Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.
Photo courtesy Florida Keys Public Libraries: Betty Suarez's third grade class, Reynolds Elementary School, 1965-66. Gift Lisa Suarez.

While summer is fast approaching, we’re eagerly looking ahead to the winter when we’ll be launching the 40th annual Seminar and Workshop Program. Our big news is that we’ll be running the Seminar and Workshops concurrently. Also, the Seminar will take place at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater — a spectacular outdoor venue in the award-winning Truman Waterfront area.

Here is the latest news from our alumni community. As Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is contagious – pass it on.” We hope you’ll find this news as inspiring as we do.

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS22” at checkout.

featured achievements

Nishanth Injam has secured a two book deal, in a pre-empt, from Pantheon. His debut short story collection, The Best Possible Experience, follows characters in contemporary India and its diaspora and the people and places they call home. His novel, Endless, is about a family in Telangana, India, and explores the themes of addiction, caretaking, betrayal, forgiveness, and the limitations of love. (Laura van den Berg 2022/ Emerging Writer Award winner 2021)

Sarah Cypher‘s debut novel, The Skin and its Girl, sold at auction to Ballantine books for publication in April 2023. It’s the story of a girl born with cobalt-blue skin to a Palestinian-American family on the night their ancestral soap factory in Nablus is destroyed in an air strike.

Sarah’s story “Abu Hani’s Middle Eastern Foods and Gifts” was published in the current issue of New Ohio Review(Diana Abu-Jaber 2016)

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel The Evening Hero, will be published in May by Simon & Schuster. It is currently Goodreads’ #1 Most anticipated literary fiction title. Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, the novel is a sweeping, moving, darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.(Workshop faculty 2017/ Writer in Residence 2016)

Diana Abu-Jaber’s newest novel, Fencing with the King, was just released. The book follows Amani, an American writer, as she accompanies her father to a duel with the King of Jordan. Amani has a secret letter from a grandmother she never knew and she is on a mission to learn what’s kept her father from his homeland for 35 years. “A rare pleasure. Abu-Jaber’s rich characters live and breathe around you, and her nuance and wit bring the largest themes to irresistible, present life,” says bestselling author Claire Messud. (Writer in Residence 2019 & 2018/ Workshop faculty 2016)


Ginny Connors‘s latest collection of poetry, Without Goodbyes: From Puritan Deerfield to Mohawk Kahnawake, was published by Turning Point in December 2021. The book looks at a historic event through the perspective of poetry, attempting to get to the emotional heart of the story. Watch the book trailer(Dara Weir 2019)

Vicky Lettmann recently published a collection of poems titled Listening to Chopin Late at Night(Gregory Pardlo 2019/ Dani Shapiro 2017/ Jane Hirshfield 2015)

Annie Klier Newcomer‘s poetry chapbook, Comets: Relationships That Wander, was published by Finishing Line Press in February. (Billy Collins 2020)

Elaine Alarcon Totten‘s workshop (called the Cigar Factory Poets and launched after her workshop experience in Key West) had poems published in Pandemic Puzzle Poems by Blue Light Press. (Jennine Capó Crucet 2017 / Billy Collins 2020)

Micah Zevin published his first book of poetry, Metal, Heavy (Olena Jennings), during the pandemic. (Jane Hirshfield 2015)

novels & collections

Maryka Biaggio’s novel The Point of Vanishing was recently published by Sunbury Press. It’s based on the true story of child prodigy author Barbara Follett, who disappeared in 1939. (Alan Cheuse 2009)

Pamela Braswell was interviewed on Legal Link podcast in February about her book Rising from Rape: A Memoir of Survival and Justice(Susan Shreve 2016)

Robert Granader‘s short stories, collected in his book Writing in the Q, were published in various literary journals during the pandemic and sprung from a need to say something during this period when schools closed, kids moved back home, offices went empty, and Starbucks delivered coffee at the curb. (Jennine Capó Crucet 2017)

Kristine Simelda‘s latest novel, Rise Up, Sista, a fifty-year saga that chronicles turbulent times for women in the music industry in the U.K. and Jamaica, was released in November by TouchPoint Press. (Naomi Jackson 2018/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2018)

Cynthia Simmons was interviewed on public radio station WPSU about her novel Wrong Kind of Paper, which came out last year from Sunbury Press. The host described it as “part thriller, part romance, and part media commentary.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee 2017/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2017)

