Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler

Beach Reads

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

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.


Miami Book Fair International

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;

"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.

Why did you include yourself?

It just seemed appropriate; I cut everybody else's heads off. — Rob Jordan

Emerging Artist
Malika Oufkir, Freedom: The Story of My Second Life
Saturday, November 18, 2:30 p.m., Room 7128 (Bldg. 7, 1st Fl.)

The story of Malika Oufkir's "first life," as she calls it, is one of those tales that defies reason. That she survived to embark on a second is even more astounding. The eldest child of a powerful Moroccan general and aide, Oufkir — who now lives in Miami — was raised in that country's royal palace alongside King Hassan II's daughter. In 1972 her father unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the despot. He was assassinated and Oufkir, her mother, and siblings were exiled without trial to a secret desert jail where they would remain for the next twenty years. When the family finally escaped, the dark-haired beauty was almost 40. She had never used an ATM, never seen a computer, never had sex. Stolen Lives, Oufkir's heart-wrenching account of her imprisonment, was banned in Tunisia and Morocco, received international acclaim, and became an Oprah's Book Club selection. She recently released a second book, Freedom, which details her decade-long struggle to reintegrate into a society from which she was hidden for most of her adult life.

To what extent was writing these two books therapeutic?

The first book, honestly, was not therapy for me because I spent four years going back in my past, reliving this nightmare. But with this [second] book, I feel as though I was more like a writer than a witness or a victim.

What are your thoughts about Miami?

Miami is more superficial, and it's maybe because of the weather and because it's more a tourist place of sun and fun, but I hope it's going to be the same experience I had elsewhere on my book tour, which has been very positive.

Who is your audience here?

The same like anywhere else. Three kinds of people: those who listen to you like you are a heroine of a fairy tale; those who see their own suffering reflected in your story; and those who read my book and realize how lucky and spoiled they are. I hope that they all recognize in this book is a message of hope. — Joanne Green

The Floating City
John Berendt, The City of Falling Angels
Saturday, November 18, 1:00 p.m., Chapman (Bldg. 3, 2nd Fl., Rm 3210)

"Beware of Falling Angels." Someone posted the sign outside the Santa Maria della Salute church in Venice, Italy, in the early Seventies. The church, like much of the ancient city, had been on a slow path of decay for centuries, and marble ornaments had begun to fall off of its façade. For John Berendt, the anecdote was not only inspiration for his book's title but also a glimpse into the theatricality that makes Venice. The city, less than twice the size of New York's Central Park, is as much a stage set as a place. On that floating set, Berendt weaves his story around the destruction by arson of the Gran Teatro La Fenice, a world-famous opera house. Berendt's pages are populated with caricatures that range from glitterati to "the Rat Man," an entrepreneur who blends local cuisine into rodent poisons he markets around the world. Published last year, City of Falling Angels is Berendt's first book since his 1994 best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a nonfiction thriller set in Savannah, Georgia.

Why did you choose Venice?

I thought, What other place in the world is as magical as Savannah? I realized the place is what made the first book work. I call [the opera house fire] a weird coincidence, and it really made it possible to do a book based on a tragedy that sort of brought out what was special about Venice ... to see the city through the lens of this tragedy.

How did you report the story?

I would either talk to [Venetians] directly or find out who they were and find some way of approaching them. I would try to reconstruct conversation. If it's taped, it's very easy. I jot notes; I don't always do it in front of people. If a conversation's going on and all that, I'll jot notes down and just sort of afterwards or during a break of some sort [reconstruct conversations].

What are your thoughts about promoting your book in Miami?

I don't change my stripes wherever I go. I do what I do.

What was your worst book fair experience?

There is no bad question. Every question is simply an opportunity for me to say something.

How would you characterize your previous Miami experiences?

I've visited several times. It's lively; it has a real pulse. You can sense that in a city.... I would not be averse to doing a book in Florida, but I don't have an idea. — Rob Jordan

The Writing Life
Philip Gourevitch, The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1
With critic and historian Christopher Hitchens on Sunday, November 19, 5:00 p.m., Auditorium (Bldg. 1, 2nd Fl.)

Philip Gourevitch's book is the first of three volumes highlighting the best of the Paris Review's interviews about the writing process. It includes authors Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, editor Robert Gottlieb, and filmmaker Billy Wilder, among many others. Gourevitch has worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker and, most recently, as editor of the Paris Review. His best-known work is We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, a history of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Do you have a favorite interview in the book?

