30 Questions for 30 Writers at the Miami Book Fair
In Which Wild Assumptions Are Made About the State of Florida
This November, for the 32nd year in a row, readers and writers of all stripes will descend upon Miami, Florida for what has become one of the most epic literary festivals in the world: Miami Book Fair International.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: the number of writers queried for this article amount to less than ten percent of the total writers participating in this year’s MBFI. This stat does not even include Salman Rushdie, Marlon James, David Mitchell, and about a dozen others whose readings are considered “pre-Fair” events, which should allay any concerns that the quantity of authors at MBFI might dilute the quality.
It’s easy to forget that all of this is happening in the middle of Miami, where you will, in addition to buying a bunch of books and meeting a bunch of writers, presumably learn to dance and eat and live like all human beings were meant to. This is a daunting task, and newbies are likely in for a double-dose of culture shock. But fear not, we’ve consulted some of the greatest literary minds attending this year’s festivities. Their collective knowledge will not only help you navigate the enormity of Miami Book Fair, but will tell you how to talk like a local, what to eat, and where to explore in your spare time. Ha. Spare time.
JOYCE CAROL OATES, author of The Lost Landscape
Q: You’re a Miami Book Fair regular, what keeps you coming back?
Wonderful organizers. Wonderful setting. Wonderful audiences. Wonderful climate.
JONATHAN GALASSI, President & Publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Q: Are you going to MBFI as a writer or a publisher? And which role is more fun there?
I’m here as a writer for my sins. But I think the publishers have more fun, hanging out with their writers in the sun and not having to perform!
CHANTEL ACEVEDO, author of The Distant Marvels
Q: This is your home turf. Do you find yourself swamped with writers bugging you about the best ropa vieja?
Whether they ask me or not, it’s what I’m feeding them. Ropa Vieja translates to “old clothes,” but it’s basically ambrosia in the form of meat and tomato sauce, best served with fried plantains and black beans and rice, chased by a tiny cup of Cuban coffee, which delivers a metric ton of caffeine to the system—just what a writer needs in order to maintain the stamina required at the Miami Book Fair. Buen provecho, writers!
MARGARET LAZARUS DEAN, author of Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight
Q: Though you’re not a Florida native, you take care to get the state right in your work. Now’s your chance to make a few unresearched, reckless assumptions about what the Book Fair will be like. Go!
To find a good answer, I asked some of my northerner friends who have never been to Florida. They speculated that at the Miami Book Fair, as in all of Florida, alligators and armed pantsless citizens will roam the streets while the out-of-town visitors will sweat through their piles of new books and take refuge from the relentless sun under palm trees. Because I’ve been to Florida many times myself, I have assured them that we will in fact be sweating, and there may be alligators, but everyone will be friendly and the parties will be top-notch.
J.J. COLAGRANDE, author of Deco
Q: As both a writer, native Miamian, and frequent attendee of the MBFI, how does one manage to navigate the sheer enormity of the Book Fair without going completely insane?
I try to plan ahead on the Book Fair’s website. This year they have an interactive schedule. But, as you know, the literary gods scoff at those who make plans so, inevitably, we go with the flow and all the bookmarks fall where they may.
JUSTIN TAYLOR, author of Flings
Q: You’ve mentioned in interviews that “place” is crucial to your writing. You’ve set one novel and several short stories in Florida. What makes Florida such fertile ground for fiction?
It’s where I’m from. I grew up in North Miami Beach, right near the Broward County line. The first “real author” I ever met was Stephen King, at the Miami Book Fair in what must have been 1992 or ’93, when I was 10 or 11 years old. He signed a copy of Salem’s Lot for me and complimented my Guns N’ Roses tee shirt. Pretty much anything I write that isn’t specifically set elsewhere is implicitly set in my old neighborhood. You just don’t ever forget the way the streets connect, what the houses look like—inside and out—and that familiarity makes a strong foundation for exploring other, less familiar things, e.g. imaginary people and events. At least you know where they live. My novel, The Gospel of Anarchy is set in Gainesville, where I did my undergrad work and enjoyed most of the requisite (and several of the non-requisite) social/political/aesthetic/intellectual awakenings that people are prone to having at that time of life. The novel is a love letter, albeit one that doesn’t always read like a love letter, to the community that I was part of and to the city itself for providing—however grudgingly or unwittingly—the space and means for us to try and live the way we wanted.
