Our alumni continue to amaze us with their productivity and dedication. Here you’ll find the most recent achievements of our past workshop students, Emerging Writer Award winners, scholarship recipients, and writers in residence.

We are proud of their industriousness and the considerable acclaim they continue to receive in the literary community. We hope their successes also inspire you!

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS20” at checkout.

featured achievements

Jacqueline Allen Trimble, PhD, wrote five episodes for the first South African online soap opera ever to air in Afrikaans on Netwerk 24. The show, Die Testament, is the first Afrikaans drama primarily written by a team of black women. Jacqueline’s first poetry collection, American Happiness, won the Balcones Poetry Prize. (2017 Teacher & Librarian scholarship)

Celia Viggo Wexler ‘s book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope was published by Rowman & Littlefield. Celia writes about Catholic feminist issues for the San Francisco Chronicle, where one of her op-eds earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalists DC Chapter and was a finalist in a national competition for religion journalists. She had an essay published in Visions and Vocations (Paulist Press), and another will be published in Third- and Fourth-Wave Catholic Women Writers by SUNY Press. (2014 Madeleine Blais/ 2016 Kate Moses workshops)

Garrison Keillor selected and read aloud Paige Riehl‘s poem “Things That Cannot Die” for the Writer’s Almanac this August. Paige was interviewed by WriteOn! Radio about her new poetry book, Suspension, and presented on two panels at AWP in Portland in 2019. (2016 Billy Collins workshop)

Michael Adno’s first front-page story “Citrus Farmers Facing Deadly Bacteria Turn to Antibiotics, Alarming Health Officials” ran earlier this year with Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times. Michael worked on an investigative feature for the Times with Vivian Wang “New York Rejects Keystone-Like Pipeline in Fierce Battle Over the State’s Energy Future.” His essay “The Sum of Life: Zora Neale Hurston” recently came out in the Bitter Southerner. (2018/ 2019 writer in residence)

short stories

Vanessa Blakeslee‘s latest book, Perfect Conditions: Storiesis winner of Foreword Reviews’s 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold); the 2019 IPPY Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver); the NIEA (Gold); and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. She has recently been awarded residencies at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology and will be the Fairhope writer in residence in December. (2012 Margaret Atwood workshop)

Ayşe Papatya Bucak‘s short story collection, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories, was published by W.W. Norton in August. The short story she workshopped at KWLS was published in One Story this July, and other stories from the collection were recently published in Guernica and BOMB. (2017 Marie Myung-Ok Lee workshop)

Esperanza Cintron‘s fourth book, Shades, Detroit Love Stories, a collection of interconnected short stories, was released in August by Wayne State University Press. (2018 Teacher & Librarian scholarship)

Joe Dornich‘s debut short story collection, The Ways We Get By, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in December 2020. (2019 Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award winner)

Ross Feeler‘s short story “The Diver” appeared in the most recent edition of Story|Houston. Another short story, “Parisian Honeymoon,” is forthcoming in Electric Literature, and a brief craft essay entitled “On People-Watching,” was published in the Masters Review Blog earlier this year. (2019 Marianne Russo Award winner)

Kelly Fordon‘s second collection of short stories, I Have the Answer, will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2020. Her first poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House, was published by Kattywompus Press this year. (2010 WFA scholarship/ 2018 Joy Williams workshop)

Donna Gordon workshopped a short story, “Blood Moon,” with Dani Shapiro that was published in Post Road. She received the 2018 New Letters Publication Award for “Primates,” which appeared in the July 2019 issue, and she was a finalist for the 2019 Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Award for her novel, What Ben Franklin Would Have Told Me. Donna is currently a writer in residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Wyoming. (2017 Dani Shapiro workshop)

Jordan Jacks has published short stories in the Iowa ReviewStoryElectric LiteratureTerritory, the Organist, the podcast from KCRW and McSweeney’s. The novel he excerpted for his award application is now in its seventh—and hopefully close to final—draft. (2016 Marianne Russo Award winner)

Jen Logan Meyer’s story “Stop.” is in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review. She was also recently interviewed in their Spring 2017 issue. (2018 Joy Williams workshop)

Anne Oman‘s debut novella/linked stories Mango Rains in March will be published by Galaxy Galloper Press in March 2020. She received feedback on her manuscript from Hilma Wolitzer, Susan Shreve, Tim Seldes, and her KWLS classmates. (2007 Hilma Wolitzer workshop)

plays/ short fiction/ essays

Debra A. Daniel‘s new novella-in-flash, The Roster, was a highly commended entry in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and, as a result, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction in the UK. (2014 Billy Collins/ 2015 Daniel Menaker workshops)

Will Dowd‘s book of essays, Areas of Fog, was named a Massachusetts Book Awards Nonfiction Must Read. (2010 Scotti Merrill Award winner)

The play Drew Larimore worked on while in residency at KWLS, The Cannibals of McGower County, received a workshop and public reading at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz, New York. Drew is an October writer in residence at the Djerassi Residency Program. (2018/ 2019 writer in residence)

Maija Makinen‘s short story “Country Fiction” was published this September in Porterhouse Review. (2019 Emily Raboteau workshop)

Lucy McKeon has published an essay “On Love and Blindness” in the Point and was awarded a residency at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, Tennessee, where she finished her novel. (2019 writer in residence)


Pam Braswell‘s debut book Survivor. Hero. Woman. Warrior. is a true crime memoir with an open letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom and will be published in 2020 by McFarland/Exposito Publishing. (2015 Susan Shapiro workshop)

Kenneth D. Michaels‘s book, How’s Your Prostate? A Cancer Survivors Candid Journey was published by La Mancha Press in May. Incorporating acceptance and humor, he shares his feelings from detection of the disease to recovery and includes helpful tips for others. “A positive, informative, and delightful guided tour through the snarls of surviving a distressing cancer diagnosis written with comedic grace,” according to Kirkus Reviews. (2019 Daniel Menaker workshop)


Ginny Lowe Connors edits Connecticut River Review, a national poetry journal that comes out annually. She will begin taking submissions for the next issue in February 2020. (2019 Dara Weir workshop)

Jay Deshpande is completing a Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford. Recent work is forthcoming in AGNIHyperallergicKenyon ReviewPleiades, and more. He has also received fellowships from Kundiman and Civitella Ranieri. (2015 Scotti Merrill Award winner)

Adrienne Drobnies published a book of poetry, Salt and Ashes, with Signature Editions. (2008 Mark Doty/ 2014 Jane Hirshfield workshops)

