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

All photos by Nick Doll

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Andrea Rinard, winner of the Marianne Russo Award for a novel-in-progress
Jane Leavy, Gish Jen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lionel Shriver on “Sports and Fiction”
Megan Abbott and Jane Leavy
Seminar Technical Director Ben Pegg
Louisa Thomas on “How Did It Feel?: The Ineffability of Sports”
The free and open-to-the-public afternoon session draws a crowd before doors open at 1:45 pm.

By Dena Rebozo

The final day of Key West Literary Seminar winds down in uplifting triumph. With most of his crew mates gone and the last couple months of his own life remaining, Joe Rantz meets Daniel James Brown. Unbeknownst to Brown, Rantz rowed in front of Adolf Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He and eight other boys of the American Olympic Rowing Team in that 2,000-meter race faced staggering, irrefutable adversity and obstacles leading up to the most spectacular almost six-and-a-half-minute race ever rowed, a race of imperishable triumph of a team pulling together, a perfect living thing. If you are out of breath reading this, I was out of breath just watching the video clip Brown showed of the actual race from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Maybe you feel like the rowers now – post-race hunched over, gasping. Just one second separated the top three finishing boats.

Back to Brown and Rantz.
“Can I write about your life?” Brown pole vaults.
“No,” croaks Rantz. Silence.
“You can write a book about the boat,” he says, joy and pride shining in tears.
The boat refers to all the guys who rowed, all nine of them.

Four years later, Brown finishes the book, indeed, about the boat. What makes this book about rowing the kind of book audience members stood up to proclaim and urge others to read during the Q&A session? After all, what might be more boring than a book about rowing? How did this book win the most votes from independent booksellers nationwide within a year of being published?

Boys in the Boat does not simply keep alive a previously untold story as compelling and important as Jesse Owens’s in the 1936 Olympics. It keeps alive the flame of a great generation, one gouged by mighty suffering, deprivation, and hardship. This is the story of the forging of a great team and their achievement “pulling together” that at once belongs to them and to a generation with the Herculean task of triumphing come Word War II.

Brown distills six remarkable “comeback” qualities embodied by every boy in the boat. First, through a brutal self-selection “whittling” process just to earn a seat, each boy personifies perseverance and resilience. Second, they epitomize adaptability rowing in different length races, different bodies of water with different currents, winds, waves, different air temperatures, employing different strategies against various opponents. Third, every man pulls his heart out, pulls for the others. An extraordinary level of mutual respect and trust is present. Fourth, these are Zen rowers focusing with single-pointed attention on their secret mantra “mind in boat, mind in boat.” Fifth, in one word, is earnestness. Summed up best by George Yeoman Pocock, not only their shell-builder, but inarguably their rowing guru. “I leave a piece of my heart with every boat,” he said. “Leave a piece of your heart with every race.” Least obvious yet most important, a measure of humility hallmarks their approach to rowing, each needing the other to surpass adversity.

Pocock once said, “In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do.” Dan Brown, you are Pocock’s extraordinary man. Thank you for seeing the beauty and opening our eyes. May this story kindle the hearts of our generation so that together we can find our “swing.”

Dena Rebozo, a public librarian turned special educator, is a 2020 Teacher & Librarian Scholarship Recipient. Her sports are swimming in the Salish Sea and hula hooping.

By Sarah Thomas

Leanne Shapton and Buzz Bissinger joined in a conversation that broke all preconceived notions for a panel at a literary seminar. In “Longing and Belonging: Teams, Clothes, and Desire,” Shapton questioned Bissinger about sexuality, intimacy, desire, gender identity, and sports uniforms.

“I love Buzz’s writing when he talks about sport,” said Shapton, “but also when he talks about sexuality, clothing, compulsion, and questioning one’s self and identity.”

Since publishing his celebrated Friday Night Lights, Bissinger’s personal and professional life has turned more toward exploration of those very topics. He candidly shared his exploration of sadomasochism, a leather fetish, a shopping addiction, and cross dressing.

