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.

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Key West Story | A Novel

 (The scene: Havana. The time: today. The characters: blocked and destitute Key West writer Con Martens; a young Ernest Hemingway, a.k.a. Nick Adams, sent from Writers Heaven to get Con back on track; Ricardo, a Cuban Navy scuba diver; his sister, Aurora.)

When the rain stopped they left the bar and walked back down the hill into Old Havana, the damp-smelling streets dark and quiet, the only light coming from open doorways and windows where an occasional electric fan turned. The fragrances of frying garlic and jasmine came on a sudden breeze from the sea. Distant thunder made Ricardo look up at the black sky.

“Rainy season. Showers are normal. But I am worried about a storm off Jamaica. But it should not strike until late tomorrow.”

“We’ll beat it out.”

At the bottom of the hill light fell onto the cobbled street from an old building where recorded music wafted out an open door and windows. Ricardo led them through the doorway to the right of which, inlaid in the stucco, a plaque read “Casa de Tango.”

An older woman in black silk dress, high heels, and costume jewelry showed them to a rustic table in a crowded cabaret. After they ordered more beer from her, Ricardo turned to Con. “How do you pass your time in the United States?”

“I write novels and help other writers.”

“One must always give back.”

“Y tú, Ricardo, what do you do?”

Ricardo flicked his eyes at Nick.

“Está bien,” Nick said. “We’re all comrades here.”

Ricardo turned back to Con. “I am an officer in the Cuban Navy.”

“On a big ship?”

“No. Special forces, like your Navy Seals.”

“You sound dangerous.”

“I could be if we had enemies other than ourselves. For now, the Navy employs me as a salvage diver.”

Three gray-haired men mounted a low stage where rested an upright bass, accordion, and guitar. The recorded music died, lights dimmed, and a single spotlight focused Con’s attention on the combo. At once they began playing a slow, rhythmic song. Soon the woman in the black dress stepped to the stage and began to sing, projecting a clear voice throughout the room without aid of a microphone. After a few seconds couples rose from their tables and gathered on the small dance floor before the bandstand. They moved to the music with sensual dignity, elegant and erect. An Argentine invention, the tango, Con knew. A way to dance out your eroticism and sadness, which fit Cuba. His beer tasted bittersweet and he felt like he had time-traveled to a purer place.

The song ended, the dancers applauded. After another song and more applause the old woman stepped forward bowing. She introduced the musicians and thanked the National Council for Culture for its support of traditional music and the Casa de Tango.

“Permit me to introduce the petite cantante with the big voice, Aurora Avila.”

Ricardo leaned toward Con as they clapped. “My sister.”

Sweeping from the dark wings of the cabaret in flowered skirt and black strapless top came a slender woman with curling black hair and flaring nostrils. She looked like a dark goddess, fluid and formidable. She bowed to acknowledge the applause and turned to the accordion player, who counted aloud, “Uno, dos, tres,” and the combo broke into a lilting Latin song. When she turned back and Con gazed upon her face fully for the first time, he started and felt his pulse quicken. For it was the woman from his dream, seemingly, the dark mermaid with Gulf Stream-blue eyes.

He sat hypnotized. Aurora: goddess of the dawn. Her voice came confident, strong, and penetrating. He felt it infecting and warming him like a fever, and told himself that he was a fool, that after all the beautiful women he’d known, here he was reacting like a schoolboy. But he couldn’t help it. He felt as if he’d been stung. Worse, it wasn’t honest lust but something weird and buzzy, as if he’d always carried an image of her inside him.

Others began again to dance. The previous singer came to their table and Nick rose to escort her onto the dance floor. But Con couldn’t take his eyes from Aurora, who sang of great passion, lost love, and loneliness. She moved near their table to touch Ricardo’s shoulder as she sang, and her scent, jasmine and musk, came to Con. On her pulsing throat he saw a necklace of cowrie shells. He watched as she moved away and sensed Ricardo’s eyes on him.

