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Margaret Atwood: A Literary Journey to “Other Worlds”

January 12, 2012 in Canadian Literature, Key West Travel, Science Fiction, Women Writers

My first exposure to the writing of acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood came with a reading of her highly praised 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in an undergraduate English class on twentieth century women writers.  Her novel remains one of my favorites, in part because of the gorgeous prose, but also because of the haunting material which stays with you long after you finish the book.

Atwood is a formidable force in the writing world, publishing since the early 1960s across genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Her latest publication is In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination, a 2011 non-fiction work which broaches a popular topic for debate surrounding Atwood’s fiction.  Many of her novels pose possibilities for the future that for some provide a cautionary tale, while for others teeter in the realm of science fiction.  In a 2009 interview with Wired Magazine, Atwood addresses the distinction between science fiction and her novels.  She states: “I like exact labeling. Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see.”  This idea makes the premises of her dystopian novels all the more alarming. The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a totalitarian society where women’s rights are non-existent and the title character, stripped of her name and freedom, is enslaved as a forced surrogate for a government official.  Her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, imagines a post-apocalyptic world obliterated by a bioengineering experiment gone wrong.  She revisits the events of Oryx and Crake in her 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood, where the implications of the events of the previous novel threaten the freedom of two surviving female protagonists, who must contend with a genetically mutated landscape and an uncertain future.

After a remarkable writing career that has spanned more than fifty years, Atwood remains humble and grateful for her fans.  Her website welcomes readers with a personal message and access to a blog and twitter page.  After interest spurned by comments made at a speaking engagement that “authors cannot make a living from rock concerts and tee-shirts” Atwood gave the fans what they wanted:  a tongue-in-cheek tee-shirt line available through  My favorite of the designs asks, “Would the Modernist Blog?” and features cartoon depictions of famous modernist writers jokingly deriding the blogosphere, of which Atwood herself is a part.  Similarly showcasing her sense of humor, in 2007 Canadian comedian Rick Mercer had Atwood participate in his Monday Report on CBC Television, where she suited up as a hockey goalie for a segment spoofing sports tips.

Her accessibility to, and appreciation for, her fans, along with her wit and good natured attitude, combined with her incredible literary gift, make her a force to be reckoned with, and a woman that is now on my short list of literary icons I would love to have a cup of coffee with.  Those lucky enough to be in Key West this week will have the opportunity to hear Atwood read from The Handmaid’s Tale.  After Key West she is off to a book signing in Utah on January 21st followed by a reading engagement in Houston, Texas on January 23rd.  When asked by The Guardian in 2011 what she does to relax, Atwood wittily replied: “What is this ‘relax’ of which you speak, Earthling?”


Key West, Day One: An Overview

January 8, 2012 in Florida Feature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Uncategorized

Arrive approximately 7:00pm at apartment/hotel. Clearly people live in this building full-time (“I’ve lived here five years and never taken the elevator,” one resident confessed), but we pickup our key from a “concierge” in another building; the one across the pedestrian bridge from the Sunrise Suites, our temporary home. The apartment smells like a hotel and the distinctly Floridian odor of sun-baked mildew.

As we head out for dinner, we weave through a parking lot full of white vans decorated with competitive messages and symbols. Each one ends up looking the same. The relay-race from Miami to Key West supports the Florida Special Olympics and hosts hundreds. Many of the runners at the Sunrise Suites wear tall striped socks and mill aimlessly. In addition to the literary conference going on, the tours, cruises and themed retreats, a 199 mile race stops here. Key West is full to the brim with visitors who want to have a good time.

On nearly every downtown corner, large groups of strapping young lads built like Hemingway roam like big cats, and I wonder, is everyone here to do something? Has anyone come to Key West to relax, or is it the kind of place fun looks tiring? The “rummies” look a wee bored, cigars fashioned listlessly in their lips. And fun-havers everywhere, stepping over obstacles, have their eyes fixed upon the next bar. Occasionally I witness a tourist stop to sniff out a particularly gorgeous scent in the air (which is where Key West gets truly interesting): ocean air, roasting meat, cigars rolled in the Cuban tradition. These are the real charms of Duval Street. The lights and shops are only a glint in her vast sparkling eyes.

