I just got the horrible news that our friend Raul Villarreal (left above), painter, traveler, and bon vivant, has died after a heart attack last night. We've gotten to know Raul in recent years in #Hemingway circles. Spent time with him last year in Paris, where the photo was taken, and then a week in Havana with him and Mike Curry (right) in December. Raul and Mike, colleagues at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., have been showing a documentary they produced about Hemingway, Cuba and Key West, which features interviews with Valerie Hemingway (center) and others. Raul came to the U.S. from Cuba as a boy. His father had been Hemingway's major domo, the man who ran the Finca Vigia household outside Havana, for several years and then, after the Cuban takeover, managed the house as the Hemingway Museum. Raul published a book about his father, "Hemingway's Cuban Son," a decade ago. It was an honor to meet Rene, Raul's father, back then, and of course to have known Raul's large spirit ever since. Carol Zastoupil showed her Cuba paintings at an exhibit Raul curated a couple of years ago at Santa Fe College. And I hooked Raul up a few years back with Robert Stewart at New Letters, who published some of his paintings in an issue with a section on Cuba. This is just so depressing. RIP, hermano. Abrazos to Rita and all who knew him.
While researching another project recently at the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, I followed a digression into Hemingway territory and learned something I’d never encountered before. The playwright David Mamet (right) had once set out to write a screenplay based on Across the River and Into the Trees, one of Hemingway’s most problematic novels. Problematic because most critics hold it up as one of Hemingway’s worst. That may or may not be true, but despite its flaws, the book, like several of Hemingway’s lesser works, does serve up some elegant writing here and there. So, Across the River, published in 1950, is at least approachable on a prose, or sentence-by-sentence, level.
Mamet recognized the novel’s reputation but once noted in an interview that great plays often lead to lousy movies and perhaps the reverse may have been true for a bad book. I’m not sure his logic on paper was quite that clear, but I think that was what he was trying to say.
Mamet has often been creatively compared to Hemingway, which, in that same interview (with Playboy, in 1995) he deflected: It would be a “heavy, impossible burden. You know, you can’t play Stanley Kowalski without being compared to Marlon Brando – even by people who never saw Marlon Brando in the movie, let alone on stage. He revolutionized that role and the American notion of what it meant to act. The same is true of Hemingway and writing.”
That said, the discovery of these Mamet notes sent me back to a newspaper piece I wrote – yikes, sixteen years ago -- that connected some dots between Mamet and Hemingway through the craft of television writing. That piece also made a nod to the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of a TV series of the day called “Gilmore Girls” and now the creative spirit behind one of the most popular and lauded new streaming series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (on Amazon Prime). Again, Hemingway. I watched a few more episodes of “Mrs. Maisel” the other day, which gave me further impetus to repost this piece.
The following article first appeared in The Kansas City Star in November 2002.
Motor mouths: Smart and savvy TV writers figure it out: Papa knew best
“Wall Street Journal says people are talking really fast on
“You don't say.”
“No, really. Especially on `West Wing.' “
“That's right. Mostly written by a guy named Aaron Sorkin.”
“All that politics _”
“Ripped from the headlines!”
“And real-life drama.”
“It's nice that Bartlet and his wife are getting closer.”
“Illness will do that.”
“I suppose. But it's about -- “
“Power and powerlessness.”
”Good way to put it, but I've been thinking about this TV thing for a
long time. And one thing the Journal didn't mention -- “
“Well, a few things, but one important one was the real source of that
“Straight out of Hemingway.”
“The Sun Also Rises. All that Paris banter. All those young hipsters.”
“All that drinking -- “
“That, too, but I first noticed this a few years ago on another show
Sorkin did -- `Sports Night.' “
“That ESPN thing.”
“Something like that. But it was great. Behind the scenes at a sports
talk show that had virtually nothing to do with --”
“Yeah. It was all about the people. And they talked fast, and they
talked on top of each other and they completed one another's --”
“You've got it. And for some reason that's why I put two and two
“And came up with Hemingway.”
“Listen to this. It's when Jake Barnes invites a passing woman to sit
down and have a drink. He's the narrator:
“What's the matter?” she asked. “Going on a party?”
