USA

Island Life Sentence: Carrie Jo Howe’s Florida in 10 Never-Seen-Before Photos

“A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker washed ashore on the beach, which meant it was Florida.” – Tim Dorsey, Pineapple Grenade.

“The Key West airport greeting from the tarmac. They look like mannequins, but are actually overcooked humans who have crisped into a permanent display.”

Never been to Florida? There are some eye-opening and thirst-quenching treats for you in our special photo journey today. I have been to Florida in the days BC (before children). We travelled down from Miami to Key West and Key Largo. I remember having make a few stops during the car journey. One of them was a shop (sorry, store) we found that was also a cafe and all-round convenience store. It was so convenient that it sold both tampons and guns. There were also souvenir key chains made from chopped off baby alligator paws and some incredibly cute ceramic critters of Florida wild animals, no bigger than your thumb, which I still have and admire in my bathroom to remind me nothing is what it seems.  

Ready for your dose of Floridian sun? She’s tall, blonde and blue-eyed and she epitomises the all-American girl. Meet Carrie Jo Howe, an American author based in Key West, Florida. Her new book, Island Life Sentence is a fictional account of an American Mid-western woman who feels like an alien in the “one human family” of Key West. Carrie Jo’s first book,Motherhood is NOT for Babies, published in Chicago by Windy City, works wonderfully as a form of contraception. 

Carrie will show us her Florida in a journey of 10 Never Seen Before photographs.

1. Key West: lots of water with scattered bits of land.

“I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida.” – Carrie Jo Howe, Island Life Sentence

horseriding landlubber, Carrie grew up in New Jersey. Her childhood was ordinary (she says) but her claim to fame was that her Junior Prom date was James Comey (ex director of FBI). She lived in Glen Ellyn, Il (suburb of Chicago) for 20 years. Carrie says they ended up in Key West because her husband Tom works for Google and he got a Florida posting.

2. Watch out for killer wildlife. Also elderly drivers.

Peg is unaccustomed to the sight of wildlife in Key West

“Most of the wildlife can kill you, not to mention the elderly drivers, and the sun–MY GOD it’s HOT.”

In Florida it was actually too hot to go to the beach. I remember now why I had to leave Malaysia. It was not the racist, apartheid policies, corrupt third world government siphoning the people’s money, though that has something to do with it. Every time I go somewhere hot which seemed a good idea at the time, I remember why I had to leave. This included Vegas which involved crossing an 8 lane motorway in a 2 minute cab ride (he basically did a U-turn and required the customary $5 gratuity) in 42 deg C heat because no one, except slaves and donkeys, walked anywhere.

Lying down in the 40 deg C (90 deg F) sun in 99% humidity is out of the question. Forget reading. Forget makeup. Forget nice clothes. For me, there is something oppressive, desperate and torturous, about extreme heat and humidity and insects biting and singing in high pitch voices, that make you unable to think clearly or even function in a civil manner. Most terrible things I did were in extreme heat and humidity with insects biting and singing in high pitch voices. To this day I regret them.

3. On Recent Gun Crime

For Peg, it’s downward dog followed by corpse pose.

Speaking of the madness in the sun, Carrie questions why in the world would semi-automatic weapons be legal? Carrie mentors a high school girl at Key West High School and she’s scared.

“Kids should be able to attend school without being afraid. The teenagers are becoming more proactive by lobbying and protesting. The adults need to do the same.”

4. On Island Life Sentence:

Carrie’s new book is about the adventures and misadventures of main character Peg Savage whose husband Clark has signed a contract to move to Key West. She has to fend for herself and her dog Nipper as Clark has taken up a long term post in Cuba. Island Life Sentence was born out of Carrie’s own culture shock:

I’m afraid to drive across bridges – there are 42 of them to get to mainland Florida. I have rashy, pasty skin and frizzy hair- not the best when combined with tropical sun, 90 degrees and 99% humidity. I miss my friends and family and struggle with feeling isolated. All of Peg’s stories are true – other than the persistent hauntings. Our house “haints” do not visit me as regularly.  On our Irma evacuation experience, I got to see mother nature at her worst. It was terrifying and humbling. We were lucky that Key West was mostly spared. The Keys north of us were not as fortunate.

