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November 22, 2006

Miami: Where the Books and Authors Are

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I have friends who cannot believe my idea of a really fun weekend is to attend a book fair. A few weeks ago I was getting my hair cut and I mentioned that I was headed to Miami. Folks gathered round telling me about their favorite places in South Beach, the hottest restaurants and the best nightclubs. I told them I was not doing any of that. I was attending the Miami Book Fair. They looked at me like I was daft. I went back to going over the author lineup and planning my weekend.

This is the second year that I attended this event. Last year the fall season had been riddled with hurricanes and while the crowd was enthusiastic about the event, their weariness was palpable. This year, no hurricanes and the whole aura of the place was noticeably upbeat. Also, the weather was incredible --- temps in the 70s and no humidity. I never touched the 15 pounds of hair products that I carted in my suitcase. Truly, it was Florida at its best.

I flew down on Thursday and took a slight detour on the way to Miami to do some shopping on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. I had been there for dinner in March and remembered that there were some great shops I wanted to poke around. So, under the pretense of doing Christmas shopping, I did some "to me/from me" shopping. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Thursday evening I had a fun dinner at Cafe Versailles with Cristina Vazquez, one of our readers. I had not met her before, but we had a great time chatting over dinner and she gave me a terrific overview of the immediate area. Cristina is bilingual and during the evening as she conversed with the waiters I wondered exactly what I had been doing the seven years that I studied Spanish. I caught about every 10th word and at some points mumbled gracias. I hope they were appropriate points.

Throughout dinner she mentioned that the Isabel Allende event that evening was going to be huge. I am used to author events in New York where even the biggest names draw crowds that might number 100 (unless it's a celebrity tie-in title), so I was not giving this much thought.

How wrong I was. Allende's appearance was the Book Fair's version of the arrival of Playstation 3. We walked into the hall where the event was being held and there was a crowd. I made my way to the media area to pick up my credentials about 5 minutes before the start of the event. Seeing the crowd outside I assumed that the doors had not yet opened. But no, THIS was the OVERFLOW crowd. The 700 seats inside were already taken. Later I learned that there were 1,300 outside, some of whom watched on monitors.

For readers this talk was a treat. I have not read Allende, but hearing her talk, which was an interview with Ellen Kanner, who had written a profile of her for the Miami Herald, I got a real flavor of her work and her personality.

Allende was informative, provocative and endearing. She spoke of writing her mother a letter every day. This writing gets her started every day. The days that she does not write it feels like the day is erased and it does not exist. At the end of the year her mother mails these letters back to her and re-reading them she realizes how much she did not recall without these notes. Many of these notes find their way into her memoirs and other writing. To her the country of the soul is where your memory lies.

She also spoke of literature not having gender. She bristles when she is called the greatest female Hispanic writer as she feels that each of those labels diminishes her work but by placing it is smaller boxes. She asks if literature belongs to white males only. She instead just sees herself as a writer.

The talk was laced with all kinds of fun digression with tidbits such as her original desire to become a chorus girl to her loathing of cocktail parties, which she paints as tough going for those who are short and amusing anecdotes about her gringo husband who thinks he speaks Spanish.

While there was conversation about her individual titles, as I had not yet read these I was absorbing more of Allende's philosophy on writing and her background. After the formal talk she asked if there were questions. Immediately a LONG line of readers gathered where the questions were directed to her in both English and Spanish. And as she patiently answered reader questions, I marveled at her connection with her readers. We left without meeting her or having books signed knowing that she would be there for hours as her audience clearly felt they were reaching out to a friend.

Friday evening's event spotlighted Richard Ford, whose new book The Lay of the Land, was among my current reading. I had not read him prior to this, but found myself totally swept up in the Frank Bascombe character. I also loved that the book took place in my native New Jersey (which he refers to as the state which is the "embarrassment of the country") and appreciated the great humor that finds itself into his writing. The book begins on the Thursday before Thanksgiving in 2000 and coincidentally I started the book on the same day, albeit it in 2006, which amused me. Never been able to say that about a book before.

He talked about his first trip to Miami in 1955 for the opening of the Hotel Fountainbleu and his memories of that event, which drew memories of a very different Miami from that of today.

