Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Final Chapter download

It's always a risk when the Key West Literary Seminar puts on a double session, meaning two separate Seminars two weekends in a row. We want to accommodate as many people as possible, and we're limited by the seats available at the San Carlos Institute. But it's exhausting for the staff and other organizers. And worst of all for those of us with the terrible duty of attending both weekends, it can get repetitive so you feel like you're stuck in some literary version of Groundhog Day.

To everyone's great relief and delight, this year that did NOT happen. Probably because only one panelist -- James W. Hall -- appeared on both weekends and truly, he's the kind of guy you could listen to tell funny stories all day. The two weekends felt quite different, but both offered illuminating and diverse discussions of crime fiction in its many and varied and forms. Having superstars Lee Child and Michael Connelly in the house for the Final Chapter certainly added to the excitement and they were both great. Child, in particular, was an erudite speaker, who set the tone Friday morning with an entertaining talk about the roots of suspense fiction going back into human history. Evolutionary history.

With Child, Connelly, Lisa Unger, Tess Gerritsen and other big names on board -- and two, count 'em two Edgar nominees for Best Novel (William Kent Krueger and Thomas H. Cook) -- this week might have felt more commercial, to apply an overly broad adjective. Maybe because of that we had less of the old genre-vs.-literary discussion which I am alternately fascinated and bored by (I've got a bunch of links on my Readme page if you feel like delving into it). John Banville, Mr. Literary Himself with a Booker Prize to prove it, said he dislikes the genre stuff and wishes bookshops would shelve everything alphabetically -- mainly because he feels like it ghettoizes literary fiction and consigns it to a dark and forbidding corner. We shelve all the fiction alphabetically at the library, I'm happy to say.

Once again, though, it was the women who really caught my interest -- I've already posted about my bordering-on-embarrassing-fangirldom of Lyndsay Faye, whom I interviewed for Littoral. I had seen Sara Gran last summer at ALA, and she was even smarter and cooler than I remembered. Malla Nunn was a terrific new voice for most of the people in this crowd and her stories of writing about mixed-race people in South Africa as apartheid was being instituted were riveting. Elizabeth George's keynote was great, setting a wonderful tone -- and making me realize that I must have some kind of sick voyeuristic Protestant fascination with hearing about miserable Catholic childhoods. Mary McCarthy, Mary Gordon, Frank McCourt, you name the writer -- I just never get tired of hearing about them. Or reading about them.

I tweeted a lot less this time. Not sure why, but I do know partway through Elizabeth George's keynote I put down my notebook and just allowed myself to sit back and listen -- she was not speaking in tweetable nuggets and I did not want to distract myself by focusing on listening for them.

Coverage of panels and links to audio are available at Littoral, the Seminar's blog. Here are some snippets I did write down:

Elizabeth George:

"Each of us, with very few exceptions, has a darkness within us though mine, admittedly, is probably a little larger than the average individual."

"The darkness from which I write has its genesis in religion and family."

"The Cold War made us wary of perils that we weren't sure we'd recognize if they came knocking on our doors."

"I have to write as I have to breathe, as I have to eat, as I have to drink."

On how the advent of the personal computer with its ease of deleting, adding, moving text allowed her to get over her fear of writing a novel: "It was like being released from an iron maiden."

"A crime novel is a novel that knows where it's going."

"I write about the dark to make sense of things. I look for answers to the whys of life in its most extreme and painful moments."

"The beauty of the crime novel is that it actually knows no bounds."

Lee Child

"The way to tell a story is to not start when the earth cooled."

"Language completely saved our species," and gave us the edge over Neanderthals. "They died out and we didn't because of language."

On how storytelling made it "slightly more likely that you'd be alive next week" and thus become incorporated into human behavior: "The only good it could have done is to be a bit encouraging or empowering or consoling."

"People imagine that thriller fiction and crime fiction as a whole is some kind of side issue. That is completely ass backward." On literary fiction: "You're like the barnacles on our boat. By all means, feel free to ride along. But don't tell me you're more central than we are."

"We love to experience fear and danger and peril as long as we know it's going to be all right."

"When it comes right down to it there are only two kinds of books -- there are books that make you miss your stop on the subway and there are books that don't."

"Reacher is me when I was 9 years old."

On whether he will write books outside the Reacher series: "I'm the guy that writes Reacher and I probably always will be."