Peg drinks like a fish out of water. But can she survive Key West on her own?

  5. Surprise! There is very little crime in Key West.

“Fantasy Fest. It’s an entire week every October. My God.”

Unlike the rest of the state of Florida, there is very little crime Because Key West is isolated by the aforementioned 42 bridges,  the crime is related to drinking and general dumbness.

6. On Hemingway

“I want to get to Key West and away from it all.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Hemingway is everywhere in Key West. He’s crabby and bossy and Peg wishes he would leave her alone.”- Island Life Sentence

When I was working in Cuba on resort design, the legendary Papa Hemingway was everywhere too. He is the key tourist attraction for the intellectual, the god of modern American literature. In Havana I managed to frequent his haunts, the El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio and I habló y bebió like a writer with all these other tourist writers who were re-living the romantic past. He symbolises the ultimate vintage fantasy of the writer, a beach shack, a typewriter, two three bottles of whisky, a fishing boat. His house is in the Spanish Colonial style, built in 1851 and is at 907 Whitehead St, Key West. He restored it and moved into the house in 1931 with his wife no. 2. The house is also a location for the James Bond movie License to Kill. Of this property, I would mention an interesting point being that half of the cats here are polydactyl, having 6 toes, and most of the cats are believed to be descended from Hemingway’s six-toed cat Snowball. All cats are given the names of famous people, such as Clark Gable and Martha Gellhorn. It was in this house that Hemingway wrote some of his best work, including the short story classics “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, his novel To Have And Have Not, and the non-fiction work Green Hills of Africa.

7. Ghosts of Key West

“The supernatural protection of the blue porch ceiling has long faded away. The haints have taken over this old conch house.”

Haints are spirits or ghosts dating back to African descendants from the West Indies. The blue paint of porch ceilings are a common sight in Key West.  The shade is called Jack Frost Blue.” It was believed that “haints could no’t cross water and that painting the porches blue acted as a deterrent. Ghost hunting is a popular tourist activity in Key West. Hauntings are rife. Even the Hard Rock Cafe is haunted. The most haunted place seems to be East Martello Fort built in the 1860s to protect Key West against a confederate assault by sea. It is home of Robert the Doll—an eerie handmade doll that many have dubbed “the original chucky”. He was the beloved toy of artist Gene Otto and it is said that whenever Gene, an ill-tempered boy, got into trouble, he would blame Robert the Doll. The Trolley of Doomed will take you round the ghost tours of Key West. Well maybe the blue ceilings kept the haints away but not Hurricane Irma.

8. On Storms

Storm brewing

Shel Silverstein’s house

Most likely more terrifying than Robert the Doll are the storms and hurricanes of Key West. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active. Hurricane Irma destroyed Key West in September 2017 including Shel Silverstein’s house and “you know he hain’t happy about that.”

 9. Key West – Where the Weird Go Pro

This strange sticker motto is the equivalent of the British Keep Calm and Carry On. I have my own which is Shut Up and Deal with It, because, well, I’m not British so why Keep Calm?

Anyway, you don’t keep calm when you are in Key West.  The Key West mantra, according to this online tourist boutique which I checked out: is that “Life. Is. Weird.” This is in their own words. Yeah, I know!

This going pro concept comes from none other than the esteemed Dr Hunter S Thompson, whom as we know is the master of weird:

“When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”

10. OK I’m in Key West. What shall I do, Carrie? I want it all. Weird. The whole thing.

The final photo in our journey with Carrie. If it’s good enough for Papa Hemingway to fall in love with …

Carrie says:

“When you come to Key West, I’ll make you a Key Lime margarita from our backyard Key Lime tree. We can sip our cold beverages in the cocktail pool which was the original cistern of the property. We’ll walk to the restaurant Salute on the Beach and dine on the most delicious yellowtail snapper–caught fresh that day. We can watch the sky turn colors over the Atlantic as the sun sets a mile away over the Gulf.  Book your ticks now!