“Sure. Aren't you?”
“I don't know. You never know in this town.”
“Don't you like Paris?”
“Why don't you go somewhere else?”
“Isn't anywhere else.”
“You're happy, all right.”
“I see what you're talking about.”
“Things happen fast on TV comedies, and even some dramas, and this
article I read said it had to do with cramming lots of scenes in a show to
keep people laughing. Wears some people out. ‘Lucy’ was funny. But
‘Seinfeld’ was faster. Just like those old screwball comedies from way back
“Yeh, yeh, yeh.”
“I might add that ‘Frasier’ is just as clever, more urbane, but
“It takes time to make a latte.”
“And you know `Seinfeld,' that show about nothing.”
“Yada yada yada.”
“Exactly. Know where that comes from?”
“I'm getting a feeling --”
“Yep. ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place.’ Seinfeld did yada yada. Hemingway
did nada nada. Read it and weep.”
“These really good TV guys -- Sorkin, David Chase --”
“ ‘Sopranos.’ “
“Yup. And Matt Groening _”
“ ‘Simpsons.’ “
“No. Roger. As in `Roger that.' You're right. ‘Simpsons.’ But what I was
trying to say -- “
“Before I interrupted --"
“Was that the best of this stuff seems to be so aware of things. Aware
of the world. Aware of pop culture.”
“I mean, some of these guys even love books.”
“I'll never forget that Jack London episode of ‘Northern Exposure.’ “
“Brilliant. That's what I mean. Or Amy Sherman-Palladino.”
“She writes `Gilmore Girls.' There's some media-savvy dialogue, for you,
even though it feels a little forced.”
“She's no Hemingway, you mean.”
”Well, I don't think I'm too far out on a literary limb with that
theory. Surely Sorkin read `Hills Like White Elephants.' “
“One thing you hear a lot is wordplay. Repetition. You accent something
by repeating it two or three or more times.”
“It's like ping-pong words. Not sing-song to put you to sleep. Ping-pong to
keep you alert.”
“Back and forth you mean?”
“Words ping-ponging, or pinballing. Like one time on `Gilmore Girls'
Rory and a friend were riffing on the word ‘wing-it.’ They didn't know they
were riffing, they were just saying what the writers wrote. But ‘wing-it’ as
a compound verb and an adjective, meaning just the opposite of ‘Zagat,’
meaning you'd look it up in the restaurant guide rather than wing-it. The
friend was having a date and she was worried about not looking
at Zagat and they'd be forced to wing-it. Zagat. Wing-it.”
“It's like action poetry.”
“Poetry? On television?”
“TV is literature, you know. I mean look at ‘Sports Night.’ “
“It's a shame they killed it.”
“Yeah, that really torqued my chili.”
“Peter Krause was great.
“Just like he is on `Six Feet Under.' And now one of those `Sports
Night' guys is on ‘West Wing.’ “
“The guy with glasses.”
“But Felicity What's-Her-Name -- she played the lead character, the
talk-show producer -- was married to William H. Macy and they were great,
“Great character -- Macy. The ratings consultant.”
“Huffman. Felicity Huffman. And they're theater people.”
“They do Mamet. I mean they're friends with Mamet.”
“The F-word guy. Plays. Movies.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. But did you just say, ‘It really torqued my
“Where'd that come from?”
”People talk that way.”
“No, they do. The beauty of language. I love it. ‘Torqued my chili.’
Some guy from Oklahoma says it. I heard it at a diner.”
“You know, like in `The Killers.' “
“Kind of like television.”
“Except without the ads.”
“Another reason they talk fast, right?”
“Yeah. To squeeze in more -- “
While we were in Cuba last month, we learned of the recent death of Alberto "Fico" Ramos. Fico is well-known in Hemingway circles, because he was one of the original members of the baseball team that the writer created for his son Gregory after taking up residence outside Havana in the early 1940s. The team was called the Gigi Stars, Gigi being the 10-year-old (or so) Gregory’s nickname. Fico later became chef at the Hemingway house, known as the Finca Vigia, or Lookout Farm. The house stands high on a hilltop above San Francisco de Paula, a village about a dozen miles southeast of Havana. The Cuban government has owned the house since the hemingways left in 1960 and now operates it as the Museo Ernest Hemingway.
