as he waved frantically at passing boats. “I can’t take it anymore,” he told me, obviously shaken. I told him that everything would be ok, he was under no obligation to stay, and I took him back to Key West. I would see Rudy around town occasionally in the years that followed. Although the island’s black and glittering night had terrified him, he apparently remained charmed by the man who had brought him there. “How’s David?” he would ask me, and you could tell that part of him wished he could return to the island.

On the weekends, as my retaining wall slowly came together, I began ferrying more illustrious guests to Ballast Key, a Vanderbilt here, a Rockefeller there, and the ever-growing cast of dazzling writers among whom David always seemed most at home. Driving the 27’ Boston Whaler that David reserved for guests, I delivered Robert Stone to the island one evening as darkness fell, leaving him there, alone, to work on completing the manuscript that became the novel Bay of Souls. While navigating the shallow expanse of water known as “the lakes” that separates Northwest Channel from Ballast Key, I was introduced to Laurent de Brunhoff, co-creator of the Babar series of storybooks I had known as a child, and his brilliant wife, the writer Phyllis Rose, who would later help edit my first book. I met famed writer Judy Blume and her husband George Cooper, another couple David recruited to Key West and who in turn created its only independent cinema and its leading bookstore. I talked with Renata Adler, whose thick braid of white hair swayed in the heavy wind generated by the boat’s forward motion. I met Bill Wright, a writer whose charm at times rivaled David’s and whose friendship with him then spanned nearly forty years. So many people whose names and backgrounds dazzled me, either immediately or only when I eventually realized who they were, years later—guests from London, New York, South Africa, Paris, Rome. An endless, rotating cast of fascinating writers, shouting literary references and friendly gossip over the roar of the twin outboard motors, with David occupying the co-captain’s chair and smiling on at the scene he had designed and casted. At the island, David served them hot dogs and potato chips for lunch too.

David with his friend Sarah Benson, during a 2012 party at his penthouse above Duval Street. Photo by Nick Doll.

David loved people and conversation and he had a gift for making his friends feel wanted. When David phoned to invite you over for lunch, there was often no need to check your schedule. He meant lunch today, and that you should arrive within the next fifteen minutes if possible. When I could, I dropped everything to join him. When I had something that seemed more pressing, I declined and regretted missing the opportunity. I regret those missed opportunities still.

Once, in September of 2008, David phoned to invite me over as Key West was being lashed by the winds and rain of Hurricane Ike, which was churning along the southern coast of Cuba. A mandatory evacuation order was in effect, but when I arrived I found the house on Flagler un-boarded, and David the picture of ease, chatting leisurely on the phone with Bill Wright, who, since our first meeting at Ballast Key years earlier, had also taken me under his wing, surely with David’s encouragement. I followed David into the kitchen, where he removed two salads from the refrigerator that had been prepared earlier—Boston lettuce and Florida avocados, seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. After we ate the salads, David prepared lamb chops on a George Foreman grill—they charred and filled the air with rich aroma as succulent juices sizzled on the electric heating element. David cooked them to perfection on the unlikely surface, utterly delicious. For dessert, David warmed two slices of pumpkin pie in the oven and served them with vanilla ice cream.

After lunch, David said he wanted to see the island—not “the island,” as he always called Ballast Key, but the one whose ascendant place in the national consciousness had led to his popular nickname in the press, “Mr. Key West.” We climbed into the car as the rain drove down and David, who had just turned 90, got behind the wheel. He drove to a house he was renovating on Von Phister Street, where we took advantage of a brief break in the rain to have a look inside. The new roof and windows were holding up nicely in the storm; there were no leaks and it was utterly quiet inside, without even the hum of electricity. Ike was his father’s name and I think the hurricane had made David nostalgic—for the man whose death had brought him back to Key West over a half-century ago (a 1962 obituary said Ike had “a strong sense for the absurd or ridiculous”), and for a Key West that he felt, at times, was changing from authentic to commodity.

“You used to meet them all the time,” David said, “newcomers, writers, interesting people. But no one comes anymore.”

After surveying the rising waters on Eaton Street, David drove me back to my house on Love Lane. I’d been fascinated by the twists and turns of our conversation, and all the bits of Key West history he had revealed, and I asked if I could do a formal interview with him at some point.

“I’ll be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m rather overexposed already. At first you know it’s fun, and everybody likes a little acclaim, but after a while it starts to upset the neighbors.”

As the years went by, David’s oldest friends seemed to pass away one by one. Some time after Bill Wright died in 2016, David told me that he had never expected to live so long. It was lonely, at times. I could see that. Arriving at a friend’s party, filled with people, he joined me on a couch at the edge of the crowd and surveyed the room. “Who are these people?” he asked. But of course everyone knew who he was, and soon his many admirers were crowding around, patiently waiting their turn to share time—that ineffably precious resource—with David.

Photo by Michael Adno.

David introduced me to and made me welcome in the fascinating world that was his. He opened doors that have helped define my life and career. Through it all, he kept me laughing with his inimitable sense of humor, by turns cryptic, campy, wry, self-effacing, and bold. Over the past two years, with David occasionally having difficulty talking, a flurry of handwritten notes came in place of the usual phone calls. On my 38th birthday, a postcard from Ballast Key, showing a small boat at rest on a pile of jagged limestone—“I still remember the Ballast Key stone wall of Arlo”—a teasing joke, since Hurricane Ike had largely destroyed the wall I built and shifted John Malcolm’s beach yet again. Another postcard arrived soon after I took over the directorship of the Seminar, one that showed David at the beginning of the construction of the Pier House, standing in shorts and a t-shirt with the old Tony’s Fish Market hoisted high on blocks—“Arlo, it’s so great to have you where you belong. So hello, Dolly.” David even started emailing, surely one of the very few times someone opened a Gmail account at the age of 96. A stream of jokes and references followed from his iPad. There was a YouTube clip of Marlene Dietrich in concert, a selfie of David with someone’s dog in the driver’s seat of his vintage Excalibur (this to congratulate me for a talk I had given, saying “you don’t need a pup to charm an audience”), a simple photo of flowers on a table in that cathedral-like living room of his, and another selfie with his old friend, Mickey Wolfson, whose illustrious family history in Key West tracked David’s to the 1880s. “Wolf wolf,” he typed, and I could almost hear him laughing.