The audiobook for Jodi Weiss‘s novel, From Comfortable Distances, went live in January, narrated by Molly Secours. (Lee Smith 2015/ Susan Shreve 2014/ Porter Shreve 2011)

short fiction & articles

Daniel Levin Becker’s What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, a collection of short, interwoven critical essays, was released in February by City Lights. The New York Times called it “an often hilarious, surprisingly moving, and always joyful paean to rap’s relationship to words.” (Writer in Residence 2020)

Adela Brito‘s short story “Babalú Blessings” was recently published in Litbreak Magazine(Naomi Jackson 2018/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2018)

Alicia Eler’s first book, The Selfie Generation, received a shout-out in Men’s Health UK. As the visual art critic/reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune, she was invited to participate in Hyperallergic‘s special Sunday edition “Critics on Pandemic TV,” for which she wrote the essay “Being a Queer WOC in the Art World, as Seen on TV.” (Writer in Residence 2022)

Pamela Gay‘s flash fiction piece “Space: A Long Story Short” was published in Midway Journal in October. (Dani Shapiro 2017/ Antonya Nelson 2016/ Madeleine Blais 2014)

Aaron Hamburger has a new short story “Simple Past Present Perfect” in the spring issue of the Massachusetts Review(Writer in Residence 2018)

Evelyn Krieger‘s essay “Losing My Words” was published in the new anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving, Loss and Healing. (David Treuer 2022/ Workshop Fellowship Award 2022)


Laura Albritton‘s Historic Lighthouses of the Florida Keys, co-authored with Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, was released by Arcadia Publishing in November. Laura’s documentary short film Adventures in History, which she produced and wrote, will be screened at the Georgia Shorts Film Festival in Atlanta in May. (Writer in Residence 2017 & 2019)

awards & miscellaneous

Ashley Bidwell will be a keynote speaker at the 2022 National Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) Conference in Orlando, and her writing will be turned into a presentation inspiring and educating an audience of math researchers and enthusiasts. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2020)

Aurora Dominguez won Teacher of the Year for the 2022 school year at Boca High School. She is slated to attend Oxford University to study English Literature for three weeks this summer, and was one of 50 teachers chosen in the U.S. to visit Disney’s Imagination Campus in late May. (Teacher & Librarian Scholarship 2019)

Janice Gary recently presented “Finding Your Voice,” the inaugural workshop of “The New 40,” a yearlong writing mentorship program for Jewish women over forty from Lilith magazine. (Emily Raboteau 2019/ Paulette Alden 2015 & 2014)

Maija Makinen‘s short story collection, The Ghosts of Other Immigrants, has won the New American Fiction Prize and will come out in 2023 from New American Press. A short story with the same title is included in Short, Vigorous Roots, an anthology of migrant writing from Ooligan Press that was released in March. Maija is currently in residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. (Emily Raboteau 2019)

We love hearing from KWLS alumni! Keep us up to date by sending your latest news to [email protected].

Billy Collins. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Gina Elia

On Sunday afternoon at the public session of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, connecting to this year’s theme of Desire, was quick to point out that he is not a sexy writer, nor does he focus on romance. Yet with his trademark understatement, the poems he read aloud exuded a steamy sensuality. Passion, his poems suggested, is best expressed through evasion, leveraging images and textures to dance around desire, rather than stating it explicitly.  

His poem “Searching” describes a narrator who has stayed up late poring over texts about Barcelona, not out of interest in the city, but out of love for one of its inhabitants, an albino gorilla named Snowflake. 

In “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” the speaker describes peeling clothing off the nineteenth-century poet in obsessive detail, from her “tippet made of tulle” to the “mother-of-pearl buttons down the back” to the “clips, clasps, and moorings, / catches, straps, and whalebone stays” of her undergarments. 

In “Victoria’s Secret,” with equally rapt attention to the technicalities of garments, he  juxtaposes the supposedly sensuous expressions of Victoria’s Secret catalog models with overly detailed descriptions of their skimpy garb: “Go ahead, her expression tells me, / take off my satin charmeuse gown / with a sheer, jacquard bodice / decorated with a touch of shimmering Lurex.” Collins purposely kills any potential for desire with our ad-driven culture’s insistence on overstimulating potential buyers with objects for sale—while winkingly building a bond with the listener. 

Desire is big and unruly and messy, Collins’ entire reading seemed to say, and less is more when trying to encapsulate it in words. Suggestion, rather than definition, trusts readers to fill in the gaps. In that, we find satisfaction. 

Gina Elia is a high school Chinese teacher in the greater Miami region. She has published several freelance articles in publications including SupChina and Taiwan’s CommonWealth.

Deesha Philyaw. Photo by Michael Blades.