Have you been to Key West? Have you read any books set in Key West which piqued your interest? If you have enjoyed this blog post, please share, or email me here: ivy_ ngeow at yahoo dot com with your comments and feedback. As usual I would love to hear from you.

2018 All Rights Reserved © Ivy Ngeow

Carrie Jo Howe is the author of Island Life Sentence andMotherhood is NOT for Babies. She lives in Key West with her husband Tom. She has three grown-up sons. Island Life Sentence is published by Unbound and now out on Amazon. To read more about Carrie and life in Key West Florida, check out: www.carriejohowe.com Tweet her @carriejohowe #islandlifesentence www.floridakeyscrimereport.com 

Carrie’s backyard lime tree. It is thriving post Irma. This is where my Key Lime Margarita will come from.

Ivy Ngeow lives in London. Cry of the Flying Rhino is a debut award-winning novel set in Malaysia and Borneo. Her second novel Heart of Glass is published by Unbound in 2018. She is fond of margaritas, seafood tacos, Americana and all things vintage.

#cryoftheflyingrhino #heartofglass Tweet me: @ivyngeow

INTERVIEW: American writer Robert Raymer on Writing and Publishing

Robert Raymer photo

Robert Raymer is an American writer and writing facilitator from Grove City, Pennsylvania, who now lives in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

I have met Robert just once. I mentioned him in another blog post called “My First Prize-winning Story was typed on this typewriter” about when I first started submitting my work to competitions and won a short story workshop as a prize for a story I entered. I was 17. I had travelled to the big city of Kuala Lumpur for the first time as part of the prize was attending this workshop. I had never been to KL on my own before. I was totally naive and he was the first American I had met and I thought hey, this glamorous guy must be a movie star from Hollywood as all Americans were movie stars, were they not? The only other white people I had ever met were three women preachers or missionaries from my mum’s home church who played the church organ, wore frocks and sandals and sang gospel hymns all in harmony. They were not film stars. They were Methodists from New Zealand.

It was thirty years ago. I am now 47. About twelve years ago, Robert was the editor for an anthology of short stories called Silverfish New Writing 4. He selected and edited my short story entitled “Friday Night at the Pheasant”. I have lost touch and found him again, thanks to the internet. It seems that life has its circular way of making sense.

I am really honoured that I got to interview Robert here. I have read most if not all of Robert’s stories and what comes across is that he really loves writing and his work is accessible. He writes with kindness, passion and humour. Here he shares with honesty his invaluable experience, hard work and expertise as a writer which he has gained over many decades, his lessons learned and re-learned, the dedication and sacrifices he and his family have made. Warning: This post is a treasure trove. Look away now if you do not wish to know the skill, hardship and labour of love that is the writing life.
typewriters-small

-Interview begins-

1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Usually once you publish a book, you move onto the next one, but when the publisher, Heinemann Asia got bought out and the buyer got bought out, too, and dropped their whole line of fiction, I found my three-year-old collection of short stories orphaned. So I kept revising the individual stories, trying to sell them to markets outside of Malaysia/ Singapore. Then a Malaysian lecturer wanted to use my now-out-of-print book for his course on post-colonial writing, so I contacted another publisher that said yes. But first I took a hard look at the stories, hired an editor to rip them apart, and then I overhauled the stories, adding back-stories, changing endings, even doubling several stories in length. After moving to Sarawak and not finding the book in the stores, the Malaysian publisher blamed it on the Singapore distributor refusal to ship the books because of the additional costs, so with his blessing I switched to a third publisher, and revised everything again. That third collection, with the addition of two stories, won the 2009 Popular Reader’s Choice Award and was translated into French. Those original 15 stories (minus one, plus two) have been published 80 times in twelve countries. I even blogged a story-behind-the-stories series, pointing out the significant changes for each story that led to their publications locally and overseas.