When I published a book last year that explores the roots of Key West’s Jewish community and the role played by David’s grandfather in its founding, David took on a new role as my biggest fan. “You have recreated Key West — a pioneer feast,” he wrote. “Even Tennessee Williams would be proud.” He bought dozens, maybe more than a hundred copies, throwing them over fences into the yards of his friends like a newspaper delivery boy. “Meanwhile I have raided Books & Books of Arlo,” he wrote me last winter, “not because I’m in it, but because I am not in it enough.”

David and I at a yard sale in 2013 — he ended up with the hat. Photo by Ashley Kamen.

Key West will go on, and David’s vision for it will continue to inspire me to work toward a more interesting island. But there will never be enough David here again. I will miss him a great deal.

One more memory. When Ashley and I were planning for our wedding in the spring of 2012, we knew exactly where we wanted to throw the party. There are a lot of beautiful old homes and gardens and venues in Key West, but there was only one place that, when you were there, you reliably felt that you didn’t want to be anywhere else, and you didn’t want the night to ever end.

“David’s penthouse,” Ashley said.

“But it’s David’s penthouse,” I said. I couldn’t imagine that our party could happen in a place that was so thoroughly David. And I couldn’t imagine asking him for something so personal. During the year I worked for David, there was an expression, a single word, actually, that he would deploy if you asked a question that was too personal, or if you said something within the hearing of someone who shouldn’t hear what you were saying.

“Seven,” David would say. And, only the very first time he said it, by way of explanation, “that’s a seven. Seven means don’t.”

I was sure that asking David if we could throw a party at the penthouse was a seven. But Ashley convinced me, and I picked up the phone.

“Hello,” David said.

“Hi David, it’s Arlo. Ashley and I are planning our wedding for the spring. We’re going to get married at the end of White Street Pier, and we’re looking for a place to hold the reception.”

“O.K.” he said, and paused.

“We thought of the penthouse. And we were wondering, I don’t know if you ever, if you would ever consider renting it to—”

“I wouldn’t,” David replied sharply. I knew it. It was too personal, too private a thing to ask. I felt my cheeks flush as I struggled to think of how to continue the conversation.

“O.K.,” I said. “I thought so. I just thought I’d ask—”

“I wouldn’t rent it,” he said now. “But I’d like for you and Ashley to have your wedding and spend the night there. As my guests. Of course.”

A toast to David on our wedding night, 2012. Photo by Nick Doll.

Friends and relatives from around the country flew in to join us and dozens of local friends “on the roof” at David’s penthouse. It rained all day, but the clouds broke before the ceremony to reveal a dazzling sunset. As we arrived at the party, stars were visible above the glow of Duval Street. David stayed home at Flagler Avenue that night, but his gift was all around us. Out-of-town guests were in awe—this is Key West? Where are we? Key West friends felt the same. They’d only ever heard of this place, and now they knew why. The handful of mutual friends of David’s and ours that attended, including a number of the writers I’d first met on the boat rides to Ballast Key, seemed impressed and proud. They had known me when. Now here I was with Ashley on our wedding night, a night that only David could have made possible, filled with the glamour that only David possessed.

I phoned David the next day to say thank you. “Don’t mention it,” he interrupted, as I tried to find the words to tell him how much it had all meant to us. “Let’s have lunch sometime soon.”



Arlo Haskell is executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar and author of The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969).


More about David Wolkowsky:

Joy Williams says Goodbye to Liz Lear


Liz Lear arrived in Key West in 1957 and soon became an essential member of Key West’s literary community. Liz was a vital presence during the early years of the Key West Literary Seminar and, until her death on December 15, 2017, served on our board of directors for nineteen years. On February 5, a memorial service was held in the gardens of the West Martello Tower. Tributes were made by friends and admirers including Ann Beattie, Lee Smith, Miles Frieden, Hal Crowther, and Joy Williams, whose eulogy is reproduced below:

Liz Lear

Liz had many, many friends and many of them were writers and artists. We were all together for a long moment that was our moment in Key West. It was the 70s and the 80s and the 90s and it was a wonderful improbable unfettered moment and Liz was at the very heart of it. She was an unabashed enthusiast of Key West. She wanted people of interest (in the way it should be defined) to love it here and buy houses here and have parties and be happy here. She brought us together and kept us together. When one wandered off—fame, trouble, a partner who hadn’t succumbed to the Rock’s singular charms, she was saddened, and tirelessly sought their return. We were her chicks, her dears.

I see her so vividly. (Of course she was immortalized in that long take in the classic flick The Key West Picture Show, on the beach, thoroughly applying suntan lotion.) I see her in her pretty dresses, her necklace of keys. Those keys! She was a divine hostess and a faithful friend. She bore the tragedy of her daughter Genevieve’s death with tremendous grace. Genevieve said she wanted a portion of her ashes scattered on “a friendly reef,” a phrase which Liz delighted in. Liz chose to be buried in the rocky earth. Because it harbors Liz, I can think of it as friendly ground.

