Key West Literary Seminar 2024 Florida

Key Takeaways from “Florida: The State We’re In” | 2024 Key West Literary Seminar

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Key Takeaways from “Florida: The State We’re In” | 2024 Key West Literary Seminar

My trip to Florida in January 2024 began at the behest of writing-group friend, Mike Cooper, who had received a teacher scholarship at the Key West Literary Seminar. He's read excerpts of a novel I'm writing about Florida, so when his text came through with a preview of the event page, I thought I was hallucinating—then I registered. 

Fast-forward five months, and there we were at the Key West Amphitheater, wearing sun hats and sunscreen, while our hometown of Bend, Oregon was blasted with a foot of snow—shoutout to my cat sitter for his work ethic.

At the Key West Literary Seminar, we had three days of author talks, wild chicken encounters, cafes con leche, and an active discussion of the seminar theme, “Florida: The State We’re In”— double entendre intended. This article reflects my key takeaways from the event.

Key West Literary Seminar 2024 Florida
I appreciate a printed itinerary.
Key West Literary Seminar Agenda Saturday
I'm pointing to two Saturday highlights.

Jimmy Buffett’s Not Full of It

You know that scene in Dumb and Dumber where Harry Dunn (played by Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (played by Jim Carrey) think they’re approaching Aspen, Colorado but they’re actually lost on the prairie? As the disappointment sets in, Harry says, “Huh. I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this,” and Lloyd responds, “I was thinking the same thing. That John Denver's full of shit, man.” 

Well, I had the opposite experience in Key West, regarding longtime resident-bard and recently passed-away musician, Jimmy Buffett. He’s not full of it. His songs came to life for me on the streets of Key West, particularly when my leather sandal split in two—and acted as a clapper—while I was en route to a Monroe Library event. I heard "Margaritaville" in my head, where Jimmy Buffett blew out his flip-flop and then stepped on a pop-top. I was at least a mile from my hotel and surrounded by expensive stores so buying a replacement pair was not appealing. Fortunately, a Key West librarian came to my aid and I wrapped that sandal in so much packing tape I could have mailed it home as a postcard.

Cuban tile at Cuban Coffee Queen Key West
My left sandal's last stand. Also pictured: Cuban tile at Cuban Coffee Queen. I am not obsessed with Cuban tile. I am not obsessed with Cuban tile...
Six-toed cat at Hemmingway House Key West
Hemmingway's well-toed cats: still in charge of his house

Carl Hiaasen: Cool in My Book

I tagged along with the teacher’s scholarship crew to hear Carl Hiaasen speak at the Key West High School auditorium, home of the Fighting Conchs. I was impressed that Carl (yeah, I like to use his first name as if we’re old pals) was so easygoing and generous with his time. He probably spent two hours talking with the students and answering questions about his writing, and then he signed free copies of his latest book, Wrecker, for a line so long, that I was relieved to exit the building when he started. Thanks for being good to the next generation, Carl.

Carl Hiaasen Book Signing Key West High School
Can you spot Carl Hiaasen? He's seated, wearing a red shirt, and signing at least 100 copies of his new book, "Wrecker," for staff and students at Key West High School

Also for those of you interested in Carl’s writing process, he likes a prison-like setting for his writing office—no decor, no windows. He estimates that he edits his novel drafts fifty times (!) before they go to press.

Key West Florida Light Post Conch Shell
Metal work in the Conch Republic
Manatee with Donut Key West Graffiti
Street art of manatee with pink-icing donut? Squee! 

Dave Berry Standup Comedy

In addition to being a Pulitzer-prize winning humorist and journalist-turned-novelist, Dave Berry is a bandmate of Stephen King and delivers keynotes like a standup comedian. From stories of his colonoscopy, to a new tourism tagline (Come back to Miami, we weren’t shooting at you*), to his account of the devious things he did to get onto an Oprah Show about righting past wrongs, my cheeks ached from grinning during his comedic deliveries at the Seminar. 

*This is what I typed in my notes app, but I was often hot and over-caffinated. 

