Thanks to Judy Leaver for this wonderful report about the Key West Literary Seminar!
A Key West Literary Seminar Retrospective: Part I
By Judy Leaver
This is a flat-out plug for the Key West Literary Seminar (KWLS), having just wrapped up its 27th bonanza this past January. KWLS is a pricey--$495 for registration alone--but stunning way to get to Key West in the winter, and (if you’re a writer) legitimately write some of your expenses off. You will be treated to a tropical potpourri of literary braininess, soothing sunshine, joyous sunsets, the ghost of Hemingway and progeny of his six-toed cats, noisy roosters claiming the right of way, hedonism hunters, social dropouts and aging hippies. An island where a gas station is the place to buy absolutely the best fried chicken you’ve ever tasted. The southernmost tip of the United States where people eat key lime pie on a stick. Or have shrimp and grits for breakfast at the Blue Heaven Restaurant sitting outside under the trees while roosters and cats stroll around underfoot.
Key West is home either full or part time for a number of writers, making the annual literary seminar an easy ‘draw’ for the literati, and a captive audience who will buy their books. This year’s theme was “Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth.” Novelist Allan Gurganus’ conviction that “We need history so much, we historians and novelists, we keep making it up. And history returns the favor," suggests the zany but serious nature of the theme’s exploration. (Gurganus is the author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.)
Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of March and People of the Book, opened the 2009 literary blockbuster by saying, "You don't have to be a necrophiliac to write historical novels, but it helps." Brooks noted that she loves graveyards and was encouraged to move to Martha’s Vineyard with her husband, fellow writer Tony Horwitz, by one gravestone with the inscription "At Last, A Fulltime Resident."
The annual three-and-a-half day seminar is targeted to an audience of readers who, in the two years I’ve attended, are mostly white and retired, with money and time to attend. I am not retired, so it’s a financial stretch for me, but I rationalize it as an investment in my writing and reading. Be warned—the seminar is so intellectually stimulating, your head may explode.
The main seminar action takes place at the stately San Carlos Institute on Duval Street, just three doors down from Jimmy Buffet’s Original Margaritaville Café. The San Carlos is one of Florida's most beautiful and historic landmarks. It was founded in 1871 by the Cuban exiles of Key West as an educational, civic, and patriotic center. Today it serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater, and school. Located in the heart of Key West's historic district, the San Carlos is considered the cradle of Cuba's independence movement. It was at the San Carlos that Jose Marti united the exile community in 1892 to launch the final phase of his campaign for Cuba's independence. So, Key West and Cuba are intertwined, not just at the San Carlos, but in the architecture, art, and language of the island.
Inside the San Carlos, besides Geraldine Brooks and Allan Gurganus, we were treated to Ursula Hegi, Sena Jeter Naslund, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Unsworth, Gore Vidal and a slew of others, most of them reading from their well-known novels and/or newest work. Beyond the readings, they participated on panels or gave lectures regarding their individual perspectives on the degree of allegiance a novelist owes to historical ‘fact.’
Barry Unsworth was worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning with his talk explaining why and how he writes historical fiction, and why we read it. "We haven't got any choice in the matter," the courtly Mr. Unsworth said. “The past is being forged moment to moment as we live." Each of us is the result of choices made in the past by our parents, grandparents, and beyond– in Unsworth's case, his father's decision to leave the mining work where sons followed fathers, go to the U.S. and Canada, and, upon returning to England, work in the insurance business. With those decisions, "he rescued my brother and me from that long chain of continuity, which is what happened in mining villages."
Despite my bias for fiction, I want to be fair to the history side of this seminar. There was lively consideration of the degree of accuracy an historical novelist owes a reader. Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (both are ridiculously accomplished historians and writers) come down on the side of extreme accuracy. Lepore, besides teaching history, is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and in March of 2008 wrote an article on this subject entitled “Just the Facts, Ma’am.” Jane and Jill together have just released a novel, Blindspot, set in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, an era both women know well as historians.
Okay…it wouldn’t be good to place the Boston Tea Party in Long Island Sound, but the depth of research demanded of historical ‘Truth’! And whose ‘Truth’ are we talking about anyway? Or, as Gurganus opined, "History is agreed-upon hearsay granted tenure."
Fortunately, Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, and one of the country’s most prominent historians, eased my historical accuracy anxiety when he spoke about, “Who Owns History? Rethinking and Re-imagining the Past in a Changing World.” When he said, "The line between historical fiction and historical scholarship is not as hard and fast as we might think," I realized that “revisionist history” isn’t pejorative! History is constantly being revised as new evidence emerges, as new historians form and then filter their own ideas about past events. "History is not and should not aspire to be a science."
"Trouble is our subject matter and it is never-ending," Gurganus observed in his talk entitled, “A Still Small Voice Under the Cannonade: Field Notes toward Fiction’s Pact with History.” Gurganus was part literary academic and part stand up comedian: "Liars, like historians and politicians, tend to overdocument.... the term historical fiction sounds as pitifully redundant as, say, creative writing. It's like having 'oxygen breather' stamped on your driver's license."
Dishing Department. I have to say, I was looking forward to seeing Alan Cheuse since I’ve heard him reviewing books on NPR for years. Sadly, his light did not shine so brightly against Geraldine Brooks and Sena Jeter Naslund. While serving as their panel moderator, not once, but TWICE he made suggestive remarks (See Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife and Moby Dick) that rankled these two brilliant women, not to mention an audience of over 200 who were mostly women. What was he thinking!! I suspect his book sales suffered.
The rather steep registration fee for the seminar also covers several sumptuous food and drink events in lovely places like the grounds of the Key West Lighthouse. I cannot do such a luscious literary event justice here. Go to www.kwls.org and read more about each of the luminaries and past seminars.
The Key West Literary Seminar is followed by four days of workshops for writers, with topics ranging from poetry to fiction, to memoir, to creative nonfiction. The workshop component costs $450. There’s a small price break if you sign up for both the seminar and the workshop parts. Transportation and lodging are up to you. All the events take place in Old Town, so it’s most convenient to stay in that area. Key West is small and compact—quite walkable. Bicycle rentals are ubiquitous and the town is bike-friendly.
Next year’s seminar. “Clearing the Sill of the World” is the theme of the 2010 seminar. It is a celebration of 60 years of American poetry in honor of Richard Wilbur, former Poet Laureate and winner of every available poetry honor or prize currently available. Registration is open now. The seminar fills up fast and attendees at this year’s event got a jump on everyone else by being able to put down a deposit before we left Key West. Again, go to www.kwls.org for more information.
About: Judy Leaver, M.A. has worked as a professional writer for nearly 9 years, following a 20-year career in social work and mental health advocacy. Her creative writing includes poetry, essays, short stories, and untold vignettes that appear to be pointing the way to a memoir. She has participated in a writing group that is fourteen years strong, and in the spring of 2004 was selected to participate in the Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop at George Washington University, under the tutelage of poet Rick Barot. In January of this year she participated in “Maneuvering the Poem”, a workshop with former Poet Laureate,Billy Collins in Key West, FL. Her work has been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. She guest-blogged here in April of 2008.