A Psalm tells us: We are as grass in the morning, it flowers and grows—in the evening it is cut down and withers.

A Psalm tells us: We spend our years as a tale that is told.

If you’re not Bible-ey, there is the poet Phillip Larkin’s encapsulation of our dilemma, which is life:

And so unreal
A touching dream to which we are all lulled
But wake from separately

Goodbye Liz. You were such a large and essential part of our touching dream here. Miss you. Love you.



[ Joy Williams ]

Video: Jamaica Kincaid, “Let Me Appropriate You … And You Can Appropriate Me, Too”

Danticat, Dennis-Benn & Walcott-Hackshaw “Unpack Paradise”

By Ruby Blackerby Hernandez

“So I’m apparently from a shit hole country,” Edwidge Danticat announced in her opening remarks to Friday morning’s panel, “Unpacking Paradise: Writing Honestly About People and Place.” This sharp observation, a reference to President Trump’s recent vulgarities about Haiti, underscored the surreal timing of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, a time of racial backlash, but also frank and open discussion on identity and representation. The three panelists, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Danticat, discussed language as identity, the pressure to obscure less savory elements of island life and representation as an exile.

Walcott-Hackshaw, who is from Trinidad and served as moderator and panelist, questioned the concept of paradise. Paraphrasing Frantz Fanon, she suggested that the Caribbean, viewed by tourists as a simple paradise, possessed cracks in the edifice, adding, “If life is a broken vase pieced back together, I always felt myself more interested in the cracks.”

Danticat agreed, saying that the “issue of paradise is tricky for us.” Both Danticat and Dennis-Benn spoke extensively about the pushback they had received on their work, much of which explores working class Caribbean life and all of its complexity. Many have suggested that these women, as prominent writers living in the U.S., have a responsibility to depict their countries in a more positive light—to not “air the dirty laundry,” as Dennis-Benn put it. The panelists disagreed with this notion. “I love Jamaica enough to critique it,” Dennis-Benn said. “Who are these people behind the [paradise] fantasy? These people have lives.”

“Haiti used to be a place where people would speak about us,” Danticat said. In her view, reclaiming Haitian representation from the gaze of the tourist was more important than cherry-picking pleasant scenes. Ultimately, all three panelists subscribed to James Baldwin’s view: “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Ruby Blackerby Hernandez teaches film and media studies at a public arts high school in West Palm Beach, FL. She is particularly interested in the concept of geography and language as it affects storytelling. 

Jamaica Kincaid Considers the Question of Cultural Appropriation

By Sarah Thomas

Thursday evening, Jamaica Kincaid took the stage to deliver the John Hersey Memorial Address for the 36th annual Key West Literary Seminar: “Writers of the Caribbean.” Seminar president Diane Shelby welcomed guests and introduced the weekend in the spirit of “sharing the words of homelands that are not our own,” a particularly prescient mission in a time when “isolationism is gaining acceptance.”

The ideas of sharing and place factor deeply into Kincaid’s work, which she explored in her address, entitled “Let Me Appropriate You… And You Can Appropriate Me, Too.” She opened with the image of artist Dana Schutz’s controversial painting “Open Casket,” depicting the corpse of young Emmett Till.  In discussing cultural appropriation, Kincaid ultimately expressed gratitude to Schutz for bringing Emmett Till and his fiercely aggrieved mother, Mamie Till Mobley, back into the public consciousness and conversation.

Using both imagery and language, Kincaid offered a mosaic of the uniquely American practice of appropriation. She deliberated on these ideas through a variety of historic and literary lenses, including Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

In describing the experiences of African captives during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Kincaid affirmed that “it is in that moment that the reality of appropriation begins… in commodifying the body and the spiritual being.” She described Americas’ legacy of chattel slavery as the “existential attempt to kill a person, to obliterate a person,” which she identified as the seed for modern conversations about cultural appropriation.  Because of this “unspeakable theft,” Kincaid reasoned, “for which there has not been an apology or compensation… we are left to speak of such nonsense as appropriation.”

The address pivoted on a reading of the contrasting Declarations of Independence of the United States and Haiti.  While both nations gained independence by means of violent revolution, Kincaid’s linguistic analysis laid bare the differences between documents penned by free versus enslaved peoples. She credited the historic magnitude of the Haitian Revolution in her own writing as well as in the imaginations and work of fellow Caribbean writers.

Kincaid concluded with her own inspiration in the work of Charlotte Brontë, in particular, Jane Eyre, as a young girl in Antigua.  Citing Bronte as an imperative influence, Kincaid declared that, in moments of youthful mimicry, she had “appropriated her essence,” and offered the admission that “so much of what I am in the world I owe to her.” Kincaid’s exploration of Bronte suggested the value, and even necessity, of cultural exchange as part of forging an artistic identity.

In her conclusion, she asked her audience to consider the open wound on which America was built. While her assessment of the American legacy of cultural appropriation and slavery had teeth, Kincaid left us with this message: “All that we humans make belong to all of us, and we must take from each other in goodwill and with grace.  The only thing we must never, ever take from each other is freedom.”

John Malcolm Brinnin on Tennessee Williams – Archives

In 1986, the Fourth Annual Key West Literary Seminar was devoted entirely to the playwright Tennessee Williams. “Tennessee Williams in Key West” brought a number of Williams’s friends and associates to Key West, including publisher James Laughlin and playwright James Leo Herlihy. In preparation for his panel, “The Playwright as Poet,” John Malcolm Brinnin drafted a five-page manuscript on Williams. In the text, Brinnin recalls the first time he met Williams in Greenwich Village and likens the young playwright to a “shy child.” He then delves into what made Williams a “man who spoke from, and to, a broad seam of modern consciousness,” which Brinnin finds established Williams as a poet as much as he was a playwright.