By Jennifer Tianen

Deesha Philyaw, a self-proclaimed daughter of Florida, grew up in Jacksonville as a member of Generation X. On Sunday morning, she took to the stage in Key West to read from her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Its nine stories follow four generations of Black women bound by double standards, and the church’s expectations of what makes for a “good woman.” Philyaw has been invited by several Black women pastors to speak to book clubs around the country and noted that her work had been well received by church folks. 

From “Eula,” her story of Eula and Colletta, she recounted two best friends in their thirties still looking for the “perfect” husbands they had dreamed about since high school. Plot twist: Each year on New Year’s Eve, the two women rent a hotel room and spend the night making love, never to speak of it again the rest of the year. 

From “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” a love story between an art teacher and a physicist, Philyaw shared, “How do you make love to a physicist? When he unbuttons your blouse and asks, ‘Are we going to be the type of people who sit around talking about Rumi and black holes, or are we going to get naked?’, you answer, ‘Both.’” In the Q&A session that followed her talk, Philyaw revealed that this story was inspired by a real-life but unrequited attraction Philyaw had to a physicist. She interviewed him about black holes and reconciling his religious upbringing with scientific work. 

An audience member responded to a story excerpt including this line—“I don’t care why your wife won’t fuck you properly”—by asking if Philyaw’s parents had read her work. Poignantly, she explained that her mother passed away in 2005 at the age of 52 due to breast cancer. After losing her mother, “the love of her life,” Philyaw left the church, finding it only to be a series of rituals. Since the pandemic, Philyaw now finds a measure of peace in African diasporic religious practices.

Having been raised by her mother and her grandmother, both of whom are deceased, she believes that she cannot afford to squander the time she has. She takes a “zero fucks approach” to her writing and believes it is a privilege to write what she wants to write. Writing is play, experimentation, and the process of discovering, she said. She is determined not to be daunted by any kind of literary gatekeeping. Her mother and grandmother, Philyaw notes, spent their lives in servitude to other people, including her. She writes in their memory and honor.

Jennifer Tianen (McQuillan) is a veteran English teacher and Literary Gardener at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield, MI. She uses plants significant to authors and their works to help bring literature to life for her students and the community around her.

KWLS at Key West Amphitheater. Photo by Nick Doll.

By Ali Banach

The question of firsts has reverberated among authors this weekend. The importance of firsts comes up often in stories about sexual desire: first kiss, loss of virginity, coming out, sexual awakening. During her conversation with Jami Attenberg, Judy Blume brought up a question she had previously been asked: “Who was your first lover?” To which she recalls responding, “Me.” 

This question was adopted by Eileen Myles in their dialogue with Jericho Brown. Brown responded with the name of a boy he met in college. “I would literally break out in hives,” he said of this first love. Myles responded, firmly, that their own first lover was the fictional character Peter Pan.

As a first-time attendee, I have been thinking a lot about firsts over the past couple of days. This is my first time visiting Key West, my first time at the Key West Literary Seminar. As a young person—a college undergrad—at the Seminar, I understand that I am witnessing a gathering with a storied tradition. 

An attendee sitting behind me remarks to the person in the next seat, “I’m assuming you’ve been here before.” Yes, ten times. “I think this will be my 28th.” I turned 23 two weeks ago. 

To be in college is to be surrounded by young people at all times. There is a language that forms between youth, derived from intense Internet use and shared references and spaces. However for most of the seminar, I turned off my phone and listened to people older than I am speak precisely about sex, desire, longing, firsts, and God.

For a seminar on Desire, I was surprised at the frequency and intensity of religious discussion. Maybe this indicates a generational division; I first understood sexual desire through the Internet rather than the Church. When I think about desire, my mind does not jump to God, but each author, in their own way, spoke to the inextricability of spiritual and erotic desire. These modes of wanting are sometimes in tension, sometimes aligned, but always rubbing up against each other.

In conversation with Jami Attenberg, Deesha Philyaw said, “The Church is obsessed with sex.” Obsession is, of course, the most intense form of Desire. Philyaw expands the definition of the desired here to things prohibited, feared, obstructed.

In a similar vein, Lauren Groff discusses her obsession with religion as a child of parents from Amish and Mennonite backgrounds. Fervency became translated, she explains, into literature. This translation makes sense to me, as we all convene to think about language and stories, to listen in for what might pique our own fervency. I begin to understand the tents of the Seminar as a type of church where we gather, young and old, to ritualize the celebration of reading and writing toward, away from, and around our own desires.