She sang three songs during which Con spoke not a word. Then she bowed and came to sit.

“Cantas más melodioso que los pájaros,” he said without calculation—you sing more sweetly than the birds.

“Gracias. But it is such old-fashioned music. Do you really like it?”

“En serio. Qué bella.”

Ricardo introduced first Con then Nick. When she heard the latter’s name, Con saw her tense.

Nick ordered beer all around. “This is the way Habana used to be: Clubs everywhere where you could hear good music and dance.”

Aurora turned to him. “Ricardo has told me of you, Señor Adams. I know why you have returned.”

Her brother reached across to lay a hand on hers. “No te preocupes, Aurora. It will be well.”

“Claro. I know this is right.” She returned her gaze to Nick. “But Ricardo is the only family I have.”

What with the surreality of Havana, being stung by Aurora, and sensing that Nick had been far less than forthcoming, Con felt at sea. He figured it showed, for Nick looked at him and said in English: “I’ll tell you everything, Conman, soon. I ain’t taking you where you don’t want to go.”

*

The four of them finished their beers and walked down the middle of the dark street, the other two men ahead, Con and Aurora following side-by-side. No cars passed. The night air lay warm and quiet around them.

“I have heard that Key West is beautiful.”

“Sí, in places. But noisier and more dangerous than Havana.”

“Here we have safe streets. There is that.”

At a dark corner Aurora led them through the doors of a decrepit hotel. Over the dim doorway embossed on the crumbling Italianate façade Con could read “Palacio Vienna.” Inside, a lone bulb hanging by its cord lit an unswept lobby where an ornate brass elevator cage, once no doubt an elegant conveyance, sat disused, the metal now pitted and covered with dust. They followed Aurora up a bare wooden staircase, paint long ago worn away, banister gone.

They ascended as if climbing circles of Hell. Water dripped from a broken skylight in the center of the build ing. In the hallways women sat and smoked disconsolately; men played cards, eyeing the foreigners with suspicion. Above, a child twirled about a wooden column where the banister had rotted or been looted, unconcerned with the possibility of dropping three floors to her death. Smells of garlic and dust rose to Con’s nostrils. All was gray except for the brightly colored cotton dresses and unitards of the smoking women.

On the third floor another group of shirtless men played cards at a low table. One sat up straight on his overturned plastic bucket when he saw them. He yelled at Aurora:

“¡Sácate! It is against regulations to carry yumas to your home. You will pay.”

Con looked to Nick. “‘Yumas’?”

“Foreigners. The guy’s likely the local Party snitch.”

The other card players joined in the admonition. Con heard “pepes,” Cuban for “johns.” Aurora ignored their taunts and kept climbing but Ricardo stopped to cast them a hard look and they quieted.

Nick leaned toward Con. “Orwell would love this.”

On the fourth floor Aurora stopped before a door secured by two padlocks. Soon she stepped through it and flipped on a light. A solitary room with cooking ring, kitchen table, and single bed. The artwork on the peeling walls consisted of pictures cut from magazines—the Alps, Paris, Madrid. Aurora turned to him.

“I have tried to grow plants but there is no sun.”

She offered them tea. While the water heated on the burner, Con overheard Ricardo question Aurora about her visit that day to the clinic. She nodded and laid a hand on his. “My health is good.”

Ricardo went to the narrow bed, bent and pulled from beneath it a black plastic sack. From it he withdrew long rolls of yellowed paper, which he spread on the table, us ing books as paperweights. The men bent over the top one, which, Con saw, was a nautical chart.

“Aquí, por ejemplo,” Ricardo said, pointing, “is a wreck we worked for two months, finding a number of Spanish coins before being ordered to another site. But the manifest indicates gold bars. They are still there.”

Con looked to Nick, who squinted at the chart. Now at last it was making sense. The human cargo they were to liberate came with charts that could lead to another Atocha. Treasure. Exactly what he needed.

