Where Music and Poetry Press Up against Memory: Kevin Young and Rowan Ricardo Phillips

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.

Behind Fear: Victor LaValle’s Discussion of The Changeling

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.

Margaret Atwood’s Keynote on “Influences at Work!”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcing the 2019 Emerging Writer Award Winners

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

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

Without further ado:

The winners are…

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

MARIANNE RUSSO AWARD
for a novel-in-progress

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

SCOTTI MERRILL AWARD
for poetry—selected by Billy Collins

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

CECELIA JOYCE JOHNSON AWARD
for a short story

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

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

Announcing The Writer’s Toolkit

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

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

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

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

The Writer’s Toolkit is SOLD OUT for 2019.

See links below to join waitlists for each session.

The Writer's Toolkit

SOLD OUT – click here to join waitlist

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

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

Tuesday January 15, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

session 2

SOLD OUT – click here to join waitlist

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

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

Wednesday January 16, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

Announcing The Writer's Toolkit

SOLD OUT – click here to join waitlist

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

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

Thursday January 17, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I called him David ever after.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Zach.”

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

“Let me show you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Michael Adno.

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

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

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

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

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

“David’s penthouse,” Ashley said.

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

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

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

“Hello,” David said.

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

“O.K.” he said, and paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

More about David Wolkowsky:

Joy Williams says Goodbye to Liz Lear

 

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

Liz Lear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy

 

[ Joy Williams ]

John Malcolm Brinnin on Tennessee Williams – Archives

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

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

Robert D Richardson
Robert D. Richardson. Photo by Curt Richter.

In his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind ) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects—the founding fathers of American intellectual life—is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the recent weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”

•••

Littoral: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?

Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High St. and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!

L: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”

RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.
Biography certainly has an autobiographical element in that what’s interesting to the reader is the subject seen through the eyes of the writer, but most readers want the eyes of the writer to be pretty clear lenses with not a lot of ego involvement. Still, you can’t avoid asking who is doing the writing, and while a writer may try, as I do, to write by the historian’s rules (there should be evidence for any statement or claim), the writer is on his own when he chooses how to start, where to stop, what to foreground, what to ignore, what to quote, what to describe, and so on.

Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord.

L: After Medford, your family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, famous hometown of Thoreau and Emerson. Did their spirits still animate the place? Did you know their work at that time?

RR: When we moved I was already away at a boarding school, so Concord was summers, vacations, and holidays. And for a 15- or 16-year-old, Concord was pretty dull. No movie theatre, no bowling alley, no public tennis courts, no public swimming pool, no pool hall or community center. Walden Pond was there if you cared to walk all the way out there or could cadge a ride, but the best swimming was White’s Pond which was privately owned and you had to belong. Concord was in many ways a great bore. Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past. We drove to Maynard for fun. My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau, but getting a car and meeting girls.
I read Thoreau later, in college. I didn’t get through the first chapter. When he said “Many of you lead mean and sneaking lives,” I put the book down. “I don’t need this,” I said. I couldn’t face having been found out.
Many years later, with a PhD in hand, I went to teach in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to teach American Literature so I read a lot of Thoreau, and one day I read a description of where to look for muskrats feeding along a stream. I went out and walked down to the stream 50 yards from my home in Denver, a stream called Harvard Gulch. It ran under a shopping center in a concrete box, then it came out and wandered west amid weeds and urban rubble. Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord. That’s where I lived and work and where I eventually, around the age of 40, wrote a book about Thoreau.

L: You describe Bronson Alcott as lacking “even a hint of negative capability,” Keats’s phrase for the essential poetic faculty, or as you put it, “the ability to set aside (one’s) own personality and enter imaginatively into the lives and situations of others.” What is the role of the creative imagination in the crafting of biography? Continue reading

Meg Cabot and Danielle Page: “From Princesses to Supergirls”

By Diane Hance

Meg Cabot and Danielle Page 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 Page and Cabot also expressed a fondness for the romance genre, defending its legitimacy as one of the top sellers in the publishing industry. Page 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 Page. 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 Page is working on a graphic novel about Meera. “I like to say that Aquaman is HER boyfriend” stated Page, 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 Page.