We met Fico on our first trip to Cuba, in 2003, and I sat in on an interview session on the grounds of the Finca, sitting by the drained pool, where I took this photo. I remember Fico as extremely personable and eager to share stories of life around the Hemingways. Our friend Raul Villareal, with whom we spent a week in Havana in December, confirmed Fico’s death the first week of December. “He was able to see his daughter who came in from Miami and I was told that he left us peacefully in her company,” Raul told us in an email. Fico in fact worked with Raul’s father, René Villareal, who ran the Hemingway household in the 1950s and oversaw its preservation after Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. “I was very sad to hear the news,” Raul added. “(W)e lost one of the few remaining Cubans who knew and worked for Hemingway.”
To bring the story full baseball circle: On our return visit to the Finca Vigia in December, we happened to meet Jorge Juan Rey Artze, who for 10 years has coached a youth baseball team in the surrounding village of San Francisco de Paula. Carol Zastoupil thus was able to continue her mission to deliver baseballs young Cubans. We’ve often seen kids swinging crude bats against rocks in the street, so she has taken the lead in loading her bag with baseballs. (I pack a few sets of guitar strings to hand out.) A couple of years ago, we stopped to watch a youth team practice in Guantanamo City and shared a bunch of balls with them, leading to a team picture and much good cheer.
I wrote this account of the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award event for the newsletter of the International Hemingway Society. Here it is, including a brief interview with Weike Wing, author of the award-winning novel, Chemistry.
By STEVE PAUL
This was a transitional year for the annual PEN/Hemingway literary awards, which the Ernest Hemingway Foundation has co-sponsored for more than four decades. Not long before the April 8 awards event in Boston, our longtime co-sponsor, the New England PEN organization, ceded administration of the program to its parent organization, PEN America. The New York-based advocacy group oversees a long lineup of annual literary awards.
Without the presence of New England PEN and its own regional literary awards, this year’s event at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was somewhat smaller than usual but wholly focused on the Hemingway award, which honors a first book of fiction. Seán Hemingway (pictured above with Weike Wang), standing in for his uncle Patrick, oversaw the proceedings, in which the 43rd annual PEN/Hemingway award went to Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry. (More on Wang and her book below.)
The audience heard from awards judge Geraldine Brooks and Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, which is operating in overdrive, she said, during a “crisis for expression in our own country.” Ricardo Cortez Cruz, author of the novel Straight Outta Compton and professor of English and creative writing at Illinois State University, gave a stirring keynote about Hemingway and “the joy and optimism that comes with knowing that writing can change the world.”
Dr. Hilary K. Justice (pictured at the lectern), specialist at the JFK’s Hemingway Collection, opened the proceedings with a smart and lyrical essay based in part on her call for the Hemingway community to identify their favorite Papa sentences.
The PEN/Hemingway program also highlighted two finalists: Lisa Ko, for The Leavers, and Adelia Saunders, author of Indelible. Honorable mentions went to Ian Bassingthwaite for Live from Cairo, and Curtis Dawkins, author of the prison novel The Graybar Hotel.
Wang receives $25,000 and residencies at the University of Idaho and the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. The runners-up receive smaller amounts. Along with our Ernest Hemingway Foundation and PEN America, sponsors of the program include the Hemingway family, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum and its associated support organizations.
Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a briskly moving short novel about a young woman, daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is struggling with her American identity, her family and boyfriend relationships, and with the doctoral chemistry lab that threatens to define her future. A few days after the ceremony in Boston, I got in touch to command her attention for a brief email interview. It appears here with only slight revisions for clarity.
Q. First, can you give me a recap of your path towards writing? You apparently were in another field (chemistry? public health?), so when, how, and why did you veer into fiction?
A. I was undergrad chem and English. I was also premed. Then the latter didn't quite work out and I moved into grad school for cancer epidemiology. I have always been writing fiction, but I don't think it is necessarily a profession you go into as it is one you fall into. When I finished the MFA and wrote this novel, I had no idea any of this would happen. I had hoped, but never actually thought it would. I can sometimes be self destructively practical. Had the novel not worked out, my plan was then to find a job in epi and move on from writing.