The Key West Writers Guild: Writing Key West’s Literary Future

December 2, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Key West Travel, New Writers, Writing Advice

From Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Bishop, Key West is steeped in literary history.  You can see Bishop’s house on White Street, have a drink at the bar where Hemingway was a regular and attend a show at the theatre named in Tennessee Williams’ honor.  Key West has as much to offer literature aficionados as it does beach bums, but, you may ask, what can Key West offer the contemporary writer?  The literary scene in Key West is far from a thing of the past.  In fact, Key West has much to lend aspiring writers hoping to follow in the footsteps of their literary predecessors who once called Key West home.  In addition to the annual Key West Literary Seminar, The Key West Writers Guild, a non-profit organization founded in 1995, has been supporting local writers since its inception.  According to their website, the Guild “provides a friendly forum for authors to share their writings and receive encouraging and helpful feedback.”  They meet twice a month and provide an inclusive community for all writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, both published and unpublished.  In addition to providing a forum for discussing their work, the Guild also holds an annual short story contest.  The winning submissions have subsequently been compiled into anthologies, which are available for purchase locally in Key West. The latest edition, Voices from Key West, is available on  In conjunction with the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, they also honor one writer annually with an award for the best work in progress.

While it is not a requirement, many members of the Guild are published, and their works run the gamut from thrillers and children’s books to romance novels and literary fiction.  Although not a prerequisite, it is no surprise that many of the Guild’s members are creatively inspired by their surroundings.  Joanna Brady Schmida, a member since 1998 and the Guild secretary, won the annual award in 2009, and her self published novel, The Woman at the Light, is praised on as “a wonderful ‘trip’ to Key West’s past.”

The members of the Guild come from all walks of life, bonded together through their love of writing.  The Guild president, Diana Reif, is an attorney, and the members’ day jobs cover as wide a spectrum as the genres in which they write.  Dorothy Francis, music teacher and mystery writer extraordinaire, has written books for both children and adults, and her Key West mysteries include the aptly titled Conch Shell Murder and Pier Pressure Mike Dennis, musician and professional poker player, also found inspiration in his surroundings.  His second published work Setup on Front Street is the first of a trilogy of noir novels set in Key West.  Peg Gregory, a retired nurse turned romance writer, penned Starfish, a piece of romantic fiction inspired by the city’s past.

Whether historical fiction, romance novel or psychological journey through the region’s darker side, local writers cannot help but be fascinated by the rich culture and breathtaking beauty of Key West.  I think sometime-Key West-resident Hemingway would agree. After all, his only novel set in the United States, To Have and Have Not, is set in Key West, where he began writing it. Strangely enough, although Hemingway and Tennessee Williams resided in Key West simultaneously, they reportedly only met once.  Providing a community of intellectual nourishment and mutual admiration, it is safe to say that if Key West is to ever again see the likes of two such literary greats, they will have met more than once… perhaps even twice a month at Guild meetings?


Hemingway’s Key West: How to Travel like a Literary Icon

December 2, 2011 in American literature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel

  “Then we came to the edge of the stream and the water quit being blue and was light and greenish and inside I could see…the wireless masts at Key West and the La Concha hotel up high out of all the low houses”  – Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not

If you are planning a trip to Key West, there are plenty of hotels to choose from, but for the literary traveler the choice is easy.  Dating back to 1926, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the La Concha not only provides you with luxurious accommodations amidst the excitement of popular Duval Street, but it also gives you access to a lush history without even leaving your hotel room.  The La Concha boasts a rich past, with former guests running the gamut from Harry S. Truman to Al Capone, and of course, literary legend, Ernest Hemingway.

At only seven stories high, the La Concha is the tallest building in Key West and one of its best known features is its rooftop bar and observation deck, which offers incredible views of the infamous Key West sunsets.  It is easy to picture Hemingway tossing back a daiquiri against a backdrop of dusky island ambiance.  In fact, he started work on his 1937 novel, To Have and Have Not, in a suite at the La Concha.  The novel, set in Key West, pays homage to the hotel, noting its prominence on the horizon as the protagonist, Harry Morgan, leaves Key West for Cuba.