The lesson, even though a book is published, doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.

That surely applies to unpublished novels that I felt could’ve been published a long time ago— I’ve had offers, but I didn’t think it would ever get out of Malaysia or Singapore. The heavily-revised books are so much better than what they would have been had I settled for a local publisher.

2. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Investing in myself by moving to Malaysia to write full time (and taking the slow route, backpacking nine months until I got dysentery),

after writing “Mat Salleh”, a short story about meeting my Malaysian-in-laws, later published in the UK, and completing the first draft of a terrible novel to prove that I could at least stick with it. As a footnote, that “Mat Salleh” story attracted the attention of Ohio University (USA) twenty years later who wanted to film it; instead they opted to film another story of mine, “Home for Hari Raya” in Malaysia.

3. How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
That’s a tricky question. I was a part time writer for a few years in the US but chose to move to Malaysia in order to write full time, though I was mostly living off savings. Once that money ran out, I went back to working/teaching full time and writing part-time for another twenty years.

Although I write full time now, I’m also a house husband looking after two boys, age 10 and 13.

For now, I’m not making enough to support myself full time, but that is a trade off we made….Living in Malaysia, in Borneo, as a writer is a lot cheaper than living in the US or the UK. Now and then, when my wife has a really bad day, she’ll ask me for a progress report to keep me honest…Luckily, one of the perks for her job is travelling every year to Germany and then taking an extra week to travel in Europe while I stay home with the kids…

4. How many hours a day do you write? Tell us about your day.

Writing full time when you have children rarely means writing full time.

Since my elder son started to attend afternoon school my day has become topsy-turvy. On school days I’m up by 5:30 and by 6:00 the children are en route to school and I’m free to write until about 10:15. Then I have to cook and feed my elder son and take him to school and pick up my younger son and feed us both lunch. By 2:30, I’m back to writing. On the evenings that I cook, I stop around 6:00 and if I’m lucky, I can get back to work by 8:45. By 10:00 I’m usually in bed. The days I don’t cook dinner, I can work from 2:30 until about 7:45 and be back to work by 8:30 until 10:00. Of course not all of that is sole writing time, since I do have children,

but when I’m pushing a self-imposed or a real deadline, I’m surprised by how much work I can get done when I focus on the work and ignore distractions, including my children, who naturally take advantage of me….

Weekends depend if they have any school activities (swimming) on Saturday morning or tuition in the afternoon and our plans to watch a movie or go out for dinner. Sundays, after cooking brunch, I usually write all afternoon, often into the evening, especially when pushing a deadline.

5. What advice would you give writers who are facing only rejections?

If you are getting rejections that means you are writing and submitting your work and that is good.

No rejections, usually translates into not writing or not submitting your work. It’s all about perseverance and writing better stories and revising and outlasting those rejections. They say you only fail as a writer when you stop writing, so don’t stop writing! Remember that every best-selling author, every published writer started out getting rejected again and again! They didn’t give up; they persevered. The question you have to ask yourself: will you give up or will you persevere? Also read widely and read successful books you would not normally read to see what makes them successful. Read, learn and apply what you have learned to your writing. Self-help books do help!

6. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Rarely do I read any book that doesn’t make me think differently about fiction.

When I read good non-fiction it can read like fiction, if it has a good story to tell in an interesting way. This used to surprise me, but good fiction can also read like non-fiction (think memoir—James Frey, anyone?) if your characters and setting and all the details ring true and seem real to the reader, even if you’re making most of it up, so long as the story is good.

7. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Other than financial, it is patience and knowing when your work is ready for publication and not just because you are tired of monkeying around with it and can’t wait to become rich and famous. It’s having the courage to accept that maybe it’s not the best it could be and then rolling up your sleeves and revising it yet again.