Q. There are no right answers here, but in your workshopping and MFA did you develop any ideas or relationship, pro or con, with Hemingway? It's always interesting, because very few PEN/Hemingway winners -- the books, I mean -- feel as if they've been influenced by his work.
A. That is true, but I did read the story “Hills Like White Elephants” during my MFA. I came to Hemingway's work fairly late, in college and later I would say. But I have a good relationship with Hemingway's work. I learned a great deal from him in terms of dialogue (especially from the above story) and shaping a piece of fiction to mimic something in real life yet to still be inherently fiction. What I love about that first story I read of his is the explosiveness both explicit and subversive.
Q. Your reading on Sunday really heightened the humor that seasons your novel. I've been thinking about that and wonder whether humor is a concerted strategy or comes out of your natural authorial voice or emerges from your vision of the narrator's character?
A. Voice, I believe. I don't think I could write anything without some ounce of humor. You cannot have dark without light. Humor has been my natural way of coping with growing up. But I do think it works well in writing and I take a leaf of that ability from teachers like Amy Hempel and Sigrid Nunez.
Q. Sorry for the obvious question, but does your narrator's experience reflect elements of your own life or is she wholly invented? This, of course, is a Hemingway issue, given that readers always seem to expect that he was writing about his own life.
A. Ah. When I met Seán at the lunch, he told me he had read some earlier drafts of “Hills Like White Elephants” and the very first draft read more like a recorded conversation and was probably a recorded conversation between Hemingway and Hadley. Then the shaping of the work happened and now we have this brilliant story that has no bearing with the original conversation but used it as a springboard. That is how I feel about this book. I took a lot of elements from my life. The science and PhD world is as part of me as football and baseball lingo is to my husband. The longer I write the more I see that transforming the prose is a large part of being the writer. Much of that transformation happens in revision, hence why revision is so paramount.
Q. The structure of "Chemistry" seems something like an orchestration of atomic particles and really benefits from its non-linear but ultimately forward motion. How did you determine to write the novel that way?
A. I think the non-linear narration came from my inability to write a straight story from event to event. I favor the collage structure. I think it gives the reader and writer a more immersive experience. I also found something clunky about going from chapter to chapter, putting in a “cliff hanger,” finding the “hook.” Much of the book is also about language and the flow of language, so I wanted it to move fairly seamlessly.
A. What's next for you? Also, are you still teaching?
Q. More books! Hopefully. I am working on a second novel and stories. I'm not teaching this semester but I will be next semester at Barnard and UPenn. Teaching is pretty fun. Students are funny, in a good way. But also I guess in a funny way.
Hemingway Society member Steve Paul is author of Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend (Chicago Review Press, 2017).
Things were slow at a northern Michigan bookshop one day last fall, so while browsers ignored me and my signing table, I spent some time reading a new collection of Jim Harrison’s food essays. The late writer hailed from Michigan and often referred to his secret fishing place on the Upper Peninsula. I’ve read his fiction off and on over the years, and his poetry, but not much of his food writing, which he produced for various magazines. The essays often read like stream-of-consciousness odes to hedonism. He had one large appetite. He was not only stuffing his face but he often gets in yours, with brawny judgments and prickly opinions. (A blogged a little more about this a few months ago.) But he’s highly entertaining, if you don’t mind the intimations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll that sometimes accompany his musings. Some of the pieces in this new book date from the early 1980s, but despite the Reagan-era markers they remain fresh and lively. So here I was at the beginnings of a book tour, which had had a string of early successes before this afternoon of not-much-happening, when I encountered Harrison’s lament about the depressing nature of such things. “Book tours,” he writes, “promote a ghastly self-absorption, a set of emotions inimical to art.” In short, the book-tour grind leaves no room for writing. Perhaps that’s why it has taken months to write these sentences.