When the tea was ready Ricardo pushed the charts aside. He and Nick sat on the only two chairs, whispering. Con sat beside Aurora on the bed as she gazed at the rolled charts on the table.

“You are close to your brother?”

“When our mother died he took care of me, ever since I was eight.”

“Y tu padre. ¿Dónde está?”

“Ricardo’s father died in prison. My father returned to Moscow. I did not know him.”

Con sipped his tea and studied her, feeling stirred by her nearness. She asked: “Do you know Cuba?”

“This is my first trip.”

“Havana is not Cuba. To know my country you must see the countryside.”

“I wish I had more time to do so.”

“You will return. When you do I will show it to you.”

Nick called, “Conman, bring me your backpack.” Con retrieved it from the floor beside him. Nick and Ricardo folded the charts flat and placed them inside.

They thanked Aurora for the tea, and Ricardo grabbed his raincoat. Con shook hands with Aurora, who stood on tiptoe to plant a kiss on either cheek, her scent again cutting through him.

“Buena suerte,” she whispered. “Vaya con dios.”

They found a taxi on the Malecón and dropped Ricardo a few blocks from his barracks. “Pues, hasta mañana,” Nick said. “As planned.”

*

Back at the Marina Hemingway Marcos lay curled on the dock before the Pilar’s gangway. Nick shook him, paid him, and sent him home in the cab. Once on board, Nick stowed the charts beneath the bunk below and on deck poured them each a shot of rum while Con opened two beers.

“You got the drift, Conman?”

“We’re taking him and the charts with us.”

“Should be easy.” Nick lowered himself into a deck-chair. “Tomorrow after dark we check through customs to head back. Tell them we’re having engine trouble and may stop to make repairs offshore if it acts up. Half mile out we throttle down at the channel marker that Ricardo has swum to. We pull him aboard—your job—while I watch for Commies and keep the Pilar purring. You stow him below with the charts. Once outside the twelve-mile limit we’re home free.”

Con moved his jaw laterally, taking it all in, feeling his blood run cold despite the rum and warm evening. He nodded. “And if we get caught?”

“Cubans would confiscate the Pilar and arrest me for smuggling.”

“Not to mention stealing government property.”

“But you get off the hook: Claim ignorance and I back you.”

“If they swallow it. Otherwise I land in the bote with you.”

“I can use you, Conman. But if you say ‘No,’ I won’t hold it against you. I wasn’t square upfront.”

Con paced the deck, eyes moving side to side. “Fucking A. Let’s see: five gees for five years in Cuban prison. You think I was that desperate?”

Nick looked at him. He opened his mouth to speak then checked himself. Finally he said: “You can find someone at the marina to run you back. Lots of American and Canuck boats off for the Keys every day.”

“Let me sleep on it while you count doubloons in your dreams.”

“Some treasure in it for you as well, Conman. But whatever you decide, I pay you the other four gees tomorrow.” Nick drank down the rum and chased it with beer. “Yet more to it than money. Particularly for Ricardo.”

“I’m listening.”

“Neck’s in a noose. Tried to blow the whistle on politicos skimming treasure. But apparently The Beard’s helping himself as well. Nothing Ricardo can do. No free press, nothing. He’ll end up in prison if he stays.”

“So it’s a charity gig?”

Nick’s eyes shone in the cockpit light as he poured himself another rum. “No, Conman. I’m doing it for me and you. Trust me.”

“The Key West mantra, commonly translated as ‘bend over.’ What’s the Cuban phrase for that so I’ll know it when I get to prison?”

“Overdramatic, Conman. All will go well.”

“Yeah: ‘Trust me.’”

“One more thing.”

“Can’t wait to hear.”

“We’re running against American law too. But my lookout not yours. Even if we dodge the Cubans I could lose the boat on the other end if caught and pay a stiff fine. But I got it fixed.”

“Do tell.”

