How To Become Famous in Key West

In 1991 I published my first book, a collection of poems titled Ahab’s Dead. It was brought out by a small independent press called Making Waves in simultaneous hard and soft cover editions, both of which were printed on high-grade paper and both of which were supposed to have illustrations to accompany the text. I can’t remember the name of the artist, I’d never heard of him previously, but after designing the cover he’d had a nervous breakdown and so the book came out print-only. It was, as you might say, an inauspicious start…

The following year I found myself in Key West and decided to stay for a while. I got myself an interim job as a dishwasher at a restaurant on Whitehead Street, rented a room with a shared bathroom and kitchen on Varela Street, and located the offices of a weekly paper called Island Life at the top end of Duval.  I figured Monday morning at nine o’clock would be a suitably business-like time to pay a call on the editor. It was a mistake that was to have near-epic consequences for me as a writer, providing me with an accidental break rather like those you hear about in old-time Hollywood, where the unemployed actor is cleaning a famous film director’s swimming pool and happens to look exactly like the director’s conception of the romantic lead opposite Joan Crawford or Lana Turner in his next picture. The editor’s name was Dick Epler and Monday was never a good time for anything. Monday was hangover day.

It never even occurred to me to make an appointment; I just showed up. Back then they didn’t have a reception area – you just walked up the stairs, pushed open a door that was already ajar, and entered the compositing room. A nice-looking lady, cutting and pasting with a pair of scissors and a tube of glue, a lady whom, I later learned when we became good friends, was juggling two simultaneous engagements, to a naval officer and a commercial fishermen, rarely in town at the same time, heard my request to speak to the editor with slender amusement and indicated a door with EDITOR stencilled on the woodwork. I knocked and went in.

Now the whole point of my being there at all was merely this: I intended to introduce myself, tell the editor I had recently published a collection of poems, and ask if he might be interested in giving it a small review. I thought it would be cool to be able to say that my book had been taken note of in Key West. However, within a few minutes it became clear that we were totally at cross-purposes. Mr. Epler, not really concentrating properly, not even focussing properly, assumed I had come looking for a job and, no doubt the sooner to get rid of me, offered me my own bi-weekly column entitled Books & Writers.  I was speechless. Interpreting my astonishment as disappointment, he upped the offer by suggesting I write features on any subjects of my choice in the alternating weeks. I thanked him as best I could and got out of there before he woke up and changed his mind. The lady compositor gave me a lovely smile. I think she must’ve twigged what it was all about.

Now that I was a professional Key West journalist I needed to act like one, so I went straight into Sloppy Joe’s for a beer. Sloppy Joe’s, along with a few other of the real old-style fishermen’s bars, closed at three a.m. and reopened at eight. I then went to the office supply shop on Simonton Street to buy a typewriter and a ream of paper. It seems hard to believe now, but less than thirty years ago it was still perfectly normal to type your copy. The office supply shop was large and airy, and arranged on a shelf up near the ceiling, about the same height as the ceiling fan, there was a row of beautiful old vintage typewriters. I asked the proprietor how much they were and was told that, no, they were not for sale, they were just a decorative feature. We got talking. I said that I needed a typewriter for my new job as a features writer and columnist for Island Life. That clinched it. He went and got a step-ladder from somewhere out back and told me I could choose any of those vintage typewriters I liked and it was mine for ten dollars. Put a kid in a toy store and tell him to take his pick and you have an idea of me right then. After half an hour of going up and down the ladder, trying out different machines, I settled on a near-perfect condition 1928 Royal Portable. Anyone who understands anything about typewriters will appreciate what a beautiful piece of work that is. It’s the same make and model that Hemingway used. It won’t make you write like Hemingway, but you just know it’ll make you write the best that you can.

My landlord was a carpenter. He found me a couple of orange crates and a plank of wood and – voila! – I had a desk. Within a few days of my first piece for the paper appearing I was accepted as one of the team; within a few weeks people started to know who I was. I liked it that bartenders and waitresses and fishermen and truck drivers read and enjoyed my stuff.  I liked it when I was told by the owner of the paper that people were grabbing the latest issue to read my column first. Fame, even fame on an island four-and-a-half miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide, was exciting for an English kid with only previously a small book of poems to his name. It opened doors – literally. I spent the day in Philip Burton’s house, drinking sherry in his kitchen and hearing first-hand the well-honed tales of how he adopted a marvellous boy called Richard Jenkins. I remember a line from the piece I subsequently wrote (my first cover story): In the cultural demi-monde of Key West it is rather fascinating to spend the day with a man whose greatest dilemma is what to give Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas… He even showed me the red cashmere sweater Elizabeth Taylor had given him for his birthday. I met Budd Schulberg and James Dickey and Joy Williams and Richard Wilbur and James Merrill. I got invited to join a bunch of Miami Post journalists on an illegal trip to Havana on a covertly chartered fishing boat. I got invited to great parties. I got a fan-letter from a high-profile lawyer in Washington DC. There was nothing not to like about it. It was eighteen months of roller-coaster fun on a small island in the sub-tropics. I quit because I wanted to be someone small in somewhere big, and ended up in India – which was very very big and where I was very very small indeed…

When Clare Morris, editor of The Write Life, asked if I might be interested in doing a piece for her, she said: “…anything that deals with some aspect of the creative process, whether it’s to do with a block, a break or a breakthrough.” I don’t know much about blocks, but I think I have tried to write honestly about a break, and maybe that rather necessarily implies a breakthrough also, but at the same time it leads to a bigger question of what a break actually is and whether it can be so easily quantified at all. Is a break a single incident or is it the mere and obvious culmination of a series of otherwise insignificant mini-breaks that went before? The unemployed bit-part actor who ended up opposite Joan Crawford or Lana Turner – wasn’t the real break the time when he found the piece of newspaper wrapping his pastrami on rye contained an ad for a swimming pool cleaning company? If it wasn’t for that, he’d never’ve got that job, never’ve been cleaning that pool, never’ve been spotted by the director who turned him into the next Clark Gable. His break was getting out of bed at twenty past nine rather than twenty-five past nine and thus, by virtue of a painfully trivial sequence of events, getting the sandwich wrapped in the newspaper containing that advert rather than the next sandwich, which was wrapped in an ad for ladies’ hosiery. It’s all a piece of chance. A wonderful piece of chance – but chance nonetheless. My real break came when my potential illustrator had a nervous breakdown and my publisher pretty much lost interest in my book and so I thought a mention in a Key West paper might give me a fraction of the publicity I thought I’d been denied. No – my real break was whatever caused that nervous breakdown in the first place. Breaks are great when they happen, and we all can’t wait for them to happen to us. But they all just happen in retrospect, in the light of what-happened-next. Every break you ever read about is written in the past tense. It’s the almost infinitesimal degrees of see-saw chance leading up to them – that’s where the true, the really interesting, story lies…

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