Ali Banach is a writer from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

We are honored and excited to announce this year’s recipients of the Emerging Writer Awards, which recognize emerging writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers. The winners will join us in Key West for the 2022 Seminar:

The Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award for a short story goes to Christine Vines; the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry goes to Gabriel Mundo; and the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress goes to Melanie Pappadis Faranello.

A jury made up of past award winners, KWLS board members and staff, and trusted readers reviewed hundreds of entries this year over the course of multiple rounds. The overall quality of the manuscripts submitted was extremely high this year.

Congratulations to Christine, Gabriel, and Melanie!

for a short story

Christine Vines is a fiction writer from Wichita, Kansas. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in One StoryWitnessBOMBJoylandElectric Literature, and the Chicago Tribune, where it was a runner-up for the Nelson Algren Literary Award. She was a 2018 W.K. Rose Fellow in Creative Arts at Vassar College, a 2018–19 Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University, the 2020 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellow at Carson McCullers Center, and a writer-in-residence at the Hambidge Center and elsewhere.

Vines received an MFA degree from Cornell University and has taught English and creative writing at Cornell, San José State University, and the Telluride Association. For four years she ran the Fiction Addiction reading series in New York City.

Our judge, Cecelia Johnson, said of Christine’s winning story: “The author has a very firm grip and expresses with great narrative skill … the young protagonist’s interior psychological point of view.”

for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

Gabriel Mundo is the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in the small town of Highwood, Illinois. A first-generation college graduate, he holds a bachelor’s degree in English and writing from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He is currently an MFA degree candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi.

His work can be found in Tint JournalPlainsongsBarzakhUp the Staircase Quarterly, and elsewhere.

In picking Gabriel as the winner, Billy Collins wrote: “Whether the tone is comforting or terrifying, these poems have a quiet power that derives from their being anchored in the unmistakably real world and spoken in plain language by this charming, clear-eyed poet.”

for a novel-in-progress

Melanie Pappadis Faranello received her MFA degree in creative writing from the New School and has attended Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is the founder of the public art project Poetry on the Streets, LLC.

Her writing has been published in BlackbirdHuffPost PersonalFifth Wednesday JournalLiterary MamaRequited, and Connotation Press, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, shortlisted for Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and named a finalist for the Dana Award and for the novel category of the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She is the recipient of an individual artist fellowship grant from the Connecticut Office of the Arts and is a Creative Community Fellow with National Arts Strategies.

Originally from Chicago, Faranello works as a teaching artist, and lives with her family in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has completed two novels and a collection of short stories.

Carol Balick, one of our judges, said of Melanie’s novel-in-progress: “Beautiful writing, so spare, yet rich with emotion. I hope it is published so I can read on.”

Winners of the Emerging Writer Awards receive full tuition to the Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program, round-trip airfare, full lodging support, a $500 honorarium, and the opportunity to appear on stage during the Seminar. We will begin accepting submissions for EWA 2023 in March 2022.

2022 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship Winners

We are thrilled to once again recognize a group of individuals who are making positive impacts on readers in their communities. We are pleased to offer these talented educators and librarians full scholarships to our annual Seminar. We hope and believe that participation in our vibrant literary community inspires fresh engagement with literature in schools and libraries around the country.

Thank you to all who applied, and congratulations to this year’s outstanding teacher & librarian scholarship recipients!

Kristie Camp

Kristie Camp is a National Board Certified instructor in her twenty-fifth year of teaching English language arts at Gaffney High School in South Carolina. She is pursuing a doctorate degree in language and literacy, and she hopes to continue investigating the intersectionality between outdoor experiences and literacy in her classroom. Her professional mission centers on helping students craft their unique voices for self-expression and social advocacy.

Christopher Cussat, photo by Megan Gardner

Christopher Cussat is an adjunct professor of English and literature at American Public University/American Military University, an online higher degree program accommodating adult learners, full-time military personnel, veterans, and others. Cussat’s goal is to instill a love of reading, grow an appreciation of literature, develop critical and analytical skills, and increase confidence in writing and communication in his students.

Gina Elia

Gina Elia teaches Mandarin Chinese and English as a second language at North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Florida. She integrates her love for literature-based inquiry into her teaching, so language learning becomes not simply an exercise in grammar drills and vocab memorization, but rather a rich locus of discussion. This gets her students talking and using the language right away, while connecting it to ideas that are relevant to their lives.

