For Mobile author Watt Key, his latest book, “Among the Swamp People,” was a rule breaker. That started with its deviation from the young adult genre, which has earned him a wealth of awards and even spawned a movie from “Alabama Moon,” his heralded 2006 debut.
“It’s essays but not your traditional literati type essays,” Key said. “They all tie together and it’s taken from a journal I kept up in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta over about 15 years at a swamp camp I built.”
Key said his usual publisher, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, was reluctant when the new collection he described as a “redneck Garrison Keillor” landed on their desk. He understood their reticence with the change in demographic targets, both in age and specific regional appeal.
“They’ve been very supportive of it. They encouraged me to go forward with University of Alabama Press,” Key said. “They said, ‘the more your name’s out there, the better.’ They were happy about it.”
Another transgression was its revelation of what happens when men retreat to the wilds with their friends. It confirmed common suspicions.
“One person said, ‘It belongs on the back of the toilet in every hunting and fishing camp in the country,’” Key said. “Everything’s in there, from the desire to have a retreat out in the middle of nowhere to the mischief that goes on with the guns, booze and outlaws, but in a very unique setting, a place you can only get to by boat.”
It has the same straightforward style Key employed in previous novels “Alabama Moon,” “Fourmile” and “Dirt Road Home.” It’s a delivery perfected through a life spent in practice, submission and rejection.
Key touched on all this in the book. He briefly relayed a youth spent on the back roads of Point Clear in Baldwin County, his graduation from Daphne’s Bayside Academy then from Birmingham-Southern College. He would later earn a graduate degree at Spring Hill College.
Once back on the Gulf Coast, Key filled his material needs as a computer programmer. His deeper desires were exercised by writing and retreating to the quarter-million-plus acres of wilderness just north of Mobile Bay.
His admiration for the delta is obvious. “It is the only place I know where gloom and beauty can coexist at such extremes. And it never occurred to me that a land seemingly so bleak could hide such beauty and adventure,” he writes.
It even proved a crucible for his romantic life. One essay revolved around a party in the upper delta and his invitation to a young woman he met as her escort to a debutante party. Before the outing is done, they are piled with others in an old heap of an auto and careening through the woods. Her delight led to marriage.
Not that she sees eye to eye with Key’s ongoing pursuits in Chuckfee Bay. In the way he questioned whether he could ever be at peace with “city life” in Mobile, she does likewise with the delta.
“Most people think like my wife: it’s just mud and scraggly trees. There’s nothing to do, it’s just a swamp,’” Key said. “But the things people say and the things that you meet. It’s just so different. I can’t really describe it to you but there’s so many good stories.”
Those tales are the essence of the book. Even in conversation, Key’s amusement at the “swamp people” bubbled up.
“There is a guy that’s always out in the swamp killing things and selling them and he had this strange-looking bill like from a platypus that’s cut off from something on the front of his boat,” Key said.
The writer asked about the “prehistoric”-looking trophy. The outdoorsman said it was the snout of a “spoonbill catfish,” officially known as a paddlefish.
“He said, ‘Yeah the government says they’re endangered but I catch the ever-living hell out of these things,’” Key chortled. “Things like that just say more about the people up there than I ever could.”
Key also wondered whether the natural reticence of delta denizens would be too much of a barrier. If their suspicions went too far, it could prove dangerous, as the evidence of burned out camps show.
“I was more nervous about writing about people I know. There’s not that many people up there and so after awhile you get to know everybody,” Key said. “So the rougher ones I was downright scared of, I had one told me he was going to kill me.”
Key eventually made friends and changed names in print, even took the stories around to their appropriate parties and sought approval. No one minded.
The author feels this book will not only appeal to area sensibilities but might solve a dilemma or two. And inadvertently build appreciation.
“It’s hard for women to buy things for men — Christmas presents, birthdays — and this book is an easy gift. It’s not too expensive,” Key said. “If they don’t know about the delta they’re going to learn about a place that’s right here, 260,000 acres of magnificent, unusual landscape.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article credited Key as an alum of St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile. We regret the error.