To have to choose a favorite between Dorothy Parker, Borges, and Jack Gilbert, the poet? Between James M. Cain on the one hand and Rebecca West on the other? It would seem an unkind choice to have to make.

Do you think would-be writers are seeking a formula? What do you think draws people to this sort of book or an event like the book fair?

What comes out of the discussion of craft is not simply "Well, I use a No. 2 pencil on white lined paper" or "I type facing north between 11:00 and 1:30 everyday" or something like that. What's really interesting is that by asking people how they pursue their craft, you really get what absorbs them, what's really on their mind; it takes them to another level of intimacy with their preoccupations, their opinions. There's a kind of candor that emerges. I think that a lot of the attraction here is, sure, some people wondering what is the writing life all about, but it's also the chance to have, with great minds of literature, the closest thing you're ever going to get to a superintelligent conversation. It's a better conversation than you'd probably have if you sat next to them at your fantasy dinner, because at that dinner, they're not going to talk about all the deepest things in their life at once.

Many people complain, "Oh, I met the famous artist, I met the person I admire so much, and all they talked about was their indigestion or their real estate tax or something petty and kind of ungrand, and they were evasive and strange about their own work and about literature, and they made me feel silly." But here you get to meet that person and over time all the other stuff has been edited out and the real good stuff is there.

When there are so many other forms of media, how do you think that a publication like the Paris Review — or even short-story writing or long-form journalism — can remain relevant?

It always remains relevant. I know there are statistics out there and studies about who reads what when, but this has never been, honestly, mass circulation stuff. I feel we're at a time of complexity and turmoil and change and perplexity about our world. It seems like a very ripe time for writers. I don't think people feel that their quick-fix news or other forms of entertainment are doing a devastatingly sharp job of rendering reality these days.

Since you haven't spent very much time in Miami before, do you have any expectations about who might show up for your presentation?

That the audiences are surprising and interested and large and curious — part of it is that you actually find out who's reading it and who wants to know by going. Their coming to see you is the official format, but in fact I'm going to see them too. — Emily Witt

Island Expression
Mervyn Solomon, creator and coordinator of the Caribbean Voices program
Saturday, November 18, 1:30 p.m., Room 3313-14 (Bldg. 3, 3rd Fl.)

Mervyn Solomon's interest in the literature of the West Indian diaspora traces to his boyhood in Trinidad. His father was a respected headmaster, and Solomon recalls listening to the BBC program Calling the Caribbean. In 1989 he took the reins of the increasingly important task of inviting authors to the then-burgeoning Caribbean Voices program. Now, seventeen years later, the program is one of the most vital components of the Miami Book Fair International, and the lineup has grown increasingly representative of the archipelago's diverse intonations. Some of this year's invitees include Jamaica-born Canadian expatriate fiction writer Pamela Mordecai, acclaimed Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, and burgeoning Trinidadian writer Lawrence Scott.

How has the reception to Caribbean authors changed over the past seventeen years?

More and more people have become aware of the program. A couple of things have helped: Edwidge Danticat [Krik-Krak and Breath, Eyes, Memory] became well known, and Miami Dade College itself introducing people like Maryse Condé [Guadeloupean author of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem], [Nobel laureates] Derek Walcott, Sir Vidia Naipaul, Earl Lovelace [Trinidadian author of The Dragon Can't Dance] ... so when these kinds of big names come, it helps to bring credibility to what we do.

Are there plans to perhaps include some younger, more up-and-coming Caribbean writers?

I have always been conscious of the need to straddle the generations. This year you will see well-established authors like Kamau Braithwaite and Lorna Goodison, and you will also see [Jamaican poets] Donna Weir-Soley and Shara McCallum — two ends of the chronological spectrum. To keep it fresh, we try to highlight female writers especially. For example, Deborah Jack is from the Dutch-speaking Caribbean; she's an artist and poet. We're also reaching out to varied ethnicities, for example Ramabai Espinet [who is Indo-Trinidadian], and Lawrence Scott is a white Trinidadian who has a very interesting past. He set out to be a monk, and now he's a writer. He's got a fascinating story.

Are there any authors you would particularly encourage newcomers to the Caribbean literary scene to see?

