Miami Book Fair: Guide to the street festival

For a few days, Miami takes off its dunce cap, trades its oversize reflector shades for a pair of sturdy bifocals, and flees the thumping club beats for a quiet stall at the library. It's the greatest time of year, when Miami Book Fair International brings the world's literary elite downtown to talk writing, politics, religion, and the enduring search for the great American novel.

New Times interviewed some of the biggest names headlining the street fair, which will take over Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus (NE Second Avenue and Fourth Street) this Friday through Sunday. Unless otherwise noted, the authors will speak at the Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210).

What would happen if Judy Blume rewrote Dante's Inferno to star a sexually repressed teenager who thinks she's in Hell for overdosing on pot? There's only one author alive qualified to tackle that question. Luckily, Chuck Palahniuk, maverick author of Fight Club and Choke, decided to give it a shot.

The result is a rollicking trek through a land of cascading shit waterfalls and hot-vomit oceans populated by Hitler and a cast of teen stereotypes out of The Breakfast Club. Palahniuk uses the gruesome setting in Damned, his new novel, to skewer America's Puritan obsession with healthiness.

"My books all start with some horrible, unresolved thing in my own life," Palahniuk says. "Before I wrote this, I was taking care of my mom with cancer. There was this ridiculous expectation that if she'd done everything right, she could have escaped the disease. There's this condemnation and dismissal of the sick because we all want to believe we can forestall that moment ourselves."

Palahniuk has cultivated a reputation for shocking audiences. One infamous short story, called "Guts," is so brutal that when Palahniuk reads it aloud on his tours, dozens of listeners have reportedly fainted. But in Damned — which has its own share of stomach-churning encounters — and other works, Palahniuk says, his real goal is a legit human response.

"I am absolutely terrified of wasting readers' time," he says. "I'd rather readers reach the end and say, 'I can't believe he did that' than to feel like they regretted spending time with my work."

Palahniuk will speak Saturday at 6:30 p.m. -- Tim Elfrink

It would be pretentious to say Nicole Krauss has grown up by writing her third novel, Great House. After all, her previous book, The History of Love — published when she was just 31 years old — became an international best seller and won a handful of awards.

But Krauss is the first to admit Great House has a much darker tone than its zany predecessor. "The History of Love was filled with characters who charm you from the first moment you meet them, [who] ask to be loved," she says. "But when I began writing Great House... I was interested in characters who don't ask that of us, who tell us who they are with all of their flaws and shortcomings."

The result is a collection of poignant and, at first, seemingly unrelated stories in which we only slowly begin to understand and empathize with the characters: a New Yorker who coldly chooses career over family, only to break down after giving away her writing desk; an Israeli man who loses his wife and takes in his estranged son after the funeral; and a Holocaust survivor who has spent his life reassembling the furniture the Nazis stole from his father.

In the end, the narratives are all connected by the massive, brooding desk — inspired by Krauss's own, inherited escritoire. She began writing the novel shortly before she and her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, had their first child. "The book is about emotional inheritance," Krauss says. "It's about what we consciously or unconsciously pass down."

Krauss will speak Friday at 8 p.m. -- Michael E. Miller

Andy Borowitz approached his newest take on humor, The 50 Funniest American Writers, as if he were creating an iPod playlist for a party. "There's nothing more subjective than one's sense of humor," he says. "The only barometer or compass I used when I put together this collection was my taste."

There's nothing subjective about Borowitz's appeal, though. His satirical news site, the Borowitz Report, is visited by millions, and his TV work — including creating The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for NBC — enshrined him among America's funny elite. His new book attempts to codify the kind of humor writing that other comedians love.

The book gives him a chance to trumpet works such as "The Writer's Life," an essay by David Rakoff, a regular on NPR's This American Life.

"[Rakoff] said to me: 'I think I have a funnier piece than the one that you chose,'" Borowitz recalls. "He sent it to me and was actually right — it was a funnier piece... This just proves that David Rakoff is better than I am. Not only has he won the Thurber Prize, but he also picked a better David Rakoff piece than I did."

Borowitz will speak Saturday at 3:30 p.m. -- Victor Gonzalez

As much as he loved visiting Hogwarts, something bugged author Lev Grossman while he worked his way through J.K. Rowling's fantasy epic.