Bissinger cited two seminal moments in his writing career that crystalized these avenues in his life: a confessional-style essay “My Gucci Addiction” in GQ in 2013, and his cover story for Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner, “Call Me Caitlyn,” in 2015. Bissinger credited his interview with Jenner for some of the questions he’s continued to explore regarding gender and sexual identity.

“What is gender? What does it mean to be female?” he asked and went on to discuss Bruce Jenner being “the perfect athletic specimen” during his career. “Look at how much he was concealing and repressing,” said Bissinger, “and he had to conform to the image projected on him.”

Shapton and Bissinger discussed the performative aspect of sports, and how people—especially white heterosexual males—repress nonconforming interests and desires, which prove to surface later. “I think we’re all repressing something and have some secret or another,” said Bissinger.

They discussed the convivial nature of the locker room and field as places where men can be unselfconscious. “Sports and war are the only two places where men are allowed to openly love,” Bissinger said.

While the competitive arena has proven to be an outlet for men, Bissinger and Shapton also explored the ways in which competition, physicality, and sexuality can uncomfortably intersect—especially for young women. Shapton talked about her adolescent self-consciousness when required to wear a thin, brief swimsuit for meets. She discussed disliking her father videotaping swim meets picturing her in uniform, and the universal feeling held by women when they know they are being looked at.

The key to unlocking a more adventuresome notion of gender identity? Tennis great Serena Williams.

Bissinger applauded Williams’s moments skewering the “Wimbledon white” dress code and her upending of conventions. “She’s magnificent,” he said.

As Shapton and Bissinger delighted in oft-uncomfortable subjects, truths about the writing life surfaced. Bissinger said that part of being a writer “is being a chameleon and changing shape,” all in a quest to get the truth. He even admitted to toning down his leather-clad, spiked heel look for his current book project: “I’m interviewing lots of veterans in their ‘90s and if I show up in leather boots, they’re going to have a heart attack,” he laughed.

Sarah Thomas is a writer, editor, and educator. She has written for HuffPost, Al Jazeera America, xojane, Catapult, Apogee Journal, and Key West Weekly.

By Shannon Korta

Saturday afternoon’s literary panel tackled the topic of parents’ increasing over-involvement in their children’s sports lives for the discussion “The Case for Banning Parents.” Author Buzz Bissinger, best known for his New York Times bestseller Friday Night Lights, was joined by Ben McGrath, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and award-winning novelist Megan Abbott. The panelists discussed the perils of overzealous, misguided, emotionally stunted sports parents who have created a toxic culture that Bissinger acerbically summarizes “has completely removed all fun from sports.”

The panelists touched on various situations they’d experienced or read about exemplifying poor parent behavior ranging from verbal attacks on other parents to physical fights on the field with officials. McGrath noted that many officials have opted to quit in the face of increasingly confrontational situations. The intense pressure from parents on their children to win at all costs has given rise to year-round travel sports and specialized camps promising to give your child a competitive edge over the rest. Abbott conveyed that, although she was not involved in sports growing up, her brothers’ little league games and commitments took up an exhaustive amount of time, stating matter-of-factly, “I never had a summer.”

Abbott segued from embarrassing spectacle parents and addressed a subtler, yet insidious, element of youth. In the case of Olympic gymnastics, countless female athletes were abused repeatedly by Larry Nassar over several years. Abbott questioned the claim from many of the girls’ parents who “didn’t know anything was going on.” She said that while watching the Nassar trial on television, some of the girls looked at their parents as if to say, “Why didn’t you help me?” Lack of action from parents can be more harmful than the overreactions, according to Abbott. It is difficult to imagine a parent would knowingly turn a blind eye to such atrocious acts in the quest for their daughters to win gold – difficult, but sadly, not impossible, she noted.

