In 2011, Kyle Swenson began investigating a story that later evolved into Good Kids, Bad City, his book about institutional racism in Cleveland and the city's criminal justice system. Between the time the feature for Cleveland Scene was written and his book was published, he spent three years as one of the last New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writers. In that role, Swenson investigated and exposed corruption, as with "Biking While Black Is a Crime." He also crafted memorable lighthearted features, including one for which he undertook a hero's quest to find a $1 beer. He also put his safety on the line by taking a Pitbull impersonator, Mr. 786, to Dolphin Mall. Swenson now works as a staff writer on the national enterprise team at the Washington Post. This weekend, he and other former New Times staffers — Steve Almond, Brett Sokol, and Jake Bernstein — will spread the word about their tomes at the Miami Book Fair.
Swenson's article that later became a book, "What the Boy Saw," explores a 1975 murder case in which three young black men were wrongly tried and convicted for a corner-store robbery during which a white man was killed. The youngest of the three, Kwame Ajamu, was out on parole in 2011 when he asked Swenson to look into the case. The two soon began collaborating on the story, although Ajamu's brother and best friend were still languishing in jail.
"We really hoped this story would stir public outrage, people would get upset, judges would start swinging their gavels, and these guys would get out," Swenson says. "But nothing really happened."
Though he was disheartened by both journalism and Cleveland, the story caught the attention of then-Miami New Times editor in chief, Chuck Strouse.
"It was probably one of the reasons I was hired," Swenson admits.
After a year at New Times, the Ohio Innocence Project got involved with the case, and eventually, on a call he took in Strouse's office, Swenson was able to tell Ajamu that the witness recanted and the other men would be released. It was one of the greatest days of his life. After flying north to see the two walk free, he says, "I realized there was so much more to write about, so many more angles to the story that it couldn't be contained in a feature story. There was definitely a book here." He left Miami to write it, and within a few months, he got a book deal.
Good Kids, Bad City appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and led its three subjects to appear with Swenson on the Today show. At the Miami Book Fair, he'll speak with Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here and An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, whose book appeared alongside Swenson's on that New York Times cover. The journalist says his tenure at New Times "absolutely" made him a better writer and encouraged him to embrace his creative inclinations.
"Just having the opportunity to write 5,000-word feature stories every six weeks or so really sharpens your writing and reporting skills, particularly the type of journalism alt-weeklies do: scene-driven, narrative journalism," Swenson says. "There aren't that many opportunities to do that."
Author Steve Almond is another former New Times staff writer, who contributed between 1991 and 1995. At the book fair this weekend, he'll introduce his most recent book to the Magic City. Almond has written ten fiction and nonfiction books, including the New York Times best sellers Candyfreak and Against Football. A whole section of his latest book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life, explores his years at Miami's longtime alt-weekly.
"It was the job that allowed me to do what they now call 'creative nonfiction,' meaning stories that attempted to move beyond the standard journalism questions: who, what, where, and when. I got to ask why," Almond says. "Like, why do people behave as they do? That’s a literary question, a question about the inner life."
He began reading more and writing short stories. He remembers racing from the old New Times office at 2800 Biscayne Blvd. to Florida International University's Biscayne Bay Campus to attend John DuFresne’s weekly writers workshop, which led his earning an MFA in creative writing.
"Without New Times — and my editor there, Tom Finkel — I would never have written any books," Almond says of New Times' interim editor-in-chief and erstwhile managing editor. "Tom basically recognized, Hey, this guy is a writer, long before I did. So, basically, all my shitty books are Tom Finkel’s fault." Almond looks forward to swimming to a buoy and hitting up Puerto Sauga — classic South Beach pastimes. "I’ll also have dinner with some of the other New Times trash. And I’ll go see if my old place at Ninth and Meridian still exists and confirm that it is now too expensive for me to rent."
Brett Sokol was part of the next generation of New Times writers to go on to bigger projects. He was a music editor and staff writer at the paper from 1999 to 2005. He even wrote a feature about the Miami Book Fair — "In Search of the Great Miami Novel" — for the rag. He has since penned articles for the New York Times and worked as arts editor at Ocean Drive, but most recently he's been focused on his nonprofit publishing company for photojournalism/art books, Letter16 Press, which he cofounded with designer Francesco Casale.
"As someone who has spent the past 20 years writing about the authors winging into town for the annual Miami Book Fair — first for Miami New Times and more recently for Ocean Drive magazine — it's a treat to be on the other side of the microphone," Sokol says. He'll be on a panel discussing a book he published, Shtetl in the Sun: Andy Sweet's South Beach 1977-1980, which shows photos of the elderly Jews who once dominated South Beach, taken by the late photog Andy Sweet. The book has been written up in seemingly every major publication and even spawned the Netflix film The Last Resort, which was created around Sweet's work. The panel discussion will take place at the Porch — an interactive Miami Book Fair performance space for local talents — and will include the book's designer, Casale; archival restorer of the photography Stan Hughes; and Sweet's sister, Ellen Sweet Moss.
Yet another New Times alum who will appear at the fair this weekend is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author Jake Bernstein, who wrote Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite. Sokol remembers working with Bernstein at New Times. "He had an incredible nose for ferreting out political shenanigans at county hall, something he's now doing on an international scale," he says, adding that Steve Almond was one of his first editors at the paper. "I'm still grateful for his patience. He probably has a permanent red mark on his forehead from slapping it so many times while reading my early drafts."
All of these authors have come a long way from those early days at New Times. They are proof positive that anyone willing to suffer through an indignity or two at Miami's beloved alt-weekly can come away with a few good friends and, just maybe, a notable book or two.
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Steve Almond. 11 a.m. Saturday, November 23, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NW Second Ave., Room 8202, Miami.
Jake Bernstein. 1 p.m. Saturday, November 23, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NW Second Ave., Room 3209, Miami.
Brett Sokol. 1 p.m. Sunday, November 24, at the Porch, 300 NW Second Ave., Miami.
Kyle Swenson. 3 p.m. Sunday, November 24, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NW Second Ave., Room 3209, Miami.
Miami Book Fair 2019. Through Sunday, November 24, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NW Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Tickets cost $5 to $10.