"People are way too civilized to admit it but every person has a list of 50 people they would cheerfully shoot in the head."

On the controversial casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: "I'm incredibly grateful that anybody cares."

"Most people have this unspoken assumption that a book isn't quite enough until it becomes a movie."

His response to people unhappy with the Cruise casting: "I'll make you one promise: Tom Cruise will not come to your house and steal your books."

On the film itself: "I didn't want to see an imitation of what I had done. I wanted to see somebody else's interpretation."

Sara Gran

"I am unhappily and dementedly obsessed with books."

Mystery stories are "our shared secular mythology."

"I love books that are written from a place of compulsion rather than a place of literary ambition."

"I never know what my books are about until they're done."

John Banville

"I feel as if research is the death of fiction." Though his character Quirke is a coroner, Banville has never seen an autopsy: "I just make it up." Imagination, he said, is our most powerful tool. "It's what makes us human, so we should use it as frequently as we can."

"Sex is the only subject that is absolutely impossible to write about. It can't be done."

On writing his Benjamin Black series: "To embark on a frolic of my own at that age seemed like a wonderful thing to do."

"We have this illusion that we are unitary beings. .. We are a collection of poses and attitudes, versions of ourselves … We make ourselves up as we go along. This is what makes life interesting."

On why he writes the crime novels under a pen name: "I didn't want people to think it was an elaborate post-modern joke."

"The greatest invention of humankind is the sentence."

"A relatively happy childhood is a distinct disadvantage."

On how his Roman Catholic upbringing affects his character Quirke: "It's as if he were in an ink bottle and I just poured all that stuff into him."

"The 1950s was a fascinating time in Ireland, a fascinating time in the world. The 1950s was a very dark time, especially in Ireland. It's a wonderful time to set noir fiction."

"We imagine we're these autonomous beings moving through a neutral world. We're not."

"We are the creatures who are constantly aware that we're mortal, that we will die."

Percival Everett

"No one would ever ask John Updike why his characters are white."

"By talking about post-racial America, you've already introduced the topic of race."

On starting a novel: "It's like knowingly entering a bad marriage. You have no good reason to do, but no one can talk you out of it."

"I have a plan for a bestseller. I'm going to write a courtroom drama with vampires on a submarine."

On The Searchers, a movie he uses in a class he teaches about the Western: "It's a movie that at once admits to American racism and practices it."

Tess Gerritsen

"For me, writing is all about finding the monster beneath the mask."

On having her work optioned for TV and movies: "Don't pay attention to Hollywood because it will break your heart. Just cash the checks and walk away."

On her Rizzoli & Isles series: "To me, it's more of a running soap opera with a lot of crime thrown in."

Lisa Unger

"The reason we often turn to crime fiction is not to escape life but to understand it better."

Michael Connelly

"To Kill a Mockingbird is, to me, a legal thriller."

"Almost every time I go away from Harry Bosch I can't wait to start writing about him again."

Michael Koryta

"Using the supernatural was a way for me to alert my family that I have deep-seated mental illnesses."

"I think an absolute genius of suspense is David Sedaris."

Lyndsay Faye

"Character is the only thing that drives my novels."

On research for historical novels: "I sort of cultivate a vitamin D deficiency in the microfilm department of the Bryant Park Research Library."

"We have a certain power now to give voice to people who would have been voiceless at the time."

"Writing Timothy Wilde is not me doing a thought exercise."

"Human nature has not fundamentally changed since the 19th century."

Malla Dunn

"Just because people didn't talk about things in the past doesn't mean they didn't exist."

Recommended Reading

Val McDermid, Place of Execution (recommended by Lee Child, I am 93 percent sure)

David Sedaris, The Santaland Diaries (recommended by Michael Koryta as "a clinic of suspense")

James Sallis' insect series (recommended by Sara Gran)

Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (recommended by Lyndsay Faye)

Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves (I honestly can't remember who recommended this and I didn't write it down. Bad reporter!)

Michael Koryta, The Apex Predator (a Kindle Single, recommended by Mary Morris)

Tana French, Broken Harbor (recommended by Elizabeth George and Lyndsay Faye -- after which Thomas H. Cook and Michael Koryta who were also on the panel agreed that we should read anything by Tana French)

Suzanne Berne, A Crime in the Neighborhood (recommended by Thomas H. Cook)

Fun Facts

Michael Koryta's novel The Cypress House was inspired by the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that devastated Islamorada.

