Beach Reads

Big names? Big Deal. An alternative take on the Book Fair.

 E-mail memo #34: “Miami Book Fair; writer locked himself in bookstore bathroom repeatedly yelling at concerned employees to ‘Go Away!’ When writer emerged an hour later he started to ‘freak out’ again. ‘I have a snake on me!’ writer screamed. ‘It’s biting me! It’s IN MY MOUTH!’ Writer was dragged to a waiting squad car while holding on to bewildered young yeshiva student attending the reading — whom writer continuously fondled and groped — until ambulance arrived. His eyes rolling back in his head, writer’s last words — shouted — before being driven off were quote, ‘I am keeping the Jew-boy’ unquote.”

— Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park

Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler
Malika Oufkir
Malika Oufkir


Congress of Authors, November 12-19; Street Fair, November 17-19. Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, downtown Miami between Biscayne Boulevard and NE 1st Avenue from NE 3rd Street to NE 5th Street;

In 1984 few Americans knew Miami for its cultural offerings, preferring to focus on its drug trade, violent crime, and high concentrations of grandparents and refugees. As far as the city's contributions to the modern literary canon went, that year's crowning achievement was probably Dave Barry's Babies and Other Hazards of Sex. To the world at large, Miami was a swath of concrete scattered with Al Pacino-like villains, thong-clad men, semiautomatic weapons, and alligators.

But 1984 would change everything: Not only did Miami Vice premiere on television, but also the Miami Book Fair International (then quaintly called "Books on the Bay") debuted, the brainchild of Coral Gables literary bastion Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan and Miami-Dade Community College president Eduardo Padrón. The two men, both incurably optimistic about the future of Miami's literary community, also saw potential in downtown, even when it was empty of art museums and monorails.

"We felt there was a cultural void in the county, especially in the downtown area," remembers Padrón. "The cultural void was especially prevalent in the much-needed areas of reading and literacy."

The first book fair's visiting writers included James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Marge Piercy. Not only was it a success, but also the event was unique in an era that predated the literary publicity gauntlet. "Virtually no book fairs did it the way we did it, with both author appearances and a street fair," says Kaplan.

Two decades later, the fair draws 300 writers and 200 exhibitors from around the globe. As many as eight lectures and readings take place at any given time during the Congress of Authors (November 18 and 19), and C-SPAN broadcasts many of the events live. Indeed Miami, whose glaring sunlight was once thought to turn budding Dostoevskys into windsurfers, now hosts one of the largest literary events in the nation. Padrón proudly quotes Tom Wolfe, who apparently called the fair "the literary Mecca of the Western world." Take that, New York City.

This year's roster of writers includes luminaries like Edward P. Jones, Isabel Allende, Jonathan Franzen, and Barack Obama. The books presented range in subject matter from Michael Large's The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die to the celebrity chef anthology How I Learned to Cook. The smattering of interviews that follows is only a small part of the wave of literati that will break over the Magic City in the next week; the authors were selected according to the literary interests of a few New Times writers and editors. We asked these writers not only about their books but also about their impressions or memories of the subtropics. It seems Miami is recognized as a literary city after all. — Emily Witt

Losing Your Head
Robert Olen Butler, Severance
Saturday, November 18, noon, Centre Gallery (Bldg. 1, 1st Fl., Rm. 1101)

Talking Heads would be an apt subtitle for Robert Olen Butler's recent collection of short stories, Severance. The book is the confluence of two concepts: Consciousness is thought to linger for approximately a minute and a half after decapitation, and people in a "heightened state of emotion" speak at a rate of 160 words per minute. Each of the collection's 62 stories is exactly 240 words long — the imagined ruminations of severed heads through history, from Medusa and Thomas More to Nicole Brown Simpson and even Butler himself (via an elevator accident in 2008).

Who is your target audience in Miami?

Every book tour I did, I would always make it a point to come to Books & Books. I've always been extremely impressed with the sophistication and savvy of the people who come to the readings there.

What was your worst book tour experience?

I went to the woman behind the checkout counter [at a chain bookstore] who had an assistant manager's badge and said, "I'm Robert Olen Butler, and that book on that table over there is mine. Would you like me to sign them?" And she shrugged and said, "Sure." So I went over and signed six copies of my new book ... and she looked me in the eye and said, "Will that be cash or charge?"

Describe your previous experiences in Miami.

I've always found Miami very stimulating artistically ... its collision of cultures, its Deco neon façade, its presence there on an ocean that is apt to come and beat you up at any moment.

What connects the characters in Severance to each other?

None of these stories has to do with the fall of the blade or the ax. It's not about the manner of death but how these lives were lived. And so the thing that connects these 62 stories is our shared humanity, and these stories are about intense reflective moments of tenderness and regret and loss and delight and the yearnings of these lives.

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