Ford read from his book and the voice/cadence was exactly what I had heard in my head when I read those pages on my own. He spoke about his dyslexia and how growing up he was always in the middle of his class, not the top. He took a creative writing course in college and from there knew that writing was something he loved.

He spoke of not being a natural writer and how it is work, and how he can be happy doing just about anything else when he should be writing. His preparation for writing includes creating a notebook with sections called things like "Harry," "The Beach" and "Thanksgiving" where he crams in notes and info. That writing and those notes are later reviewed and studied as he once studied for the bar exam. He writes more notes, annotates and in this reading sees there the book will start and what will happen and where it will end in a spatial way. And then he is ready to start writing.

There comes a moment when he finally is ready to write that first sentence though he knows he can erase that too. Then he follows where the book is leading him. At the end of the day he always leaves himself with a start for the following day.

A reader asked if we will see another Bascombe title and asked what holiday he might write about as he previously had done Easter and the Fourth of July, and now Thanksgiving. Ford told him that this would not be happening. This last book drained him and he does not want to write the next Bascombe book just because he wrote three others. Also, he does not want to write a book that will not be well regarded. He would like to stop himself now. But he did leave open a window to write something else. I left happy I could go back to the hotel, order room service and keep reading the book.

Saturday morning I spent hanging out at the pool. After all, this is Miami. It was not gorgeous, but when New York/New Jersey are grey and cold, just the chance to be outdoors and not chattering makes one happy. I had a quick lunch there and then it was off to the readings.

I started with a panel that had John Berendt and Jonathan Harr on it. Erik Larson had been expected to join them, but sadly he had to cancel. Harr spoke about his book, The Lost Painting, and the artwork of Carivaggio. He had slides and for the record, I felt his talk felt a bit too much like art class and I confess that while this book is on my shelf, he did not make me want to run home and read it though friends have raved about it. I wanted to know why he wrote about the lost painting and what it was, but if he told that message, I missed it. I did learn that Carivaggio was something of a scamp and those stories were most intriguing.

Berendt opened with a funny story about a little boy who ripped up books and was a general nuisance with them and we later learned that little boy was him. He knew at 11 he wanted to be a writer and spoke about his time at Harvard and Esquire. I loved his stories about the differences between Northern and Southern writing --- southerners like more detail. He talked through two paragraphs telling how they would have been written by writers from each area of the country and got some great applause for that.

He wants to be a likeable narrator to his stories and he loves eccentrics. And while he has written one of the only books set in Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when he wrote about Venice in his new book, The City of Fallen Angels, he took on place that had been written about and thus he needed a whole new angle. He also confesses to being a much better editor than a writer; he writes very slowly.

He loves the rhythm of writing and works to get that right. Often he calls his answering machine, reads passages and then calls it to hear how they play back. He said this may sound strange, but he could be like Gay Talese who claims he tacks up his work on a wall across the room and then looks at his work through binoculars!

Next up was Nora Ephron, who delivered a talk very much the same as the one I had heard a few weeks earlier at Women's Media Group. Okay, this is when you know a talk really works --- when you hear the joke getting set up, you know the punchline, and you STILL laugh. That's Ephron and it's why people have watched the movies she has written a number of times --- they just deliver.

She was talking about I Feel Bad About My Neck, and the room was full of women who clearly understood exactly what she meant by that line. In a true testimony to the power of Ephron to draw a crowd, her talk was moved up by an hour to accommodate a flight to catch a friend's birthday party, but the room STILL was full. If the time had not changed, we might have had yet again a "Allende/Playstation 3" moment! It was a great talk full of great quotable lines and a very appreciative audience. I personally loved the line where she talked about keeping her hair the color it is now is a career. I know the feeling. The older you get, the more time looking young requires. She also talked about her current project of working on the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Julie Powell's Julie & Julia. After the reading the audience clearly was the kind of a group that did not buy one copy of this book; they bought 5. As Ephron was running for the plane she pre-signed books and the lines quickly formed to gobble those up.