James W. Hall's first novel Under Cover of Darkness was inspired by the Key Westers who fought against the building of the Reach hotel in the 1980s.

Christine Falls, John Banville's first book published under the name Benjamin Black, started as a TV mini-series that didn't get made. "Every single line of dialogue had to be changed" when it went from script to novel, Banville said.

Jane Rizzoli, from Tess Gerritsen's popular Rizzoli & Isles series, started out as a side character in a medical thriller called The Surgeon. She was supposed to die but Gerritsen found she couldn't kill the character. Dr. Maura Isles, the other half of the team, started out as a charity name, a device authors use to help raise money for nonprofits. They are both what Gerritsen called "accidental characters."

Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Chapter One download

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar I was confident the Literary Seminar was going to be great. First of all, it always is and second, with this line-up, how could it not be? Carl Hiaasen brought down the house Friday night, just as you'd expect. Joyce Carol Oates was eerily mesmerizing, like she always is. Still, it's the unexpected that brings me the most pleasure. And though I hoped (see previous post, below) that the women were going to be my favorite parts of the event, they managed to eclipse my expectations.

The highlight was a Sunday morning panel titled "Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True-Crime Movies." The panel consisted of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. They set out by telling us that the panel's title had been classed up and what they were going to talk about was their unironic love for Lifetime movies. And then they did. It's already on the Seminar's Audio Archives page and it's worth the listen even if you've never seen or wanted to see a Lifetime movie in your life. Laura Lippman has already written a great essay expanding on the panel's central theme -- the lack of meaty roles for middle-aged women in Hollywood and how the true crime genre, frequently derided as trashy, allows women to express their full dark sides. Clearly it speaks to great numbers of people -- mostly but not all women -- and it goes beyond the camp value of seeing Meredith Baxter or Farrah Fawcett enter a homicidal fugue state. Several female friends and I agreed immediately after this panel that we need to have a Netflix movie viewing binge weekend. I also think Lifetime should consider hiring these three to host a show about the genre.

Gender was on my mind a lot through the weekend -- and not in a preachy, academic kind of way. Perhaps because we started off with a keynote from Sara Paretsky, a pioneer of kickass female P.I. fiction. Cara Canella wrote a nice piece about it for Littoral and the address itself is on the Audio Archives page. And BTW, keep an eye on Littoral in general for great Seminar coverage, words and pictures, throughout. Many people were kind enough to say nice things about my program intro Friday morning and it's also excerpted on Littoral.

The other great revelation to me during this Seminar was not a younger woman at all, but an older gentleman -- Alexander McCall Smith. He's easily dismissed as a writer of gentle cozies. He is, in person, hysterically funny and one of the Seminar highlights was when he would crack himself up reading his own work. Hopefully the audio will appear soon; when it does I'll post it here.

I was tweeting a lot during the Seminar (I'm @keywestnan; the Seminar itself is @keywestliterary) and so were a few other people, mostly under the hashtag #kwls. If you're Twitter-averse, here are some of the Chapter One highlights in snippets I managed to jot down:

Sara Paretsky:

"In any situation, I anticipate the worst outcome, which by no means prepares me for the worst when it actually arrives."

"Every writer's difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech."

In crime fiction she read as a young person, the most defiant of female stereotypes, "in a cheerful Jell-O eating way, was Nancy Drew."

"I write, I chronicle, but I retreat from personal confrontation. People ask if [V.I.] is my alter ego. She is not. She is my voice."

Paretsky aspires to write like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell -- storytellers who used social issues as backdrops and used their fiction to tell essential truths about our emotional lives, "what we fear, what we want, what we need."

Joyce Carol Oates:

"It's a rare homicide that destroys only one person."

Scott Turow:

"What people really want to know desperately is why it happened, why a crime occurred."

"Recognizing that crime was a subterranean passion changed my life."

Gillian Flynn:

She is often asked "Does Gillian Flynn hate women? No. I think that's a misogynistic question, actually."

On whether she'll write a sequel to Gone Girl: "I think it's very important for me to get away from Nick and Amy for a little bit. It might be interesting to visit them in 10 years or so and see how they're doing. Not well, I assume."

John Katzenbach:

"My books are about people who are caught up in great moral and ethical quandaries, which they solve with a volley of gunfire."

"What ordinary people can think up to do to each other is far worse than anything I can come up with in my worst mood."