Jeremy Freedman has recently had poems published in Ghost City ReviewOtoliths, and Dispatches. (2018 Rowan Ricardo Phillips/ 2019 Gregory Pardlo workshops)

Katherine Gekker‘s poetry collection, In Search of Warm Breathing Things, has been published by Glass Lyre Press. (2019 Kevin Young workshop)

Abigail King‘s poem “Call in the Ents” was accepted for publication in Raw Art Review, as well as shortlisted for their Charles Bukowski Prize for Poetry. Her first stab at humor writing, a short piece called “What Should I Wear to the Revolution?” was picked up by Defenestration for their January issue. (2017 Billy Collins workshop)

Michael Lee‘s poetry collection The Only Worlds We Know has recently been published by Button Poetry. (2018 Scotti Merrill Award winner)

Carol Ann Russell recently presented her poems at the Watermark Art Center ITALIA, with music composed by Dr. Paul Brandvik. Carol will be a resident artist in St. Mark’s Church, Florence, Italy, where she will design a new book of original poetry and art. She was chosen as a recipient of the 2018-19 Artist Fellowship by the Region 2 Arts Council. (2019 Dana Weir workshop)

Emily Vizzo‘s poetry manuscript BIO, which she wrote during her year-long art residency with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, was named a finalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. (2017 Teacher & Librarian scholarship)


Diana Abu-Jaber‘s second novel, Silverworld, will be published in March 2020 by Random House. This middle-grade novel is a fantasy adventure story about a Lebanese-American girl who finds the courage to save her grandmother. (2016 faculty/ 2018 & 2019 writer in residence)

Chelsea Catherine‘s second novel, Summer of the Cicadas, won the Quill Prose Award and will be published in 2020. (2016 WFA scholarship)

Marie Myung-Ok Lee‘s 28-year-old YA novel, Finding my Voice, will be reissued in spring 2021 (2016 faculty/ 2016 writer in residence)

Brooks Whitney Phillips‘s The Grove, a debut middle-grade novel set in the Florida orange groves of the early 1960s, will be published by Philomel, Penguin publishing’s children’s press, in 2021. (2013 Marianne Russo Award winner)

Audrey Wick released a duet series of contemporary romances this summer called On the Market and Off the Market, an undertaking in which a dozen authors all write in the same fictional world. Frolic, a pop culture and romance brand, named On the Market a Contemporarily Ever After Top Pick of the Week. Audrey was one of the featured authors at the West Texas Book Festival this year. (2018 Teacher & Librarian scholarship)

awards & more

Ben Bush recently received residency fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson, and a scholarship from Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. He is an incoming Dornsife Fellow at the literature/creative writing PhD program at the University of Southern California. (2016 Antonya Nelson workshop)

Flower Conroy‘s first full-length manuscript, Snake Breaking Medusa Disorder, recently won the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Stevens Manuscript Contest, selected by the poet Chen Chen. Flower currently has an art assemblage and poetry exhibit at The Studios of Key West. (2015 Billy Collins/ 2016 Kevin Young workshops)

Kathleen Lenane will launch The Clueless Caregiver website and blog in November, offering quirky, humorous advice on caring for aging parents. The blog will serialize episodes of her personal story, “Familyville,” about returning home to intractable parents, troubled cousins, a backyard Ferris wheel, and other accidents waiting to happen. (2018 Daniel Menaker workshop)

Jessica L. Moore‘s manuscript am●phib●ian won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award from Broadside Lotus Press. The book is due out in February, and a poem from the manuscript titled “Junk Science” will be published in Poet Lore. (2018 Billy Collins workshop)

Beverly Tan Murray‘s memoir/non-fiction piece, “Trauma Is Our Country” was winner of the Briar Cliff Review‘s 2019 nonfiction contest. (2017 Marie Myung-Ok Lee workshop)

Patty Smith received a fellowship from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and appeared on a panel at George Mason University called “Society, Secrets, and Sexual Misconduct” along with KWLS alum Aaron Hamburger. Patty has a flash essay forthcoming in Hippocampus(2015 Elizabeth Jarrett Andrews workshop)

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

Reading Between the Lines: Sports & Literature

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

So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen

So Many Olympic Exertions by Anelise Chen

Anelise Chen’s first book is a slender meditation on sports and existentialism that manages to be darkly funny, profound, and gracefully written. It’s a blend of memoir and fiction, but any writing—especially writing dependent on memory—is a work of fiction, which is perhaps the purest form to fully realize the horrors and humor of being alive now. Chen’s remarkable novel does just that.
—Michael Nelson, Manager of the Key West Public Library / 2020 KWLS Planning Committe

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Acclaimed poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips tracks the 2017 men’s tennis tour while meditating on the game’s intersections with the life of the mind. Who else would quote 17th-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell to describe the ball skipping across Wimbledon’s grass courts as a “green thought in a green shade”—and who but Phillips would summon Wallace Stevens to tell us that “the Australian Open has long been like an idea of order: arranging, deepening, enchanting from the other side of the world.” The Circuit shows the sublime potential of sportswriting.
—Arlo Haskell, KWLS Executive Director

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Double Fault by Lionel Shriver

Double Fault by Lionel Shriver

From the first paragraph, Shriver shows that she aspires to the company of Hemingway’s bullfighting series, Mark Harris’s baseball novels, or John Irving’s wrestling scenes, and that she understands style separates them from the also-rans. [In the book,] Shriver shows in a masterstroke why character is fate and how sport reveals it.
—Michael Mewshaw, 2020 KWLS Presenter / Planning Committee

The Big Fella by Jane Leavy

Simply the best sports biography I have ever read … convincingly makes the case that Ruth put down the template for modern celebrity … If you want to understand the Kardashians and their effect on our culture, you have to understand Babe Ruth.
—The Progressive

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS20” at checkout.

Other Books of Note

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown
Drawing on the boys’ own journals and vivid memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, Brown has created an unforgettable portrait of an era, a celebration of a remarkable achievement, and a chronicle of one extraordinary young man’s personal quest.

Friday Night Lights

Buzz Bissinger
New York Times bestseller about the impact of high school football on small-town life.

Dare Me

Megan Abbot
A thriller about high school girls cheerleading that gives a harrowing glimpse into the dark heart of the All-American girl.

Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas
Urschel, mathematician and former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, tells the story of a life balanced between two passions.

Brown: Poems

Kevin Young
This powerful collection of poems speaks to the way personal experience is shaped by culture, while culture is forever affected by the personal. With poem titles such as “Dodgeball,” “Bleachers,” and “Warm Up,” you’re sure to find a sports connection and much more.

