How many books could you read in 30 years? Five hundred? Three thousand? Could you break into the six figures?
No matter your estimate, Miami Book Fair International likely has you beat. In its three-decade run, MBFI has featured about 7,500 authors promoting countless books — and that's just in its presentations. Its annual street fair invites book vendors from around the world to set up shop on the streets surrounding Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus, turning downtown Miami into the nation's temporary literary epicenter.
The festival's history is peppered with appearances by the literary world's top names, including Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, Isabel Allende, and Alice Walker. And the impressive lineup hasn't changed now that the fair has entered its dirty 30s. The festivities began early this year, with a series of author appearances including Salman Rushdie, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, and poet Billy Collins that launched in September. International bestselling author Dan Brown kicked off the official festival last Sunday, hosting an evening devoted to his latest novel, Inferno. And by the time political commentator Chris Matthews closes the festival this Sunday, Miami lit lovers will have seen a diverse and impressive mix of talent, from Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright, to feminist novelist Erica Jong, to actor and new memoirist Anjelica Huston, to Olympic figure skater turned cookbook author Brian Boitano. Oh yeah, and a former vice president who once shot a hunting buddy is coming our way too.
From the big names to under-the-radar authors, we spoke with five of this weekend's book fair presenters.
For most MBFI authors, Miami is merely a tropical pit stop on a long and grinding book tour. But for Karen Russell, it's home. And in the past seven years, no one has done more to bring Miami's macabre beauty to national prominence than she.
In February, the 32-year-old Coral Gables Senior High graduate published her third book, a collection of eerie and often downright terrifying short stories called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. And although it's not set in South Florida like Russell's much-acclaimed novel Swamplandia, it nonetheless explores very Miami motifs, such as the thin line between myth and reality, the human capacity for evil, and even the murderous potential of American football fanaticism.
"For a lot of these new stories, I kind of consciously thought it would be good to leave the state for a little bit, just as a challenge to myself," Russell says. "If I let myself, all my stuff would be moon-eyed 13-year-olds paddling around canals in Miami."
Instead, Vampires opens with a pair of bloodsuckers trying to satiate their thirst by burying their fangs not in humans but in the sweet lemons of Sorrento. As in Swamplandia and Russell's first short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, however, the supernatural is just a vehicle to explore our own foibles and failings. Freed from worrying about death, Russell's vampires find that immortality just creates more time for solitude and heartbreak. In another story, an invasion of giant seagulls becomes an opportunity for the teenage protagonist to lose his virginity.
The book fair itself has special meaning for Russell. "It was my favorite thing," she says. "It was like a kid bender. I would get bombed on a big-ass soda and eat like nine Chicken McNuggets, which I never did because I was a tiny girl, and I'd buy a million books. And I remember we'd take the Metromover for no reason... That was like heaven."
Sounds like a plan, Karen. We'll bring the books. You bring the big-ass soda. (With Karen Shepard and Laura Van den Berg on Sunday, November 24, at 11 a.m. in Building 8, second floor, room 8201. Admission is free.) — Michael E. Miller
Daniel Alarcón, a Peruvian-American novelist who was recently named on the New Yorker's prestigious "20 Under 40" list, represents a country not particularly well represented in Miami, aside from the odd (and usually inauthentic) ceviche shop. But Alarcón's latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, will resonate with everyone in this city of emigrants and exiles. It is the story of two brothers, one born in the U.S. and the other in an unnamed South American country. "That's one of the issues that is important in the novel: that relationship between two brothers, one of whom has the option of coming and going as he pleases — and he chooses to go to the United States — and the other one who feels kind of stuck," Alarcón says. "It was important for me to dramatize that relationship and use it almost as a thought experiment: How would that affect the relationship between two brothers, if one of them had the keys to the kingdom and the other one didn't?"
If the relationship between the brothers speaks to the arbitrariness of American immigration policy, Alarcón's description of South America screams painful truths about the high price the continent has paid for its current economic boom: Nelson, a young actor, is stranded by war and circumstance in his native country.