Saturday, February 4, 2012

Having Coffee with Award Winning Author Rick Skwiot

This week, it is my pleasure to present an interview with award winning author Rick Skwiot.  Rick has won the Hemingway First Novel award, was a Willa Cather Fiction Prize finalist and is an acclaimed memoir writer.   His latest novel, Key West Story (which you have a chance to win a free copy of) was just released.

Please grab a cup of coffee, or drink of your choice, and join me for a Coffee with David author interview.

David Alan Lucas: Your latest novel, Key West Story, has just been released.  While, my readers can learn more about your novel at, what was the idea behind this novel?

Rick Skwiot: Key West is a surreal place that serves as an ark and sanctuary for people escaping various ills: outstanding warrants, crappy weather, dysfunctional families, repressive governments, bad marriages, bad mortgages, etc. It’s the most culturally diverse place I know and the most insane. For those who don’t know the island’s underside, I wanted to show it to them. Think of Key West Story as a guidebook to its emotional life and soul.

DAL: What was the hardest part of writing Key West Story?

RS: The first 15 drafts. The next 15 were lots easier. What made the difference—and made it a lot more fun to write and, I hope, to read—was my conjuring up the ghost of a young Ernest Hemingway to act as a mentor and foil to my protagonist, a rudderless writer washed up in Key West. But actually trying to figure out what should happen in the novel you’re writing is sweet agony—the hardest part.

DAL: You are a veteran journalist. Do you approach your novel writing with a different mindset than you approach a journalistic story?

RS:  My mindset is entirely different. In journalism you strive to keep yourself and your opinions out of the story. In fiction you work to put the deepest parts of yourself into the story in order to arrive at some emotional truth. Journalism is more a matter of researching the facts of a story and then arranging those facts in an entertaining and/or informative way. In a novel, before you can arrange the facts, you have to make them all up, and that usually means digging deep into yourself and your experience. 

DAL: What themes in your fiction writing seem to drive you the most?

RS:  The search for home seems to dominate—which often includes a search for identity. In Key West Story, most of the characters are searching for home—Con, Cat, Eva, Aurora, Ricardo, Rebecca Hemingway, Marta, etc. And because it is a comedy and not a tragedy, most all of them succeed. 

DAL:  How easy was it to take the leap of faith to become a serious writer and chase this career? What did you find that you had to do to take the step?

RS:  “Leap of faith” nails it—but there was a lot of tip-toeing around the precipice trying to build some faith in oneself before making the jump. Coming from a working-class background, I never knew any writers, and working as serious novelist and memoirist wasn’t on my radar. But I built some self-confidence as a journalist and freelance writer (which I still am) that enabled me to entertain the possibility. Finally I was able to flee to Mexico and immerse myself in literature, creative writing craft and the artist’s life—that was the leap. I had to change who I was, to metamorphose from an aimless hedonist into an artist, in order to create art. A frightening step into nothingness, since I wasn’t sure who would emerge on the other side. I have chronicled that period of my life in my book San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing. I recommend it to anyone contemplating such a leap.

DAL: In your journalistic career, is there any story that stands out as the most interesting or compelling to you that you wrote?

RS: No one story stands out, but my cumulative work as a journalist—much of it interviewing scientists, academic researchers, doctors and other driven, accomplished, and passionate people—has made me more optimistic about the world’s future. If you read the daily news you get the impression that the world’s going to hell. But the reality is that over the long-term things are getting better—the world is becoming safer, healthier, better educated (we’re talking globally, here) and smarter. The big story is the explosion of computer science and technology over the past 30 years, which is changing the ways in which we do most everything and expanding our knowledge exponentially.

DAL: What was your biggest fear when you decided to first be published as a novelist?  Do you still have those fears with each new book or are there other fears that come up?

RS:  My biggest fear is making a public ass of myself, that is, the fear of putting out pretentious, overwritten, dishonest or unintentionally laughable stuff. Thank God for advance readers and editors! Luckily, I have here in Key West good friends who are accomplished novelists or editors and who save me from myself by reading early drafts and making good suggestions for revision. Of course, the only defense when some really inept work slips into print is, “If you think that’s bad, you should have seen the early drafts!” 

DAL: If you could have coffee (or drink of your choice) with four other authors from any time period, who would you choose and why?

RS: First and foremost, Colette—Champagne at her place. See why here: But perhaps you mean from a more literary viewpoint. Then number one would be Georges Simenon. His lean, pointillist approach greatly influenced my prose style. Plus he was a great man about town in Paris and loved to carouse…Mark Twain would be a hoot to have a drink with, and he liked to drink. As did H.L. Mencken, perhaps our greatest journalist, critic and man of letters. Henry Miller would be lots of fun as well—a man who had many instructive things to say about the creative process and with whom I share a transcendentalist bent. All three Americans were very funny guys, great writers and seemingly great companions. (And in Key West Story my protagonist Con Martens has such a dream come true: He gets to hang out with Ernest Hemingway sent from Writers Heaven to help him find himself again--fishing, drinking and sailing to Havana.)

DAL: You have been a professor teaching young writers creative writing and you are the co-founder of Key West Writers Lab, which is dedicated to coaching serious writers.  I can only imagine that you have a treasure trove of information that could be shared with other writers.  If there was one piece of advice that you could give to any fellow writer, what would it be?

RS: One boozy Mexican night circa 1988, my late and lamented friend Peter Kosovic—a former director and producer for the Canadian Broadcasting System—told me: “Work to perfect your vision, Rick, grasp it with all your might and shove it up their ass!” (I can picture his accompanying gestures.) Excellent advice: Be true to yourself and follow your heart; work with determination and intensity; and never ever give up.

DAL: How could my readers learn more about you?

RS: Read my books—memoirs and novels alike, but particularly the novels. A writer reveals more about himself or herself in fiction than in autobiography. Which is why it’s so scary publishing it. The deepest parts of you creep into the work—what’s really in your soul—particularly the stuff you’re trying to hide.   

Thank you for reading and please visit and Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.


  1. Excellent interview and quite a few revelations. Thanks David and Rick.

  2. I'm a big fan of Rick's memoirs, but enjoyed Key West Story, too. Except now that he says what's really in your soul comes out in your fiction, I'm thinking still waters run deep indeed! Big smile.

  3. Enjoyed the interview ... must now add Rick's books to my to-read list!

  4. Rick's book Christmas at Long Lake is one of the great St. Louis memoirs, right up there with King of the Hill.

  5. It's amazing how a cup of coffee makes a conversation so interesting. But of course, it won't work if you are not a good conversationalist. He's right that a writer reveals more of himself in his fictional pieces. They do incorporate their imagination with what they are or what their past experiences have been. A writer would not come up with a great piece if he hasn't seen a lot.

    Alycia Watkins

  6. Great interview! I feel that I've learned quite a bit about Rick Skwiot in a short amount of space. I love the question about having a drink or coffee with four other authors from any time period.