The Key West Literary Seminar returns (Jan. 6-9) after a one-year hiatus with a catchy theme: “A Seminar Named Desire.”
This multi-day tribute to writers, conversation and print publication will emphasize “literary explorations of the profane and the profound, the inventive, the graphic, and the deeply felt.” Featured speakers include the National Book Award Finalist Lauren Groff, bestselling author Jami Attenberg and writer Tom Perrota of “The Leftovers” fame. Executive director and author Arlo Haskell and board president and WLRN reporter Nancy Klingener talked about the process behind selecting this year’s theme, returning after the pandemic, and even that time The New Yorker’s Paul Goldberger passed on a bit of sports-infused advice.
How did you decide on bringing the seminar back in 2022 after 2021’s postponement?
Arlo Haskell: Bringing people together — in person — to discuss books and writers is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. It was really hard to give that up last year, and there was never a question of if we would resume programming, but when. The rollout of the COVID vaccines is obviously a major factor that allows us to return to the seminar in January, as vaccination offers such strong protections from what is still, after all, a serious risk, which everyone has to assess for themselves. On top of that, we were able to secure the Coffee Butler Amphitheater as a new venue for us this year, ensuring that the seminar will take place amidst plenty of sunshine and fresh air. It’s a really exciting opportunity — not only to get back to what we’ve always done, but to do it in an entirely new way. Life moves in mysterious ways, and after all the disruptions of the past 20 months, I have the feeling that this year may set us on a new path for the future.
What was the process behind choosing the theme “A Seminar Named Desire?”
Nancy Klingener: Generally, the board chooses a topic almost two years in advance — that gives us time to choose authors and announce the next year’s theme and at least some of the writers who will be appearing at the seminar in January.
Different board members propose topics, and then serve as chair of the program committee. Desire came out of a board retreat from a couple years ago where everyone proposed ideas and we invited some people not on the board in for a brainstorming session. It was Michael Nelson’s idea and he’s the program chair. Michael is the board secretary and assistant director of the Monroe County Public Library system.
Once the topic is decided, the program committee goes to work doing lots of reading, suggesting reading to other committee members and figuring out how to reach the writers we don’t already have a relationship with. Fortunately, offering to bring people to Key West in January is usually not that hard a sell.
There isn’t a huge amount of rhyme or reason on how we choose a topic, except someone has to be passionate about it and persuade the other board members that it would work as a seminar. We’ve done genres (crime, speculative fiction, humor), literary forms (poetry, short stories, the novel) and broader themes (like desire, sports, food). It’s really fun when we can bring in people who would not normally be together at, say, an academic conference and get them talking to each other. An example of that would be “Under the Influence” in 2019, which was about archetypes and retellings, not booze! We had novelists, like Margaret Atwood and Geraldine Brooks, a translator (Emily Wilson), a poet and nonfiction writer (Kevin Young) and even a graphic novelist (Eric Shanower).
What is the seminar’s relationship with tech? Is it more a tool to discover emerging works and writers or a reminder to support print and independent book stores?
Arlo Haskell: Books have been around for so long that we tend to forget what a radical technological breakthrough they were. Like today’s computers, books are information storage and retrieval devices that helped bridge enormous geographical differences and radically changed the nature of how people communicated with one another. Before books, you had to have a storyteller in the room with you if you wanted to hear a story. Books blew that model wide open, and now we’re seeing other forms of technology have other disruptive effects on the way we share stories.
Like many people, I place a high value on the simpler technology of the book, whose design allows for a more immersive experience in story than you are likely to get when reading on a device that also happens to be a supercomputer. The seminar certainly embraces technology, and we produce audio and video versions of everything that happens on our stage, but in everything we do we try to foster experiences where people can focus on the writers and the stories they are telling, without the distractions that are such a defining feature of today’s prevalent technologies.
Since the pandemic many of us have felt isolated and that our lives did not progress as expected. How do you think this impacts the exploration of human “desire” through literature?
Nancy Klingener: If delay is a way to increase desire, you’d think we’d planned it this way. Of course, we didn’t. But in my experience and I’m sure that of many people who will be attending the seminar, reading has been a great source of solace and joy during the pandemic. I always read a lot but since the pandemic started I’ve read even more and in lots of different genres. It was a way to escape, sure, but also to connect and travel in the way that good books allow, without ever leaving my living room or deck. The best books, like the ones written by the writers coming to this year’s seminar, lead to empathy and experience you never expected, even when you’re stuck at home. I imagine we will hear some great conversations among the writers about how the pandemic affected their experiences of desire, and how that might play out in the future.
Which talks and events would you recommend to first time attendees or those who are returning after some time?
Nancy Klingener: I hope people who are registered to attend the seminar will go to all the talks and presentations! Our staff works really hard creating the program and putting on the event. It’s one of the great advantages of our format, where everyone is all together for all the sessions, that they can be in conversation with one another. Writers often mention something that came up in an earlier conversation or reading. And it’s fun to see what threads get picked up and expanded.
That said, if you do need to choose, I hope people will attend some sessions with writers with whom they are not familiar. It’s great when you get to hear from people you have read and admired. But for me, at least, one of the greatest joys of the seminar is discovering voices who are new to me and open up new worlds and experiences I never expected.
This is also a good opportunity to remind locals that, even though the Seminar sells out quickly and has a registration fee, the Sunday afternoon program (that will be Jan. 9) is free and open to the public. Please join us at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater and let us know what you think of the new location!
Do you have a favorite moment from the last seminar in 2020, themed “Reading Between the Lines?”
Nancy Klingener: Oh, you want us to remember something from the “Before Times?” Yikes!
Seriously, though — a couple of the panels stand out. One was about sports biography, with Jane Leavy, David Maraniss and Arnold Rampersad. It was fascinating to hear how they approached writing biographies of these larger-thanlife characters who are so often cast as heroes or role models but are, of course, flawed humans. Another panel about the “art of losing” with Anelise Chen, Ben McGrath, and Leanne Shapton looked at how great athletes cope with defeat or failure. It was interesting, even if McGrath just had to bring up Bill Buckner and the Red Sox blowing the World Series in 1986, which scarred him, me and several generations of New Englanders. But my favorite moment probably came when I was getting New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger to sign his book about baseball stadiums. In his talk, he had high praise for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. When he signed the book, I told him that my mom would never accept that — and had never fully given her heart to any team — since the Dodgers broke her heart when they left Brooklyn. He just looked up at me and said, “They broke my mom’s heart, too. It’s a great stadium. She should get over it.” ¦
In the KNOW
“A Seminar Named Desire”
» When: Jan. 6-9.
» Where: Coffee Butler Amphitheater, 21 Quay Road, Key West.
» Cost: $675; sold out, but there is a waiting list.
» Info: www.KWLS.org