Key West Story: An Interview with Rick Skwiot
As Hemingway fans know, there have been dozens of books published in the last few years with Hemingway as a character in either the spirit or the flesh. Adios Hemingway, The Hemingway Hoax, Toro, Hemingway Deadlights, The Last Safari, Havana, and The Crook Factory are just a few.
This month, Antaeus Books is publishing Key West Story by Rick Skwiot, the tale of a bestselling author who has run out of money and lost his focus as a writer. Our friend Hemingway makes an appearance in Skwiot’s book as a literary guide and life mentor for the struggling writer, coming from “writer’s heaven” to help the protagonist recover his talent and his integrity. Hemingway fans will enjoy the character of Hemingway as he imparts all that he’s learned about writing, life, drinking, women and more as he reflects on his own career and his very full life on earth.
AB: Key West Story is your third novel, in addition to two memoirs. When did you start writing and which writers influenced you?
RS: I began moving beyond journalism into fiction some 25 years ago—a wrenching and retrospectively amusing passage in my life that I’ve chronicled in my memoir San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing. I think every writer I read influences me, but the ones who really moved me early on were Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Henry Miller and Walt Whitman. The first two influenced me stylistically—Hemingway with his focus on sensory details and Simenon with his pointillist approach—and the latter two thematically. I share a transcendentalist bent with Miller, Whitman, Thoreau and D.H. Lawrence, believing that the greatest journeys are those within.
AB: Why do you write? Is the reason the same for most writers?
RS: I think most artists and serious writers feel that they have a vision—a unique perception of the world – that they want to share. I want people to feel some of the things I feel and take away some pleasure of one sort or another, and some understanding. I am trying to chronicle a small portion of the world at a particular time and place to show what life is like for some. That’s the somewhat pretentious artistic answer. On the personal scale, I like putting words together to build stories, give birth to characters and concoct emotion. It can be agony but largely enjoyable. It’s creation, and I guess all writers, composers, painters and sculptors get the same kick out of it, just as kids enjoy playing with crayons, making something nice out of nothing. When it’s really fine and you’ve worked hard at it, there’s no greater pleasure.
AB: In 1997 you won the Hemingway First Novel Award for your book, Death in Mexico. Were you a Hemingway fan (student) at that time?
RS: I was and still am a fan and student of good prose and creative writing craft. Hemingway, in his letters and nonfiction works, such as The Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast, has many good and instructive things to say about writing and the writing life. His seriousness and perceptiveness about craft issues have always impressed me.
AB: Hemingway is a mythic figure in your novel, an emissary that comes back to give the main character, a struggling writer, “literary guidance and moral instruction.” How did you decide to include Hemingway in your book? How did you decide which facet of Hemingway to focus on?
RS: I had started out to write a novel that would capture the surreal aspects of daily life in Key West when I had an epiphany: Even though I was trying to write “realistic” fiction there was no reason why I couldn’t use surrealistic elements to do so. Certainly other writers—Shakespeare and Dickens come to mind—used ghosts and such to good effect. When I added Ernest Hemingway reincarnate as a character, the writing became a lot richer and a lot more fun. He worked as a foil to my protagonist and an authoritative commentator on the contemporary Key West scene, given his retrospective view of the island. And since he is sent from Writers Heaven to help another struggling writer, I focused on Hemingway as the creative artist and writer more so than on, say, Hemingway the deep-sea fisherman or Hemingway the daiquiri-drinker, though both those elements are in the book as well.
AB: There is a dramatic contrast between your Hemingway character and almost everyone else in the book. The Hemingway character seems to know how to live and my favorite parts of your book are when the Hemingway character gives advice. Is this how you see Ernest Hemingway, as a man who knew how to live? Or is this how you see your fictional Hemingway?
RS: I see my fictional Hemingway as a man with an advantageous posthumous perspective. He is able to look back and see where he screwed up and how in his later years he eventually squandered his talent and his life. Hem did know how to live in certain ways but also had ample flaws. Here in Key West Story he is able to see how those flaws came to sink him.
AB: How long have you lived in Key West? How would you describe Hemingway’s influence on modern day Key West?
RS: I have lived in Key West off-and-on since 1997. In that time I have seen how the ongoing Hemingway mystique is a mixed blessing for the island. It does bring tourists, which is good for the local economy. But it also leads to some dubious Hemingway-related activities, such as a fake running of the bulls and a Hemingway look-alike contest, which causes my fictionalized Hemingway some distress. However, Hemingway’s writings continue to alert readers to the great sport fishing in the Keys, which is central to Key West’s economic survival.
AB: How much do you know about Hemingway’s life in Key West?