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together

Amy Bass
Called “the perfect parable of our time” by the Wall Street Journal, Bass’s book tells the inspiring story of the soccer team in a town bristling with racial tension that united Somali refugees and multi-generation Mainers in their quest for state—and ultimately national—glory.

Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

Paul Goldberger
An exhilarating, splendidly illustrated, entirely new look at the history of baseball: told through the stories of the vibrant and ever-changing ballparks where the game was and is staged, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic.

Swimming Studies

Leanne Shapton
A collection of autobiographical sketches that explore the worlds of competitive and recreational swimming.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

David Maraniss
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author brings the great baseball player brilliantly back to life in what Sports Illustrated called “the year’s best bio” in 2006.

Short Circuit: Six Months on the Men’s Professional Tennis Tour

Michael Mewshaw
The author calls on his experience as an investigative journalist to reveal a troubling pattern of corruption, match-fixing, and under-the-table payments in this account, which was called “one of the best books ever written about tennis and the most timely” by the New York Times.

On Boxing

Joyce Carol Oates
A classic collection of essays on boxing which shows a vivid and realistic picture of the most controversial sport on earth.

Jackie Robinson: A Biography

Arnold Rampersad
The extraordinary life of Jackie Robinson is illuminated as never before in this full-scale biography by Rampersad, who was chosen by Jack’s widow, Rachel, to tell her husband’s story, and was given unprecedented access to his private papers.

The Cactus League

Emily Nemens
Forthcoming in February 2020, an explosive, character-driven odyssey through the world of baseball from the editor of the Paris Review.

The Resisters

Gish Jen
Forthcoming in February 2020, a dystopian novel and about baseball, family, and the future.

Additional Online Reading

“Tennis Lessons: The meaning of the game” by Geoff DyerHarper’s Magazine, September 2016

“Play up! Play up!” in the Guardian, July 9, 2010 — Leading poets celebrate sport from school playing fields to international stadiums, including “Night Golf” by Billy Collins

Ben McGrath‘s stories in the New Yorker 

Kate Tuttle‘s portfolio

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 2020 presenters.

Each year, we review hundreds of manuscript submissions in search of three emerging writers who possess exceptional talent and demonstrate potential for lasting literary careers. This year’s entries for the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Award, the Scotti Merrill Award, and the Marianne Russo Award were especially compelling, and we are proud to announce the recipients of this year’s honors.

Congratulations to our winners. Thank you to all who applied—we encourage you to keep writing and submitting—and to all of our judges (many of whom are past honorees) for reading along with us and offering insightful feedback. To the rest of you, dear readers: keep your eyes out for these gifted and disciplined writers in the months and years to come.

Andrea Rinard (L); Chloe Firetto-Toomey (M); Chase Burke (R)

for a short story

Chase Burke (R) grew up and lives in northeast Florida. He has an MFA degree from the University of Alabama, where he was fiction editor of Black Warrior Review. His stories can be found in Glimmer Train (as winner of the Very Short Fiction Award), Sycamore Review (as runner-up for the Wabash Prize in fiction), Salt Hill, Western Humanities Review, and Yemassee, among others. His fiction chapbook, Lecture, is forthcoming from Paper Nautilus as a winner of their 2019 Debut Series Chapbook Contest.

One of our readers found Chase’s winning short story “fascinating and full of poignant details.” Another wrote, “I jumped right into this story and never doubted the direction we were going.”

for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

Chloe Firetto-Toomey (M) is an English-American poet and essayist. She received an MFA degree in nonfiction from Florida International University (FIU), where she served as a teaching assistant and poetry editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. She has taught creative writing in elementary schools and currently teaches Introduction to Creative Writing at FIU and nonfiction writing at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade County.

Firetto-Toomey is published in all four genres. Two of her lyric essays were finalists in Tupelo Quarterly’s Prose Open Contest, and she was a finalist in Diagram’s chapbook contest and a semifinalist in Honeysuckle Press’s chapbook contest. She is the recipient of the 2017 Christopher F. Kelly Award for Poetry. Her chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2019. She lives in Miami Beach with her fiancé and two street cats who became house cats.

In picking Chloe as the winner, Billy Collins wrote, “Masterful, fascinating poems that carry the reader line by line deeper into the theatre of a damaged ecology. First hand experience and the well-placed cultural references give the poems a striking authority.”

for a novel-in-progress

Andrea Rinard (L) is a veteran high school English teacher and emerging writer. Her short works have been published in Jellyfish Review, Spelk, Crack the Spine, and other literary magazines. Writing has been her midlife luxury, and she’s enjoyed being a graduate certificate student in creative writing at the University of South Florida, as well as a two-time participant in the Yale Writers’ Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut.

A native Floridian who wears shoes against her will, Rinard has mastered the art of sunscreen application and hurricane preparation. She lives in Tampa with her three young adult children and her high school prom date. Afterworld is her second novel and, fingers crossed, the first one she’ll see on a bookstore shelf one day.

Our readers found Andrea’s story compelling and moving. “A timely premise that made me want to read more … days later I was still thinking about it.”

Winners of the Emerging Writer Awards receive full tuition to the 2020 Seminar and Writers’ Workshop Program (January 9 – 17), 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 2021 next spring.

By Michael Adno

As Kevin Young and Rowan Ricardo Phillips took the stage, James Brown poured out of the PA. Outside the San Carlos Institute just before 6 pm, dusk’s soft glow fell over Duval St., where a decidedly different type of music played across the street. Almost as soon as Young asked the technician to cut the music back inside, the audience was laughing. Phillips and Young were, too. They were parsing the idea of how art aspires to be music and more specifically how their own poetry related to music.

To say the two poets are charming would be an understatement. Much of the audience must have felt  as though Phillips and Young were seated next to them at the bar or a park bench, and they were eavesdropping. But as Phillips said, “We’re among friends.” And as they went back and forth, it reminded me of reading an essay. Each question leading to another. Each answer or lack of one generating the sense that you were watching an idea take shape.

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” Walter Pater said. Young echoed the sentiment, and the two joked about how everything—film, lyrics, conversation—is deemed poetry, except for poetry of course.

Phillips read his poem “Violins.” Young read “LITTLE WING.” The two talked of Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues.” They talked of the envy of musicians evident both in those lines and amongst each other. They noted its immediacy, its ability to evade language, and spoke to the power in its wordlessness. Young figured that was something a poem gestures towards: “wordlessness.” Piece by piece, the connective tissue between poetry and music emerged.

In letters and line breaks that stake out the shape of our lives, Phillips and Young likened the compositions of poems to songs. How do you modulate in poetry, Phillips asked? Young positioned the reader like a composer, the thing that allows air into the work. The two talked of how titles—as a device—hemmed in the poem, lending it an atmosphere.