Oh my ... well, all of them! [laughs] But certainly Lorna and Kamau. Kamau just has such an electric yet quiet presence. He really transports the listener. I always look forward to seeing him. — Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik

Unabashed Calabash
Colin Channer, Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop
With Marlon James and Geoffrey Philp on Saturday, November 18, 10:00 a.m., Room 3313-14 (Bldg. 3, 3rd Fl.)

Colin Channer is a literary rebel with a cause. He finds writerly inspiration from the conscious agitators of reggae; the influence of Bob Marley is instantly apparent in the titles of two of his best-selling novels, Satisfy My Soul and Waiting in Vain. He is just as likely to discover a muse in dancehall artist's Cham's recent hit song "Ghetto Story" as he is in the fiction of Sir Vidia Naipaul. Instead of suffering through yet another slew of badly run, poorly attended literary festivals, he collaborated with poet Kwame Dawes to create the Calabash International Literary Festival, which attracts a variety of literary luminaries to Jamaica each year. Fitting with the fest's credo "Mix but don't blend in," this year's lineup ranges from Rebelution-leading dancehall queen Tanya Stephens to Trinidadian novelist Elizabeth Nunez. Channer's most recently published project is Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop. Besides short stories by up-and-coming Calabash alumnus Marlon James ("The Last Jamaican Lion"), Nunez (the scathing and lush "All Ah We Is One") and Miami Dade College professor Geoffrey Philp ("I Want to Disturb My Neighbor"), the anthology includes a lengthy contribution by Channer, the hilariously titled "How to Beat a Child in the Right and Proper Way."

The Calabash Writer's Workshop is thriving and every year gets better and better. To what do you attribute that success?

Strong leadership and efficient management. Our ambition from the get-go was to create something with international standards. Kwame and I are writers, so we have a literary sensibility, a taste factor. Everything has to be earthy, daring, and diverse. The people of the Caribbean deserve a great event.

How do you feel about the Miami Book Fair International?

The Miami Book Fair is one of the best. The city is so vibrant, and such a diverse range of book lovers and authors come out to see you. Life in New York is so hectic; often you don't get to see the things you want to see. But in Miami I can actually take the time to see other authors. It's a good place to catch up with old friends.

Throughout our conversation, your voice has switched from island patois to American slang, from falsetto to bass. When audiences come to see Colin Channer read, what can they expect?

I guess I've become known as someone who reads his work well. I think it's my personality. Just in normal conversation, I do voices. I'm just a silly guy, and this is no manufactured stage presence. — Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik

Fair Scare
Sharon Draper, Copper Sun
Students’ Literary Encounters, Friday, November 17, 9:30 a.m. (Auditorium) and 10:30 a.m. (Room 3210)

I met Sharon Draper in 2003 when I was the senior librarian in charge of organizing the Teen Read Week author visit for the Hillsborough County library system. More than 500 students came to hear the young-adult author speak about her popular Tears of a Tiger trilogy. She was a success, and the teens were thrilled to meet her, but as she was signing books for the students, she passed out. Seriously, she passed out. We called an ambulance, but she refused medical attention. "I'm fine," she said. "Let's go to lunch." We did, and she passed out, again and again. Draper did not want to go to a strange doctor; she just wanted to go back to Ohio. We somehow got her on a plane. The diagnosis? Oh, just appendicitis. "That's one of my favorite stories to tell, and I embellish it every time I tell it," Draper said when I spoke with her again, exactly three years after that incident. Her latest book, Copper Sun, is about the African slave trade. The fifteen-year-old protagonist, Amari, is taken from her village and sold to a plantation owner in the Carolinas.

So, was that your strangest book tour experience?

The time that I had to be rushed by ambulance back to the airport with acute appendicitis? Yes. I really didn't think it was something that needed surgery. My doctor said I was an idiot: "You got on a plane? Your appendix could have burst!"

But that wasn't the worst experience. The very worst was a school visit. It was on October 31. It was Halloween and all of the kids were dressed up. This was high school, and even the teachers were dressed. The principal met me at the door in a pink tutu — and it was a man, hairy chest and all. The kids were high on candy, it was homecoming, there was a pep rally, a homecoming game after that, and then the dance. A kid said to me: "You'd better talk fast, 'cause as soon as the pep rally starts, we're leaving." More than half the kids hadn't heard of me, and none of them had read my books.