Despite his best-selling book focusing on small town football, Bissinger was the most vocal about how detrimental sports can be for a child’s mental health. He attributed much of parental pressure in sports to the disillusioned aspiration of getting a D1 scholarship, which he pointedly told the audience “isn’t happening.” Reiterating his earlier assessment, he said sports should be about fun – acknowledging his son was lost on the soccer field, but still enjoyed it. He admitted he did have moments where his son’s lack of athleticism bothered him, ruefully asking the crowd “Why do I care though?” “Am I that insecure in myself?” The question hung uncomfortably in the auditorium air along with the dust particles in the spotlights. It wasn’t hard to imagine many in the crowd had asked themselves this same thing.

Bissinger said earlier in the discussion that every athlete is haunted by four words: “What could have been?” I think it’s fair to say parents are equally haunted by these words. What could have been if I read to them more? What could have been if I listened a little more? Parents are athletes in a different sense. We compete against other parents, we compete against time, and we compete against this perfect version of ourselves – this version of ourselves that always gets it right with our kids. The version of ourselves that is completely confident with parenting. That version of ourselves that can conjure up honest, transparent, bonding discussions from the most sullen teenager. That version, though, is like the D1 scholarship:largely unattainable for most. Maybe we make it harder than it needs to be. Parenting and sports could both benefit from Bissinger’s advice, “Let’s just have fun with it.”

Shannon Korta teaches at Landmark Christian School in Fairburn, Georgia. She is the recipient of a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholarship.

By Clarissa West-White

I am a hypocrite. Sports are to blame. I admire many boxing greats but am no fan of boxing. I love football but not the NFL. I love the Steelers but not Big Ben. I see flaws; management barks out rules to protect some but not all, the game mistreats black bodies, black minds and black protests. But I too am a hypocrite: I buy jerseys and tickets.

Joyce Carol Oates’ discussion left me reflective, and tight and cringing at my hypocrisy. She presented boxing as theatre, a spectacle, as “deep play” akin to an elegant waltz where one leads and the other follows, then reverses.

Joyce remarked that boxers know the history and tradition of boxing. They know what awaits as they climb into the ring and out. This may evoke awe, but is it noble? Are the peaks worth it when the outcome is the permanence of the valley? I’m unsure but believe audiences play a predictable and pretentious role. This explains why people wear formal attire to a brawl. Boxers behave badly; bouts aren’t an operatic production worthy of  fanfare. They know who they are.


If it’s true that you meet the writer in their work, as Oates also remarked, are boxers truthful in their performance in the ring? And are we just in our over-analysis? Hope can be seductive and blinding. Boxing amplifies the egregiousness of other sports, however it’s not the violence that offends. I have witnessed violence in sports that caused me to tighten my core, clutch my body. I recall the repeated blows absorbed by Rodney King.

If boxers resent their role, as Oates suggests, then why do they box? If they have studied the history of their predecessors, why believe there’s an alternative ending?

Lifting up boxing to the realm of a high-culture sport seems counterproductive to bringing the average person to the boxer’s level. Although I have never witnessed a bout in person, I suspect my soul would lament the way it did when I attempted to watch the combines. When I turned to the program, a man, a white man with gloves (although I’m not certain if the gloves were actually present or if after almost two decades I imagine they should have been), was examining the form of a skimpily-clad black body and I quietly caved.

The man’s hands moved from the black calf to the torso and ended with a quick inspection of the athlete’s teeth. I have never watched again. It was too much. Too reminiscent of slavery and auction blocks. Yet, I love football. I am a hypocrite, the league’s accomplice. Is this why tuxedos are worn to boxing matches, to bring a level of Oscar-affirming beauty?

I thoroughly enjoyed Oates’ description of events that led to interviewing Mike Tyson. Entré is not easily extended or received. I also admire her presence at a handful of matches. If cable packages to access a bout is any indication of cost, then I’m way out of my league. Perhaps, tuxedos are appropriate after all.

Distinguishing boxing from common fighting is hazy. The bout betrays itself. I have witnessed fights. I am not unnerved. Nor am I bothered by the spectacle surrounding weigh-ins. I often believe this is where the first round should occur. Throw your best punch and fight. Brawl. Just go after each other. All that rehearsed bravado seems wasted. The actor returns to notions of athleticism and clobbers the clown who just insulted him. After all, as Oates stated, it’s the blow you don’t see that knocks you out.