Karen Hillgrove

Karen Hillgrove teaches eighth grade language arts at Horace O’Bryant School in Key West, Florida. She builds learning environments where students are encouraged to think, collaborate, and create. She fosters effective, differentiated learning for all students. Originally from Pittsburgh, Hillgrove loves the richly diverse school and island community she now calls home.

Crystal Hurd, photo by Aaron Hurd

Crystal Hurd is a teacher, academic collaborator, and artful conspirator from Bristol, Virginia. She teaches at her alma mater, Virginia High School, where she instructs English, dual-enrollment British literature, and creative writing courses, as well as serving as a teacher consultant for the Appalachian Writing Project. Her goal is to help students find significance in art and use that creative energy to enrich and uplift their communities.

Alissa Landram

Alissa Landram is a senior library manager in Savannah, Georgia. Her professional passions include musical storytelling, community partnership opportunities, and emphasis on the importance of public libraries as community fixtures. She holds an undergraduate degree from Armstrong State University and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of South Carolina.

Kaitlin Malixi

Kaitlin Malixi worked in public libraries for more than ten years before she began teaching high school English. She holds master’s degrees in education and library and information science. Literacy and spreading the joy of reading to others is her biggest passion.

Sarah McCartt-Jackson

Sarah McCartt-Jackson is an elementary school teacher and poet. She works primarily with emergent readers, connecting urban students to the world through community-based poetry experiences. She credits her poetry career to supportive teachers, and she aims to enrich student learning and lives through the power of words to inspire the next generation of writers.

Candace McDuffie, photo by Daniel Irvin

Candace McDuffie is an educator and cultural critic whose first book, 50 Rappers Who Changed the World: A Celebration of Rap Legends, was published in 2020. Her classes—primarily nonfiction and memoir—focus on the power of vulnerability and elevating the voices and experiences of marginalized groups. McDuffie’s work has been featured in Rolling StoneNewsweek, and Glamour, and on MTV.

Jamie Odeneal, photo by Quinn Odeneal

Jamie Odeneal is a reader, writer, and National Board Certified teacher who works with adult English learners at Arlington Community High School in Virginia. Her students come from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and she is always looking for fresh, inspiring literature that will connect them as a learning community. She is passionate about helping her students find their voices in English so they can shape and share their own stories, as well.

Jacqueline Patterson, photo by Linda Shonning

Jacqueline Patterson is proudly serving her twenty-second year at Plantation Key School in Tavernier, Florida. She has taught middle school and special education for most of her career and is currently serving as a literacy coach. She especially enjoys cultivating students’ interests in reading and writing, advocating for vulnerable students, and going above curriculum to make connections with students and staff. She enjoys photography and writing poetry in her free time.

Reisa Plyer, photo by David Vance

Reisa Plyler is a thirty-three-year veteran English teacher from Miami. She was the founding advisor for the Dave Barry Chapter of the National English Honor Society at Coral Reef High School, through which she fostered school-wide interest in reading, literary trivia, poetry, and writing. She recently retired from the public school system and currently teaches Advanced Placement English literature and composition at Westminster Christian School.

Emily Andrea Sendin

Emily Andrea Sendin is a professor of English, literature, and creative writing in her twenty-second year at Miami Dade College. She is an Endowed Teaching Chair and a Fulbright Scholar. She teaches global sustainability and earth literacy studies, service learning, and honors college courses. She is the founding advisor of the award-winning Urbana Literary & Arts magazine. Her life’s passions are traveling, teaching, books, and service.

Jennifer Tianen

Jennifer Tianen is a veteran English teacher and founder of the award-winning West Bloomfield High School Literary Garden, which showcases plants from American authors’ homes and provides a multisensory setting for student learning. She is secretary of the Michigan Hemingway Society and has made presentations around the country on the environment, education, and literature. She is currently working on a book about literary gardens.

Betsy Fogelman Tighe, photo by Rikki Midnight

Betsy Fogelman Tighe taught English language arts (eighth grade through college) for many years before becoming a high school librarian. She is now entering her twelfth and final year in that position, where she has hosted many author events that made progress in arousing student interest in poetry. Her greatest honor was achieving immortality as “the American girl” in one of James Wright’s last published poems, “Leaving the Temple in Nimes.”

Kristin Veiga, photo by HJ Miami

Kristin Veiga has taught middle school language arts at a small private school for the past six years. Her teaching style differs from traditional methods as she tends to break into dance mid-lesson, rap throughout the school day, and create fun and engaging projects to make lessons come to life. Her greatest goal as a teacher is to raise lifelong learners, so her classroom is set up to recreate a living room feel to help students feel loved, comfortable, and encouraged to learn.

