My grandparents bought a house in Key West in 1977, six years before I would be born. My grandfather said he wanted to drive as far as he could, somewhere that it would still be hot, year round (and be in the United States). They ended up buying a property across from turn-of-the-century millionaire developer Henry Flagler’s far flung hotel, The Casa Marina, at the end of the U.S. The first summer I spent in Key West, at ten, I vowed to live there someday.
When I was a junior in high school, I wrote a paper on Ernest Hemingway, and that was when I really understood his legacy and time in Key West. Then, in college, I encountered Elizabeth Bishop, wowed by “One Art,” and the idea that losing things was actually an art and not a character flaw, and then Tennessee Williams, who taught me that gold could be spun from the dysfunction of a stifled Southern childhood. While I was learning that myself (my father was a Baptist minister), my family is as functional as I believe can exist. I’m not always that lucky.
I had always “wanted to be a writer,” believing that was a job for which I could apply, and if I accumulated enough skills and slights of the hand, I might easily fall into that role. Not so, as it turns out. I worked in book publishing in New York, becoming too envious of the authors that I publicized and marketed for Penguin and Macmillan, ultimately returning to school (this time, an MFA at Columbia), in order to get better at the skill I had, up to that point, only lauded in others. My boss said it was stupid and insane, and maybe he was right, but it was necessary.
I began to freelance write, regularly for the Huffington Post, which at the time was an agent in changing the publishing paradigm in New York, and even the world, leveling a playing field of political journalism and opening the field of opinion. I wrote about issues that bumped up against me as a student, and then teacher, at Columbia, living in Harlem, which also bumped up against Morningside Heights, a neighborhood created by the university to assure parents that their children weren’t matriculating to “Harlem.” I was lonely (the chronic condition of the New Yorker), and my cat, Dennis (an avid reader of Joan Didion) and writing served as an analgesic.
That moment in time guided me to write about race, feminism, interracial relationships, the romanticized poverty of being an artist, the intersection of immigration and religion, and a number of topics of that time and place. There were certainly plenty of pieces that I wrote that never saw the (web)page, and some for the better.
On the eve of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, she reminded me of my aspirations to move back to Key West. I had become frustrated as an uninsured adjunct professor at a university with a multi-billion-dollar endowment, and New York winters had begun chilling my bones in a way that I worried I’d never shake.
When I moved to Key West in the fall of 2015, I began to follow those paths of writers before me, literally: Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume. I took notes and interviewed local writers and historians. The Monroe County Library became a welcome cocoon. I tended bar at a beachside restaurant, and I researched what would ultimately become the Old Town Literary Walking Tour, a creation in the tradition of late novelist David Kaufelt’s walking tour.
The Key West Literary Seminar, a nonprofit organization that brings luminaries from Billy Collins to Margaret Atwood to Jamaica Kincaid to Hilton Als to our little literary island, offered to acquire the tour as part of their effort to maintain literary education in Key West. I agreed and stepped down from my post as full-time tour guide to take over the position of editor at an excellent, cheeky local weekly, Key West Weekly. The Weekly has given me the opportunity to not only learn about the machinations of the best small town in the U.S., but also interview brilliant folks drawn to our little island.
The twist? I fell in love. Tending bar at the best little rum bar on the island, in walked a tall, silver-haired Scot, and a new story began. I ultimately made the choice to split my time between the Caribbean coast and the shoreline along sprawling Lake Geneva, where my love lives, in Switzerland.
I have written a novel inspired by my time in the Keys and the Caribbean, titled THE SNOWBIRD, and I’m continuing to freelance write non-fiction, both journalistic and personal narrative, while Stateside and in Switzerland.
Stay a while, say “hi,” read some writing, drink rum, fall in love, write your story.
Thanks for stopping by.
Sarah Thomas is a writer and educator living in Key West, Florida and Rolle, Switzerland. Her fiction and non-fiction explore identity politics, questioning American societal treatment of race and gender. She has taught writing at Columbia University, New York City College of Technology, and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She has been a publicist at Penguin Group and Macmillan and editor of Key West Weekly. She is an ally in the quest to read, hear, and publish marginalized voices. Sarah's current project is a debut novel titled THE SNOWBIRD.