PHILLIPPE DIEDERICH, author of Sofrito
Q: As a former photojournalist who used to live in Miami, what is the most photogenic part of the city?
I don’t know about photogenic, but in the 90s I lived in a rundown garage apartment in that little island-like section sandwiched between the Miami River and Seybold Canal. It was old Miami. It had atmosphere. I’ve always loved the area along the Miami River.
CORY DOCTOROW, co-author of In Real Life
Q: Some Florida cities have given you wonderful childhood memories. Other Florida cities have tried to ban your books. Where does Miami fall on the spectrum of good and bad Florida cities?
I’ve spent most of my time in Florida in orbit around Miami—with my retired grandparents in Deerfield Beach, en route to Orlando, etc. But I’ve had a few memorable times there, particularly at the start of a brilliant drive down to Key West with my then-girlfriend/now-wife. We did every touristy thing, Cuban sandwiches and so forth, as it was her first trip to Florida, and between the deco and cocktails and music, it was a genuinely magical few days.
CECILIA M. FERNANDEZ, author of Leaving Little Havana: a Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto
Q: You grew up in Little Havana, and certainly a lot has changed since then, but the question on the minds of every non-native fairgoer is this: where is the best place to get Cuban food in Miami?
El Pub on S.W. 8th Street. It has everything: breakfast, lunch and dinner. The walls are filled with Cuban landscapes and political stories about the struggle against communism.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM, Director of O, Miami & Publisher of Jai-Alai Books
Q: What’s the best way to navigate the labyrinth of major and indie publishers that is the street fair?
The best thing to do in a labyrinth is to get lost. I think the mistake people make in the street fair is cruising by too quickly and judging booths without going into them. I’ve made some incredible book discoveries over the years by staying in booths longer than I think is necessary, picking up books that DON’T catch my eye, and talking to the people working the booths and asking them what THEY think is exciting or interesting. As an example, I discovered Melissa Broder in a booth at Miami Book Fair that way. Her first book had just come out, and it was actually being displayed with the cover facing the back of the tent, so if I hadn’t gone in and poked around, I never would have seen it. I hadn’t heard of her, but the title, When You Say One Thing But You Mean Your Mother, made me laugh. I asked whoever was working the booth about it, and that person said it was great. So I bought it. And, of course, it was great.
MARY KARR, author of The Art of Memoir
Q: At this year’s Fair, you’re tasked with talking about memoir at one event, and rocking out with the Rock Bottom Remainders at another. Are all writers just failed rock stars?
Au contraire: All rock stars may be failed writers.
KENT RUSSELL, author of I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
Q: What is your best and/or worst memory of Miami adolescence that could probably only happen to a kid growing up in Miami?
I was lucky enough to grow up on this fragrant, riotously verdant street not far from Cocowalk. On this street was a house people were continuously moving into or out of. One day, when I was still in elementary school, a new family moved in; this one included a young boy not too much older than me. We became fast friends, sleeping over at one another’s houses all the time, playing baseball at Red Berry’s, going to Hot Wheels and the Miracle Center movie theater—the works. Then, one day, I found the house empty. That was that.
WILLIAM FINNEGAN, author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
Q: Of all the beaches in the world you’ve seen (mainly from the top of a wave), where do you rank South Beach? Be nice.
I’m not a beach person, oddly. I was until the age of 10, growing up in California, but then I started surfing. I was soon spending so much time in the ocean that, even as a kid, I figured that I couldn’t afford to spend another minute at the coast. The beach became just a crosswalk to the water. I’ve camped on beaches, when necessary, while chasing waves. I’ve hiked along beaches, usually on remote coasts, a lot, chasing waves. I went through a period when my daughter was small when I briefly liked beaches again—I liked hanging out with her on the sand. Otherwise, no interest. Which is abnormal, I realize. Half the world flocks to the beach, if possible, when the weather’s nice. And if you want to live in style at the beach, with cabanas, swanky services, beautiful water, beautiful bodies—then I would say South Beach, Miami, might be near the top of the list. But I don’t know that for a fact. I’ve stayed at the Delano Hotel a couple of times, while working on stories set in Miami, and I’m told it’s on South Beach. But I’ve never walked out on the beachfront there. I have it on good authority that the surfing at South Beach is poor, and that’s all I need to know. Sorry!