Hemingway initially made the move to Key West with his second wife, Pauline, at the suggestion of fellow writer John Dos Passos.  In 1936 he met Martha Gellhorn at his favorite watering hole, and present day hot spot, Sloppy Joe’s.  If the walls of the La Concha could talk they would tell tales of their affair, which ultimately led to his third marriage.  For the true literary traveler, a stay in Hemingway’s suite at the La Concha is a very real possibility. While in Key West you can definitely walk a mile in his shoes, but why not kick off those shoes and spend a night in his suite?

While the literature aficionado and history buff alike will take pleasure in sitting where Hemingway sat as he penned his classics, a warning to those looking to stay in the room where he wiled away his days.  According to a chapter on the hotel in Greg Jenkin’s Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore, strange and possibly otherworldly happenings have been reported in the suite, and one possible culprit is believed to be the ghost of a mischievous Hemingway playing tricks on guests who have taken over his space.  For those who enjoy a little mystery with their history, a tour of haunted Key West landmarks actually starts in the lobby of the La Concha.

For further information on Hemingway’s ties to Key West and the La Concha check out Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon’s 2008 literature themed travel guide, Novel Destinations, a very comprehensive handbook for the literary traveler that The Chicago Tribune calls “a fun read whether for armchair travelers or actual literary pilgrims.”  Now doesn’t that sound like a great book to peruse en route to Key West?  So pack your bags, find a sitter for your six-toed cats, and we will meet you on the rooftop of the La Concha for a mojito in Hemingway’s honor.


Pirates in Paradise

November 29, 2011 in Key West Travel, Travel

In Key West, this Thanksgiving week is not all about the turkey. Starting Thanksgiving Day, Key West is hosting the twelfth annual Pirates in Paradise event, featuring eleven jam-packed days of “pure piratical escapades” that honor and celebrate Key West’s vibrant maritime history.

Key West and its surrounding islands were important both to pirates like Blackbeard and Calico Jack and the people trying to catch them. From the Keys, pirates could take cover while ambushing merchant shipping along the Straits of Florida, which was an extremely significant trade route at the time. And following the War of 1812 when Congress cracked down on piracy, one of the primary anti-piracy squadrons established its headquarters on Key West. So what better way to celebrate the pirate lifestyle and Key West’s history than with a pirate-themed festival?

Sponsored by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, Pirate Radio 101.7 FM, 4 Orange Premium Vodka, and Pusser’s Rum, the Pirates in Paradise Maritime Heritage and Music Festival began at ten in the morning on Thanksgiving day, kicking off with a “Thankstaken” Pirate Party and Feast. But if you missed it, don’t fear: that’s only the beginning. Over the course of the festival, there will be plenty of events and activities for kids and adults alike, for those who simply have a passing interest in pirates, and those who have a serious investment in history.

Over the course of the eleven days there will be a Pirate Village and art fair, featuring period crafts, art, clothing, jewelry, vittles, and plenty of rum, beer, and grog because let’s face it – what’s a pirate without his alcohol? For pirate-obsessed adults, there will be a sailor’s shipwreck holiday ball, craft beer tastings, a rock and roll dance party, an end-of-hurricane season party, a Miss Pirate Key West Pageant, talent, and swim suit competition, and plenty of costume contests, including one for the most buxom wench and bad-ass pirate.

As an all ages event, Pirates in Paradise offers tons of activities for aspiring young buccaneers. There will be a carnival, a kid’s costume contest, and Pirate Art 101 “Color Along” with pirate artist Don Maitz (whose work has been featured in National Geographic). Additionally, in the pirate village, parents can go to a pub and peruse pirate wares while the kids participate in treasure hunts and coloring contests.

For those seeking unusual entertainment, Pirates in Paradise has it all. Some of the most anticipated events of the festival are the authentic reenactments of the famous Pyrate Trials of Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the tall tales storytelling competition, which allows contestants to tell their biggest fabricated story before a panel of nationally renowned authors.

Interested in history and literature? You’re in luck. There are opportunities to sail aboard a real pirate ship, and on Wednesday, November 30, there will be a special excursion on the schooner Wolf where one can join authors Roz Brackenbury, Robb Zerr, and Christine and Michael Lampe on a one and a half hour ride. Prior to the excursion will be an Authors and Artists Luncheon at the Pirate Village VIP tent. Author Robert N. Macomber will, throughout the week, be giving presentations, historical walking tours through Old Town, and partaking in the Literature & the Sea Sunset Happy Hour along with other pirate guests.

