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."