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

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? Continue reading

2019 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship Winners

We are delighted to announce the winners of our 2019 Teacher & Librarian Scholarships!

Each year we recognize a diverse group of individuals who are making a positive impact on readers in their communities. We hope that participation in our literary community will inspire fresh engagement with literature in schools and libraries around the country. Scholarship recipients will gain exposure to contemporary authors and texts, expand their professional network of teachers, librarians, and writers, and be inspired to bring new ideas to the institutions and communities they serve.

We have selected the twenty-one dedicated teachers and librarians below to join us for the seminar in January. Thank you to everyone who applied, and congratulations to this year’s scholarship recipients!


Zain Abdullah teaches Religion and Society and Islamic studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he is an associate professor. He holds a doctorate degree in anthropology, and he writes about the Black experience and the human condition. His first book, Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem, is an ethnography written as creative nonfiction.


Michelle Alonso teaches language arts to tenth graders and composition to students at Miami Dade College. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Florida International University. In her master’s thesis, she discussed translation and influence in the work of Anne Carson, Canadian translator, poet, and novelist. She runs the National English Honors Society chapter at Mater Lakes Academy and has been a Florida High Impact Teacher for the past three years.


Jonathan De Young teaches writing and literature at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College. He studied poetry with Billy Collins in Key West, is a student at the University of Texas at El Paso’s MFA Online program, and wrote the nonfiction collection Any Day is Father’s Day. He lives in rural Pennsylvania with his wife and two teens.


Omar Figueras teaches at Miami Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus in Little Havana, where he is co-advisor to its student literary magazine, Urbana, and serves on the advisory board for Reading Queer. He grew up in Hialeah, Florida, and received his MFA degree in creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. He lives and writes in Miami Beach.


After studying the behavioral ecology of capuchin monkeys in the tropical dry forest, Kristin Fisher has gone on to teach middle school and high school in New York, California, and Oregon. She is especially interested in place-based outdoor school program designs and intersecting literature and printmaking processes with ecology. She holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Michigan.


Roxann Fournier, a native of Pennsylvania, has taught middle school and high school for fourteen years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communication, woman’s studies, and French from the George Washington University and her master’s degree in secondary education from Saint Joseph’s University. She is a highly qualified, reading-endorsed teacher and is affiliated with Teach for America. She loves to travel and has lived abroad.


Diane Hance is the librarian at Grisham Middle School in Austin, Texas. She is a National Board Certified teacher, is a member of the IB educator network, and is active in the Texas Library Association. She is passionate about making the library the heart of the school and is always looking for ways to create meaningful interdisciplinary learning experiences for her students.


Amber Karlins is a full-time instructor of English at Lake-Sumter State College, and she serves as a volunteer with the United Nations, where she develops written content for educational nonprofits in Nigeria. She is a summa cum laude graduate of the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in English and holds a master’s degree from Tufts University. She is an award-winning writer and the Association of Florida College’s 2017 Professor of the Year.


Cristy Moran is a faculty librarian at Broward College’s North Campus and serves both college and public library visitors to the joint-use North Regional/Broward College Library in Coconut Creek, Florida. A self-professed riot grrrl librarian, her professional interests lie at the intersection of critical pedagogy and information literacy. She works to develop student-centered programs and resources to support Broward College’s Education Pathway, the Minority Male Initiative, College Read, and any programs that create opportunity and equity among all members of her community.

Genevieve Morgan Key West

Genevieve Morgan teaches ninth grade and AP Literature at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California, where she tries to create a dialogue between texts such as the Odyssey and The Handmaid’s Tale and the popular culture her students swim in. Lately she has has been exploring ways to leverage technology and contemporary fiction to make the issues in class relevant to her twenty-first century learners. She is the winner of two NEH awards to study literature in France and Italy.


Patricia O’Connor is a librarian for DeKalb County School District, a large, urban Title I district in the Atlanta area. Throughout her career, she has taken on many job challenges, but has always returned to her passion for sharing the magic of literature with her students and their communities. She is currently developing a school library program that integrates the makerspace movement, arts, and technology with literature and literacy, with a special emphasis on folklore.


Karen Parkman teaches writing and composition at Kirkwood Community College. She has also taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. She received her MFA degree in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is at work on a novel.


Propelled into action as a New York City public school teacher and mother of a teenage daughter and middle-school-aged son, Connie Pertuz-Meza writes stories about her life, family, and ancestors. She is a staff writer for Hispanecdotes, a monthly online literary magazine. She is currently working on a semi-autobiographical young-adult novel and documents her life through personal essays on her blog.


Christal Raley is a twenty-five-year veteran teacher at Henry F. Moss Middle School. She has always taught her students that literature is the primary means by which we interpret the world and the human condition. She lives with her daughter and son in Bowling Green, Kentucky.


Andrea Rinard has been a high school English teacher in her native Florida for more than twenty-five years. Since 2015 she has been the subject area leader for English at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa, Florida. She is also a writer, and she has just completed her first novel. She is currently a student in the University of South Florida’s Graduate Certificate Program in Creative Writing.


Brittany Rogers teaches English language arts at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and is also a poet, mother, and Hufflepuff Head of House. She is co-chief editor of WusGood? and a reader for Muzzle magazine. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a fellow of VONA and Pink Door Writing Retreat.