How much of this needs to be remembered? Two Kansas City kickoffs, one private, one public, that felt good and memorable. The bookstores – from Wichita to Petoskey, Mich., to my old home town of Newton, Mass. -- with appreciative audiences and book buyers standing in line for a signature. Or the one in Atlanta that barely remembered I was coming and failed to turn out a single customer. The Hemingway people in his northern Michigan landscape – they are always faithful and generous. A lovely dinner, with a Hemingway-inspired menu (trout, rabbit and other delights at my friend’s new restaurant) in Traverse City. An auditorium full of inquisitive teens in Hemingway’s own high school (Oak Park, Ill.), and a library slide show in his home town, now poignant, because my editor was in that audience and – five months later – she has succumbed to her publishing house’s downsizing. Momentary thought: Did my book do her in?
I was grateful for the literary conversation with Jeff Martin in a little Tulsa dive bar and for the people who showed up and bought the book there. At the Hemingway House and Museum in Key West, I hung out poolside with the damn cats, and while stationed at my book table I got to hear five or six tour guides tell the story of the pool and the penny embedded in the patio mortar – actually each delivered a different version of the tale, which generally pits the wandering Hemingway against wife No. 2, Pauline, or vice versa. Although the Atlanta bookstore was a bust, a friend there corralled me into meeting with her middle school journalism students, and I also gave a paper, partly related to my book, in a Hemingway session at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference. Two peak experiences, with capacity crowds wound up streaming online: They were joint appearances, actually moderated conversations, with another author, James McGrath Morris, at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston and the National World War I Museum in KC. Both were very well received.
Now, in the spring of 2018, my book has been out about six months. It has won two local book awards. I’m still doing occasional small events in town and filling in the summer calendar with events here and elsewhere. Review attention has been disappointingly slight, though most of the published reviews have been favorable and relatively enthusiastic, and another one popped up just recently. Without going into detail, I think I should feel pretty good that, according to my first royalty report, I earned back my advance in the book’s first three months on the market. Hoohah.
I continue to work on Hemingway. A forthcoming paper, for delivery at the American Literature Association conference in San Francisco and the biennial Hemingway Society conference in Paris this summer, finds me sniffing around his relationship with, ahem, wine.
But I am deeply involved in researching a biography of another writer (more on that down the road), so I thought it was time to perform this little recap. It’s mostly an excuse to show some travelogue photos of the book-tour grind on the road.
An uncanny bit of synchronicity lit a fuse underneath the recent Key West Literary Seminar. The seminar, devoted this year to “Writers of the Caribbean,” kicked off in early January on the very day that Washington D.C. fell victim to reports that the alleged leader of the free world had disparaged various brown-skinned homelands as “shithole countries.” Edwidge Danticat, a New Yorker who writes frankly and plaintively of her native Haiti, addressed the matter head on from the seminar stage. The first words out of her mouth on a panel on “unpacking paradise” the next day: “I’m apparently from a shithole country … so we never had that paradise.” Others throughout the weekend echoed her disgust -- sometimes subtly or ironically, sometimes quite openly. But the subtext certainly heightened the seminar’s great opportunity, which for me was to discover a vibrant geography of literature with which I’d had far too little experience.
The spirit of Derek Walcott, the great poet from the island of St. Lucia who died last March, infused the seminar. Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West in the 1930s and ‘40s, was cited frequently as well. I’d been reading some of Walcott’s long-line poems recently, and I flashed on my only personal encounter with him. It was 1999 in Boston – he was teaching at Boston University at the time – and he was one of the many global writers invited to speak and sometimes argue during an event commemorating Ernest Hemingway’s 100th birthday. Walcott was somewhat dismissive of the worst of Hemingway’s tendencies but gave him credit for infusing some of his prose with the sound of fine poetry. The examples he read, as I recall, were convincing.