But as the conversation moved along, it was the connection between poetry, music, and memory that carved out the most real estate.

“Music isn’t simply music,” Young said. “It’s memory. It’s connecting us to our past.” He noted a trip to Europe where preceding the trip everybody was hyped on Nirvana, and when he returned, Pearl Jam had become the omnipresent sound. He thought back to his poem, “De La Soul is Dead,” talking about the period when the album was released and the memories it conjured up for him. Writing those poems “was a way to return to a time I didn’t know I hadn’t remembered,” he said.

The negative space on the page, the composition of the couplets, was like the thin space between the tracks on the album. In our mind, those things formed a link back to when we first read a poem or heard a song, or that summer we played the album on repeat, or couldn’t put down a collection. What was interesting was how our memories of an album or a poem were always different, and how a song that spoke to a poem or a poem that referenced a song became this place where the reader or the listener’s memory pressed up against the author’s. In turn, that song or poem became a marker or maybe a waypoint, our personal memory spilling into the collective one.

Phillips noted how growing up we inherit certain kinds of music from our parents, our pasts, and even the color of our skin. In that, it seemed that the same notes or poems—depending on who read or heard them—carried portions of our country’s past, its heritage, our personal histories, too. Memory was inextricably bound to that notion, and that’s to say that music and poetry make up that record—confirm what we’ve inherited.

Listening to them, a deep well of curiosity hung over me like the perfume of rum and tobacco back outside. Then, a member of the audience asked whether putting down lines served as a way to remember something or if it was a means to make a memory. The crowd fell silent, and we leaned closer.

Young and Phillips smiled then chewed on it for a moment.

“For me,” Young said, “a poem can often complete a memory.”

With that, a slow jam blanketed the audience, marking one more memory.

Michael Adno is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. He contributes regularly to the New York Times, and his work has appeared in the Bitter Southerner, the Oxford American, and the Surfer’s Journal, among others.

by Connie Pertuz-Meza

Victor LaValle’s latest novel, The Changeling, is a hybrid fairy tale and horror story. Set in New York City, it tackles many issues that are part of our everyday reality. In his conversation with Kate Tuttle, LaValle dove into the major themes of the novel: parenting in this social media frenzied world, and the fears parents face.

LaValle began by sharing a personal anecdote about his first week of fatherhood, when, after many tries swaddling his newborn, he finally perfected the swaddle. In a celebratory mood, LaValle did what most of us do–he picked up the phone and snapped a picture. After a few swipes, his week-old baby was on social media. Excited by the rising number of likes, LaValle checked his status frequently, noting that people who didn’t even know him had liked his post.

A new fear wormed into his mind: had he put his child in danger due to his fervor to show others what an amazing dad he was? This question led to a series of other questions, which lead him to begin writing his latest novel. LaValle continued his conversation by revealing a frightening truth: parents can’t protect their children from everything.

As the mother of a teenage daughter and middle school-aged son, LaValle’s words struck me not because they were a new revelation, but because they are words rarely spoken aloud by parents. Rarely do adults voice their fears; instead they opt for distractions in order to shroud the monsters they once saw in the shadows or hidden in their closets. LaValle pointed out that adults are quick to say they survived or are surviving when they contemplate their past (or present, for that matter). In discussing our own youth, many are quick to highlight their own survival status, dismissing the shadows and monsters still lurking in their lives. LaValle countered: ‘I survived’ is not the highest compliment, you want to hear ‘I thrived.’

The novelist went on to discuss empathy as a political act as a writer. Empathy is one of the strongest connections a person can have with another, according to LaValle. Nodding as he spoke, I looked at the other heads in the room doing the same and smiled to myself. LaValle demands empathy from his readers, especially in respect to the mother character, Emily. Deconstructing the archetype of the mother, LaValle draws a portrait of a flawed woman. He is aware of the likelihood of knee-jerk reactions condemning a mother who is not all self-sacrificing and doting, and so LaValle challenges his readers to look deeper into Emily’s character.

The Columbia University professor shared how he’s had to develop empathy not only as a writer for his characters, but also for his own family, some of whom suffer from mental illness. Mentally ill people are often thought of as being nonsensical, but there is often a series of logical reasoning behind their behavioral disturbances. This bridge in thinking is what creates a world of empathy-and ultimately one of compassion and love–but to achieve this we must look at our own fears, the collective fears of our society, and learn from the discomfort they produce, despite how much we may want to run away and hide.

LaValle left the audience thinking about his assertion that the purpose of a fairytale is not the story, but the moral. Perhaps it’s our fears that keep us from being the empathetic beings we were all along, before the world got its hands on us.

Connie Pertuz-Meza writes stories about her life, family, and ancestors. Propelled to action as a New York City public school teacher, and mother of a teenage daughter and middle school-aged son, she is currently working on a semi-autobiographical YA novel. She documents her life through personal essays on her blog, and is a staff writer for Hispanecdotes.com, a monthly online literary magazine. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Acentos Review, MUTHA, Medium, and in several anthologies representing writers of color.

You can listen to Victor’s talk here.

by Shayne Benowitz

The 37th annual Key West Literary Seminar “Under the Influence: Archetypes & Adaptation” commenced Thursday evening with the John Hersey Memorial address delivered by the inimitable Margaret Atwood. To begin her talk, “Alert! Influences at Work!” she took to the podium and introduced herself: “I’m Margaret Atwood, writer-at-large. Yes, I am still alive, more or less, and I’m your keynote for this evening. How may I help you?” Meanwhile, slides of various iterations of her book covers—Hag-Seed, The Penelopiad and The Handmaid’s Tale—ran across a screen at center stage.

Throughout her address, she danced around a wide range of archetypes, “from Homer to the multiplex,” including moon goddesses, the new Aquaman movie, the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. Early on she made the crack, “American writers have not yet been sent to the gulag. And Key West is not yet underwater, like the Atlantis,” setting the tone for her dryly humorous address.

She cited the nearly infinite archetypes tied to the number 12, from Zodiac signs to months in a year (divided into four seasons), days of Christmas, tribes of Jacob, witches in a coven and, finally, the number of maids hung by Odysseus at the end of The Odyssey.

She emphasized that before there were books, there were multiple versions of a story told through oral mythology and stories were passed from “mouth to ear to mouth to ear.”

“So when did we start?” she asked. “Stories have been morphing into stories for as long as there have been stories… Stories bend, change, cannibalize, steal.”