Nona M. Shepherd teaches writing and literature at Northeast State Community College in rural Tennessee. An avid student and instructor of world mythology, she introduces her Appalachian students to ancient cultures and has taught Celtic and Greek mythos abroad. When she doesn’t have her nose in an epic or urban fantasy novel, she leads the international education programming on her campus.

copyright protected

As a public school librarian, Deirdre Sugiuchi seeks to foster a love of reading and writing in her students by seeking out current culturally relevant materials and books reflecting student interests in a variety of formats. She hosts author visits and develops and implements the Reading Rock Stars program, which recognizes and celebrates students for reading at home. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and son, where she’s also finishing Unreformed, her memoir about surviving and thriving after spending her adolescence incarcerated in Escuela Caribe, a fundamentalist Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic.


Jodi Turchin has been a secondary English teacher in Broward County, Florida, for the past fourteen years. When she’s not in a classroom, she’s writing young-adult novels or out in nature taking photographs. She has been passionate about the written word since she learned to read at three years old.


Emily Vizzo teaches English in an online public school that serves disadvantaged youth. She previously covered Congress for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, DC, and has written on topics including the San Diego biotech industry, corporate social justice, surf, the arts, education, business, and health. She has completed a novel, and her chapbook, Giantess, is forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2018. She serves as artist in residence with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.


Bobbie Warren is in her sixteenth year teaching English and AP Literature at Bentonville High School in Arkansas. She is National Board Certified, has been voted English Teacher of the Year, and has twice been elected Most Influential Teacher by her students. She is passionate about learning something new every day, about the power of literature to help us see the world through different lenses, and about empowering students through literature to become kind empathic adults who will do good in the world.

Recommended Reading for the 2019 Seminar

Under the Influence: Archetype and Adaptation from Homer to the Multiplex


Many of you have asked for a reading list to prepare for the upcoming presentations and panel discussions, so we’ve put together some recommendations from this year’s planning committee, as well as a sample book from each author that “fits” with this year’s topic.


Happy reading!

Recommended Reading

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle
A haunting and love-filled dark modern fairy tale, inspired in part by Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There. LaValle’s novel features the endearing hero, Apollo, a new father and rare book dealer from Queens, New York, who is forced into battle with the witches, trolls, and powerful supernatural forces that threaten his family. Atmospheric, spooky, and utterly compelling.
—Arlo Haskell, Executive Director, KWLS

March by Geraldine Brooks
The back story of not only Mr. March—the father of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—but also Marmee and Aunt March. In this engaging and empathetically written novel, we finally learn what Mr. March was up to during his long absence from Concord in Little Women—and are also given an intimate look at his love affair with Marmee. As Jo would say, “Hip hip, hooray!”
—Meg Cabot, 2019 Presenter and member of the Planning Committee

March by Geraldine Brooks
His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
If you’re a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series or the Horatio Hornblower books, check out Novik’s Temeraire series, best described as the Napoleonic Wars … with dragons. And these aren’t Game of Thrones dragons, either; they are highly intelligent creatures that can speak and reason, but are still fearsome warriors that can make a difference in a battle.
—Nancy Klingener, reporter for South Florida’s public radio station and secretary of KWLS Board of Directors

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
There’s so much action and snappy dialogue in this first book in the dystopian continuation of The Wizard of Oz series, you almost feel as if you’re watching a movie. (Author Paige wrote for the small screen before penning her first book.) Intended for a younger audience (readers 14 and up), the books can be enjoyed by adults who appreciate “edgier” content, as well.
—Meg Cabot

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
A take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this novel is a tale of theatrical ambition, vengeance, and redemption set largely in a Canadian prison instead of a tropical island. Both entertaining and moving, because what else would you expect from Atwood?
—Nancy Klingener

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS19” at checkout.

Other Books of Note

Circe by Madeline Miller – #1 New York Times Best Seller about the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey, Circe, daughter of Helios (god of the son and mightiest of the Titans).

Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates – an imaginative look at the last days of five giants of American literature—Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Edgar Allan Poe—each tale written in the style of the original author.

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn – the author’s true story of traveling with his father while reading the Odyssey.

House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara – the tale of gay and transgender club kids navigating the Harlem ball scene of the 1980s and ’90s, inspired by the documentary film Paris Is Burning.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin – a fresh twist on the classic Jekyll and Hyde story told from the perspective of Jekyll’s dutiful and intelligent housemaid.

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young – a nonfiction exploration of, among other things, how fictions and phonies have been reimagined as real life.

Avalon High by Meg Cabot – a modern retelling of the myth of King Arthur, set in a suburban high school.

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson – the first English rendering of the poem by a woman.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer – the tragicomic, retrofuturistic novel partly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and set in an alternate version of the mid-twentieth century.

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – Described as “The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina, nine decades later, with desperate black people.”

Lying with the Dead by Michael Mewshaw – a reimagining of The Oresteia trilogy in a Maryland suburb.

Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips – a poetry collection that swerves elegantly from humor to heartbreak, from Dante’s Paradise to Homer’s Iliad, from knowledge to ignorance to awe.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – You’ll have to wait until after the Seminar (release date: Feb. 5, 2019) to read the first book in James’s new fantasy trilogy, which draws on African legend and language in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien drew on Celtic and Norse mythology to create The Lord of the Rings.

Our website has more information about this year’s confirmed speakers. Click on the author’s photo and you’ll be taken to a page devoted solely to that author, with biographical information, selected reading lists, and links to videos and other online resources. This is an essential destination if you want to learn more about the 2019 presenters.