While the graphic novel format is new territory for both authors, they described the experiences that prepared them for this type of project. Page 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. Page agreed, noting that boys often read Dorothy Must Die in part because of the black cover and they red slasher font. Page 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 Page 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.

“King Arthur, The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, and the Undersea City,” a Conversation with Meg Cabot, Victor LaValle, Danielle Paige, and Eric Shanower

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.

Malleability and Transformation: Geraldine Brooks and Nicole Galland

By Ross Feeler

Neither Geraldine Brooks nor Nicole Galland started off with aspirations to write fiction.

After holding the pages of a hot-off-the-press newspaper as a child, Geraldine Brooks pursued a career in journalism for several years and with much success. This phase of her life came to a screeching halt when she was detained by Nigerian secret police. “I thought about how long other journalists I knew had been detained,” she said. “Some up to eight years. Then I thought: I have to get pregnant.” Along with her intellectual curiosity, her desire for more stability and a better environment in which to build a family led her to a career as a historical novelist.

Nicole Galland, who describes herself as a “control freak,” began as an actor—but, she realized, actors have no power over what they say, with whom they perform, or, in many cases, which roles necessity forces them to take, and so she became a stage director. But there was still another problem: She couldn’t know whether the final product of the play would align with her vision. She thought she would have more control as a movie director.

You see where this is going: Eventually, she embraced the role of  a novelist who has complete control of her characters. She went from method acting to method writing, she said—a move emphasized by the fact that for her novel Godiva, she actually rode naked on a horse.

“Just to see how it felt,” she said.

“And how did it feel?” Brooks asked her.

“It felt good.”

It should be unsurprising, then, that two artists who have undergone such personal transformations should have, at the heart of their writing, literary transformations. Much of both of their work starts with a simple question: What would that be like? What ‘that’ is varies widely, but the sense of curiosity remains.

Brooks and Galland ended their conversation by acting out a scene from Othello—twice. In the first rendition, they played the characters of Iago and Emilia according to the traditional view that they have an unhappy marriage. In the second rendition, they challenged that convention and showed that the same words played differently could, in fact, reveal a playful, even passionate marriage. This exercise in contrast provided a perfect illustration of what Galland called “the malleability of the source material”: how literature, history, and even personality are forever open to revision and re-interpretation.

Ross Feeler’s novel-in-progress TARSH won the 2019 Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Potomac Review, Story|Houston, New South, The Common, and others.

A Conversation on “Wives and Maids, What do They Know? Equal Rights for Minor Characters”

By Andrea Rinard

Margaret Atwood, Valerie Martin, and Emily Wilson engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of “Wives and Maids, What do They Know? Equal Rights for Minor Characters,” moderated by Kate Tuttle. Atwood began the session with an invocation from her Penelopiad and then discussed her impetus for writing the novel: anger at the unfairness of the murder of the twelve maids in The Odyssey. This feminist perspective was an undercurrent for the entire discussion.

Tuttle posed the seminal question of what makes a minor character minor, and the three writers discussed the issues of characters’ positions in society, specifically servitude.

Atwood speculated that the maids in The Odyssey would likely not have had a choice in their sexual activities with the suitors but were still punished for their “wrongdoing.” She likened the plot point to an honor killing in which Odysseus and Penelope would have felt compelled to “clean up the dirt,” and cleanse their house of the maids’ actions. Martin added that, as a translator, precision in diction was key and that the maids were not truly servants but slaves who were murdered, not executed.

This led to another question by Tuttle about how writers make minor characters real and significant in their narrative roles. Martin brought up her eponymous Mary Reilly, for whom servitude was a kind of salvation, a way to save her from worse fates which makes her character more fully rounded than simply that of a servant doing her duty. Being in a subordinate position, Martin said, does not mean a minor character is unimportant and doesn’t have his or her own role to play, and it also doesn’t mean that the minor character doesn’t have a story of her own to tell that transcends stereotypes. The discussion then shifted to the topic of power structures and how minor characters are often in roles in which they have little, if any power.  This, Martin said, makes for interesting perspectives.

“The master will always see the servant differently from how the servant sees the master,” she said. “There is no equality.”