Journalism is "a wonderful way to channel yourself into becoming a writer, because you learn so much so damned quickly."

Laura Lippman:

"Fiction is a better vehicle for truth than journalism."

Journalism is good training for writing because it makes you a professional. "You meet deadlines. You don't take yourself too seriously. You get up, you write. It's a job."

"I have limitations. I don't think the genre does."

"I'm really happy to be in a genre where people read."

"Things that make men cry are considered profound. Things that make women cry are considered sentimental. … You wouldn't have to have a panel defending the gangster film."

Joseph Kanon:

On a favorable review of his first book, which praised him by saying has had "enough talent to write a serious novel" : "I did write a serious novel. It just happened to have a body on the first page."

After being criticized by a reader for his description of a gun: "From now on, I'm just pushing people out of windows. … The only interesting thing is why they did it, not how."

Stephen L. Carter:

"There's a big downside to writing historical fiction. The big downside is running into people who know the history better than you do after you've written the book."

William Gibson:

"Neuromancer is just a caper plot. … I personally think it doesn't quite make sense … which one finds out when one tries to write a screenplay of it."

Of the book he's currently writing: "I still don't know who did it. I'm really close to the end of the book and I'm going to have to decide who did it."

"The Wire may be as close as anything we have to Dickens today."

"I've continued to resort to mostly MacGuffin plots … the simplest little Rube Goldberg plot mechanisms but they seem to get me through to the end and they don't get in the way of doing all the wacky stuff I really love to do."

Billy Collins:

"I don't do dark very well. I don't do crime. But I can do creepy and I can do freaky."

"I tell my students if you're majoring in English, you're majoring in death. It's all about the mortality."

Attica Locke:

"America is a great freedom experiment that has to keep testing its results."

Carl Hiaasen:

Key West's own convicted drug dealer turned fugitive fire chief Bum Farto is "a character no novelist could have plausibly created."

"In my books, the alligator usually wins."

On discarding sections of writing: "You don't want to throw away anything good in case you never come up with anything good again."

"Not thinking you're good enough is the only thing that makes you better."

On writing sex scenes: "You don't want to go someplace your significant other has never been."

"Every writer's office sort of becomes a tomb for awhile."

"The job of any writer is to entertain. That's what we're paid to do."

Alexander McCall Smith:

"It's very important to get your first line right because it's the only line many people read."

Jonathan Santlofer:

"There are just as many good and bad literary novels as there are good and bad crime novels."

At Yaddo, copies of books by Dennis Lehane and Lee Child were circulating among resident artists … in a brown paper bag. "It was as if people were delivering drugs to people's rooms."

Les Standiford:

"The Great Gatsby is structured as a detective novel. … In its form, in its structure, it's a suspense thriller."

Regarding literary short stories by writing students: "Nothing ever had to happen and nothing usually did."

"The only place that very many people read books they are not interested in is college."

James W. Hall:

All fiction starts with some sort of crime: "The normal social order, the equipoise of the world, has to be knocked out of balance."

Plot is what distinguishes crime novel from literary fiction, "a coherent, causally connected series of events. … People respond to that."

On the mid-century change from the novel as popular entertainment to highbrow art form: "They injected this sense of guilt, that you had to have an education to really appreciate what the novel was about."

Arthur Conan Doyle is the father of British detective fiction, but Edgar Allan Poe is the father of American crime fiction, which includes horror along with ratiocination. So a British Agatha Christie-like mystery starts with "an embarrassment on the rug" while an American crime novel starts with "a horror on the rug."

Megan Abbott:

On discomfort with the darker side of teen girls, ie. desire, hunger, aggression, jealousy: "Teen girls are supposed to be the objects of desire. They're supposed to be looked at. They're not supposed to desire."

"What is a more noir terrain than high school? When you're in it, there is nothing more powerful or more monstrous."

"I would not want to be a teenager today. I didn't want to be one then."

"It's a time when you're most curious about the world -- and most poised to have your illusions shattered."

"You bluff your way into situations you can't handle -- and the consequences can be dark and dire."

On the intensity of female adolescent friendships, even after you move on to adulthood: "It remains this invisible tattoo on you."

"Girls have always wanted to read icky things and probably always will … Dark young adult books did not start with The Hunger Games."