TIFFANY RAZZANO, founder of Wordier Than Thou, southern correspondent for Publishers Weekly
Q: You’re hosting an event at the Fair’s “Swamp” venue that features stories of how writers ended up in Florida. How did you end up in Florida?
Lots of vodka. Destroying the trust of the girl I loved. Not moving to Portland (Oregon, not Maine). And parents who relocated to Spring Hill. Also, it’s really expensive to be a journalist living in New York.
VANESSA BLAKESLEE, author of Juventud
Q: During past visits to Miami, you’ve observed that parts of the city have a sort of dystopian vibe to them. Elaborate.
Nothing screams dystopian nightmare like big snakes on the loose and rising sea water, and Miami is cursed with both. There’s the flashy, big-money lifestyle that turns a blind eye to the down-and-out inhabitants of the downtown streets; a stark gap between the haves and have-nots seems a requirement of dystopian scenarios. Yet, on a positive note, there’s an unexpected magic in the Wynwood Walls, and a buoyant hope in the Miami Book Fair itself. Margaret Atwood says inside every dystopia, there lies a utopia, and vice versa. This is ever true for Florida, and certainly Miami.
ADRIAN TODD ZUNIGA, creator of Literary Death Match
Q: Having brought Literary Death Match to over 50 cities worldwide, in what ways does Miami stand out against all the others?
Our Miami events have been equal to the city itself: diverse, sexy and raucous. We always strive to make literature a spectacle, and Miami has always been so wonderfully responsive to our brand of weird enthusiasm. I’m so eager to be back.
JENNINE CAPÓ CRUCET, author of Make Your Home Among Strangers
Q: What are the top 3 Miami-isms you’re delighted to hear whenever you return home for the Fair?
1. BFE. I won’t say what it stands for, because I don’t know if this has to stay PG-13—and anyway, if you’re from Miami, you know what it stands for—but I will define it: it means when something is way far away. Example: “I’m in Hialeah and you want me to pick you up at Dadeland Mall all the way in BFE? Nah, bro.” 2. Bro. In the 305, everyone is “bro,” regardless of gender, age, or actual sibling status. Since moving away, this has been the hardest thing to move out of my vocabulary, no lie, bro. 3. Super. Miami’s favorite adjective. For number one, I actually first wrote “super far” before changing it to “way far.” I am super looking forward to using my native words totally sin pena while home. Bonus number 4: ALL THE SPANGLISH!
LUTHER CAMPBELL, author of The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice and Liberty City
Q: Your new book is about growing up in Liberty City (among many other things), a part of Miami that many people have misconceptions about. For those living in Miami and those visiting Miami Book Fair, what is the one thing you’d want everyone to know about your hometown?
Book fair tourists should check out a great Haitian restaurant called Chef Creole, then take a ride through Little Haiti and go to the Haitian museum. And, they should check out The Book of Luke if they want an understanding of Miami’s cultural history.
SLOANE CROSLEY, author of The Clasp
Q: Miami is one of a few settings in your debut novel. What about the city makes it prime for fiction? Having written plenty of nonfiction prior to this book, is any of the Miami in your fiction based on personal experience?
I love the contrasts of Miami (emotional, socioeconomic, cultural, barometric). Though people tend to say that about any sunny place with grit (Las Vegas) or any cold place with cheer (Reykjavik). But what makes Miami so special for fiction is how naked it is, both literally and when it comes to owning its identity. It’s a very unashamed place and so it becomes a sparkling platform from which to view the world. Even the foliage is brash and over-the-top. The characters in the The Clasp observe the causeways and strip malls with “Sunset Dental” and “Sunrise Liquor” in them and there’s some local interaction but the Miami in the novel really focuses on the wealth and tourism aspects of the city. The wedding that kicks off the narrative takes place on a fictional semi-private island and the characters check into a Collins Ave-inspired hotel the night before. Yes, I too have stayed at such a hotel. I had also just read Joan Didion’s Miami so I couldn’t resist a nod to Cuban politics and the city in the 1970s. And though, like Victor, I have never been on a private island, I have spent a good amount of time in Miami at the “art and literary fairs” I describe, with my grandparents as a kid, and I went on my first/only/last press junket there. Luckily, a college friend used to work at The Miami New Times and he was kind enough to show me actual daily life in Miami on a few occasions.