Raysa Villalona, photo by Gina Verga

Raysa Villalona is an ESL teacher at an elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She has done extensive work with dual language and has conducted parent workshops for families of second language learners. She’s an avid reader and has been journaling since before she knew how to write. She currently writes creative nonfiction, often about her girlhood in Washington Heights, and is working on a collection of essays.

Evan Morgan Williams, photo by Iris Arnold

Evan Morgan Williams teaches language arts at a middle school in an area of Portland, Oregon, known locally as “The Numbers.” He has published three short story collections and more than fifty short stories. His first collection, Thorn, won the 2013 G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction from BkMk Press. Williams earned an MFA degree in 1991. His students look at the fine vellum certificate on the classroom wall and say, “Huh?” Sometimes he does, too.

Martha Williams

Martha Williams oversees programs and adult education at her library in Ketchum, Idaho. She is passionate about creating inclusive spaces where stories are shared and connections across experiences and generations are made. Her greatest enjoyment is in connecting young or aspiring writers with one another and with those who guide them on their journeys.

Catherine Wright, photo by Brock Burwell

Catherine Wright teaches in the English department at the University of Charleston in West Virginia, which is one of the most diverse schools in the state, composed of students from more than forty countries. Her work there revolves around understanding a sense of community, living through service, and challenging the struggles so many of her students experience finding their place in the world.

Robert D. Richardson, 1934–2020. Photo by Curt Richter, 2009.

The Key West literary community lost one of its most brilliant and beloved members with the death of Robert D. Richardson last week. He was 86.

Richardson was a celebrated historian whose books included biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson (The Mind on Fire), Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism). His honors included the Francis Parkman Prize and the Bancroft Prize, perhaps the two most prestigious awards in the field of American history.

Bob was a steady and reliable friend of the Seminar, full of good advice and goodness of heart. He served on our board of directors from 2001-2009, and our honorary board since that time. He had a special interest in supporting young and emerging writers and was a strong advocate for our scholarship program and our 2008 “New Voices” seminar.

In Emerson, Thoreau, and James, Richardson took on subjects viewed by many as the founding fathers of American intellectual life, and ones who have been extensively studied by historians for over 100 years. But Richardson’s approach was utterly new. In addition to their own writings, Richardson endeavored to read every single thing that Emerson, James, and Thoreau read — every book, every pamphlet, every article and essay. Richardson’s aim was what he called the “intellectual biography,” a work that would chart the development of the writer’s mind.

The results are thrilling. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda called Richardson’s Emerson biography “one of those exciting books that flash bolts of lightning across an entire intellectual era and up and down modern history.” Irish novelist and Booker Prize winner John Banville said Richardson’s works belong “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of his subjects is impressive, it was his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives that astonishes his readers. Richardson, who was married to novelist Annie Dillard, with whom he lived in Key West on Margaret Street, had a novelist’s sense of pacing, structure, and humor. “The past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it,” he wrote.

He credited Dillard with helping to activate his writing process. “I learned from her that you have to go all out, every day, every piece. Hold nothing back. The well will refill.”

In an interview in 2013, I asked Bob what it was about Emerson, Thoreau, and James that sustained his attention over decades of research and writing. His answers point to a belief in the essential value of the American experiment, and the ever-more-urgent imperative to balance personal interests with the collective good:

“Emerson is for me the best describer of real individualism, the best explainer of why we can and must trust our best selves,” Bob remarked. But instead of the so-called rugged individualism adopted by some as a political philosophy, Bob emphasized something infinitely more humane and well-suited to our times. “In their pluralism, in their respect for mind, those three are voices for democratic individualism. Each voice counts. Every voice counts.”

Bob’s voice will continue to comfort, guide, and enlighten us through his books. But we will miss his presence and his friendship a great deal.


(—Arlo Haskell, June 23, 2020)


Related resources:

read:Concord Is Where You Are Right Now“: a conversation with Robert D. Richardson (2012)

listen: “The Work of a Biographer”; Robert D. Richardson in conversation with Brenda Wineapple, James Atlas, and Judith Thurman (2013).

watch:Biography and Fiction”; Robert D. Richardson (2013)



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:

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.

Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Reisa Plyler

On a breezy Saturday afternoon, Narrative 4 cofounders Lisa Consiglio and Colum McCann introduced the “global, non-profit organization using stories and storytelling to effect change … to inculcate the idea of radical empathy … where young people tell each other stories, and tell them back to each other in first-person.” Originally scheduled as a breakout session for Key West Literary Seminar Teacher and Librarian Scholarship recipients, the pair took to the main stage to enlighten the larger crowd about their mission to bring students, teachers, and artists “into the fold.” 