She named her early influences as a “budding writer at 19 during the age of mythology… before the age of the Internet, pantyhose, lattes, smartphones, social media and streaming television shows…” She read murder mysteries, Shakespeare, Gulliver’s Travels and the “golden age” of sci-fi with authors like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury.

She joked that having “Medusa hair” might have helped influenced the type of books she’d go onto write, saying that, “when the choice is between being a pushover versus a scary, witch-like supernatural female, I’ll take the latter every time.”

Starting with the most recent, she went onto explain the influences of three of her works. Hag-Seed (2016) is a play that imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest for contemporary times where Atwood played with the trope of islands as both magical and prison-like if, say, you have no boat.

The Penelopiad (2005) is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. Atwood said that Odysseus is one of the more “noteworthy liars” in literature and yet, he tells 90 percent of the story with maids acting as chorus. She always found the hanging of the 12 maids as an honor killing at the end problematic and in her reimagining of the epic, she asks, “Who tells stories to whom?”

Finally, she talked about The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which has been re-popularized thanks to the Hulu series. Atwood borrows the title from both the Bible and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a film, opera, ballet, picture book, protest costumes, a television series and is frequently sited in election commentary, as in: “The Handmaid’s Tale is not a blueprint” and “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.”

When she wrote the book, she was living in West Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She also visited Iran and Afghanistan where she saw the realities of totalitarian regimes and the subjugation of women plainly. In explaining her various influences for the book, she discussed how early Puritanical theocracy was hard on women and in modern western society, we don’t have to look too far back to see the mistreatment of women. During the first two decades of the 21st century, Atwood has observed anxieties about the future of the planet and society. When these anxieties arise, she says a common thread is almost always the “roll back of women’s rights.”

To conclude her talk, she asked herself rhetorically, “What’s my hope with The Handmaid’s Tale? That it remains between its covers.”


Shayne Benowitz is a journalist, travel writer and essayist based in New York City. She’s worked on the staff at Key West Literary Seminar for a decade and she’s currently pursuing her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.

To hear Margaret Atwood’s Keynote speech, click here.

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:


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 ]

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.

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

We are delighted to announce the winners of our 2020 Teacher & Librarian Scholarships!

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

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

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Ashley Anderson Bidwell has spent more than ten years as an education professional. Her career has been devoted to students who have exceptionalities / disabilities, have experienced trauma, and/or live in a poverty-level environment. She has a passion for researching and presenting information in a way that enables students of all abilities and backgrounds to realize their full potential.

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Katie Cerqua is youth and family services manager at Virginia Beach Public Library where she coordinates library services for citizens from birth to age eighteen. Library Journal chose her as one of its 2016 Movers & Shakers in the change agents category for her work fighting summer slide through a program that brings library events and literacy programming into school buildings to help at-risk youth combat summer learning losses.

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Sheila Chari teaches fiction writing at Mercy College in New York with a special interest in immigrant stories. She focuses on innovative ways to help historically marginalized students access their imaginations to tell stories that give them a sense of voice and agency. She is author of two middle-grade novels, Finding Mighty and Vanished. She has an MFA in creative writing from New York University.

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Macy Cole is a third-year English teacher at Enloe High School, a magnet school in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in world literature and sheltered ESL instruction. She also co-teaches a paideia English course paired with world history. Macy is driven to unite her students across language and background by dissolving social constructs that may inhibit them, thus allowing them to become advocates for change.

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Yesenia Flores Díaz is an English composition assistant at Montgomery County Public Schools. She’s an award-winning writer and lifelong library lover. Her strongest calling is to teach low-income communities of color because representation matters. She strives to inspire learning and to provide continuity of high-quality education for all students. She is the proud mother of two strong girls and resides in Maryland.

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Aurora Dominguez teaches AP and AICE courses at Boca Raton Community High School. She was previously a journalist for the Miami HeraldWhere, and Bauer Xcel Media. As a teacher, she mentors ninth and tenth graders in writing and research and keeps her students updated on current events and on how to write that “oh-so-important” college research paper. She is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and lives in Hollywood, Florida.

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Faran Fagan is a transplanted Marylander who now lives in sunny South Florida. When he’s not teaching high school journalism, writing, or watching sports, he reads—both to himself and to his son and daughter. Faran won the Best & Brightest Teacher award from Florida Department of Education and received a letter of recognition from the House of Representatives for his Big Brother Big Sister club.

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J Dia Green-Jones currently works as ESE coordinator, graduation coach, and interventionist for Bay District Schools in Panama City, Florida, where she helps students who are academically deficient in the core subject areas of mathematics and reading. Literacy is extremely important in her work because it allows students to discover who they are and complete the necessary steps to improve their future.

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Rebecca Hankins is a professor and certified archivist at Texas A&M University. She is an affiliated faculty in the Interdisciplinary critical studies program that includes Africana studies, women’s and gender studies, and Arabic language and culture. She is committed to exposing students to the excellence represented in diverse collections, particularly emphasizing race, gender, and sexuality.

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Karen Javits is an educator, poet, and lifelong learner. She currently teaches English to immigrant and refugee women and their children in Clarkston, Georgia, where she focuses on skills for the whole person using a family literacy approach. She has more than twenty years experience teaching and motivating kids, teens, and adults. She lives near Emory University in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband, two daughters, and pup.

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Anne Katz has a doctorate degree in language, literacy, and learning. She is an associate professor of reading at Georgia Southern University and has a strong interest in community literacy initiatives with a focus on local middle school students. She serves as a collaborator on a National Institute of Health grant and has provided professional development for educators through three federal Teacher Quality Partnership grants.

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Shannon Korta has worked in education for thirteen years and is currently at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Georgia. She is passionate about cultivating students’ interests in reading and writing and strives to encourage open and constructive discussion about race and class so her students develop independent thinking. She lives with her husband and is Mom to two pugs and four humans.

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Joel Newsome is a mobile services librarian from Worcester, Massachusetts, where he visits elementary schools, retirement communities, and neighborhoods in one of two bookmobiles running year-round and making fifty-five stops per month. He is dedicated to providing outreach services to patrons who may find it difficult to travel to branch libraries and seeks to create meaningful programming that allows the city’s diverse patrons to connect with one another.

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Dena Rebozo is a public librarian turned one-on-one special educator at Orcas Island Elementary School in the Pacific Northwest. She bears witness to little and big steps—which ultimately lead to personal transformations—on a daily basis. She is an observer and reporter of students gaining proficiency in their own sport, be it counting by threes, learning to read, or traversing the hallway self-propelled in a walker while hitting a minimal number of obstacles.