RS: Of course I’ve read stacks of books by and about Hemingway that deal with his experience here. While I’m not a Hemingway scholar, in reading and studying him over the years I think I’ve come to understand him–somewhat intuitively—both as a writer and a man, perhaps in some ways better than he understood himself. I’ve coupled that with my own fiction writer’s imagination to find a voice and persona that early readers of Key West Story say they find convincing and compelling.
AB: Key West has changed considerably since Hemingway lived there – the culture of Key West was so independent from life in the mainland that Hemingway almost kept his expat status for a while. How does the environment of Key West now support or not support you as a writer?
RS: My protagonist Con Martens, suffering from writer’s block, complains, “The weather’s too good, the water’s too warm and inviting. Plus the party never ends. A writer needs isolation, boredom, and a pissy climate to get anything accomplished. Look at the Russians.” So I think there is always that “problem” here for writers: temptation, of one sort or another. But one positive aspect is that there are a lot of serious writers here, and I’ve benefited from their willingness to read early drafts of my work and give me knowledgeable feedback—just as Hemingway had Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, etc. to help him. British novelist Rosalind Brackenbury and I have tried to institutionalize this by co-founding the nonprofit Key West Writers Lab.
AB: Have you done any travel related to Hemingway?
RS: I’ve visited some of his haunts in Paris, saw bullfights in Barcelona, and last year visited key Hemingway spots near Petoskey, Michigan. I plan to return to Petoskey in June to participate on a panel at the International Hemingway Society conference there.
AB: What is your favorite Hemingway work and why?
RS: I think his first book, In Our Time, might be my favorite because it affected me so much when I first read it—or maybe I was re-reading it. The time was 1983, during my first prolonged sojourn in Mexico. The stories seemed to vibrate off the page. The Michigan tales—which took me back to my childhood lake in rural Illinois—juxtaposed against the wartime experiences of Nick Adams moved me deeply. At that time I was trying to figure out who I was and whether or not I was a writer. To read the honest prose and embedded emotion of his early, deceptively simple work, gave me inspiration. In that work I began to see how one might move readers to get them to feel what you, the writer, felt so profoundly.
AB: Which era of Hemingway’s life do you most admire and why? (i.e., Paris, Key West, Spanish Civil War, Cuba, Ketchum)
RS: Perhaps the Paris days, perhaps because he wrote so affectingly about them in A Moveable Feast. I think it is also the easiest part for most writers to identify with—the early struggle, the ambition, the hope. Most of us do not get to be big-game hunters, work as foreign correspondents for noted magazines, and live in fincas or chalets. Plus there were the other writers and artists in Paris helping Hemingway, a real community. Later, when he started reading and believing his own press clippings, he became more isolated and impossible. Paris, when he was young and eager, those were perhaps his best years, and I think he knew it.
AB: You are very harsh in your assessment of Hadley and the lost manuscripts, an event that has been a source of interest, debate and historical fiction for many Hemingway fans and scholars. Do you believe what your Hemingway character says, that it was an attempt to sabotage Hemingway’s writing?
RS: In Key West Story my Hemingway reincarnate does not say it was an act of sabotage but “an act of infidelity and an attempt at castration”—not my judgment per se but my interpretation and augmentation of Hemingway’s reported dark feelings about the incident. Then again, he might be posturing a bit and saying it for effect, for the benefit of my protagonist, Con Martens, whose novel had just been torn to shreds by the homicidally jealous Cat and whom he is trying to rescue. Or he might be projecting his own actual infidelity onto Hadley. Whichever, it’s my take on what Hem might have said in private to another writer, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
AB: I like the traits you chose to imbue your Hemingway character with – particularly the commitment and work ethic necessary to be a writer – in what ways does Hemingway inspire you?
RS: His commitment to craft and what he had to say about how to do it I find fortifying and inspiring. He has theories, but his advice is not theoretical. He gives writers who are willing to listen and to work hard good practical counsel. That’s in part why I chose to resurrect him in my novel: He’s a great teacher of writing principles, despite his oft-stated aversion to talking about his own works-in-progress.
AB: There is quite a contrast between the ethics of the older, manlier Hemingway and the hedonistic contemporary writer. Is this contrast deliberate on your part, or natural? Meaning, are you trying to contrast – as in Woody Allen’s movie, “Midnight in Paris” –our longing for times past which we think were surely better?
RS: The times—and our American culture – have changed dramatically in the 80 years since Hemingway lived in Key West, and the two characters represent their times. So, yes, it is deliberate, but it also springs organically from the characters and the way they developed. Hemingway had participated and reported on numerous wars and lived an often-rugged life. Con is more urbanized, effete and self-conscious, which is the way the country has gone. So, yes, there is some nostalgia about the old days, but Con eventually lands happily on his feet. Life in Key West is still good.