Although the festival isn’t free, admission to the Pirate Village is only $5 per day for adults and free for kids under the age of twelve. If you and your family are interested in spending a lot of time at the festival and really getting your pirate on, take advantage of the insanely cheap eleven day festival pass: it’s only $20, and will get you free daily admission to the Pirate Village and Festival VIP Hospitality Area!

For tourists in the Key West area this Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, this could be a wonderful opportunity to discover the great historical roots of the Florida Keys that doesn’t sacrifice fun for education. And don’t worry – if you can’t make it this year, there’s always next November!

Key West Friday: Visiting Florida with Elizabeth Bishop

November 18, 2011 in American literature, Key West Travel

Photo by Daniel Peckham

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass…

So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s famous ode to the state of Florida. Of course, in a traditional sense, this isn’t an ode, for while it speaks of Florida—almost sings of Florida—it doesn’t call to the region. Like many of Bishop’s poems, which are set apart by their precise descriptions and finely-observed detail, this poem describes Florida to an outsider. It captures a place filled with pelicans and rot and beauty and teenage flesh. Florida feels, to me, like an intimate portrayal drawn from a vast distance.

Yet Bishop didn’t experience Florida from a distance. After moving to Key West in the early 1930’s, Elizabeth decided to stay in the city, moving from apartment to house and enjoying the booming literary scene (as well as the lush surroundings).

Embarrassingly, this is new information for me. I have long admired Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry—I love her confessional style, her raw emotion, and her delicate balance of imagery and abstract—but I insisted on thinking of her as a Massachusetts girl, much like myself. However, the truth is that Bishop didn’t belong to Boston, and even her first book of poems bares testimony to that fact. Titled North and South, the collection jumps back and forth from Key West to Boston, moving from the cold brick and winter twilight of the North to the invading sun and carnival colors of America’s far south. It compares and contrasts the two, never really settling on either, playing to the strengths and terrible weaknesses of both.

But this is, in essence, what I admire so much about Bishop’s poetry. Before I began writing our Key West Friday series, I had never given much though to what I’m going to call her “landscape pieces.” I much preferred her descriptions of love, loss, and anger. But buried within these tantalizing images of a place I have never been (for I haven’t quite made it down to Florida quite yet) is something I can recognize. Reading her poems about Florida is a bit like looking at an old postcard. They provide a fragmented and slightly distorted and appealing picture of America.

Key West is, for Bishop, a place that is filled with growth and overrun with decay. She describes with equal the “enormous turtles, helpless and mild” that are doomed to “die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches and the fireflies, who come after dark and “map the heavens in the marsh / until the moon rises.” In another poem, titled Florida Deserta, she spends the first stanza discussing summer clouds that “shade the houses / soothe they eyes” and “banish the break-bone fever” before launching into a description of the summer stars. She captures them converging “invisibly on each tin roof,” turning light into color and the shine of hundreds of scales. For Bishop, Florida is alive and pulsing, constantly moving with heat and the glittery refracted light of water and ocean.

After a more thorough exploration, I realize I have to give up Bishop as a fellow Bostonian. She’s much too American to be limited to a single city—even a single state. I think it is her particular skill for imagery, for drawing dreamscapes out of words, but after reading Elizabeth’s lines on Key West, it’s hard not to wonder: what else is out there, waiting with half-closed eyes?

Bishop, in her usual cryptic way, has one answer:

The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.

Key West Friday: Having Dinner With Tennessee Williams

November 11, 2011 in American literature, Key West Travel

Last week, we talked about Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s greatest writers, most famous drinkers, and a sometimes resident of Key West. Today, we’re going to shift our focus (but only a little) to yet another classic American author known for his culinary quirks: Tennessee Williams.

While Williams is more often associated with New Orleans than with the great state of Florida, the playwright and author spent years commuting between Manhattan and his modest residence in Key West. A true literary traveler, Williams lived all over the world, establishing homes everywhere from London to Rome, only to move once more when the mood struck him. According to some, It was in his Key West home where Tennessee wrote the first draft of his most famous and arguably most widely-read play, A Street Car Named Desire. Visitors to the city can still see his small bungalow, located in the New Town neighborhood, though sadly, it is privately owned and no longer open to the public.