NELSON GEORGE, author of The Lost Treasures of R&B
Q: Who is your all-time favorite Miami-bred musician, and what’s your favorite Miami-based music scene?
I like Little Beaver, who recorded for TK Records. The scene around TK Records when they had KC & the Sunshine Band, George McCrae. Little Beaver is my favorite Miami music moment.
P.J. O’ROURKE, author of Thrown Under the Omnibus
Q: Florida as America’s penis: tired old joke, still mildly amusing, or eternally funny?
If this makes Los Angeles America’s anus, the joke still works.
LAURA LEE P. HUTTENBACH, author of The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General
Q: You’re currently working on a book about “The Raven,” the South Beach legend who has run along the same stretch of beach in Miami for 37 years straight. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned from him about Miami?
In this city, you can visit many countries through Miami neighborhoods. On the third Friday of every month, the Little Haiti Cultural Center hosts “Big Night in Little Haiti,” a celebration of Haitian music, art, and food. On Friday, November 20th, follow a rara procession—like a Haitian marching band—through the streets. If you don’t get enough to eat there, I’d stroll to Chez Le Bebe and sample some que boeul or taso, ox tail or fried goat. Whatever you order, just enjoy yourself—jwi tèt ou.
ROBERT REICH, author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
Q: What books would you recommend to educate those who confuse socialism with the idea of reforming capitalism?
John Kenneth Galbraith’s American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (1952); Charles Lindblom’s Politics and Markets: The World’s Political Economic Systems (1977); Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015).
JAQUIRA DÍAZ, editor of 15 Views of Miami
Q: What bus should tourists catch to get to South Beach? Can they crash on your couch?
From the stop right in front of Bayside Marketplace, catch the S (if you’re coming to visit me, but I live in North Beach). You can also jump on the C. Any of those two will take you to South Beach. Bring your swimsuit, a beach towel, some sunblock, music, cold drinks, and chancletas! Crash on my couch? Jajajajajajaja jajajaja… (Translation: “hahahahaha hahaha…” or “hell no!”)
JOHN KING, host of the Drunken Odyssey podcast
Q: At past Book Fairs, you’ve interviewed Nikki Giovanni, John Waters, Irvine Welsh, Bunny Yeager, and countless more for your podcast. What’s that level and frequency of interviews like? Who do you look forward to interviewing most this year?
MBFI interviews are intense, since I am interviewing up to a dozen authors in two days, for 20 minutes each (usually), sometimes back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Most of these writers I haven’t met before, and I have to be both quick with introductions and try to get to some interesting talk within those constraints. Since I am always trying to learn more about writing and writers, the Fair is especially fun. It is how I used to feel about Christmas morning as a young juvenile delinquent. As for the writer I look forward to the most, I can say that one of the shocks of MBFI is how many of our nation’s best poets are invited. So I am excited over how rare that is, outside of an AWP context. Plus I don’t have to slog through AWP to enjoy it.
PADGETT POWELL, author of Cries for Help, Various
Q: How much of Florida is part of “the South”? Does Miami count?
The precious position, taken by knowing Earnests, that part or all of Florida is not the South is inane. Its people are whipped and weird, are they not? Tennessee Williams, having had troppo vino, broke his Silex of coffee at 5am crossing the patio to his writing studio in Key West, did he not? Before Disney World destroyed the area, Orlando was one big orange grove and its schools had children attending them without shoes, no? I was there, it was, they did. Is Florida totally fubared? Indubitably. But just because a place is F.U.B.A.R. does not mean it is not S.O.U.T.H. In fact its fubaring—the original defining condition of the South after the Wawer, after all—places it FIRST in the South, not last, and not outside. End of the foregoing.