KWLS Alumni Newsletter Volume 2

Summer is kicking into full gear here in Key West: mangoes are falling from the sky, humidity is creeping up, and the ocean is calling louder day by day.

This newsletter brings updates from KWLS workshop alumni, former Emerging Writer Award winners, scholarship winners, and writers-in-residence.

We have a few exciting updates on our end, too. KWLS Executive Director Arlo Haskell was the recipient of the 2017 Florida Book Award (Philip and Dana Zimmerman Prize for Florida Nonfiction) for The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969). He and his wife Ashley are also celebrating the birth of their second daughter, Zadie Rae.

In addition, we are thrilled that the inaugural KWLS Young Writers Studio is now underway! Twelve lucky high school students from Key West to Key Largo are taking part in the free five-day writing program that features daily workshops with acclaimed author Victor LaValle and excursions in and around Key West.

Read on for KWLS alumni news, publications, awards, and more …

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS19” at checkout.

notable books

Jamel Brinkley (2016 KWLS Emerging Writer Award runner-up) is being hailed as a “major new voice in American fiction” (Paul Yoon). His debut collection, A Lucky Man (Graywolf, 2018), is a must-read.

“There’s just no way to overstate this: A Lucky Man is a stunning debut. Richer than most novels, this collection calls a whole world into being, and the names and fates of these people will follow you into your life and never leave. Ambitious themes arc across the entire book—troubled masculinity, family in all its broken forms—but on a lower frequency these are love stories, intimately told. And they could come from no other than Jamel Brinkley, so there’s the pleasure of that encounter too, of hearing a new voice for the first time, and taking a deep plunge into the allegory of an artist’s soul.”
—Charles D’Ambrosio, author of Loitering

Laura Catherine Brown (2016 Antonya Nelson workshop participant) launched her second novel, Made by Mary (C&R Press, 2017).

“A jaunty read about the way we live now. The way we get born, and reborn, and surrogately born. The way we make fun of our foibles and fads without losing sight of what is eternal and earnest: the desire to sustain the species, to love our family no matter how it came to be, no matter how it spirals into the infuriatingly silly or the inimitably sublime.”
– Antonya Nelson

John Findura (2017 Billy Collins workshop participant)Submerged (Five Oaks Press, 2017)

“John Findura’s Submerged is a series of short, clear meditations on the beauty, the power, and the terror of water. It’s a striking collection, reader-friendly, but unflinching in its treatment of personal fear and wonder.”
– Billy Collins

Christine Shan Shan Hou (2014 KWLS Scotti Merrill Memorial Award winner)Community Garden for Lonely Girls (Gramma Poetry, 2017)

“Hou… constructs a cultural and hereditary mythology in her second full-length collection. She opens, appropriately, with “All My Dead Ancestors Must Be Catered to as to Avoid Angry Ghosts” and builds on this theme in a section called “Family Teachings,” exploring her grandfather’s forced deportation from India to Tibet and his subsequent disappearance as well as her great-grandfather’s captivity during the Sino-Indian War.”
– Publishers Weekly

Patty Smith (2015 workshop participant, scholarship winner), debut novel — The Year of Needy Girls (Kaylie Jones Books, 2017)

“Smith shows us the power of fiction to fully describe the internal and external forces that set the scene for unfounded accusations… Smith shows us both the damage that will be ongoing and the revelations and growth that can arise out of ugly times. This is something to remember for the times ahead.”
– Lambda Literary

forthcoming publications

Katya Apekina (2018 Joy Williams workshop participant, scholarship winner), debut novel — The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish (Two Dollar Radio, 2018). Now available for pre-order.

“…An engrossing debut—Apekina’s brilliant story of a family in crisis is a remarkable feat of empathy and insight, guided by unpredictable, propulsive storytelling … I can’t believe this remarkable tour de force is a first novel.”
—J. Ryan Stradal, author of the New York Times bestseller, Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Julian Randall (2017 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop participant, scholarship winner) won the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize (selected by Vievee Francis) for his first book of poems, Refuse, which will be released in September through University of Pittsburgh Press. Randall is also the recent recipient of a Pushcart Prize.

Not merely a story of the wound but the salve, Refuse is a poetry debut that accepts that every song must end before walking confidently into the next music.

Maria Anderson (2016 KWLS workshop participant) has a story forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2018, selected by Roxane Gay.

Joshua Bodwell’s (2015 KWLS Marianne Russo Award winner) personal essay “The Encyclopedia of I Don’t Know”—about his drunkard stepfather, mistakes made while he was a teenage skateboarder, and, yes, a set of encyclopedias purchased from a door-to-door salesman in the late 1980s—will appear in SLICE magazine‘s “Flight” themed issue this fall.

Andrew Brilliant’s (2017 Marie Myung-Ok Lee workshop participant) story “The Man Who Thought He Loved A Woman,” will be published in the Tishman Review in July.

Jen Logan Meyer’s (2018 Joy Williams workshop participant) story “The Woodpecker” is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review.

Emily Vizzo’s (2017 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop participant) chapbook Giantess will be published this summer from YesYes Books. Several of the poems within were workshopped at KWLS.

recent publications

Anthony DiPietro (2018 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop participant, scholarship winner) has published several poems and his first personal essay since attending KWLS in January (links to all publications can be found at

Beatriz F. Fernandez (2016 KWLS Campbell McGrath workshop participant), published her second chapbook, The Ocean Between Us (Backbone Press, 2017). It includes three poems workshopped at KWLS.

Lara Lillibridge’s (2018 Daniel Menaker workshop participant) memoir, Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, debuted in April with Skyhorse Publishing.