AB: The female characters are woefully underdeveloped in your book, there are no women of value or integrity – they are either depressed and drunk, or using their sexuality for gain – why is that?
RS: Au contraire, I find the female characters in Key West Story to be strong, determined and resourceful women—women of great human worth, with an integrity that transcends conventional middle-class morality and manmade law. Cat, for example, at great professional and personal risk, sacrifices herself in a Green Card marriage to save the life of her Russian husband. Aurora, an impoverished Cuban woman, uses what limited resources she has at hand—her female charms—to save her unborn child from a life of dictatorial tyranny. Rebecca Hemingway, suffering from what she believes is terminal cancer, is understandably depressed—though she ultimately fights back and builds a joyous life for herself. And while the book centers on two male characters—the foundering writer Con Martens and Ernest Hemingway reincarnate—these tough young women (all of whom I’ve portrayed, for dramatic purposes, at crossroads in their lives) provide meaning, purpose and companionship for Con—who, it can be argued, is depressed, drunk and using his own sexuality for gain. Rather than characterizing them as male or female characters, I would say they are Key West characters, whether primary or secondary characters—flawed, multidimensional and all-too-human.
AB: There are dozens of books out now that feature Hemingway as a character. Are you aware of these and which ones do you like?
RS: I recently read with pleasure Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, which picks up steam after the first 60 pages or so, once they get to Paris. That first part, with bits about Hadley’s early life in St. Louis, left me depressed. As a native St. Louisan I know only too well the people and attitudes of Hadley’s neighborhood, where I also lived, albeit 60 years later. However, when I lived there none of the neighborhood heiresses would have much to do with me, though Ernest married two or three of them.
AB: What makes Hemingway such an enduring influence on readers and writers alike so many years after he lived?
RS: One answer is that Hemingway was a great self-promoter and established early in his career his celebrity and his “brand” as foreign correspondent, big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman. That brand still drives sales of books, movies, furniture (The Hemingway Collection), safaris, fishing tackle and liquor. Without that enduring branding he would likely not have such an influence. That said, he also wrote some exceptionally fine stuff, particularly early on, before the ego-inflation (which he admitted to in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) and liquor got to him. It speaks to readers and writers with an honesty and an immediacy that puts you there and lets you experience the emotion of the characters firsthand.
AB: How long did you live in Mexico and how did that influence your reading and writing?
RS: I spent a great deal of time in Mexico in the 1980s, returning to the U.S. whenever the money ran out to do some freelance work and return to Mexico as soon as possible. Mexico changed me. There I learned profound lessons: “Recognize your own insignificance and that greater forces exist; understand that life is trouble and appreciate its moments of beauty; live inside your body, not just in your mind.” (This from my memoir of those days, noted above.) At the same time I was reading voraciously and writing obsessively. Mexico served as a cauldron for my development as a writer and taught me to follow my heart and open up myself to life. Good lessons for us all, perhaps.
AB: It is often difficult to separate Hemingway’s work from Hemingway’s life. Your Hemingway character makes the case that a writer has the power to write his own life just as if it were a book; in fact, it is a necessity in order for the writing to be true. Are there any contemporary writers that do this, and how? Technological advances have made the world a much smaller place than it was in Hemingway’s lifetime. In what ways does a writer living now bring his readers new places and experiences?
RS: Despite ongoing technologic change, I think the job for writers has always been the same: to put the reader in the world of their story, wherever that story takes place, so the reader can feel the emotion of the characters and thereby understand them. Literature, it has been said, works to expand the bounds of human sympathy. It does so by letting us get inside other people, albeit fictional creations, to experience what they experienced. Hemingway said that honesty was essential for a writer. When Con Martens compromises his honesty and sells out, it bitches and blocks him—that’s what Hem is trying to fix in him. I think all good writers, past, present, future, strive to be honest in telling their story and strive to be honest with themselves—it’s an occupational necessity. When you fall short of that goal, it’s generally obvious to the reader. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.”
AB: If you truly could spend a few days with Hemingway, what would you like to do with him?
RS: Trout fishing and camping somewhere remote, where we can talk about it all over a campfire and a bottle of whiskey.
AB: Your Hemingway character is not particularly old, but certainly wise. At what point in Hemingway’s life do you think he most understood himself?
RS: Maybe at the time he wrote A Moveable Feast. There he seems to be at his most reflective and evenhanded. The great ambition and thirst for life seem to have subsided into honest nostalgia and a somewhat melancholy self-appraisal.
AB: Anything else you would like to say?
Thanks much, Allie, for the opportunity to share my thoughts with The Hemingway Project readers. I always like writing and talking about writing craft, literature, Hemingway and, of course, my own work. If any of your readers have other questions –whether about my work or general writing questions— they can write me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AB: Thank you Rick – I look forward to meeting you in Michigan!