Cuban fisherman relied on the Key West lighthouse called Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, as their beacon. Now short story enthusiasts can rely on Michael Carroll’s Stella Maris And Other Key West Stories as their guide to good reading.
Padgett Powell says of Carroll’s world drawn from his many visits to the most southern point in the US: “Mr. Carroll's world is a little vicious, slippery in its sexuality . . . strangely reminiscent of the hootier, hard-candy end of the Tennessee Williams spectrum. It is flat-out odd, fun, and seeming true.”
A Sue Kaufman Prize-winning author, Carroll’s end-of-the-line bohemian oasis brings into its pages people from everywhere. Readers are treated to the never-ending parade of condo share tower inhabitants, chain stores, and Redneck Riviera clientele. Key West is a mecca for gay men and the women who love them. His stories wind in and out of the bars and guesthouses and lives of this singular paradise: a memorial for a drag queen held at the vicar’s Victorian leads to uneasy encounters; two southern sisters on a cruise ship holiday are up against the ravages of alcohol, estrangement, and deadly weather. Newly divorced gay men (already a phenomenon) lick their wounds and bask in the island’s lasting social twilight. At the all-male, clothing-optional resort, guys of all ages fall into one another’s paths, enjoy themselves as they please, and surprise one another on their views and preconceptions.
Stella Maris is about the verities of illness and death. The past and its prisoners, AIDS, the young and not so young man’s realization of his own mortality. It’s about the unpredictable nature of life, and of survival. It’s about new beginnings and final recognitions. John Freeman, Literary Hub, calls Carroll "One of the best social observers in American fiction."
Central Voice: Why set the stories in Key West? A favorite place for you?
Michael Carroll: The long answer is that it hasn’t appeared much in recent fiction, but of course there’s a long history going back past Ernest Hemingway. Key West needs more coverage to track the changes it’s gone through, and pinpoint what, if anything, has endured. Another gay novel, Silas House’s Southernmost, appeared last year. But other than that, I don’t know of much gay coverage of Key West.
The short answer is that it’s a place I love, and I go there every year for a month with my husband. This is an incredible privilege, but I don’t think I’ve squandered it. I feel I’ve soaked up a lot of the place, and that it’s unique.
Central Voice: What’s Key West like now?
MC:It’s a southern town with bohemian values. There are more tourists than ever, but I know how to avoid them if I’m not in the mood for crowds. I spend a lot of time at the Island House. People come from all over the world and say the resort is unique. It’s enclosed and complete. Some guys stay there by the pool and at the bar for days at a time. It has a great restaurant. You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to. Since I’ve never hooked up on the apps, and am currently not dating anyone, I go there for my annual sex. You can do it in dozens of different places within the confines, and do it the way I like best: not on the phone but by first meeting and talking to people. No time-wasting chat. Or you can get into an orgy in somebody’s room.
Central Voice: What does the setting allow your characters to do? What does it reveal about them?
MC: You can drink your brains out in the street. You can fuck in public, in the backs of bars, etc. In other words, in that setting a writer can reveal a person’s true identity and character. And you can bring him in contact with all kinds of other people from around the world. The one thing that persists is that you have to be somewhat open-minded to go to Key West and tolerate its debauchery. You don’t move there and expect to have quiet neighbors. You wouldn’t call the police on a party.
Central Voice: You’re from Florida. Key West is our southern-most point. Are aspects of your stories reflective of your experiences?
MC:I got fascinated by Southern literature young. Truman Capote was my first. But when I write I have to admit I think more about Tennessee Williams. I was flattered by the description. Williams was unafraid. And I don’t want to be afraid. I want to be outlandish and absurd and sad and dark. I want to be fun and unexpected.
The title story is based on Williams’s novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, where Karen is a disgraced actress whose husband takes her on a world tour and dies on the plane from Paris to Rome. She stays in Rome and falls in with a louche crowd, and falls in love with an impoverished aristocrat.
In my story, Karen dies on the flight down from Ohio and Dale moves into Fantasy House and goes on a fuckfest. He’s retired and wealthy so there’s nothing holding him back. I trace their past together; she always knew he preferred men. My editor, a woman, made me put back in a finger-fucking flashback I’d taken out thinking it was maybe too much.
Central Voice: Any changes in your writing from first book to second book?
MC: My first book still had one of my feet in the narrative-arc form and structure, even though I was attempting to abandon it. The unities of time and place still held slightly, presaging my almost complete abandonment of them in Stella Maris. I just got tired of being confined. I wanted the freedom to shift anything I wanted to, setting or point of view or mood or topic. Which really fit for a book on Key West that’s heavily populated. One minute in a story you’re in one head, then you’re in another. You’re not supposed to do this. Most of my straight white male friends are appalled, or would be if they tried it themselves. But you know what? Must-see TV and film have changed all the conventions for fiction, as far as I can tell.
Central Voice: Do you still write regularly at your favorite Chelsea bar in New York City?
MC: I wrote three of the stories, the last three, at Barracuda. Then a young guy wanting a mentor came blowing through my life and basically ruined that for me. I don’t want to go into the specifics; he’s a man I loved, un-sexually, and had great feelings for. But he embarrassed the hell out of me. Not exactly his fault. Some old unresolved issues.
Central Voice: What’s important for readers to know about your short stories.
MC: I’m excited for short stories. I love the form because you can endlessly experiment as long as there’s good surface tension and some unity of action and character.
One of the stories in Stella Maris exemplifies to the extreme my desire to go nuts experimentally. Thematically it’s way out there: an unsolved double murder, that never gets solved. Trumpian armies of tourists. And, of course, a character based on me, living in a drydocked houseboat in the middle of the island. Memories, poetry, sex, outrage, politics, the filth and indignity of being human. That’s my sweet spot!
Central Voice: How did all of this go over with your editor?
MC: It takes a great editor who’s willing to take chances. I pledged my loyalty and organized most of my own publicity for Ruth Greenstein, because she really didn’t have the resources to send me around the country: she was until recently a one-woman operation. I thought the sex and the feckless structure would daunt her and she’d demand changes. Nope. I bet not a lot of bigger New York publishers would have tolerated my formless meandering and lyrical blathering. It moved me that she was willing to give me a long leash.
Central Voice: What’s the state of literature? Gore Vidal often complained that no one reads anymore and that was decades ago.
MC:I don’t know where literature is right now, or what its place will be in our culture in the near future, but it takes risk to be any good or in any way influential.
Central Voice: What’s next?
MC: I’m writing a dystopian novel set in Fire Island in a Pines collective, with flying motorcycles and vampires and a theocracy and virtual deepfake reality shows. One character, Edmund White, shows up after a long disappearance uploaded into the body of a twenty-something sex worker, and Michael Carroll is paunchy and sixty. (Carroll and White are married.) It is told from different points of view. It began as a novel about my mother, which my wonderful writer friend Xan Price told me I had to finish. I went to Fire Island to pick it up again, on page 55. And soon, it evolved into a dystopia. It’s called Am I Your Lover? I wrote two hundred-and-something pages this summer, mostly in the Pines.