“U.S. Customs uses the honor system. Easy to slip in, drop cargo, then call Immigration. Ricardo lies low for a few days with Boosty then surrenders to the nearest cop, saying his boat sunk offshore, and asks for asylum.”

“Jesus.”

“Do pray, Conman. Órale.”

A warm, airless night, too hot to sleep below. Con pulled the mattress from the cabin bunk and placed it on deck portside, opposite Nick’s hammock.

He figured to lie awake half the night thinking on what to do. But after a long day of drinking, he was asleep within minutes, dreaming of tropical storms, confused waters, and the woman with the Gulf Stream-blue eyes.

 

A Hot Town for Adult Pleasures

By Rick Skwiot

(Published in PortFolio Weekly)

KEY WEST – One popular Key West bumper sticker, usually seen on rusty pick-ups with Monroe County, Florida, plates, reads, “If it’s the ‘season,’ why can’t we shoot them?”

“Them” being the snowbirds and tourists (known locally also as “tourons”) who flock to the island in winter, crowd into its restaurants, demand New York-style service instead of the indigenous and more casual tropical variety, and drive the wrong way on one-way streets. (The last of which has inspired another oft-seen Conch Republic bumper sticker: “Don’t honk. I live here.”)

The ‘season’ stresses the small island (a mere two miles by four miles) with overpopulation, overcharging and over-consumption of booze and drugs. Despite the annual economic boom that comes with it, the season does make some locals want to shoot snowbirds for the sheer sport of it, though of I know of few actual cases. (It’s much more likely that a tourist would get run-over on his or her bike or mo-ped by a cement truck.)

So, practicing a sort of reverse or perverse snobbery, I eschew Key West in season. I much prefer the hot, lazy, laid-back, and less expensive summer. In fact, I’ve spent the last five summers here.

Low Cost, Low Stress

But I come during the hottest time of year for good reasons. Rents, restaurants, and most everything else cost less, the seas run warmer (between 85 and 90 degrees), and the locals (having temporarily regained control of their island) act friendlier. And it isn’t that hot. Really.

Most days it hangs around 88 to 90. But this is an island, itself hanging out in the Caribbean, closer to Havana than Miami. (A geographic fact that a former mayor once underscored for legislators in Tallahassee by water-skiing from Key West to Cuba.) As a result, beneficent sea breezes waft over the island. If you lie in the shade of a palm tree on the beach, you can keep comfortable even during the hottest part of the day.

But mornings and evenings are fine for all the free and nearly free outdoor activities favored by the frugal, off-season visitor.

Despite the cement trucks, the island is great for bicycling. Most of the shady, Old Town streets carry little traffic, and a bike trail runs along Key West’s southern shore, providing splendid Atlantic vistas.

Key West is also a good town for walkers. The tropical flora (from brilliant red-orange Poinciana trees to magenta bougainvillea to a plethora of tropical ferns and palms) is beguiling, the varied and creative architecture entrancing, and the people-watching fascinating—and not just on the beaches. (Though there too one can be fascinated, if that’s the word, by the flesh, in all shapes and amounts, both male and female, swallowing dental-floss bikinis.)

Eccentric Key West

The town’s reputation for eccentricity is well deserved, and a stroll through Old Town usually yields something bizarre and noteworthy for the student of aberrant human behavior. As Key West is the only city in the continental United States having never experienced frost, it attracts many who chose to sleep wherever they may fall, without fear of frostbite. (If I had to be homeless, this is certainly where I’d do it.)

But in this chemically dependent town, the line between home dwellers and the homeless often is quite thin. Some move back and forth across it, depending on recent fortunes and treatment. Unfortunately, a number of the homeless are also demented in one way or another. Not infrequently I’ll see these lost souls talking or screaming to themselves, or to ghosts, under the eaves of the public library across the street from my home, where they sleep.

But in Key West not all the homeless are lunatics, and not all the lunatics are homeless. Likewise, if were going to be a lunatic, there is where I’d do it. For it is a town built on tolerance, so much so that my friends here find nothing particularly abnormal about me. Or so they, tolerantly, say.