"I found it really odd that Potter never seemed to have read C.S. Lewis growing up. No one in his world seems to have ever read any fiction at all, in fact," Grossman says. "I don't think Hogwarts library even has a fiction section."

So when he created his own realm full of young magicians — beginning with the 2009 hit The Magicians and continuing with his new sequel, The Magician King — Grossman took the opposite approach.

His characters, a bunch of gifted math nerds from Brooklyn, are obsessed with a Narnia-esque land called Fillory, are well versed in Potter lore, and speak not in faux-Old English, but in 21st-century teenage patter: "This place is magic as balls!" hero Quentin Coldwater exclaims toward the beginning of the new novel.

"Part of the idea is writing fantasy as an American, it seemed wrong to have characters speak with this correct English diction," Grossman says. "But I also wanted to take a mythic story and not treat it like a myth. I wanted to treat it like a novel, where the characters are psychologically distinct and self-aware."

The result has been characterized in review shorthand as "Harry Potter for adults" — and the stories are certainly not G-rated, with torrid inter-magician affairs and bloody magical shootouts. But ultimately the books are just great fiction about the most literary of subjects: growing up, not fitting in, and finding purpose in life.

"It's a relatively recent trend to divide literature into genres, and some are OK for academics and some not," says Grossman, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale. "As recently as Shakespeare, it was OK to populate literature with spirits and monsters. Then we decided that literature should resemble real life."

Grossman will speak Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in the auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261). -- Tim Elfrink

Inspiration came in the form of exhaustion for author Adam Mansbach. One night he spent two hours cooing and reading to his 2-year-old daughter Vivien before she finally closed her eyes.

Mansbach, who has written the grown-up novels Angry Black White Boy and The End of the Jews, went to his computer and wearily hammered out a status update: "Be on the lookout for my forthcoming children's book, Go the Fuck to Sleep."

He was kidding. But all of his Facebook friends thought the idea was genius. So Mansbach wrote the thing. The little manuscript reads like Goodnight Moon as written by Lenny Bruce.

To Mansbach's surprise, publisher Akashic immediately agreed to produce the book as a colorful hardcover. Go the Fuck to Sleep — which is adorned with a warning that it should not be read to kids — hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list. "What parents have told me," Mansbach says, "is that it put into print what every parent has thought. The book is very honest. That's why it's successful."

So successful, in fact, it has spawned a league of imitators, including the forthcoming If You Give a Kid a Cookie, Will He Shut the Fuck Up? When the author of that title contacted Mansbach in hopes of a positive blurb, Mansbach became angry enough to, well, write another children's book.

"Give me a fucking break," he says now. "Stop ripping my shit off. Get your own idea."

Mansbach will speak Friday at 6 p.m. -- Gus Garcia-Roberts

It would be easier to begrudge Téa Obreht's extraordinary success at such a young age if her writing weren't so damn good. Her debut, The Tiger's Wife — published last year when she was just 24 — is the hauntingly beautiful tale of Natalia, a young Yugoslavian doctor struggling to understand her grandfather's mysterious death.

The novel is a mesmeric mix of wild imagination and Obreht's own bizarre biography. Born in Belgrade in 1985, she moved with her family to Cyprus when Yugoslavia began falling apart in 1992, then to Egypt, and finally to the United States. It isn't surprising, then, that Obreht's native country — now splintered into six nations — is the backdrop for her first novel. But what makes The Tiger's Wife truly special is how Obreht doesn't rely on the war to create mood or drive the plot; instead, she layers the story with Balkan folktales like that of "the deathless man" and the titular tiger's wife, weaving them into and out of the grandfather's life like golden threads.

The result is magical. Obreht — a devotee of Gabriel García Márquez — paints tiny towns terrified by an undead stranger or a feral beast as vividly and convincingly as cities in the ever-tightening grip of genocide. "There is always some anxiety when you're dealing with something that is heavily publicized, like a war, with collective memory," she says. "I wanted the freedom to deal with the subject matter in my own way."

Obreht will speak Sunday at noon in the auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261). -- Michael E. Miller

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New Times staff