I am a hypocrite and I hate it.

Clarissa West-White is a reference librarian and instructor at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. She is the recipient of a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholarship.

By Yesenia Flores Diaz

To kick off day three of the 38th Annual KWLS Reading Between the Lines: Sports and Literature, Kevin Young and Arnold Rampersad discussed the history of black sportsmanship in a thought-provoking session entitled: “In Conversation: Biography and the Black Athlete.”

According to Young, childhood hero Arthur Ashe was “the first athlete who existed as a person.” Despite a privileged life and the irony of his nationally-ranked status and exclusion from a local tourney, Rampersad affirmed Ashe had a “desire to be taken seriously, [he] prized the intellectual side of life, [was] a noble person who believed in spirit.”

Attendees were offered poignant glimpses of the experiences, triumphs and villification, notwithstanding, of 20th century greats such as: Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, and sisters Venus and Serena Williams.

One cannot ignore how these black athletes in particular have dealt with “the jagged edge of circumstances,” to rise above controversy and go beyond the call of duty with audaciousness, dignity, grace, and humor.

Young questioned whether it was possible to “play sports and protest at the same time,” like free-agent QB Colin Kaepernick. This garnered an immediate response from Rampersad who said that for black athletes, their “presence is a signal of protest.”

This session challenged us to think critically about black athletes and their personas as well as unrealistic expectations and pressures to “educate and uplift a nation”–a nation that has often rejected their humanity and proclaimed “game over” when they’ve deliberately crossed a line and strayed out of bounds.

Yesenia Flores Díaz is a 2020 Teacher and Librarian Scholar who credits her parents and elementary school librarian for cultivating an early love for reading. She is an English Composition Assistant with Montgomery County Public Schools and a firm believer that sports, like books, should be accessible to all. 

By Chloe Firetto-Toomey

Sports and poetry? The words present an inherent conflict; the mind verses the body’s endurance. “Poets are not good at sports,” says Collins, stirring a murmur of laughter from the audience at the Key West Literary Seminar on Friday.

Mohamed Ali wrote poems! Who knew?

Poets, often athletically inferior, present their grace in the movement of words. It is a “strained likeness,” Collins confesses: the sonnet form with 14 boxed lines presents boundary lines representative of a tennis or basketball court.

Poets, he professes, major in death: the examination of the human experience. Death is what rouses the poet to get out of bed and walk to the window. Sports, (like sex) delays death.

Poets challenge invisible opponents. George Plimpton wrote: “The smaller the ball the better the writing about the sport.” Whether language plays or balls play, the sports poem comments on subjects of mortality and the examination of the games of life.

The poem “Catch” by Robert Francis presents a word basic to sports; the poet throws and the reader catches—words play and language plays: “plumbs and peaches” are metaphors for racial transcendence within the arena of sports.

As sports transcends the individual, so does the sports poem transcend the game. Yet time is a unifying element in both sports and poetry: athletic abilities, the diminishment of the body, expressed with wit and lament in David Hilton’s poem “Try to Turn in My Jock.” In it he writes, “feel left calf turn to stone…ankle at right angle…29 and getting fat, should think of better things to do. But shit. The shot goes in.”

This is one of many that Collins recited; he offered a mixtape of poems. Another, by Will Chamberlain, traverses witty rhymes: “trim in birth and limb…old age is grim.” A poem about the runner Maze Winston explores the language of balls and play, and how the game is about “home” and “run.”

“Funny things happen when poets begin to write about sports,” Collins says. He reads on: “Jump Shooter” by Denis Trudell, “ Football” by Lewis Jenkins; he reads a poem about “Angels” both metaphorical and a literal team name: “prayer throbbing in my throat” as the speaker cheers for her team.

Perhaps “Old Timer’s Day” by Donald Hall offered the line that most lingers: “Best to be an alive farmhand than dead…To observe the ruin of even the greatest body.”