On an earlier panel at the Desire-themed seminar, author Joyce Maynard unpacked the nearly universal desire to “be known.” Meanwhile, Consiglio said that many youth believe they simply have no stories to tell. Devoid of the realization of one’s story, how can a young soul, even on the most basic of levels, experience the feeling of being heard? Of being known? Through Narrative 4, young people—often lost and lonely—discover their voices. As they dig deep to unearth their stories, ultimately hearing them shared on a global platform, they begin to experience what it is to be known, increasing a sense of belonging.

Consiglio—the “brains and the brawn” of the organization, in McCann’s words—exudes contagious enthusiasm for watching the spark come alive in the eyes of teenagers. The pair described the brain as being “like a circus” when telling our own scattered story, but when telling someone else’s story, lighting up with meaning “like a pinball machine.” 

“Increasingly we are being dehumanized,” McCann said, by not sharing our stories. Our dichotomous technological obsession renders individuals endlessly accessible, yet at the same time, less adept at the art of meaningful human connection. Narrative 4 changes this dynamic. McCann summed up the program’s urgency by quoting Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” It is critical that we nurture this empathetic craft of story-sharing among our youth, who can spread this spirit of lasting connection.

McCann described one otherwise unlikely Narrative 4 partnership between students in the Bronx and Appalachian Kentucky: “urban versus rural … blue versus red.” He has observed “borders dissolving … as students see the humanity in each other.” For example, young New Yorkers have come to understand that some Appalachian students use guns not for violence, but to provide food for a family which otherwise may not eat.

Consiglio’s five-year goal is for Narrative 4 to be a worldwide mandatory curriculum, as it is in Ireland. (The organization’s developing digital platform translates into eighteen languages.) McCann adds, “The absolute heroes are the teachers” who can help “increase the lungs of the world through the very fine act of personal storytelling.” And what richer legacy can we leave to future generations than fulfilling the primal desire for deep human connection?

Reisa Plyler teaches AP Literature & Composition in Miami, Florida. She is currently working on her first novel.

Lisa Consiglio, Narrative 4

By Roger C. Kostmayer

The 2022 Key West Literary Seminar was a success and there are too many who deserve kudos to name. One unusual session was about Narrative 4 (N4), an unusual nonprofit that started in one Colorado public school and rapidly grew to a global organization promoting what’s called “story exchange.” N4 consists of artists, writers, educators, and lots of young people. Their exercise begins with “My name is …” and ends with significant change in the participants’ empathy.

Essentially N4 is a personal story exchange and role play that expands understanding and empathy among diverse — and often opposite — participants. Diverse means different racially, economically, religiously, politically, in gender, sexual orientation, geographically, and/or personality.

Each individual tells their partner their own personal (and often painful) story, one that in some ways defines them. Their partner, participant two, then tells their own story back. Next, each one must tell the OTHER’s story from the inside, using the other’s name and identity as the story teller. Thus, each participant tells two stories, their own and their partner’s, which may be why this two-plus-two exercise is called Narrative 4.

What happens when both young and old human beings do this is they realize that they matter, that their stories matter, that their lives matter — and so do the stories of others who are very different.

The ultimate goal, I believe, is for this simple, honest sharing of stories to improve empathy and humanity in every town and community. And it already seems to be working around the globe: on four continents, in sixteen countries, within eighteen of our United States, and among thousands of diverse participants.

Any honest effort to increase listening, empathy, and understanding of those we think are different sounds promising to me.

Lisa Taddeo, Colum McCann, and Tom Perrotta. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Kaitlyn Malixi

The sky was a soft gray, with a gentle breeze teasing of a pending rain shower as authors Colum McCann, Tom Perrotta, and Lisa Taddeo took the stage. Personally unknown to one another, the authors dove into the opportunity to introduce themselves, their craft, and most intimately, their failures to one another and the audience.  

Taddeo told of her first foray into writing—years before publishing her immersive, ambitious nonfiction book Three Women—as a journalist for GOLF magazine. She knew nothing about golf but nailed the interview because she had, comically, read some articles in a magazine about golf. She would later reach out to an editor at Esquire and land a piece inspired by Heath Ledger’s death. From that, she learned a valuable lesson, which she would carry through to her present work: Be respectful and beautiful in telling someone’s life or story. 

