Thursday, January 24, 2008

Writers and Readers in Key West

I started this entry ten days ago. But it's turned into a diary of this year's Key West Literary Seminars. Just for the record -- I'm on the board and a member of this year's committee, along with Bob Richardson, Jim Gleick, and Liz Lear. Maybe that will help explain my elation at how well it went, and my exhaustion (for real) now that it's over.

Tuesday, January 15 -- We're in the midst of the KW Literary Seminars.
This year the topic is New Voices and instead of our usual Thursday to Sunday Seminar, this time we're hosting two.

Most years the Literary Seminar is presented to an audience of about 400 readers, making it very different from the usual writers' festival. This year is an exception as we've given out $70,000 in scholarships, allowing many new writers to attend for the first time. After all, we wanted those New Voices! There were also scholarships for teachers and librarians. And between the two weekend Seminars, there are nine writer's workshops taking place. As I write this my friend Hilma Wolitzer is conducting her workshop in our garden. She has 12 students and they're laughing a lot, making me wish I could be a part of it. I also wish she could give me a seminar in how to conduct a writers' workshop. Hilma is at the far end of the table, in white.

At last weekend's seminar I introduced two New Voices on stage. The first, Mary Hays, published a totally original, funny and smart novel, Learning to Drive, a couple of years ago, and has just finished a second.

I loved introducing Mary as a New Voice because she's a woman close to my age. New Voice has nothing to do with birth date. Most of the New Voices on stage were those of young writers. But the audience adored Mary. She let them see the possibilities in themselves. Mary was my first secretary - in Santa Fe, 1978. We became fast friends. She made the writing life less lonely for me because it was such fun to hang out with her at the "office" (a room in my house). She's droll, smart, and captured everyone's attention by her fantastic reading from Learning to Drive. Check it out.

The second New Voice I introduced was Bich Minh Nguyen.

We talked on stage about her first book, a memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, and how writers deal with subjects of family and childhood. Bich charmed the audience with her reading. Can't wait to read her novel in progress (Short Girls). In the meantime, check out her memoir about coming to America from Vietnam as a baby and growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you remember Chef Boyardee and Hostess Cupcakes, you'll relate. Even if you don't, you'll love the characters in this book.

Other Favorite Moments from the first Seminar:

*Uzodinma Iweala, talking about and reading from his first book Beasts of No Nation. I urge you to pick up this book. It's like no other. The voice is haunting and original. Uzo is a recent graduate of Harvard and now a first year med student at Columbia. Jim Gleick and I heard him read 18 months ago at the 92nd St. Y in New York and agreed we had to have him in Key West. What a pleasure to spend time with him here.

*Kristen-Paige Madonia, winner of the Marianne Russo Scholarship, reading her story Cheap Red Meat on stage. As one of the judges of the fiction award I was floored by Kristen-Paige's polished work. Talk about new voices! She's a real talent. She's finishing her first novel.

And then there are the parties. The Key West Literary Seminar is famous for its parties. Following the opening lecture on Thursday night everyone heads over to the tropical gardens of the Audubon House for a gala champagne reception. The following night there's dinner for everyone (all 400 of us) on the grounds of the Lighthouse. Then a party for speakers, board members and local (and visiting) writers at David Wolkowsky's penthouse above Fast Buck Freddie's, everyone's favorite KW department store. And Saturday night we're feted at the Customs House.

Mary left on the 6am flight on Monday morning and I tried to catch up with work and real life but by afternoon I took to my bed and slept. It's always great to spend time with visiting friends and even better when they enjoy themselves on your home turf -- it's just that during the Seminars I want to spend time with all of them at once -- and I don't want to miss any sessions -- so by the time it's over I've run out of steam.

Monday, January 21
A couple of days off and we started all over again. This time I hosted Carolyn Mackler and Gigi Amateau, emerging voices in YA literature. (Carolyn's on the left, Gigi's on the right)

We had a rousing 3-way talk on stage about the past, present, and future of honest book for teens. We touched on censorship (shocked that the audience had no idea!) and even asked each other the question: if Catcher in the Rye were published today would it be published as a YA novel? Our consensus -- probably. Carolyn and Gigi are thoughtful, engaging, talented writers and the audience enjoyed getting to know them and their work. (This audience isn't especially tuned in to children's or YA books.) They also read from their novels and appeared on panels.

I think I was less anxious during the second seminar and enjoyed the parties more than the first weekend. Maybe because I knew it was almost over?

Personal Highlights: Meeting and hearing Nell Freudenberger talk and read. My daughter (who reads as many books as anyone I know) put us onto Nell. Thanks, Randy --

Lee Smith's funny and moving opening night address. She made me remember why I started to write in the first place.

Dan Menaker's Friday morning session -- the perfect overview of our topic -- New Voices.

Junot Diaz -- if you haven't yet read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, read it! Amazing, original, pure Junot!

Jim Gleick talking on stage with Janna Levin about physics (of all things) and literature. I told Janna if she had been my physics teacher I might have paid attention and learned something. I might have even learned to like the subject.

Spending time with Tayari Jones, after being mesmerized by her on stage reading from Leaving Atlanta.

Elisabeth Scharlatt, on and off stage. Catching up with an old friend and a brilliant publisher (Algonquin Books).

I've left out so many people -- and so many sessions -- and so many lunches!

But certainly our Saturday night dinner was one of the best moments during the second session. Here we are at Blue Heaven on a balmy, starry night.

From the right: Nell Freudenberger, Kristen-Paige Madonia, me, Carolyn Mackler, Tayari Jones, Elisabeth Scharlett, my sister-in-law and super-reader, Maggie Smith, Gigi Amateau. George took the pix.

And here's how we finished the meal -- with the best Key Lime pie in the whole town.