Tuttle brought up the role of the wives in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and how, like Mary Reilly, their restrictive and repressive roles in society were seen by the characters as the lesser of evils. When asked where she found her inspiration for the minor characters of the wives, Atwood quipped that we don’t have to go far back in history to see women being oppressed. Women not allowed to handle their own money or have rights over their own children, she stated, is part of our recent history.

Questions from the audience ranged from Atwood’s role in the Hulu production of her Handmaid’s Tale (she says she is an “executive consultant,” a role she describes as having no power and limited influence), to the “necessity” of having the maids executed for Telemachus’s political security — to which Wilson responded that political expediency is not the same thing as justice.

The final question was whether any of the authors felt guilty about minor characters not having more voice, and Martin reflected that a minor character’s plight in a prior work was what led her to write her latest novel, Property.

It was clear from the authors that there is nothing small about minor characters and that they play an integral role in helping complete a narrative structure. The authors shared that they felt a sense of responsibility to ensure that the fictional women who fill in the backdrop of their worlds are characterized with respect and with agency, especially where female characters are concerned.

Andrea Rinard is a veteran high school English teacher in Tampa, Florida and a novitiate in the order of writing.

You can listen to their discussion here.

Naomi Novik on “The High Cost of Magic”

By Nancy Klingener

The title of Naomi Novik’s talk was “The High Cost of Magic” — a reference to the work-in-progress from which she read an excerpt.

And to frame the reading, she spoke about context — and how it relates directly to the theme of this year’s Seminar. “I really love context. I love talking about influences, and I love making context explicit,” she said.

Novik is the author, most recently, of Spinning Silver. The novel grew out of a story she contributed to an anthology called The Starlit Wood. Writers were asked to choose a fairy tale as an inspiration.

Novik chose the story of Rumpelstiltskin, about a magical creature who helps a miller’s daughter save her own life and become queen by spinning straw into gold. His price was her first-born child, but she tricks him into breaking her promise by spying on him to find out his real name.

But Spinning Silver is very different.

“It’s not a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin. No one ever spins straw into gold,” Novik said.

Instead, the original fairy tale — including its anti-Semitic qualities — spoke to a story from Novik’s own family. “It evoked for me, initially, a story I knew from my family that my grandmother had once been arrested for smuggling gold for dollars behind the Iron Curtain,” she said.

Novik also answered several questions about fan fiction, which is how she got her start in writing. “This is being done by millions of people on the Internet today. It has been done a long time before that,” she said. It started with Sherlockians — people who wrote stories about Sherlock Holmes after Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his famous (fictional) detective.

Her current work is not fiction, though she said it was inspired by a couple different sources. One is Harry Potter — where magic is free, which made her wonder why everyone wasn’t always using it to make their lives pleasant and easy. The other was a half-page sidebar from a Time-Life Mysteries of the Occult book that she found in a school library, which she described as “one of those stories that or no obvious reason, has stuck with me.”

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN, South Florida’s public radio station. She is a member of the Key West Literary Seminar board of directors and chaired the 2019 Seminar program committee.

No One Is Coming to Save Us: The Great Gatsby Meets the African-American South

By Deirdre Sugiuchi

“This summer my goal was to read all of James Baldwin’s works,” Stephanie Powell Watts told the audience at the Key West Literary Seminar. While reading Go Tell It on the Mountain, she came to the section where Baldwin speaks of when he was five and his mother said, “I have an idea,” as she was holding a scrap of black velvet. For the longest time Baldwin thought an idea was a piece of black velvet. “And it made me think,” Watts said, “of how influential we are on each other throughout our lifetimes.”

No One Is Coming to Save Us, Watts’ acclaimed novel, is about a desperately poor family in NC who are black. With this book, as in The Great Gatsby, Watts was interested in exploring the desperation of people longing for the past, people who return home with an irrepressible drive to prove themselves to those who shaped them during their formative years, people who will go to desperate lengths to find their place in the world and not be outsiders.

However, unlike Gatsby, Watts was interested in exploring the collisions of race and class and gender. She was particularly interested in exploring women like her mother and grandmother.