Recommended Reading:

D.R. MacDonald (recommended by Scott Turow)

Iain Sinclair (recommended by William Gibson, who said Sinclair is considered part of the London Project and sometimes described as "Peter Ackroyd on acid.")

Ned Bauman, specifically The Teleportation Accident (Gibson again, who described it as "the craziest thing I've read in 20 years.")

Gary Shteyngart (recommended by both Carl Hiaasen and Gillian Flynn)

Ian Frazier, specifically Coyote vs. Acme (Hiaasen)

Flattened Fauna, a book of photographs of roadkill (Hiaasen)

P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain (recommended by Flynn for the funny)

Rose MacCauley, The Towers of Trebizond (recommended by Alexander McCall Smith and I honestly could not tell if this was a tongue-in-cheek recommendation or not -- but after reading a little more about it I'm inclined to think it was sincere and the book is worth checking out.

Lois Duncan, Daughters of Eve (recommended by Megan Abbott)

Until the Twelfth of Never: The Deadly Divorce of Dan and Betty Broderick (recommended by Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn)

Evidence of Love by John Bloom (Lippman/Abbott/Flynn again -- another true crime book that was the basis for a Lifetime movie)

Very Much A Lady by Shana Alexander (this is the Jean Harris/Herman Tarnower story, specifically recommended by Abbott)

Fun Facts:

To unwind after a long day of writing dark material, Gillian Flynn plays video games for 10 minutes or so -- or else watches YouTube snippets from cheery musicals like "Singin' in the Rain." She also has a plaque on her desk that says "Leave the Crazy Downstairs." Carl Hiaasen, meanwhile, has a doormat outside his office that says "LEAVE."

Attica Locke's husband was delivered by Scott Turow's father (who was a Chicago ob/gyn)

Into the dark ...

KWLS2014_Web1_122812The 2014 Key West Literary Seminar is sold out, both sessions -- no surprise, given the star power of many of the writers who will be appearing, many of them for the first time in Key West. There are, however, two free sessions that are open to the public on Sunday afternoons -- Jan. 12 and 19 -- so if you don't have a ticket you're not completely out of luck. If you're one of those people who just likes to read a few books by Seminar authors or is overwhelmed by the sheer number of writers on the roster here, here is my recommendation: Forget all those rock star guys and look to the women. Especially the younger women. For me, the Seminar's chief appeal -- beyond getting to hear from really smart and often hilarious writers -- is the discovery of emerging writers, the non-rock stars. Who, more than likely, will be the rock stars of tomorrow. This year, for whatever reason, most of those newer voices seem to be women.

While the hard-core thriller world is male-dominated, it's not like women writing crime is a new thing. The Golden Age's primary stars were women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham. Since then, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell have been writing great books. More recent and successful female crime writers include Sara Paretsky (who will deliver the keynote at the Seminar's first session, Chapter One), Elizabeth George (Final Chapter keynote), Laura Lippman (Chapter One panelist), Lisa Unger (Chapter One), Tess Gerritson (Final Chapter) and Kate Atkinson, who will not be at the Seminar, but whose Jackson Brodie books are among my all-time favorites. The hottest rock star at this Seminar, despite the presence of such crime writing celebrities as Carl Hiaasen, Lee Child and Michael Connelly, might just be Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame. She'll be at Chapter One, including a talk at the free Sunday afternoon session.

The writers I'm most looking forward to hearing from, though, are the women you may not have heard of ... yet. I'm guessing they're the rock stars of the future: Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, Attica Locke, Malla Nunn ... and my personal favorite, because I'm especially fond of historical crime, Lyndsay Faye. I already loved her books set in 1840s New York and her Sherlock Holmes solves Jack the Ripper book, Dust & Shadow. And she couldn't have been smarter or more generous when I interviewed her via email for Littoral, the Seminar's online journal. The books by these younger women are on the radar screens of librarians and smart readers of non-formulaic crime fiction. I hope the Seminar introduces them to many more.

If you are interested in following the Seminar in close to real time, the best way to do that is via Twitter. I'll be posting @keywestnan, the Seminar itself is @keywestliterary and many folks will probably use the hashtag #kwls. If you're enough of a Twitter person to subscribe to lists, both the Seminar and I have lists called the Dark Side, of the writers attending this year's Seminar so you can follow them even if they don't use the hashtag.