Hemingway’s name barely came up during this Key West seminar; I’m sure if it had, the writers who identify as Caribbean would not have been overly kind to the privileged American who made Cuba his home for two decades. Then again, the great Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, another big-name seminar participant, has acknowledged his debt to Hemingway. (In Cuba, he said, everyone wants to plagiarize Hemingway.) The outsized appetites of Padura’s recurring character, the police detective Mario Conde, certainly parallel Hemingway’s at times, though Padura’s prose, in its English translations, tends more towards lush expressionism, as if he were a painter with an overloaded brush, rather than Papa-style restraint. Padura still lives in Havana, where he manages to walk the fine artistic line that criticizes by slant and irony and thus allows him a certain protected status as well as the ability to publish outside Cuba. Nevertheless his account of the brutally unfair publishing system in Cuba was enlightening. A writer spends three years working on a novel and gets about $250 from a Cuban publisher, he said: “Being a writer in Cuba is practically an act of faith.” (The seminar happened to align with an art exhibit by the youngish Abel Barroso, a highly ironic and talented Cuban who also has earned the chance to show and sell overseas. We had met Barroso in his home during an art tour five years ago, and it was rewarding to see and hear him, during an opening event, surrounded by large and memorable pieces of his work.)
Caryl Phillips delivered one of the major highlights of the seminar when he read from a forthcoming novel, A View of the Empire at Sunset. In it, he imagines an episode from the life of the complicated writer Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) as she returns to the island of Dominica, where she’d grown up before setting off for her Bohemian existence in London, Paris and elsewhere. Little is known about her six weeks on the ground there, which gave Phillips his opening for invention, he conceded. His excerpt was stunning, and I’m sure I was not the only listener planning to snatch the novel up when it comes out in May. Phillips, another displaced islander, also impressed with a keynote essay at one evening’s tribute to Walcott. Phillips spoke about Walcott’s early experience in New York, amidst the theater world in 1958-59. It was a period of mostly unhappiness. Walcott was largely alone, ignored by the literary elite and too disciplined for the Beat crowd, Phillips noted. He cut his fellowship short. “In New York,” Phillips said of Walcott, “by learning what he wasn’t, he learned what he was – a West Indian.” Phillips’s rather downbeat portrait prompted the publisher Jonathan Galassi to lament the next day that Phillips had left out Walcott’s later successes. Well, sure, but it bears reminding that true achievement often follows failure, and the status of a Caribbean outsider in New York’s high-brow white culture was a point not lost on the rest of us.
Jamaica Kincaid shared a typically circuitous essay on the subject of cultural appropriation. She began with an image of Dana Schutz's controversial painting of the embalmed mangled face of Emmett Till, and came down on the side of chilling-out about it. "All that we make belongs to all of us," Kincaid said. "The only thing we can't take from us is freedom."
Along with the superstar presenters such as Phillips, Danticat, Padura, and Kincaid, the seminar gave voice to a slew of younger writers. I’d read Teju Cole (Open City and some of his writing on photography) and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, but had not yet encountered the likes of Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchinson (National Book Critics Circle winner in poetry for 2016), Nicole Dennis-Benn, Andre Alexis, or Tiphanie Yanique. Each had a unique perspective on where he or she had come from (Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad, U.S. Virgin Islands) and what informs the poetry and prose. I read one of Hutchinson’s book’s on the airplane heading home. Rowan Ricardo Phillips began his wide-ranging, beautifully rendered keynote talk ("I Who Have No Weapon But Poetry") with a reading from Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey (note to self: must read). He read the chapter where Odysseus confronts the Cyclops and tricks the sleeping giant with the "No Man maneuver," suggesting perhaps the potential power of a Caribbean identity as No Man. (Read Polyphemus as the U.S., or the current POTUS?) And it was a subtle prelude to Phillips's later acknowledgment of Walcott, whose masterwork is the epic Omeros. (Time to revisit that, too, and to read Rowan Phillips's books as well.)
Marlon James’s novel is steeped in Jamaican patois. He had trouble writing it early on, almost defeated by the task of juggling its multiple voices, he said, until someone suggested he read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I also appreciated his shout-out to Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters (1990), which I’d admired years ago, as the “greatest novel about Jamaica” even though it’s set in the Philippines. I never got a chance to suggest to James that A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of a Man Booker prize, reminded me a bit of Richard Price’s streetwise novel of young drug dealers, Clockers, but it did. I’ll look forward to a forthcoming TV series based on James’s big novel. James is an executive producer and one of five writers working on scripts for the 10 episodes (for Amazon). More power to him.