Having gone through it again, if done earnestly, you’re often glad that you did, surprised by how much you were able to improve the manuscript on nearly every single page!

So keep doing that! I now go through each chapter three times whether it’s my 5th, 10th or 20th draft, after I’ve printed it out and line edited it, and the changes I keep making are immense….And I thought it was already good, ready to be published! So you can either blame the agents and the publishers or get back to work and find out what’s missing or what could be fixed or improved.

8. What are you working on now and what are you planning on writing next? Tell us about your next project.

I have sequels planned for three novels that I wrote, including one set in Penang, which will be sandwiched between two other novels, part of a trilogy.

Originally I hadn’t planned a trilogy, or even a sequel, but when I realized both novels could be related, I changed the character in the second book to match that in a much earlier novel, and reconciled the dates, the back-stories; but then I realized that I had always planned to write a third novel set in Penang based on an incident that happened to me and I thought, this might work between the other two books, involving the same character. Since I had purposely introduced a new character at the end of the first book who would be one of the main characters in that now third book, she could be in the second book, too, along with several upcoming characters. So that second book is starting to feel like a prequel to that third book. Also, I had written a novel set in the US about a shooting incident involving a child, and I have two novels planned as sequels. Then last year I adapted a screenplay into a humorous novel about a hapless spirit helping a boy find a new mother. Of course, I have a sequel planned for that….In fact, I was itching to start either that or the other set in the US by mid-July while waiting for the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom contest where I have submitted five novels.

But two weeks ago, while showering, I suddenly found a way to begin another novel idea that I had been collecting notes on that I felt was more marketable, so I put everything else on hold.

Since I’m still in the early stages of writing the first draft, I don’t want to let the genie out of the bottle before I finish writing it. Based on past experience, the drive to write the story is gone once you start talking about the story. You can talk the story right out of your system. Write it first, talk about it later when the story is written or it’ll always be just another idea that you never got around to write. I figured if never got another new idea for another novel, I could spend the rest of my life happily writing sequels based on the notes I already typed into my computer (dozens of pages for most, others a whole lot more) and that’s not a bad feeling….I admit, at times, I do feel like that donkey that starves to death because it can’t decide between two stacks of hay. So finding a third stack can be a real life saver…

9. If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Edit…which I do now and then. Having taught creative writing for thirteen years at two universities and having line edited about a thousand manuscripts, I know I can help other writers because I can see what they are missing. Of course, it’s always easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than your own, but after a while, you see similar flaws in your own work and because you were able to fix their work, you can now fix yours….

And if you had stopped writing for any reason, you would think, hell I can write better
than that, and this would lead you back into your own writing and editing your own
work…

-Interview ends-

Thank you so much Robert for the incredible interview! I can’t wait to hear the results of the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition and please join me in wishing him every success. I hope he starts on the seeds of his new novel imminently. Find him at www.borneoexpatwriter.com. Read his entertaining and insightful blog here.

About Robert Raymer:

After graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he was a regional manager for Kinko,[1] in charge of 11 stores in three states before moving to Penang, Malaysia where he lived for 21 years and taught creative writing at Universiti Sains Malaysia. He also taught creative writing at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. He is the author of a collection of short stories set in Malaysia (Lovers and Strangers Revisited, MPH Group, 2008), a collection of creative nonfiction (Tropical Affairs, MPH, 2009), and a travel book (Spirit of Malaysia, Editions Didier Millet, 2011).

Named as one of the “50 Expats You Should Know in Malaysia” by Expatriate Lifestyle magazine (January 2010),[2] Robert Raymer’s short stories and articles have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review, London Magazine, Thema, Descant, The Writer and Reader’s Digest. One story from Lovers and Strangers Revisited has been used for the Cambridge International Examinations and others have been taught in Malaysian universities, private colleges and Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia literature in secondary schools,[3] as well as in a high school in Canada. He was the editor of Silverfish New Writing 4. Three of his novels have been “short-list” finalists in the 2009 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Competition.