A conversation with author Rick Skwiot about his novel Key West Story

How did you get the idea of using Hemingway in your novel? Are you a fan?

I was wrestling with an early draft of the novel, trying to capture the Key West essence and my experience there in a compelling way, when a sort of epiphany surfaced: Although writing “realistic” fiction, I was not prohibited from employing fantastical elements that worked to achieve my goal of bringing my subject to life. Shakespeare and Dickens, to name but two writers, used ghosts and such to good effect. When I conjured up an Ernest Hemingway reincarnate sent from Writers Heaven, everything fell into place. The story became a lot richer and the writing a lot of fun. I’ve long been an admirer of Hemingway’s work (more his short stories and nonfiction than his novels), much of which he wrote in Key West and Havana. I found that I could use a recycled Hemingway—a character who knew Key West and Cuba 75 years earlier—as a foil for and commentator on the current scene, as well as a writing coach for my floundering protagonist author.

Does life in Key West really resemble the life of your protagonist Con?

Oh, yes, as surreal and improbable, only more so. So much crazy stuff happens here that it makes a Hemingway reincarnate seem rather plausible by comparison. Key West has real characters from all over the world, many fleeing less desirable places and obligations—Cuba, the ruins of the Soviet bloc, penal and mental institutions, bad marriages, bad mortgages, whatever. They come here to remake themselves and often get too much sun, recreational chemicals and freedom. Stir in some surly local Conchs and you’ve concocted quite a potent social cocktail.

Many of your characters – Con, Cat, Eva, Aurora, and even Hemingway himself – seem to be trying to find a proper home for themselves. Would you say this is a dominant theme in Key West Story, the search for home?

I would say it’s a dominant theme in all my work and in all literature, from The Odyssey to The Sun Also Rises and beyond: a quest for identity and a place in the world, even if we can’t return to the mythic home of our childhood or our dreams. And because Key West Story is comedy and not tragedy, most all those characters ultimately succeed, by honoring what is best and truest in themselves. Wise counsel that could have come from Hemingway himself.

The many women characters in Key West Story seem atypical and unconventional. How would you describe them?

Strong, resilient, passionate, and determined to achieve their objectives by whatever means. They are courageous enough to take chances and change who they are—which is perhaps the bravest act for us all. But I don’t see them as particularly atypical. For dramatic purposes, they are all at crossroads. I would think that if we saw them five years after the events of Key West Story, they might appear fairly normal and settled into contented, mundane lives.

Why do you take such great care to describe the sea, both its surface and its depths?

The sea and its bounties, secrets and capriciousness define Key West, which, after all, is surrounded by the sea and dependent on it for its livelihood. Its history and its future are wedded to ships, the creatures and marvels of the sea, and the whims and welfare of marine nature. To live in Key West and spend so much time on and in the water as I have, you come to see what a wonder and force it is, how excellent and frightening. The old-fashioned word “sublime” comes to mind to describe it all, from the coral reef to the Gulf Stream to the mangrove isles in the great Gulf flats—awe-inspiring, beautiful, complete, heavenly.

Why did you depict a dark-haired 40-year-old Hemingway in his prime rather than the usual gray-bearded Papa Hemingway?

I sought to capture Hemingway at his best, when he still had fire, ambition and a sense of proportion about himself and his legacy; when he was doing his best work; when he still had his health and all his mental faculties; when his drinking was not interfering with his writing. That’s the sensitive Hemingway I would have liked to have known, before his ego got over-inflated, his talent ebbed, and he grew self-involved and cruel. Further, the Hemingway of Key West Story, fresh from Writers Heaven, has a clear, posthumous perspective, which enables him to see where he went wrong and correct it, comporting himself with more dignity, honesty and heart than the drink-addled sixty-year-old author would have.

What research did you conduct to get the Hemingway character right?

I first read Hemingway when I was a 14-year-old. Since then I’ve read and re-read all his important work, pored over numerous biographies, and studied diligently what he had to say about writing and right living. Also, like Hemingway, I’ve lived my life as novelist, memoirist and journalist—and spent my formative childhood years, as he did, in Illinois, although 50 years later. All of which, I think, deepened my grasp of his struggle, his art and his decline. And, of course, living in Key West and getting to know the town and the sea were pivotal in strengthening my understanding of him. In some ways I think I know him better than he knew himself.

Why do you depict Havana as a drab and dysfunctional place?

Only because it is drab and dysfunctional. When I went there I found a tawdry, dark and impoverished city, with panhandlers, prostitutes and peddlers vying to cajole visitors out of a few euros or dollars to somehow make ends meet—or to buy their way out. Cuban refugees are not crossing the Florida Straits in bathtubs and dubious jerry-rigged boats for the sport of it. They’re fleeing an oppressive totalitarian regime that imprisons critics and creates misery for millions. Life there is grim, mean and, for many, hopeless. Drab.

Can visitors to Key West productively use Key West Story as a guidebook?

Definitely, though it contains no hotel or restaurant recommendations. Think of it as a guide to the hidden human drama and emotional life of the island. Through it a reader can get to know Key West better than by following a guidebook, which necessarily skims the surface. Here you see the heart and soul of Key West. That can enrich the experience of any visitor—past, present, or future.