Key West Literary Seminar: Session 2 download

d.t. maxFirst of all this is not a particularly good photo, I KNOW, and if you want to see much better photos of the Seminar, head on over to Littoral, the Seminar blog. But it's my photo of D.T. Max talking about David Foster Wallace, shot on my phone from my perch in the balcony (that dark thing in the bottom right hand corner is the railing) and I'm going to use it, dammit. I'll confess I caught less of the second session, which I already regret, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I did see starting with Colm Toibin's masterful keynote on Thursday night that discussed the poets Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Bishop, both poets whose work shows "grief and reason battling it out," according to Toibin -- along with the work of Robert Frost and Joseph Brodsky.

Both Gunn and Bishop were stylistically and personally opposed to the trend of confessional poetry that swept through their chosen field in the 1960s, which certainly did not mean they had not suffered through traumatic times in their lives. Quite the opposite. And it doesn't mean those traumas didn't show up in their poetry. Bishop "buried what mattered to her most in her tone," Toibin said, most tellingly in the villanelle "One Art," about "the art of losing." Toibin calls it "a poem about what cannot be said."

I also didn't know, until Toibin told us, that Bishop wanted the line "awful but cheerful" inscribed on her tombstone. It's the closing line from her poem "The Bight," about Key West.

Other not-quite-random stuff from the seminar:

Ann Napolitano, who includes Flannery O'Connor as a character in her novel A Good Hard Look:

  • "You're supposed to be from the South if you write about Flannery O'Connor. I had barely been to the South."
  • "There is no way that I could imagine hanging out with Flannery O'Connor. I just think she would eviscerate me in about 30 seconds."
  • "Trying to get inside the skin of someone who is very prickly and you don't think would like you is a peculiar experience."

Brad Gooch, author of Flannery, a biography of the same writer:

  • "She was her own biographer in the sense she saw her life clearly and created it."
  • "As a biographer ... I have to stop where the facts stop. It's sort of annoying, but grounding as well."
  • "The thing about biography is that no matter how inspired you get, you sort of need a fact to get from one sentence to another."
  • Both Gooch and Napolitano were, in very different ways, inspired to write about O'Connor by "Habits of Being," a collection of her letters.

Brenda Wineapple on biography:

  • As a child, "Biography was a genre I didn't understand or really much care for."
  • On telling a professor at an academic conference that she was writing a biography: "'How did it feel,' he asked, 'to work on something so theoretically regressive?'" This while swirling sherry condescendingly in his plastic cup.
  • "What haunts the house? I think that's what the biographer has to discover."
  • "Biography matters because people matter. They matter to us because we want to know them and understand them."
  • "Biography is an invasion of privacy made palatable and jusifiable .. by the empathy that inspires it."

D.T. Max, author of "Every Love Story is a Ghost Story," a biography of David Foster Wallace:

  • On DFW's college-age ambition to go into politics: "The thought that David Foster Wallace wanted to be a Congressman from Illinois is so weird."
  • On writing a biography soon after a subject's death: "The laptop lid opens after the casket closes."
  • Biography is "the only nonfiction genre that's survived basically unchanged for the last 200 years."
  • On meeting readers with tattoos of lines from DFW's novel "Infinite Jest," or the dates they began and finished the book: "This is not what biographers are used to encountering."
  • Comparing the reaction to DFW's death to the reaction to the deaths of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain: "There was a way in which David was toucing people the way musicians usually do."
  • "If grief and sadness are what brought a lot of us to Wallace over the years, I certainly don't believe it's what kept us there."

I'll give the last word to Geoff Dyer, even though he speaks in long discursive sentences that are very difficult to get down accurately, especially if you're busy listening for his next witty comment:

  • I recognized his surprise, as an undergraduate, when he realized "how quickly doing English came to mean doing criticism."
  • I was surprised and delighted to hear him call F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" "one of my two favorite novels of all time." I loved that book, too, even though, at least in this country, "The Great Gatsby" gets most of the critical love.
  • "Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' is one of those books everyone has read. You've all read it, even if you've not done so personally."