The FL Book Ban: A Black Hole

If you’re not up on the Florida book ban (HB 1069), there is broad-sweeping Florida legislation that was passed in May of '23 and since expanded that restricts libraries from carrying any materials that are not in alignment with an extreme right wing agenda. Ron DeSantis’s camp is behind this effort and they are scared to death of LGBTQIA+ individuals, so much so that recent legislature attempts to give students the impression that heterosexual and cisgender identities are the only sexual identities. You may have heard about the Don't Say Gay bill, which prohibits any pronoun preferences or mentions of non-heterosexuality discussions in the classroom. To further the insult, many of the books that have been banned go beyond sexual identity restrictions, and wade into general anti-minority territory.

 Check out this list of banned books from Escambia County. 

That place sounds wild, and not in a fun-loving, let's go on a hike kinda way —more like a let's spy on each other and restrict our individual freedoms like they do in Russia, yay! 

Escambia County banned the dictionary—in which you can define controversial terms like boobs and genitalia—and Judy Blume books with trigger topics like menstruation. Y'all they banned Beyoncé's biography, Beyoncé: Running the World: The Biography, and others, such as: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther comics and The Diary of Anne Frank. 

C'mon, man.

Judy Blume Katie Blankenship Lauren Groff at Key West Literary Seminar
Book Bans discussion: "What We’re Doing to Fight Florida’s Anti-Reader Policies." Left to right: Stephen Tremaine (Bard Early College), Lauren Groff, Mitchell Kaplan, Judy Blume, and Katie Blankenship (PEN America Florida)

One of the best moments of this discussion at the seminar was when an audience member asked “What is the best argument for the book ban?” PEN America Florida lawyer Katie Blankenship fielded the question and said the best argument is that parents should have a choice about what their kids read. Everyone can get behind that; it’s not an argument. It becomes a flashpoint because a parent can object to their child reading a book, and if the district agrees, then every child in the district doesn't have library access to that book. And then there's the bill in its totality that's abhorrent, whereby the government gets to ultimately determine what literature is available to its constituents.

Lauren Groff, Please Be My Den Mother

Enter Lauren Groff: In addition to being a novelist and author of wicked creepy and captivating short story collection, Florida, she’s a mother, runs with the bears, and is starting Lynx, an inclusive-minded indie book store in Gainesville, Florida. She spoke on the panel educating the audience about the Book Bans alongside Judy Blume, PEN America Lawyer Katie Blankenship, and Stephen Tremain of Bard Early College. 

Groff speaks and wisdom flows. Here are some (potentially mangled) soundbites from Lauren Groff that I typed into my Notes app at various times during the Key West Literary Seminar.

“If we start to see us as less of the top of the food chain, top of the the pyramid, we will start to see all the world as our sibling.”

“I make a citadel of my time. I get up early to write—which is its own state where the moral and intellectual brain don’t exist, and I do this for years until the book is done.”

“There is a different musicality of short story. A short story is written in a minor key and a novel, because it’s written on bigger scale, is in a major key. Florida is a minor key state in some ways.”

“There is a syntax that comes from landscape.”

“This is a state of sink holes. This is a state of hurricanes. This is a state of termites, which are invisible hurricanes in your house.”

Patricia Engel Karen Russell Lauren Groff Key West Literary
Left to Right: Patricia Engel, Karen Russell, Lauren Groff Discuss "Stories and Floridas”

“This is a state of sink holes. This is a state of hurricanes. This is a state of termites, which are invisible hurricanes in your house.”

Lauren Groff

Check out Bookleggers Library

Bookleggers Library is my new source for old Florida prints. Stepping inside their nonprofit book trailer was one of my best moves of the trip. The fellas running it were easy-going yet informative and had a spine—I heard one pushing back on a woman who was trying to haggle down the price of a book. Not that I don’t love a bargain, but their selection of historic maps, postcards, and rare or out of print books is well curated and someone put a lot of thought into what would be appropriate for a literary event about the state of Florida. 