All of this literary immersion, of course, takes place deep in the heart of Duval Street, the spine of Key West’s daily carnival of unleashed hedonism. Key West is slowly recovering from the hurricane that ravaged the middle Keys; though it suffered relatively little damage, Key West is still affected by misperceptions, and the tourist business did not yet seem fully up to speed. Some street performers certainly were having a tough time of it. “These literary fuckers aren’t giving anything up,” said one noodling flutist. He was crouched on a sidewalk down the block from the San Carlos Institute, a historic Cuban building that houses the annual seminar.
I felt rather lucky landing a place in the seminar, which has been going on for 36 years. The seminar sells out quickly and seems to have become a literary playground for Key West’s high society. (Next year: Margaret Atwood!) Oh well; I can think of worse places to take a winter vacation. And the chance to expand my literary boundaries and add to my must-read piles seems kind of worth it.
I wrote this piece originally for an Associated Press blog published daily by former Kansas City bureau chief Paul Stevens, he of the near mirror-image name.
In my earliest days at The Kansas City Star, the AP officed on the third floor in the temple of journalism that William Rockhill Nelson built, and Ernest Hemingway's ghost was hardly around.
Hemingway had been dead for a decade, and, to me, he was just someone whose work I'd read in school. I don't recall any substantial discussions about him in the building, nor was I impressed that his name appeared in bronze on a plaque that listed Star staffers who served in the first world war. It would be years before I began to appreciate not only his place in American literature but also his legacy as a cub reporter in the very newsroom where I spent more than 40 years as a writer and editor.
By 1999, the centennial year of Hemingway's birth, I had leapt into his world with abandon as I prepared a special-section tribute for The Star, "Hemingway at 100." I read deep into Hemingway's work, met many literary scholars at conferences, and began researching his life and work, especially his Kansas City period of 1917-18.
It seemed like such a folly, expecting to find morsels that hadn't already turned up in the many Hemingway biographies and scholarly works published even then. But I trudged on periodically, examining Hemingway's papers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston and elsewhere, inching through The Star on microfilm, and traveling to places that shaped the outsized talent, who possessed an indelible sense for the art of the word along with a knack for bombast and bad behavior.
When I chose to retire from the newspaper in March 2016, it was full-steam ahead on the biography that I'd been scratching at for too many years. A couple of months into the new round of work, an important insight emerged. For all those years I thought I'd been working on "Hemingway in Kansas City." But who would care about that? I finally realized. The morning that I reshaped my project as "Hemingway at Eighteen" turned out to be critical. Long story short, I refashioned a formal proposal that I'd been floating and within two weeks sold the book to an editor at the Chicago Review Press. The expanded time frame allowed me to take Hemingway from Kansas City to the ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his 19th birthday, he suffered a near-death wounding on the war front along the Piave River.
Those two peak, teen-age experiences now form the bulk of my book.
At a conference last spring, I learned that slice-of-life biographies had taken the publishing world by storm. Sure, full-life biographies remain the ultimate standard for many authors and readers. But the kind of closely focused books expertly cast and popularized by my friend Candice Millard (on Teddy Roosevelt, President John Garfield and Winston Churchill) have blossomed. Ever since, I've been saying that of the dozen or more Hemingway books appearing in 2017 alone, mine, I'm sure, is the sliciest.
The book, subtitled The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend, begins with the recent high school graduate unsure of what to do with his life as he worked his family's vacation farm fields in Michigan and fished for trout. College was out of the question for a while, and Kansas City became the default when Hemingway ultimately determined the Chicago newspapers weren't hiring but an uncle could get him a job at The Star. Kansas City's lively, gritty and sometimes mean streets, along with the newspaper's colorfully intense daily grind, served as something like a college education for Hemingway. The book details some of his more notable pieces for the paper, presents some little-known background about The Star and the city, and delivers some previously unheard contemporary voices about Hemingway, the budding writer. For the world of journalism, it also raises new questions prompted by a surprising piece of history I was finally able to confirm after many years of trying - the time that Hemingway was called to testify before a federal grand jury.
Hemingway at Eighteen comes out in October, 100 years after Hemingway's arrival in Kansas City. And 100 years after the very beginning of his self-invented life as a writer.