But if you are an intolerant sort, one who might object to public drunkenness, public nudity, perversion, drug use, loud music, loud motorcycles, pornography, and an active sex trade, perhaps Key West is not the place for you.

Other Strange Birds

But in addition to the human animal, other species reward scrutiny in Key West. The avid birdwatcher can spot not only a large variety of sea and shorebirds, from the Great Frigatebird to the rare Wurdemann’s Heron, but also numerous passerine birds seen in few other U.S. locales.

But at Key West the best nature watching is done underwater. For a buck and a half you can bike into Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site at the southwest tip of the island. On days when winds run westerly and the water laps to shore crystal clear, you can snorkel off a sand-and-coral beach to submerged rocks just a hundred yards out. There you’ll find giant jewfish, tarpon as long as you are, five-foot barracuda and beautiful tropical species: parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and more. You can also spot lobsters, crabs, rays, and sharks.

Extraordinary snorkeling—with thousands of tropical fish and corals—can be had just six miles off shore, at the coral reef that guards Key West from Atlantic surf. But don’t put it off too many more summers. Environmentalists say the reef is dying and could be all but dead within a decade. Even in the mere five years since I first saw it, the reef has atrophied noticeably.

Key West is also home to some of the best sport-fishing in the world. But you don’t have to be a Hemingway, with a big boat and expensive gear, to catch fish. Fishing is free at Fort Zach, at the public pier on the south end of White Street, at Mallory Square, Garrison Bight, and numerous other sites around the island. Over the years I’ve caught (and ate, as opposed to released) snappers, jacks, porgies and more from these spots. I’ve also seen some sizeable permit, barracuda, kingfish, and hammerhead sharks taken from these close-in waters.

The best and most challenging saltwater sport to my mind, lobstering, requires but minimal gear (mask, snorkel, fins, gloves, hand-net, and measuring stick). No need to spend hundreds of dollars on rental boats, scuba gear, and sonar equipment. On numerous occasions I’ve culled my daily limit of six spiny lobsters in the waters surrounding Key West.

The annual two-day mini-season falls on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July (this year, the 25th and 26th). The regular season always runs from August 6 through May 31.

As for land sport, some of the best pick-up tennis anywhere can be found at Bayview Park, both mornings and evenings. You can also arrange lessons with the resident pro.

The Key West Golf Club, on adjacent Stock Island, provides a challenging and comely 18 holes with some of the most daunting rough imaginable—mangrove swamp. This, of course, is not free or even close to free, but summer rates are about half those of winter.

Indolent Pleasures

But for all there is to do on the island, perhaps what’s best about summers here is doing nothing. Lolling in body-temperature waters. Sitting in the shade of the tall pines at Fort Zach, reading, dozing, playing Scrabble. Watching the sun set red over the Marquesas. Drinking a beer at the Schooner Wharf bar as you study the moon’s reflection in the harbor and the sunburned Europeans strolling by. This is not low-stress living, this is no-stress living.

Except perhaps for hurricanes. The advent of hurricane season might put off some summer tourists. But hurricane watching—or, rather, weather watching—is the Conch Republic’s national pastime. Key West is a town not of sports bars but of weather bars, where, on rainy days, fishermen, dive-boat crewmembers, and construction workers sit elbow to elbow on barstools, eyes glued to The Weather Channel.

If you do come to Key West for the non-season, don’t worry about packing lots of clothes. On the beach, less is more. In town, cut-offs, tank tops, and flip-flops are worn into even the best restaurants.

And don’t bring the kids, unless you want to undermine the work ethic and moral values you’ve tried to instill in them. For this is a place where adults can act like children—or worse. Key West is a town built on liberty, license, and adult pleasures, on free and easy living, and on fun, particularly in summer, when the taint of Northern angst wanes.

It’s that feeling of liberty—of a real summer vacation, when you can do whatever you want and nobody much cares—that keeps me coming back.

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