Who is your audience in Miami, and what is your previous Miami experience?

Back when Copper Sun came out, I went on my first and only book [store] tour. The bookstores brought in scores and scores of high school and middle school students. There were excited teachers, excited kids. Of all of the cities I went to, Miami was the best. Miami is so huge and so spread out and diverse that's it is hard to get a feel of my audience, but I know that there is interest there. — Lyssa Oberkreser

Into Africa
Melissa Fay Greene, There Is No Me Without You: One Women's Odyssey to Rescue Africa's Orphans
Saturday, November 18, 11:30 a.m., Room 7128 (Bldg. 7, 1st Fl.)

Journalist and author Melissa Fay Greene says she never quite recovered from her 2001 trip to Ethiopia, where she witnessed firsthand the magnitude of the AIDS pandemic. Though originally commissioned by the New York Times to write an article about the plight of Africa's 12 million AIDS orphans, her research evolved into a book, There Is No Me Without You. In an attempt to put a face on the estimated 25 million people with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Greene tells the true story of one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, an Ethiopian who turned her home into a makeshift orphanage to care for hundreds of children whose parents fell victim to AIDS-related illnesses. Weaving harrowing tales within a historical framework that traces the history of AIDS in Africa, Greene brings to life the predicament of a continent battling a crisis of staggering proportion.

Why Ethiopia?

My husband and I have four children, and when they began leaving home, we decided to adopt, and Africa was being called a continent of orphans.... I saw these lively, affectionate, playful children, and I realized the same fate awaited all of them — they were all going to die. The whole continent had been written off, and all these people were considered dead — they just happened to still be walking around.

How well has the book been received?

There was a tremendous reaction to the story I did for the New York Times, but within mainstream American media, the book reviews have been mixed.

Describe one of your most memorable book tour experiences.

Some of the most ridiculous and most offensive things have come in online. I did a Q&A discussion on, and one person wrote, "AIDS in Africa is overrated." — Joanne Green

Moral Mystery
Joseph Kanon, The Good German
Saturday, November 18, 3:30 p.m., Auditorium (Bldg. 1, 2nd Fl.)

Joseph Kanon made a bundle in publishing before he penned his first piece of historical fiction, Los Alamos. His third book, The Good German, has been adapted into a major Hollywood movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The plot (an American journalist ventures into Ally-occupied Berlin in search of his illicit love interest) involves a film-friendly marriage of murder mystery, espionage, and romance. But for Kanon, his examination of the lives of Germans trying to survive devastation — rendered by both Allied bombs and their complicity in the Holocaust — is much more complex: He describes his novel principally as "moral intrigue."

What is your audience in Miami, and what do you think of this place?

I don't know that there's any specific niche audience in Miami. Certainly because there's a large Jewish population, there's an interest in these kinds of books because they touch on the Holocaust, but I wouldn't like to think they're any more interested than anyone else.

I like Miami very much; it's kind of hard not to. I enjoy myself, as I imagine most tourists do. Pleasure is kind of built into the quotient down there. But it's more than a beach; it's a really interesting city. The Latin influence over the last 20 or 30 years has given it new life. It's not just retirees; it's a vibrant, interesting city. I always like going there.

What's it like to sort of give your book over to Hollywood?

Well, as a publisher, I've had a chance to observe the process many times. The best way to go about it, I'd say, is just let it go. As an author, you'll always have your own movie playing in your head. But film is a different medium; you can only hope that someone smart is handling it. And I think they are smart. I like the people involved; they're terrifically friendly to me. They kept me in the loop. The producers asked me about historical background, and my son even got a nonspeaking role. If he hasn't ended up on the cutting room floor, look for a tall, handsome, young man lingering in the background of the bar scene.

You've said, though, that when you think of your principal characters, you see George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. Has your own "movie" been co-opted?

That's true. I think it's an inevitable process — particularly if these actors are effective visually, and these actors are. And that's okay. I don't object to it.

Any nightmare stories in book touring?

Well, as a publisher, I received a panicked phone call from someone we'd accidentally booked on a Spanish-language show — and those sorts of things happen. But it's really a pretty wonderful way to see the country. It's not just the inside of airports. You go out and meet people, talk with them, really see the places. And these people haven't come out to boo you. They share a genuine interest in your work, or if they're really bookish, the work in general. — Calvin Godfrey


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