The the fellas at Bookleggers recommended I read Swamplandia, based on my old timey Florida maps requests, and a couple teachers and librarians I was hanging out with pointed me to Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I did enjoy Russell’s semiar panel with Lauren Groff and Patricia Engel, especially the idea they explored of multiple Floridas and Florida as a multiverse. Note to self: add Patricia Engel to the reading list as well.

Write a Sentence a Day

Tananarive Due  at Key West Literary Seminar
Interview of Tananarive Due (on right) by Regis M. Fox

"The trick of the writer is to make the tragedy of one become a tragedy for all."

Tananarive Due

Writing wisdom from Tananarive Due: She spoke about her upcoming historical fiction novel, The Reformatory, which harkens to the horrors of Tallahassee’s infamous Dozier School for Boys. I winced the entire time she described the brutality of the reformatory and generally had the same reaction I have to perceiving ghosts. I wanted it to vanish. Due is very aware of that potential reaction to the traumatic events and our potential to turn away rather than face the truth of the past. The trick of the writer is to make the tragedy of one become a tragedy for all**, she said. During the Q&A she said she likes to use the challenge writing a sentence a day, which is like opening a bag of chips, who can stop at one?

**disclaimer regarding my sun exposure and blood sugar levels after the morning cafe con leche. If Ms. Due requests corrections, I'll make them.

Fort Zachary Taylor Beach in January
Fort Zachary Taylor Beach 

Godspeed, Arlo Haskell

Though I only have an attendee perspective, Key West Lit Seminar Executive Director Arlo Haskell appears to be a likable character. He emceed the events—just enough so you knew who he was but he didn't meddle. In one of those emcee moments, he mentioned the trouble Key West is having with over-sized cruise ships. The crux of it, as I understand it, is this: locals don't want these mega ships docking in their ports (because they disturb the reef and because it makes for too many visitors at once), but the governor does want the mega-cruise ships, because his donors do. Read Ryan Krogh's "Key West Doesn't Want Your Big Cruise Ships," article in Outside Magazine for the longer rendition.

I looked Arlo up after the seminar because I wanted to know more about him, and the role he played in the cruise ship saga. Turns out he writes (about Key West Jewish History) and he advocates for Safer, Cleaner Ships, a group that introduced local election measures that limit oversized cruise ships from docking in Key West. Local voters passed the measures with flying colors.

But then Ron DeSantis stepped in for his donors and introduced eleventh-hour legislation that overturned the results, went against the desires of local voters, and let some giant cruise ships return to Key West.

Not to fear, Arlo and crew were out at port when the first giant cruise ships returned and helped organize a small-boat flotilla and other protests. They also have introduced more local measures to keep the big ships off city piers and out of neighboring waters. Godspeed, Arlo.

Florida: The State We
Me, after a dunk in the Atlantic Ocean-Gulf of Mexico at Fort Zach beach, and en route to outdoor restaurant, Blue Heaven, by way of sunset at Mallory Square. 

Life Outside Key West Literary Seminar

There were other noteworthy moments of the seminar that are covered by the teachers and librarians in the event coverage write-ups. They were a great and gracious group to hang out with and special thanks seminar staffer Katrin Schumann for making me feel welcome.

Outside the seminar, I had fun touring Key West with Mike. A few highlights: Key West Literary Walk Tour, Ft. Zach Beach, The Tennessee Williams Museum, and having a $4 brunch and drinking fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice at Pepe's.

After the Key West Literary Seminar, there was more fun to be had: I met went glamping in Flamingo Florida before looking for Florida Panthers in the Everglades. 

If you gleaned anything from this post, you may want to scan the notes I took at the 2023 Aspen Summer Words too. 

1 comment

Cristina Favretto
Cristina Favretto

HI Shelby-
We met at the KWLS—I’m the librarian from Miami with the short hair (well, kinda bi-level). Loved this write-up! And thanks for the shout-out to Bookleggers. I’m good friends with Nathaniel, who runs the project. I’ll forward the post to him.
I hope we have a chance to meet again; if you’re ever in Miami I’ll be happy to bring you to some literary sites here.
Warm regards,

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