If there's one image from this Seminar

Key West Literary Seminar: Session 1 download

Session 1 of this year's Key West Literary Seminar wrapped up yesterday. If you missed it, I suspect recordings will be showing up soonish on the Seminar's audio archive site. And we're getting particularly good coverage this year on Littoral, the Seminar blog and from WLRN, the public radio station in Miami. If you're Twitter-inclined, check out the hashtag #kwls -- you'll even see eminences like Judy Blume and James Gleick chiming in along with us lesser mortals in the audience. This year is not as Twitterific as last but we don't have William Gibson and Margaret Atwood with us (though Gibson is scheduled to return next year -- don't wait too long to sign up for 2014's Seminar, The Dark Side, because it's selling fast). As has quickly become tradition, Jason Rowan is back making custom-crafted cocktails, tailored to the year's theme. Keep an eye on his blog, Embury Cocktails, for recipes and more information in the near future.

Phyllis Rose opened with a wonderful keynote address Thursday night, examining John Hersey (for whom the Thursday event is named) as a lens through which to view the whole writer vs. person question. Is the man Key Westers saw riding his bike around the island the same person who wrote "Hiroshima" and "A Bell for Adano"? The answer is, of course, no and yes. Rose was also refreshingly dismissive about the overwhelming adoption of deconstruction and other French-influenced critical approaches toward literature, which tortured those of us who were English majors in the latter part of the 20th century and dared to think that writers' lives and times might influence their work. For literary scholars who didn't feel like sacrificing themselves on the altars of Derrida and Foucault, literary biography became "a welcome oasis during the desert years of deconstruction," Rose said. "Writers about writers were rescued by readers who wanted to know about writers' lives."

A sporadic sample from the rest of the weekend:

From Judith Thurman, biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette and staff writer for The New Yorker:

  • "Fiction is high-minded betrayal and biography is dirty-minded fidelity."
  • One of Thurman's early jobs was translating pornographic movies. "It's freelance work that I heartily recommend because it's easy -- you just have to understand the words 'Yes.... yes!' and 'More!'"
  • Translation is "yoga for the mind and for the ear."
  • "One definition of the truth is that which is untranslatable."

From Brenda Wineapple, biographer of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude and Leo Stein, author of a book about Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

  • On her subjects: "I prefer them deader and deader."
  • Emily Dickinson is "the elusive subject par excellence."
  • Oscar Wilde quote: "Biography adds new terror to death."

Most amazing fact learned at this year's Seminar (so far):

  • Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman (amazing fact supplier: Mark Doty). Edmund White followed this with a comment on why vampire is so often code for gay in literature: "You meet someone, you kiss them and you turn them into you."

More from Edmund White, biographer of Genet and Proust, literary critic and author of a biographical novel on Stephen Crane:

  • "Politics and literature are opposites. Politics are all lying and literature is all truth-telling."
  • "Having come out when I was 12, I've always wondered what it would be like to be closeted."
  • On fiction vs. nonfiction: "The contract with the reader is entirely different." That's why he calls the books about his life autobiographical novels, not memoirs. "Once they're called novels, you're free to do whatever you want."

From Jay Parini, biographer of William Faulkner, Robert Frost and John Steinbeck and author of biographical novels on Melville and Tolstoy:

  • Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James is "better than Xanax" as a treatment for insomnia. "He's the Xanax of all writers."
  • On the difference between writing biographies of Jesus (his most recent subject) and Gore Vidal (his next subject): "At least Jesus didn't think he was Gore Vidal."
  • "Biography is a form of fiction. .... I love to read biographies, even bad ones."
  • In writing biography, "you're not presenting a life. You've giving an illusion of a life."
  • To Edmund White: "I read your biography of Genet. I thought it was a great novel."

Literary subjects that KWLS panelists attempted as grade-schoolers:

  • Phyllis Rose: Eleanor Roosevelt, after her mother rejected her earlier choice of the Duchess of Windsor as a suitable subject for an assignment to write about "an admirable woman."
  • Edmund White: Peter the Great. "I was absolutely power-mad as a child."
  • Brenda Wineapple, at 10 years old, wrote the first chapter of a novel and gave it to her father, whose response was "But there's no plot here." Wineapple: "My career as a novelist was over."

Books I have purchased (so far):

  • The Master by Colm Toibin
  • Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America by Jay Parini
  • Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes, who isn't at the Seminar but the book was mentioned several times

If all of this makes you eager to sign up for Session 2, it's not too late. It all starts again Thursday night with a keynote I'm really looking forward to: Colm Toibin talking about Elizabeth Bishop. That's Toibin in the photo, by the way, speaking at the podium that Cayman Smith-Martin and his crew built from books they got from us here at the library -- they were otherwise destined for the recycling plant so it's great to see them serving literature one last time.