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Alyssa Skaves is assistant librarian at York High School in Maine. She sponsors the school’s book club and civil rights team. She is a sounding board, mentor, proofreader, advice-giver, and the voice that continually encourages students to choose a book outside their comfort zone. Her favorite part of the job is building trust with teenagers and providing a safe space for them to explore their identities through literature.

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Jared Alan Smith is a chef, photographer, and ESE English instructor at Middleton High School in East Tampa, Florida. His pedagogy centers around intercultural digital communication, and he is passionate about eliminating state-mandated standardized assessments from primary and secondary schools. He is constantly seeking relevant and responsive literary resources so that he can help his students find unique inspiration and sustained success in pursuit of their individual goals.

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Nicole Smith is proudly serving her twenty-first year in public education as an instructional coach at Horace O’Bryant School in Key West. As a peer mentor and team leader, she is passionate about supporting and serving her colleagues and school community by creating and hosting academically meaningful experiences, speakers, and events to enrich and enhance student’s education. She is a native of Buffalo, New York.


Danielle Snyder is from Incline Village, Nevada. She teaches humanities and creative writing to seventh and eighth graders at Lake Tahoe School. She majored in television, film, and media studies at Cal State LA, where she played women’s basketball. As an educator, she often uses her experience as a student-athlete and her sports knowledge to connect with students in the classroom. She has a master’s degree from Whittier College.

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Dan Tobin teaches sixth grade English language arts at Rindge Ave Upper School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His classrooms are a rainbow of diversity, including many immigrant families and children from abroad whose parents study at nearby Harvard or MIT. Dan seeks to connect with and empower his students by encouraging a love of books—you might see kids in his classroom reading in some unusual places, such as on a high window shelf or under the sink.

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Clarissa West-White is a reference librarian and instructor at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She teaches online composition courses, manages the library newsletter, creates libguides, and crafts programming for faculty and students. She plans to create a readers advisory libguide on the confluence of sports and literature to assist faculty in selecting works that may pique the interest of all students. She is married and has two sons.

We’ve got news! Over the past few months we’ve been impressed by all the incoming news from KWLS alumni who are busy writing, publishing, and winning awards. In this newsletter, we’re delighted to share with you the many achievements of our past workshop students, Emerging Writer Award winners, scholarship recipients, and writers in residence. We’ll be sending out this newsletter a few times a year from now on (today’s is an epic edition).

Here in Key West, we’ve been busy too. Executive Director Arlo Haskell was just named Poet Laureate of Key West. We bid farewell to our program coordinator Freya Henderson, who is embracing adventures in Oregon, and welcomed Katrin Schumann to our offices in Love Lane. Katrin is the author of the Washington Post bestselling novel, The Forgotten Hours.

Support local & independent booksellers! Purchase any book highlighted here from Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West and get a 20% discount. Use code “KWLS20” at checkout.

featured achievements

Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut story collection, Milk Blood Heat, just sold to Grove Atlantic. Dantiel also won the 2018 Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction, awarded by Ploughshares (2018 Cecilia Joyce Johnson Award winner).

Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, The Most Fun We Ever Had, will be published in June in the US by Doubleday and in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2019 Richard Russo workshop).

“Lombardo’s impressive debut is a gripping and poignant ode to a messy, loving family in all its glory. She juggles a huge cast of characters with seeming effortlessness, bringing each to life with humor, vividness and acute psychological insight.” —Madeline Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Circe

Michael Adno’s story “The Short & Brilliant Life of Ernest Matthew Mickler” won the 2019 James Beard Award in Profile Writing. A piece Michael reported over the course of two years, “Once It Comes Time: William Christenberry,” came out in the Bitter Southerner in February. “It’s maybe the most significant thing I’ve written yet,” he says. His articles “Surfing Remade in the Rockaways” and “Conjuring Spirits in Florida,” which he worked on while in residence in Key West, were published in the New York Times (2018 & 2019 writer in residence).

Joshunda Sanders’s first children’s book, I Can Write the World, about an aspiring black girl journalist, is coming out in June with Six Foot Press. Joshunda recently participated on a panel, Black Books Matter, one of the flagship events of the Bologna, Italy, Children’s Book Fair. She was a finalist for the Jerome Artist Fellowship and one of five first place winners of a Voices of Color Fellowship at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing (2016 Kristen-Paige Madonia workshop).

Katya Apekina’s novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize—the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction—and will be translated into Spanish, French, German, Italian and Catalan (2018 Joy Williams workshop & scholarship winner).

Judy Seldin-Cohen’s book Recharging Judaism won the silver award from the National Jewish Book Awards and the Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life & Practice.

Judy started a blog series (FaithInHousing.org) sharing stories of congregations that are using their resources to create affordable housing (2019 Toolkit participant).

Sara Johnson Allen was awarded a MacDowell Colony Fellowship in 2018 and was given a  2019 Elizabeth George Foundation artist’s grant. Her story “We Make Them Pay” was shortlisted for the 2019 Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2018 Marianne Russo Award winner).

short stories & plays

John Baum’s short story “Everything is Fine” was published in the Massachusetts Review and another was a runner-up in the William Faulkner Wisdom Competition. John was also awarded a residency at the Hambidge Center for the Arts in Georgia (2016 Mary Kay Zuravleff workshop).

Esperanza Cintron has had short stories published by Wayne State University Press and in Shades: Detroit Love Stories. More here (2018 Teacher & Librarian scholarship).

Leah Griesmann’s story “Desert Rats” will be published in the anthology This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West, by Baobab Press. Leah workshopped a story linked to this one during her week in Key West. She’ll be a resident at the Studios of Key West in 2019 (2017 Jennine Capo-Crucet workshop).

Drew Larimore’s musical The New Peggy has been featured on the Micro Musical Theatre podcast and will be available on iTunes this summer. He is attending the Djerassi Artist Residency in fall 2019 as a playwright in residence (2018 & 2019 writer in residence).

Vicky Lettmann’s story “Dolls, Death, and Pleasing Decay” is forthcoming in the next issue of Minerva Rising. More here (2016 Jane Hirschfield/ 2017 Dani Shapiro/ 2018 Gregory Pardlo workshops).

Jen Logan Meyer has a short story in the winter-spring issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review, and her story “Stop.” is forthcoming in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review (2018 Joy Williams workshop).

Seamus Scanlon’s play The McGowan Trilogy sold out in Japan. His first poetry collection, Ireland in the Heart, has has been translated into Spanish –Irlanda en el Corazon– and published by Artepoetica Press (2013 Teacher & Librarian scholarship).