McCann followed with his own writer origin story, in which his father wrote books about soccer (or “football,” in McCann’s light brogue). An early schoolteacher of McCann’s rewarded the class on Fridays by reading segments of his father’s books. When a classmate jumped up and cheered at the end of one of these stories, McCann realized the power of writing—the marriage of fiction and reality. Echoing Taddeo’s sentiments, he explained his path to understanding a writer’s mission: “Make it beautiful. Make it as honest as you possibly can.” Now McCann’s own son is a reader of his stories, and the cycle continues. 

Perrotta, on his inherent realization that writing was his career path, recognized that writers were “a cool thing to be.” He attended an MFA program at Syracuse University, where he studied Tobias Wolff. Unable to establish a name with his work after graduating, he took other writing jobs to survive, including ghostwriting a teen horror novel. His work ethic in writing for someone else sparked a discipline for his own writing, inspiring him to dedicate an equal amount of time to building his own body of work. 

From these backstories, the trio segued into the topic of failure. “Failure is vivifying,” as McCann told students during his visit yesterday to Key West High School. Quoting Samuel Beckett from memory, he said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Taddeo and Perrotta agreed that resilience is key. Rejection letters, harsh notes from editors, and bad reviews exacerbated some self-doubt for all three of these writers. But ultimately, returning to the proverbial drawing board, or typewriter, was essential. Perrotta, joking but not joking about his “bottomless” desire for praise, expressed gratitude to his wife for knowing he always wants to be told she loves his work. 

Just as curling up with a good book and a cup of tea on a rainy day can bring comfort, there was an ease and coziness to the conversation. During the Q&A that followed, McCann returned to writing advice from Beckett: “Find a structure to accommodate the mess.” As the drizzle began to quicken outside the main stage tent, the authors summed up the work of writing, and of life: In every failure, there is a chance for growth, and sometimes the mess is necessary. Shortly following the talk, the sky clearing, a rainbow emerged above the tent. The heavens were pleased with this conclusion. 

Kaitlin Malixi is a high school English teacher and former youth librarian. When her nose is not stuck in a book, she loves exploration and travel.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Tom Perrotta. Photo by Michael Blades.

By Jamie Odeneal 

In Friday afternoon’s session “Inside the Milfateria,” writers Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Tom Perrotta discussed his most recent novel, Mrs. Fletcher. With an unflinching view, it illuminates the role of Internet pornography in in sparking, shaping, and fulfilling our deepest, darkest desires. Tan is no stranger to the topic of desire in her own writing, and her anthology Anonymous Sex, co-edited with Hillary Jordan, is a collection of erotic stories.

Perrotta began by reading an excerpt from Mrs. Fletcher in which the eponymous character, a divorced empty nester, begins an exploration into Internet pornography. Though Eve Fletcher is initially repulsed by the sight of so much naked flesh, she becomes intrigued to discover the category of “MILF porn,” a genre showcasing the desirability of mothers—ordinary women, like Eve. What begins as mere curiosity becomes an obsession as Eve goes deeper into the world of “” Unlike Eve, who has lived to serve others, the women in porn act upon their desires. Observing inspires agency in Eve, who begins to see her world through a newly eroticized lens. When Eve acts upon her desires in real life, however, she experiences real-life consequences.

When Tan asked Perrotta what drew him to writing Mrs. Fletcher, he explained that his work frequently returns to the theme of sexual revolution, and a novel about pornography and its role in shaping, and even fulfilling, our desires is a continuation of that theme. Perrotta said Mrs. Fletcher grew from the idea of studying pornography as a type of cultural text. When Tan asked him about his research process and how he got into “the mind of a MILF,” Perrotta explained that viewing pornography in this context led him to take a dispassionate view of it. He focused on what type of porn would appeal to Eve as she enters this new stage in her life, as a middle-aged single mother, when she is finally able to center her own sexuality and desires.

Mrs. Fletcher is not Perrotta’s first exploration into the experiences of women. Tan and Perrotta reflected on another of his female protagonists, Tracy Flick of Election, who is driven not by lust, but by ambition. Perrotta’s forthcoming novel Tracy Flick Can’t Win catches up with Tracy as a high school principal in her mid-40s, bound and determined as ever to get what she deserves. Perrotta said that while his early novels focused on male characters, he didn’t like writing exclusively in that space, and that he’s always been interested in women’s experiences and in creating believable female characters. 

After Friday’s lively and thought-provoking discussion on Mrs. Fletcher, seminar attendees will no doubt be inspired to read and discover for themselves what happens when fantasies cross the line into real life.

Jamie Odeneal is a reader, writer, and National Board Certified teacher who works with adult English learners at an alternative public high school. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.