“We use stories to explain ourselves to ourselves,” Watts said, to reinforce our shared humanity. “To fill in gaps of what we know with each other.” She shared a section of No One Is Coming to Save Us, in which the character J.J., who grew up desperately poor, has returned to the community that sheltered him and where he is now building the grandest house in town.

Both Gatsby and No One Is Coming to Save Us are about the American dream, Watts said, exploring the question: what does the American dream look like to these characters, and how did they create it? In her novel, Watts was interested in how to achieve the American dream as a person of color. “Often if you are a religious minority or a person of color,” she noted, “your life is not your life…. How does one overcome and make the story triumphant?”

Watts spoke of how she was interested in hidden histories as a child, not just the stories of happy endings and resilience, but the stories which were “paved over in whispers.”

“If you deny the past, it will come back to haunt you,” she added, reminding us of her character J.J., Jay Gatsby, and maybe just also a bit of ourselves.

Deirdre Sugiuchi is finishing her fundamentalist Christian reform school memoir, Unreformed. She lives in Athens, GA with her husband and son, where she’s also a public school librarian.

Madeline Miller on “Writing Back to Homer”

by Genevieve Morgan

Madeline Miller set the tone for her lively discussion, “Writing Back to Homer,” when she grasped the microphone, strode to the middle of the stage, and said she could not abide being stuck behind a podium.

She started with a short passage from Circe where Odysseus asks the nymph why she turns men into pigs. The passage ends with Circe’s wry claim that “the truth is, men make terrible pigs,” which garnered hearty laughter from the audience. The same erudite, affable, and humorous style continued throughout the 45 minutes that Miller occupied the stage.

She talked about her introduction to Homer at age five when her mother read from The Odyssey–and her excitement in 8th grade when she finally had her own copy to annotate (she recently reread her marginalia and called it “embarrassing.”)

However, Miller also recalled her disappointment in realizing how few female characters there are in the epic and how they are defined by their relationships to men as mothers, wives, and sisters. Circe, by contrast, is powerful and has agency; yet, Miller claimed Circe has been largely misinterpreted as a villain–incorrectly lumped in with the tale’s female antagonists.

To support her point, Miller observed that Circe gives Odysseus and his men space to heal as well as provisions and detailed advice regarding navigating the underworld, in contrast to Calypso (often confused with Circe), who holds Odysseus against his will. And unlike Medea and Clytemnestra, Circe is not punished for having power.

However, the key initial meeting between Odysseus and Circe ultimately disappointed the 8th grade Miller. At the critical moment, Odysseus pulled out a phallic sword, and Circe immediately dropped to her knees, begged for mercy, and invited him into her bed.

This disappointment, Miller said, was the seed of her novel.

In her re-imagining of the story, Miller takes Circe, who only had a cameo of 2+ books in the original epic, and inverts the story; in her version, Odysseus instead becomes the secondary character who only gets 2+ chapters. Miller’s retelling answers the questions: where does Circe come from? What happens after Odysseus leaves?

To fill in the blanks, Miller used hints from Homer, like the claim that Circe is a “Dread goddess who speaks like a human.” She also extrapolated from small moments in The Odyssey, like the mention of Circe’s braided hair. Of course she braids her hair; she tramps around in the woods collecting herbs, making braids practical. Miller also consulted other texts and myths to flesh out detail. Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” provided key source material that led Miller to contemplate Telemachus and Penelope’s stories and how difficult Odysseus would be to live with. In “Ulysses,” for example, Odysseus calls Telemachus and Ithaca boring and Penelope his “aged wife.”

Because epic poems concern themselves with traditionally male themes of patrimony, war, fate, and vengeance, Miller wanted to address issues normally excluded, such as childbirth and weaving. For example, when given an opportunity to pen the minotaur’s birth, as a writer you are obliged to take it. And, she observed, few classical tests would pass the Bechdel test.

During the Q&A, Miller reiterated her desire to transform the fleeting female appearances in The Odyssey and other texts into fully realized views of the often elided women of the classical world.

Genevieve Morgan teaches 9th and AP English at Flintridge Preparatory School. She holds a BA from UCLA and a Ph.D. from UC Davis in English.