Pamela Gay’s memoir I’m So Glad You’re Here will be published by She Writes Press in 2020. Pamela recently won an honorable mention for her flash memoir “Against the Wall” in a contest sponsored by Midway Journal and judged by Michael Martone (2017 Dani Shapiro workshop).

Lara Lillibridge’s  memoir, Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent, has just been released by Skyhorse Publishing. Lara also co-edited the anthology Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility released by Cynren Press in April (2018 Daniel Menaker/ 2019 John Dufresne workshops).


Scott Brennan’s poetry collection Raft Made of Seagull Feathers will be published by Main Street Rag Publishing in the fall. More on Scott here (2013 Scotti Merrill Award winner).

Leila Chatti’s first full-length collection, Deluge, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2020 (2018 Emerging Writer Award runner-up).

George Guida’s revised poetry collection New York and Other Lovers will be published by Encircle Publications in January 2020. More here. (2018 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop).

Abigail King has four poems in the current spring issue of Leaping Clear (2017 Billy Collins workshop).

Paul Lubenkov’s poetry collection Tap Dancing On The Razor’s Edge was published by David Robert books in 2018.

Pamela Manche Pearce has a chapbook coming out this fall. Her previous collection, Widowland, is a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award (2016 Billy Collins workshop).

Paige Riehl published a collection titled Suspension with Terrapin Books in 2018. Riehl’s manuscript was a finalist for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry with Milkweed Editions, and she has published poems in several journals, including Water-Stone Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Free State Review (2016 Billy Collins workshop).

Bruce Robinson has placed poems in assorted publications with others promised in DASH Literary Journal, the Menteur, Blueline, and Spectrum(2018 Billy Collins/ 2019 Gregory Pardlo workshops).

Emily Vizzo’s poetry collection Giantess was released by YesYes Books in 2018 and reviewed by Portland’s The Poetry Question (2017 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop/ 2019 Teacher & Librarian scholarship).

recommended quick reads

Aaron Hamburger’s opinion piece “Yes Kurt Cobain was a grunge hero, he was also a gay rights advocate” was published in the Washington Post.His novel Nirvana is Here—”a yearning, generous coming-of-age story,” says author Tova Mirvis—has just been released by Three Rooms Press (2019 writer in residence).

Maija Makinen’s essay “Finland Is Not Real” was published in the Bare Life Review. She’ll be attending the Mary Sky Residency in Vermont this June (2019 Emily Raboteau workshop).

Kristine Mietzner’s travel essay “Food Sharing, Barcelona Style” was featured in the April edition of the online magazine Your Life is a Trip, which also published her essay “Travels with Rain Man.” An excerpt from Kristine’s novel, Matisse in Winter, was published in the 2018 anthology 166 Palms (2017 Teacher & Librarian scholarship/ 2018 Daniel Menaker workshop).

Jen Gilman Porat’s essay “The Neanderthal” is on Longreads (2017 Jennine Capo-Crucet/ 2019 Emily Raboteau workshops).


Rebecca Bruff’s historical novel, Trouble in the Water, inspired by the life of Robert Smalls, will be published in June by Koehlerbooks (2017 Kate Moses workshop).

Ted Wheeler’s third book, In Our Other Lives, set during an NSA post-9/11 domestic spying campaign, was acquired by Little A and will be published in March 2020 (2014 Marianne Russo Award winner).

Audrey Wick’s debut women’s fiction novel, Finding True North, and its sister story Coming Home were recently released by Tule Publishing. Audrey’s author debut was featured in Writer’s Digest as a “Breaking In” profile for traditional publishing, as well as in Southern Writers as a “New Voice in Town” (2018 Teacher & Librarian scholarship).

awards, residencies & more

Katherine Agard’s first book, of color, won the Essay Press Open Book contest and will be published early next year (2018 Rowan Ricardo Phillips workshop).

Allison Alsup’s short story “The Proper Protocol for Abandoned Babies” was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize (2019 Richard Russo workshop).

Ben Bush has been awarded various fellowships, including residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska. In August he will begin the creative writing doctorate program at the University of Southern California as a Dornsife Fellow (2016 Antonya Nelson workshop & scholarship winner).

Martin Cloutier has been named a 2018 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Fiction (2018 Emerging Writer Award runner-up).

Debra Daniel’s novella, Roster, will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in the UK and was a highly commended entry in the Bath Flash Fiction competition (2015 Billy Collins/ 2016 Daniel Menaker workshops).

Elizabeth Jacobson’s second book, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, won the New Measure Poetry Prize selected by Marianne Boruch and was published in January by Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press. Beginning this spring she will be the Reviews Editor at Terrain.org (2019 writer in residence).

Kristina Neihouse’s debut novel, Knowing When to Leave, was awarded the silver medal in the young adult category of the 2018 Florida Book Awards. She received an Anne McKee Artist Fund grant for the second book in the series. Her essay “Death and an Abscess” placed 3rd in the WOW Women on Writing quarterly creative nonfiction essay contest (2018 Manuel Gonzales workshop & scholarship winner/ 2019 Emily Raboteau workshop & Toolkit participant).

Elizabeth Oxley earned a Merit Award in the Book of Kells Creative Competition held annually by Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, for her poem “Jesus Gets the Band Back Together.” She placed 2nd in the 2018 Frontier OPEN poetry competition for her poem “Expelling Venus” (2019 Gregory Pardlo workshop).

Patty Smith’s debut novel, The Year of Needy Girls, was a 2018 Lambda Literary Award finalist in lesbian fiction. Her short story “A Country Where I am Beautiful” won third place in the Master’s Review Summer Short Story contest. Patty spent two weeks in residency at VCCA working on her second novel and was granted one of the inaugural Rowland Writers Residencies in Aurora, NY (2015 Teacher & Librarian scholarship).

Arida Wright was awarded an Anne McKee Artists Fund grant to publish her first book (2018 Manuel Gonzalez workshop & scholarship winner).

other news

Pam Braswell is completing the fourth and fifth books in a series, and her earlier novels are currently on submission to publishers. She went to Israel to complete field work and took a literary tour of Ireland and Scotland with Christine Cozzens, Dean of Agnes Scott College and a published scholar of Irish literature (2015 Susan Shreve workshop).

Joshua Bodwell has been named editorial director of David R. Godine, Publisher, an independent Boston-based press established in 1970, and will be leaving his 10-year post as executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. In addition to the Godine list, Joshua will oversee the house’s Black Sparrow Press imprint, a continuation of the famed West Coast avant-garde publisher’s legacy (2015 Marianne Russo Award winner).


