Writers have always loved islands – some so deeply and for so long that their names are joined in the popular imagination: Sappho’s Lesbos, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoa, Robert Graves’s Mallorca.
Some writers may be drawn to an island by the solitude and separation from a former life. For others, it can provide society and a reunion with old friends. For me, Key West has long been both these sorts of islands. It gives me both solitude and companionship, as well as a welcome change of scene – and climate – every winter.
I came to Key West almost by accident. Two friends, the writers James Merrill and David Jackson, had rented a small house there and then had to postpone their arrival. It was midwinter, and upstate New York was dark and frozen, with heavy, soot-colored clouds threatening more snow. Everyone I knew, including me, had a cold or was coming down with one. s Though I knew nothing about Key West, except that it might be sunny even in January, I impulsively offered to sublet the house. Soon afterwards I boarded the plane in Ithaca in a thin gray snowstorm, wearing fuzzy boots and a heavy coat. I felt stupid and depressed: I had a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat from my oncoming cold. For weeks I had been too tired to write, and if I hadn’t already paid rent for the Key West house, I would have stayed home in bed.
Five hours later I stepped out of another plane into a perfect summer evening. Palm trees waved in a warm wind, the sunset sky was rose and peach above a turquoise-tinted ocean. In 24 hours my cold was gone, my IQ had risen to its normal level, and I felt wonderful.
As I began to meet people and read local guidebooks, I realized that many writers had once lived in Key West: Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens. Others were still in residence then, including John Malcolm Brinnin, John Ciardi, Philip Caputo, Ralph Ellison, John Hersey, Tom McGuane, Richard Wilbur, and Tennessee Williams.
When they praised the place, they sometimes mentioned the weather and the sea, but it was clear that these were not what really counted. After all, there are many sunny seaside resorts.
Most serious writers, however, dislike standard resorts. Those I met in Key West were glad that there were no giant luxury hotels, no manicured golf courses and tennis courts, and not even a really superb beach. They were glad that the streets were full of potholes and spotted with fallen tropical fruit; that feral cats roamed the alleys, and cocks crowed at 3 a.m., waking everyone for blocks around. Even reports of minor crime (mostly burglary of motel rooms and rental cars) pleased them. All these things, they hoped, would keep away the kind of respectable people they had left home to escape.
Another advantage of Key West was its tolerance of nonconformity. In ordinary society, all artists – no matter how conventional their appearance or steady their work habits – tend to be regarded as eccentrics. Key West, however, is full of real, even professional, eccentrics. Not for nothing is it known as “The Last Resort.” For decades it has been the end of the line for people fleeing both conventional middle America and the law.
If you walk along Duval Street, the main drag, you are sure to spot at least one local character. Some, like the man with the pet iguana on his shoulder, and the fellow who wears an Uncle Sam costume and sells hand-made, $22 bills from the basket of his bicycle, have become tourist attractions. Next to them you will seem unremarkable.
On the other hand, if you feel like becoming a Key West character yourself, no one will be surprised or disapprove. In my house in Key West are things I couldn’t wear at home without exciting unfavorable comment, including a large red straw hat trimmed with paper roses and a bright purple bathing suit.
For a novelist, a special attraction of most islands is their relatively small size. A book’s length has limits, and many novels therefore describe a limited social world. In the past most people lived in such a world, changing their permanent residence only once or twice in a lifetime. There were many close-knit, long-lived communities – perfect settings for fiction.
Today most of us live in large cities, and it is not unusual to move hundreds of miles every few years. As a result, our lives are too complex and contain far too many characters for even the thickest novel. To visit Key West every winter is to become part of a manageable, relatively stable society.
There, when I go to the grocery or the library or walk on the beach, I am almost certain to see someone I know. If something remarkable or scandalous happens (and in Key West, remarkable and scandalous things are always happening), it will appear in the local paper. And what’s more, details and sequels that don’t make their way into print will be passed on in the grocery and at dinner parties. Someone will reveal the identity of the person whose pig last year was accused of sexually assaulting a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or tell us that the lovable but overweight manatee stranded on South Beach is doing well at a marine sanctuary up the Keys and has been given the name Roseanne.
Some of the writers who once came to Key West every winter are gone. But others have replaced them: Last year among those in residence were Ann Beattie, Annie Dillard, Barbara Ehrenreich, Edward Hower, Harry Matthews, Phyllis Rose, Robert Stone, Joy Williams, and William Wright.
They, like most other residents, are warmly loyal to Key West. Several years ago there was a semi-serious attempt to declare the island’s political independence from Monroe County, and possibly from the United States. Everyone I knew supported it, and some put “Conch Republic” flags and stickers on their cars and front porches. The movement failed, but the point had been made. Key West has been discovered by tourists, but even today, at least for writers, it remains essentially an independent state, linked only peripherally with the respectable mainland.