Her Key West story

Sunsets are a bit of a ritual in Key West, with sailboats, junks, and motorboats heading out about 6 each evening to watch the sun melt into the ocean, and a "sunset celebration" daily in Mallory Square.
Sunsets are a bit of a ritual in Key West, with sailboats, junks, and motorboats heading out about 6 each evening to watch the sun melt into the ocean, and a "sunset celebration" daily in Mallory Square. (CARMEN VECCHIO)

A writer comes nervously to the Conch Republic for a high-powered literary seminar. But first there's relaxing, and restaurants, and roosters.

Posted: February 10, 2014

KEY WEST, Fla. - I'm sitting in the audience at the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street in Key West, my stomach churning the glass of Montepulciano that I consumed to quell my nerves, surrounded by 50 or so aspiring writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.

We're in Day 2 of our four-day workshop, led by such writers as poet Billy Collins, humorist Daniel Menaker, and novelist Susan Richards Shreve. While fellow snowbirds focus on their third mojito at Coyote Ugly or croon karaoke during the female drag show down the street, the auditorium where I sit is jittery with ambition and fear.

Each of us is hell-bent on reading our work and knocking our fellow scribes dead.

Which is more than appropriate, since this reading is part of the 32d annual Key West Literary Seminar, whose theme this year is "The Dark Side," covering mystery, crime, and literary thrillers.

I've come from Philadelphia to take my first writing workshop since I received my master's of fine arts degree in fiction at Iowa 30 years ago. And while I'm certainly here for the writing, escaping the polar vortex doesn't hurt.

I'd come upon KWLS on the Internet in the fall. Lured by its reasonable pricing, tropical climate, and stellar faculty, I applied and was accepted to study with Mary Morris, a novelist and travel and short-story writer.

For those less interested in writing and more in listening, the full KWLS goes on for 10 days, with the four-day writing workshops bracketed by readings and discussions by some of America's top authors. This year alone, speakers included Sara Paretsky, Gillian Flynn, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, Alexander McCall Smith, and Carl Hiaasen.

Back in the audience, time ticks down to my turn on stage. Do famous writers ever get cold feet?

My husband (who came along for some R&R prior to the workshop) and I had arrived two days earlier. After a short cab ride from the airport, we checked into the Southernmost Hotel in the USA, a resort complex on the quiet, upscale end of commercially bustling Duval Street. The complex includes three pools and South Beach, a postage stamp-sized white sand area that bumps up to an outdoor cafe and bar. Our first stop was to cross the beach and head for the Southernmost tanning pier to witness our first official sunset. Sunsets are a bit of a ritual on the island, with sailboats, junks, and motorboats heading out around 6 each evening to watch the sun melt into the ocean.

The next morning we rose early to rent bikes to head to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park beach, a favorite of locals.

The pebble beach was hard on the feet, but the striped aqua of the ocean proved breathtaking, as were the variety of accents that surrounded us. Germans, Swedes, and Italians in various stages of undress dared the pebbles to splash in the mild waves. The beachfront is well-equipped with showers, bathrooms, and a cafe that serves hot sandwiches and cold drinks.

After an afternoon spent toasting by the waves, we took a leisurely bike ride to Mallory Square, which is the site of a "sunset celebration" every evening. A favorite destination of cruise ships, Mallory Square is a street fair packed with vendors hawking conch fritters and natural sponges, coconuts painted with NFL insignias, and glass octopus sculptures. Performers beckon: sword-swallowing pirates and fire-juggling comics. A plump little pig named Snorkel, who bowed prettily on command and seemed nonplussed by the appreciative crowds, particularly appealed to us.

That night, on the recommendation of a Key Wester, we hit Azur, possibly the toniest restaurant on the island. Tuna carpaccio, osso buco, pan-crusted grouper, and an excellent wine list made it well worth a visit.

That next morning, we coasted our bicycles to Blue Heaven. This large outdoor restaurant has been a bordello, a playhouse, and the site of cockfighting matches, gambling, and boxing matches refereed by Ernest Hemingway. Today the arena is known for its mile-high Key lime pie and the many roosters and fluffy chicks that roam the perimeter, sharp-eyed and searching for scraps.

After eating, we made our way to Hemingway's house, a must-see in the Keys, where a good-natured guide delivered a tour more notable for bad jokes than information. Sights not to miss, however, are the second-story writing office that adjoins the house, and the 40 to 50 cats roaming the property, many of them six-toed descendants of the original Snowball, who was given to Hemingway by a ship's captain.

Showered and sunburned, that night we joined the large group of writers at the yellow and white Armory building that houses KWLS. As we downed chicken tikka and naan, we exchanged writing, reading, and publication histories and played groupie, picking out the famous writers in the crowd. After dinner, we divided into our respective workshops of no more than 12 per group.

Mary Morris appeared, and led us in a quick orientation. The workshop has a generous endowment of $300,000 that goes for fellowships, and many of my classmates had received funds for airfare or lodging on the island. After a few words on how the workshop would be run - constructive criticism was welcome, say what works, not what you liked - we adjourned until morning, when we met upstairs in a bright and sunny room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The Armory also houses artists' studios, and on breaks we cruised the hallway, admiring the work of island weavers and paper artists.

Despite the many chances for distraction, inside the classroom, the intensity of the group took me by surprise. The writing was universally excellent and the critiques thoughtful and serious. For three hours, it was easy to forget the perfect 80-degree weather outside and focus on the work at hand.

Classes ran from 10 to 1. The starting time was late enough to enjoy breakfast at one of the many excellent spots on the island. Frenchy's Cafe boasts fragrant chocolate croissants, while Camille's, a funky restaurant decorated with painted nudes and dominatrix-clad Barbie dolls, served lobster-stuffed omelets and Key lime French toast.

After the workshop, we gathered at Pepe's, the oldest restaurant on the island, for Gulf oysters, pink shrimp, and toothsome seafood chowder, all watched over by a large black-and-white cat perched in a sling high above the wooden tables, or at the Half Shell, a dock-front restaurant that looks out over the sea.

Afternoons were devoted to work, or to wandering the island. One day, a stop at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory was a restful escape. Set in their natural habitat, 50 species of Crayola-colored butterflies and 15 species of tropical birds mingle under lush greenery and flowing waterfalls. Another day I took in the art galleries along Duval, Greene, and Caroline Streets to admire local artisans and potters.

At the podium at San Carlos, a poet has finished and she leans to the microphone. "And now," she intones, "Ilene Raymond Rush!"

I rise and make my way to the front. I gather the pages of my first chapter, clear my throat, and then, with a deep breath, launch my shaky voice into the darkness. It's a comic novel that has lived in my head for three years. I bend to the microphone and try to remember to slow down, to pace myself, and soon I feel the audience drawn into my story of the difficulties of untangling a complicated 23-year-old marriage and the exploits of a giant schnauzer named Britney Spears. Before I know it, I've reached the final page.

On the podium, I pause. There is a moment of silence, then a burst of applause. I bask in it for a moment, then lean forward and announce the next reader. Mojito, here I come.

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