Chloe Firetto-Toomey is the winner of the 2020 Scotti Merrill Award for Poetry. She is an English-American poet and essayist, and teaches at Florida International University and Everglades Correctional Institution.

By Mark Hedden

Much of the early conversation during the “Game. Set. Match. Write.” panel was about what most consider the two biggest guide stars in modern tennis writing – David Foster Wallace’s wide-ranging work, much of which is collected in “String Theory,” and John McPhee’s book about a single Arthur Ashe match, “Levels of the Game.”

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, author of The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, commented on how McPhee’s book was almost cinematic, the way it shifted perspective from the ongoing play between Ashe and opponent Clark Graebner to the story of the roads that them led there.

Michael Mewshaw, author of Ad In Ad Out and Short Circuit: Six Months on The Men’s Professional Tennis Tour, thought that kind of work wouldn’t be possible in the modern era.

“No player would grant the author the kind of access to do that kind of work again,” Mewshaw said.

Considering the work of Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer, who has written about soccer and tennis for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times, found some irony in the fact that a writer known for his free-form, digressive style and radical punctuation was so in love with the elegance of a player like Roger Federer.

“David Foster Wallace had more in common with Nadal and all his ticks and pulling his shorts out of his butt,” said Dyer.

“I think one of the fun and interesting things about tennis is that it can be written about in a lot of different ways. It’s a genre to me that is really kind of genre-less,” said Louisa Thomas, a contributing writer to the New Yorker who writes mostly about sports. “There’s a lot of pathos in tennis.”

“There’s no template. You can just do it. And that to me was just very liberating as a writer,” she said.

“One thing that bothers me about tennis writing is the amnesia that is involved,” said Michael Mewshaw, adding that he felt that players from earlier eras were just forgotten, something other panelists took issue with.

“I rather like the adversarial panel,” Geoff Dyer said.

“Tennis reveres it’s legend more than any other sport,” said Thomas.“You can watch Martina Navratilova and Chrissy Evert play tennis today.”

“There is also a very popular trend of getting older players as coaches,” Thomas added.

“I feel like writing about tennis is a kind of paying forward the era you live in,” said Phillips.

Phillips said that you’d be “awfully hard pressed” to find a tennis player who chose the sport on their own, pointing out that most tennis greats were deeply involved in the sport by the time they were four.

He said he thought there were no second generation tennis greats “because it’s an awful grind.”

“A lot of players are in the process of not just figuring out the match or the point, but trying to figure out themselves,” Phillips said.

“There are basketball parents who coach their kids, but with the exception of Doc Rivers, nobody is coaching their kids in the NBA,” he said, contrasting that with the number of players whose parents coach them throughout their careers.

“As a parent, I wouldn’t want my child to think that losing says anything about them,” said Thomas. “But as a fan, I’m often deeply invested in who wins.”

As to whether the way a tennis player plays lets you know anything about their personality, there were also some differing opinions.

“I think it’s a fundamental Tennant of a lot of tennis writing — and I’m guilt of this myself — to read psychology into a tennis style,” Thomas said. “In a way I completely understand the need to resist that.”

But, she added, to a degree it was what she felt made the sport so compelling to watch.

Dyer said that some days he felt that, “The people play tennis is just the way that people play tennis.”

“We all have different levels of commitment to the idea of people,” Thomas added.

“For as allegorically elegant as Federer is, nobody shanks more than Federer,” Phillips said.

Phillips said he felt there were a lot of different versions of Federer’s character largely due to in multilingualism.

“He has this kind of artichoke of a personality,” Phillips said.

“One of the things about tennis, as opposed to other sports, is there’s some idyllic quality to it,” Dyer said.

He felt that Wimbledon had been largely responsibly for maintaining that idyllic quality, adding  “There’s still a hint of it being just a wonderful game at the vicarage.”

“I never love the life of a writer more than when I’m playing tennis on a Tuesday afternoon,” Dyer said.

Mark Hedden lives in Key West and is a writer, photographer, semi-professional birdwatcher, and Executive Director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society.