Eva Poole-Gilson (2017 Daniel Menaker workshop participant) recently published Whiskered Wisdom: stories, poems, and photos of the cats who’ve shared the author’s life.

Bruce Robinson (2018 Billy Collins workshop participant) had poems in the May issues of Panoply and South Florida Poetry Review, and has work forthcoming in Panoply, Red Earth Review, and Pangyrus, the latter a direct result of scurrilous accusations hurled at the poem (and taken to heart) in Key West this past January.

Kristine Simelda (2018 Naomi Jackson workshop participant), published two pieces in the Spring 2018 issue of Interviewing the Caribbean: the short story “Go-Go,” which addresses child bullying in sports, and “Restoring Eden,” a hurricane memoir.

Arida Wright’s (2018 Manuel Gonzales workshop participant) poems were recently included in the anthology Poetry in the Palm Garden.

recommended quick reads

Mike Adno’s (2018 KWLS Writer-in-Residence) “The Short & Brilliant Life of Ernest Matthew Mickler” — the fascinating story of the man behind 1986’s White Trash Cooking.

Sara Johnson Allen’s (2018 KWLS Marianne Russo Award winner) story “The Reader in the Square” — a finalist in SmokeLong Quarterly’s Award for flash fiction.

Jess Fenn’s (2017 Marie Myung-Ok Lee workshop participant; scholarship winner) story “Athena Dreams of a Hollow Body.” It was selected by Junot Díaz for inclusion in Global Dystopias, a themed issue of the Boston Review.

awards and residencies

Elizabeth DeWolfe (2015 KWLS writer-in-residence) was awarded a scholarship from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance to attend the 2017 SLICE Literary Conference.

George Guida (2018 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop participant) was a runner-up for the Foundlings Press Chapbook Contest for Zen of Pop, a collection of poems, a few of which will appear in Foundlings magazine this summer.

Kelly Fordon’s (2018 Joy Williams workshop participant) novel-in-stories, Garden for the Blind, was chosen as a 2016 Michigan Notable Book, a Foreword Review Indiefab finalist, a Midwest Book Award finalist, an Eric Hoffer Award finalist, and an IPPY bronze medalist.

Dantiel W. Moniz (2018 KWLS Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award winner) will be a 2018 Tin House Scholar for the summer workshop.

Janet Moore (Mary Kay Zuravleff workshop participant) earned third prize in the 2018 Fish Publishing International Short Story Competition for “Beatitudes,” a short story that was first critiqued at KWLS. “Beatitudes” will appear in the 2018 FISH Anthology when it debuts in July.

Joshunda Sanders (2016 workshop participant) was recently awarded a Bronx Recognizes Its Own (BRIO) award from the Bronx Council on the Arts.

Ted Wheeler’s (2014 KWLS Marianne Russo Award winner) story “Little Me” was a finalist for Narrative Magazine‘s 2017 Fall Story Contest. His novel Kings of Broken Things is a finalist for the 2018 Omaha Reads program.

other news

Maija Devine (2017 Billy Collins workshop participant) has been living in Seoul for the past ten months and has written several poems and published a number articles, including “Who Could Have Saved Sewol?” in The Korea Times.

Abigail Fine (2016 Kristen-Paige Madonia workshop participant) was accepted to a PhD Program in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. She will be looking at Cinderella adaptations for children, fashion, and literature as a site of teaching (dis)obedience.

Ron Houchin (2016 Jane Hirshfield workshop participant) has been leading writing workshops for middle and high school students in Sparta, NC, and recently taught a workshop for the Alleghany Writers of Sparta. He was also interviewed by Eliot Parker on the YouTube show Chapters.

Dan Ornstein (Mary Morris, Madeleine Blais, and Billy Collins workshop participant) recently signed a book contract with the Jewish Publication Society, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, for Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama.

Sarah Sorensen (2018 Madison Smartt Bell workshop participant, scholarship winner) will be attending Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in the South 2018 in support of her novella-in-progress, Sunshine Highway.

Terri Steel (2018 Naomi Jackson workshop participant) recently participated in a 1,200 mile-long charity bike ride from Baltimore to Key West. The annual Key2Keys ride raises awareness for young adult cancer and benefits The Ulman Cancer Foundation. Read about her journey.


We love hearing what KWLS alumni are up to!
Keep us up-to-date by sending your latest news to mail (at)

From Appalachia to the Caribbean: Writing Toward a Cultural Connection at KWLS

Teacher and Librarian Scholarship recipient Amy Clark and her husband at the 2018 Key West Literary Seminar.

By Amy D. Clark

My husband and I are on a plane to Key West, where I am participating in this year’s Key West Literary Seminar as a Teacher and Librarian Scholarship winner. The theme is “Writers of the Caribbean,” and we will be joined by writers like Jamaica Kincaid (born in Antigua), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), and Marlon James (Jamaica.)

I went to Key West with the understanding that I was learning and thinking from a position of white privilege, having grown up in a culture seemingly far-removed from those represented in the literature of this seminar. But I was also seeking a connection-however tenuous-between my rural Appalachian culture and theirs. Later, I realized that very connection may be the question of appropriation, and whether it can be both theft and tribute.

During the flight, I take a break from reading James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings to watch an episode of Dave Chappelle’s new standup series on Netflix. Some in his audience may think him crude, but social justice issues are often at the core of Chappelle’s monologues. In this particular episode, Chappelle tells the story of Emmet Till, a 14 year-old black boy from Chicago who visited his cousins in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was brutally murdered by four white men after a woman accused him of whistling at her outside a store; many years later, she admitted to having lied. Till’s mother demanded an open casket funeral to show the world what those men had done to her son.