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

By Diane Hance

Meg Cabot and Danielle Paige opened the first public session of the 37th annual Key West Literary Seminar with a confession: “We are both guilty,” Cabot claimed, “of writing books based on other books.”

The authors began their lively conversation by sharing early influences and favorite childhood characters that sparked their interest in writing about strong women before taking questions from the audience. Classics like Jane Eyre, the Nancy Drew series, and authors Judy Blume and Jane Austen topped the list. They also described a shared appreciation for Star Wars princess Leia Organa, due to her fierce ability to wield a blaster and run a government.

Both Paige and Cabot also expressed a fondness for the romance genre, defending its legitimacy as one of the top sellers in the publishing industry. Paige shared some of her memories of “sneaking into her mom’s room” to find titles like The Thorn Birds and indulging in the vampire love stories of Anne Rice. The two praised romance genre queen Jude Deveraux as well.

While some of their early influences featured strong female characters, the authors expressed a desire to write about girls who are strong and independent. Cabot lamented her frustration with the 29 rejections received for the best-selling Princess Series because her main character didn’t want to be a princess; publishers didn’t like that Mia enjoyed her life and didn’t need to be rescued.

“That is the complete opposite now,” chimed Paige. She noted that sometimes it is important to just read for fun, without learning a lesson.

Cabot also made a point to clarify to the audience that young adult fiction (YA) is not a genre, but a category of children’s fiction; there are many genres that exist in YA.

Both are currently working on graphic novel projects featuring female superheroes for DC Comics. Cabot is writing an origin story for Black Canary aimed towards younger audiences, while Paige is working on a graphic novel about Meera. “I like to say that Aquaman is HER boyfriend” stated Paige, showing the importance of Meera standing as her own character, rather than one dependent solely on association with the male superhero. Cabot chose to write about Black Canary because her superpower is her sonic scream: “She’s very loud.” Cabot emphasized that women are often chastised for being too loud, for talking too much, so she is excited about depicting this as a superpower for Black Canary. Both expressed enthusiasm for having the opportunity to create female characters in the male dominated comic industry. “It’s so great to be included and invited to the party as a woman, and as a woman of color” added Paige.

While the graphic novel format is new territory for both authors, they described the experiences that prepared them for this type of project. Paige compared graphic novel writing to her role as a scriptwriter for Guiding Light, providing the story and a description of the vision, while leaving the actor or artist to interpret it. Cabot also added that “they give you the script back with the art the way you asked them to draw it and you have to fill in the bubbles.” This has been challenging for her, especially since her graphic novel about Black Canary is intended for a younger audience; fewer/smaller bubbles make it difficult to simplify the text to fit.

Several of the questions posed by the audience referred to male readers and how much they read about strong female protagonists. Both authors stressed the importance of the cover in determining who would select a book. “A pink cover doesn’t work for boys,” said Cabot in reference to Princess Diaries. Paige agreed, noting that boys often read Dorothy Must Die in part because of the black cover and they red slasher font. Paige also stressed the importance of teachers and librarians putting the books in their students’ hands. Cabot added that there is a genuine attempt in the publishing industry to make the covers more gender neutral so that they reach a broader audience, especially with the graphic novels/comics, but for some reason, Princess Diaries is still pink.

Through their animated conversation, Cabot and Paige shared their passion for writing about strong female characters because they too are girls who want the world to see girls depicted honestly: strong, resourceful, and intelligent, rather than always needing to be rescued.

Diane Hance is the librarian at Grisham Middle School in Austin, Texas, an IB World School. She is a National Board Certified Educator and is currently serving on the Lone Star Reading List Selection Committee for the Texas Library Association.

By Amber Karlins

The structure of this panel — the first to explore graphic novels in the festival’s history — was, as moderator Meg Cabot described it, “very loose.” Meg began by asking panelists why graphic novels are experiencing such a surge in both quality and popularity, but this quickly shifted into a discussion about the difference between graphic novels and comics, led by Eric Shanower. As he explained, while people are often quick to ascribe higher literary aspirations to graphic novels, ultimately, the only real difference is that comics are shorter, and graphic novels have spines so you can put them on a bookshelf.

Victor LaValle then compared the rise of the graphic novel to the rise of speculative fiction, theorizing that its increased presence is a function of people who grew up on comics finally being in positions of literary power.  Danielle Page also spoke about the increasing presence of comics in the zeitgeist and the ways in which the current popularity of comic book movies contributes to their proliferation.

From there, Meg steered the conversation to the panelists’ relationships with comics during childhood. Danielle spoke about her fondness for Archie and her current love of the TV show Riverdale.  Eric gave a detailed account of the way his tastes in comics evolved, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre and discussing everything from the Tin Tin to Casper to Captain Marvel comics from the 40s. Victor’s love of comics started at the spinner rack at a store where the proprietors would allow him to read the comics without having to pay for them. As such, he essentially grew up reading whatever they had in stock. When given the choice, however, he gravitated towards stories with horror elements or “big, over-the-top violence and sex,” which elicited laughs from the audience.

The panelists also discussed the diversity inherent in graphic novels and the current push by librarians to use them to engage reluctant readers.  Meg shared that, as a former reluctant reader herself, comics played a role in helping her fall in love with books.  This transitioned into a discussion about how the collaboration between writer and artist requires a release of control that can be uncomfortable but can also lead to a synergistic relationship wherein the artist is able to produce images that not only compliment but also enhance, and in some cases condense, the text.

Following this discussion, Meg asked the panelists if they had encountered fans of the source material who were angered by the deviations they made from the original texts. Victor discussed the fact that some readers complained he had made Frankenstein political, and he “was okay with that because the only people who could think I’d turned it political were people who’d never read the [original] book.” Danielle was actually encouraged to think about using a pen name because her editor thought there might be so much backlash to her book (in which Dorothy from Wizard of Oz is turned into an antagonist), but to her surprise the response has actually been very positive. Eric shared that he did have to deal with pushback regarding his graphic novel about the Trojan War, mostly from archeologists who “turn up their nose” at the idea of their work being included in a comic book.

The session concluded with a series of questions from the audience that allowed the panelists to dive deeper into the collaborative relationship between writer and artist.  Following the session, I found myself returning to Meg’s original question about the rise of the graphic novel. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the precise reason for its elevation in status, with writers like these working to advance the genre, I have no doubt this rise will continue.

Amber Karlins holds an MA in Drama from Tufts University and is an instructor of English, theatre, and film at Lake-Sumter State College.  She is also an award-winning screenwriter, produced playwright, and contributing editor at The Heroine Collective, an e-magazine dedicated to exploring extraordinary women throughout history.