SALLY MANN, author of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Q: What about Miami catches your photographer’s eye?
I’ve been once to Miami and I will never forget the time-warpy feeling of walking into that famous beach hotel (Delano) with the long curtains blowing in the breezes and seeing, at the end of this billowing, chiffon-y corridor the glow of soft-focused beach light. That’s what it is about Miami for me: the quality of that light. Southern light, Miami light. But—isn’t that what it always is for us?
OSCAR FUENTES, The Biscayne Poet
Q: As both a musician and a poet, how do the rhythms of Miami influence your poetry?
My poetry is so influenced by the colorful rhythms of Miami—I usually walk my dog Max every evening after work. I live off Biscayne Boulevard and 64th Street. We cross Biscayne and Max leads me all the way to the heart of Little Haiti, the Cultural Center on 54th. On our way there I swear we can smell the aroma of all the different types of dinners being cooked. The scent is so rich and colorful. There are four houses where the families actually set their dinners out on their patios. Their dogs have even stopped barking at us because we’ve become familiar to them. Yesterday we actually started waving hello. We usually turn right back around after we arrive at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. That’s when our walk gets interesting. By the time we start to cross the neighborhood, we can smell coffee in the wind mixed with a touch of cigar smoke. Two of the houses that have dinner under the stars always bring out their conga drums and bongos while they sip on their coffee. We walk by slowly and listen to them sing together softly, in Creole. Max usually speeds up his walk after we pass the two music houses and he slows down at the boulevard. The motels with their neon lights flickering. The billboard of the Coppertone girl with the pooch in the distance. Everyone stops on red. Max pulls and we cross the street. They all drive on green. Max pulls me east all the way down to Biscayne Bay. We stop right by the water. We both sigh. I mean, how could we not be influenced by this.
CHIP KIDD, book designer/author of Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts
Q: If you had to capture the essence of Miami on a book cover, what building/location/person would be front and center?
And a waaaayyyyy we go!
LES STANDIFORD, Author of the John Deal Miami crime novels / Editor of Miami Noir
Q: So much of your work is set in Miami. What part of the city is the hardest to capture in fiction, and why?
I think the most difficult aspect of life in Miami to capture in fiction is the nature of ordinary life in Miami. For the past couple of decades, readers have been so conditioned to believe that Miami is the capital of the bizarre and the outrageous—with virtually every issue of the Miami Herald carrying a headline that is the suggestion for a novel—that it is sometimes difficult to convince readers that most people in Miami are not in fact serial car-jacking psychopathic cat killers. I once left my bank on a Friday afternoon and got a call on my cell phone from my brother who is a school teacher in Cambridge, Ohio, pop. 12,000. I got in my Ford Explorer and sat talking with Craig, always hesitant to visit me in the big city. Moments later, I saw that O.J. Simpson, then still a free man, was walking out of the bank behind me. As I watched, the bank door flew open again, and a man waving a bank slip came rushing after O.J. There was a moment’s discussion, then O.J. smiled and took the bank slip and a pen from the guy and turned to slap the paper down on the fender of my Explorer. He signed his autograph with a flourish and turned to hand the slip to the guy. I described all this in play by play fashion to my brother who said, “See! I’ve read your books. That is why I am not coming to Miami.” As for the rest of you, if you are interested in buying a used Ford Explorer with about 150,000 miles and the imprint of O.J. Simpson’s signature on the fender, I have a deal for you. Catch you at the Book Fair.
NATHANIEL SANDLER, Founding Director of Bookleggers Library
Q: Your mobile library bestows books upon people all over the Miami. Which neighborhood is the most literary, and why?
I think crowning one neighborhood would be a little unfair since Bookleggers hasn’t been to every neighborhood in Miami, which is a limitation of our organization, not of the city of Miami or its readers and writers. Literary litmus testing is one of my least favorite things to do mostly because I judge books by their cover for a living at this point and some books have awful covers. But what could be more literary than a city slowly sinking beneath the waves while decadently feeding on the seeds tropical fruit?