Chappelle credits this event for being one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. That moment in history, he says, is likely one of the reasons he is able to live the life he chooses to live, particularly as an artist.

Later that evening, Jamiaca Kincaid, a native of Antigua, stands in the San Carlos Institute of Key West, to a standing-room only audience. Her keynote is titled “Let Me Appropriate You… and You Can Appropriate Me, Too.” Coincidentally, she opens with an image of a controversial painting by white artist Dana Shultz… a painting inspired by Emmet Till’s funeral. It is aptly titled “Open Casket.” Shultz was heavily criticized for the painting, with some even calling for her to destroy it.

Kincaid’s goal is not to join those who have vilified Shultz and her work in the past year but to thank her, she says, “for making me think about things.” She points out how the work keeps Till’s story alive, a story that might otherwise be lost. She also praises Dave Chappelle’s monologue about Emmet Till, the same monologue I watched on the plane, as one that “brilliantly” honors Mamie Till’s brave decision.

In the cases of both artists, one black and one white, Kincaid has re-conceptualized what some would call appropriation as “tribute.”

My first visit to Key West was for our destination wedding in 2007, a stop on our way to Mexico. We were dropped in the middle of touristy Mallory Square. Nearby Duval street is a bazaar of pulsing music and lights, of merchandise that packages the Caribbean in its trinkets. Key rings with bottle openers (because “everyone drinks here”) and flip-flop refrigerator magnets (because “no one wears real shoes here.”) As my husband and I walk around, I point out that Duval Street is the Pigeon Forge of Key West; it reminds me of the Smoky Mountain main drag where millions of tourists come to experience Appalachia. If you are not from Appalachia, and you expect to see images of barefoot hillbillies in overalls and moonshine stills, they can all be found on the same street (and much more.)

In places that depend on tourism, this is what sells.

When Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat takes the stage at the San Carlos Institute, she says that there is pressure on writers of the Caribbean to “show the beaches” in their work. In other words, paint the portrait that everyone expects. When I finally meet Danticat, I explain that writers from Appalachia face a similar problem. We work hard to explore complexity, to remove ourselves from the singular images people have gathered from media.

I worry, though, that my attempt to connect is feeble. While I am not trying to compare Appalachia’s issues to those facing writers of color, I can identify with some of what they say. When the writers talk about their vernacular dialects being disparaged, about not seeing themselves in the literature they read as children, their words resonate. I want to tell her that I felt the same way as a rural Appalachian child.

Dandicat asks me what I think of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir set in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky. While it has sold well since its publication, it has been quite controversial among residents of the region. Vance has been accused of appropriating a culture that is not rightfully his and a word he cannot rightfully claim.

I tell her that for many in Appalachia, Vance’s bestselling memoir about his childhood seemed to package all of the elements of the hillbilly image and everything associated with it into one sensational bootstrap narrative. Many worry, now that Ron Howard is making a film of the book, that the complexities of the region are missing from Vance’s work, and that his story places too much blame on the people and not those who have historically exploited them.

She nods. “That’s what I thought,” she says.

People expect the “pearl,” Dandicat later says from a panel discussion during which she talks of her native Haiti. The paradise. Not everyone appreciates writers who explore a culture’s complexities, warts and all. For those of us in the Appalachian region,  it is the opposite. No one wants the pearl. They want hillbillies (or their idea of what hillbillies look and sound like.)

To truly know a place and its culture is to explore its history and its graveyards. Key West’s historical archives, housed in the Monroe County Public Library, reveals what you won’t find in its touristy areas: maps of the city from the late 19th century (consultation required by homeowners who want to renovate), a clutch of family recipes (the original “Conch Chowder” and Key Lime Pie, collected from estate sales and church cookbooks), Hemingway’s galleys and a zoology notebook. The Key West cemetery, just a couple of blocks away, quietly tells the stories of the city’s migration patterns, its religions, its influences, its maritime disasters.

On my walk to the cemetery, I notice a large, ornate building that appears to be abandoned. It looks as though it could have been a hospital or a school at one time. A for sale sign is nearly hidden among the weeds. Back at the historical archive, I ask the librarian about it.

“It’s up for 15 million,” she says, her eyes sweeping the tiny room filled to capacity with Key West’s history. Just that morning they had avoided a near-catastrophic leak in their vault that could have ruined some of the delicate artifacts in storage there. “We would love to have that building. We could use the space.” But at that price, Key West’s history will have to stay in the vault a bit longer.

I happen to be reading Joan Didion’s essay “Notes from a Native Daughter,” about her home place of Sacramento. In it, she writes about the Sacramento she knows in sharp contrast to the one people think they know, or perhaps the only one they care to know.  “What matters is the feeling,” she writes, “the knowledge that where the green hops once grew is now Larchmont Riviera, that what used to be the Whitney ranch is now Sunset City, thirty-three thousand houses and a country-club complex.” She wonders how generations beyond hers, who do not care to look past the main drag, will ever find its history. “They will have lost the real past,” she says, “and gained a manufactured one.”

Perhaps this is cultural appropriation at its worst, selling a manufactured version of a people or place that outsiders will believe is the truest version.  Poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips says that a place like the Caribbean is about “movement…the movement of the natural world [and] when you commodify it, it’s suddenly in stasis, no longer moving, which is a confusing thing for its residents” whose identities may be bound up in a place, its food ways, its dialects, its music.

Cultural appropriation may, as Jamaica Kincaid points out, make us “think about things.” It drives us look into historical events, into cemeteries, hole-in-the-wall eateries, the places and people you’ll find just “a few miles out of town,” Didion says, that may otherwise be lost to history.