Despite his long-time affiliation with Key West, many of the recipes in Troy Gilbert’s cookbook, Dinner With Tennessee Williams: Recipes and Stories Inspired by America’s Southern Playwright, have a decidedly Louisisiana flavor. However, the off-beat little book—which features recipes created by Greg Picolo, a New Orleans native and chef at the Bistro Maison de Ville—can still be viewed as a surprisingly literary way to enjoy all types of Southern cuisine. The publisher describes the book thusly:

Like Hemingway to Cuba or Mark Twain to the Mississippi, certain writers are inextricably tied to their environments-the culture, the history, the people, the cuisine. The plays of Tennessee Williams evoke the ambiance and flavor of the South. Part food memoir and part cookbook, this fresh look at the world of this great American playwright-both in real life and in his plays-is the perfect book for literary lovers and food lovers alike.

Inside the conceptual cookbook, you can find recipes for dishes like Grilled Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Relish, Maw Maw Lola’s Fig Preserves, and Chop Suey Soup. All the dishes are inspired by Tennessee’s plays, and are accompanied with archived photographs from Williams’ life and quotes from his distinctive dialogue.

As holiday season fast approaches, we can’t help but think this would be the perfect gift for a budding chef, bookworm, or even world traveler. Food, literature, and a little bit of Southern charm? That’s pretty much all we need to escape this dreary New England winter.

Happy Key West Friday! Why Don't You Have A Drink?

November 4, 2011 in American literature, Classic Writers, Cocktails Inspired by Literature, Hemingway in Key West, Key West Travel, Recipes, Travel Writers

Hemingway drinks in the Plaza Del Gastillo, July 1959.

Today’s edition of Key West Friday is going to focus on something very near and dear to my own heart: literary cocktails. More specifically, I want to talk about one of the greatest mixologists of the 20th century—I’m speaking of Ernest Hemingway, of course—and his personal creations.

Though some may think of Hemingway as just another author you had to read in high school, overlooking Hemingway’s massive influence on American culture, masculinity, and writing would be a sorry mistake. Even if we leave aside his incredible literary talents, Hemingway was far more than simply a writer. He was a celebrity before we truly had celebrities; he single-handedly defined a generation in a way that few authors have since. While his perpetually disillusioned anti-heroes certainly played a role in capturing and symbolically creating the post-war American, (Hemingway’s case is, I happen to believe, one of those chicken-or-the-egg issues. Did he simply record what he saw, and capture the disenchanted drifting of many young men, or did his novels contribute to a certain image of the American identity that was beginning to coalesce? I imagine it was a bit of both) his actual person was just as instrumental in the process. He was, according to those that knew him, a force of nature.

He let loose his forceful personality during his time in Key West, where he lived for several years before relocating to Cuba. During this time, Hemingway did little to reel in his natural vivaciousness, and found himself what PBS’s Michael Palin describes as “Hemingway’s wild adventures:”

In a rain-splattered Key West street, he duked it out with Wallace Stevens after the poet had insulted him. In his beloved boat, Pilar, he battled man-sized fish (managing to shoot himself in both legs while trying to gaff one shark). Hemingway belted back drinks at Sloppy Joe’s, a speakeasy that went legal after Prohibition ended. While at his favorite watering hole, he befriended a young journalist named Martha Gellhorn, who traveled with him to Spain to cover the civil war there. Eventually, she would become his third wife.

As Palin makes clear, these episodes were often fueled by alcohol. But what kind of alcohol?

Here we have to turn to another source. According to the wonderful site Codex 99, in 1937, Hemingway created a drink that Charles Barker later included in his book The Gentleman’s Companion. Hemingway called it a “picker-upper” but it went down in history as “Death in the Gulf Stream.” Despite the morose name, the actual mix sounds rather delicious. For those of you interested in celebrating Key West Friday at home, here’s the recipe for Hemingway’s scary little cocktail:

2 oz. Lucas Bols Oude Genever
4 dashes Angostura
1 lime
Add crushed ice to a thin tumbler. Lace the ice with 4 dashes of Angostura and add the juice and crushed peel of 1 lime. Nearly fill the tumbler with Genever.

Of course, you can always go the traditional route and make yourself a mojito, but we think this Death sounds much more impressive. Happy drinking.

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