I was glad that the timing for the Ephron talk moved since I really wanted to see the panel that Brad Meltzer was on, so this was a very good thing. I raced over there and caught the tail end of Mark Winegardner's talk about his Godfather books. Joseph Kanon was up next and he started his talk with conversation about the filming of The Good German staring George Clooney. He suggested people read the book now in anticipation of the movie so they can recall it without the movie adaptation. In other words, to see the character in their minds as someone other than Clooney though he was enthusiastic about him in this role. Literary purity and all that. I had not heard Kanon speak before and his talk was both warm and professional. And while I have not yet read The Good German, I will.

Brad Meltzer opened with a very amusing tale about being a bestselling author in Bulgaria and his visit there. Many of my author pals have told tales of how they are bestsellers overseas and their treatment there is very different. Meltzer told us of getting off the plane where an assembly of paparazzi were there shooting pictures. He turned to see who they were shooting and suddenly realized it was HIM. One of the first questions, "How does it feel to sell more books than John Grisham?" Clearly this was news to Brad. Ends up to whip the press into a frenzy there this was leaked to them by his Bulgarian publicist. And thus, this rock star treatment. Meltzer tells the story with great deadpan humor and self-deprecating wit.

From there he talked about the research that went into The Book of Fate. He was intrigued by the worlds of ex-Presidents who one day carried the secrets to nuclear war and the following day were living lives as ordinary citizens. He spent time with George Bush, Sr, as well as Bill Clinton and drew upon those references for his character of President Manning and his Senior Aide, Wes Holloway. Also woven into the story are references to the Freemasons, who have a deep rich history and whose members have included some of the most prominent members of this country.

What I like about Meltzer is that his fame has not kept him from being an author you not only want to listen to, but also talk to. We chatted for a few moments afterwards and I vowed that next year I am going to get in touch with him before the conference to see if we can spend more time catching up.

From here I walked over to the theatre where the Barack Obama event was being held. Clearly large crowds were anticipated for this and it was the only ticketed event of the fair. Free, but a ticket was required. I had fun in the press area meeting the local journalists, which is something I always enjoy when I am traveling.

Obama talked about his new book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. I cannot remember the last time I saw a politician speak sans handlers, bodyguards and staff so this night was welcoming refreshing. He spoke of his thoughts on America, his history and why he came to write this book. I typically loathe hearing speeches from politicians on either side of the aisle, but listening here I can see why Obama has been hearing rallying cries about a run for president. In fact, one audience member addressed him as "Mr. President, " and told him she had "the audacity of hope" when she called him that, which got some great applause.

Sunday I did a quick swim though it was colder with more wind than any other day though there was a not a cloud in the sky. In fact, I ended up doing water aerobics in the jacuzzi, which was quite a feat!!! The first event had Aron Ralston, whose book Between a Rock and a Hard Place was a favorite of mine and Mark Zupan, whose title was When Life Deals You A Crappy Hand You Can Fold or You Can Play. Zupan had been injured in a car accident and lost the use of his legs. Both speakers were engaging and honest.

Ralston's line: "It's not what you do, but who you are" is one I can see will make it to my wall. Ralston also talked about depression and how it has affected him. He told of what has happened after his accident. Sadly earlier this year his longtime girlfriend broke up with him and he talked of how this was tougher than losing his arm. He was candid about this bringing on an eating disorder and a need to get some help. He also spoke of three friends who ended their lives with suicide.

All too often we close a book about a subject like Ralston's and think he has figured a way to get around without his arm and now his life will be charmed and the worst is behind him. Instead we realized hearing from him that life still can get in the way!

Zupan talked about the lack of structure after the hospital and that's effect on him. His girlfriend and he broke up and he was pretty down. Then he learned to use a car and was able to get around and life improved. He had a great line. "Life is choices. How they are strung together in all the difference." That line will stay with me.

I then caught Melissa Bank whose book, The Wonder Spot, is on my shelf still unread though I have had many folks tell me I would love it. She read from it, which normally is something I do not love from a writer, but since her books have such an autobiographical tone to them, it more than worked! And I will move that book to my "must read" pile.

Also on this panel was Janet Fitch, who had visited our offices many years ago when she first had White Oleander published. She was a pleasure then and she still is now. She talked about her new book, Paint It Black and read from it. And then she shared a very funny anecdote about the day Oprah called her to tell her White Oleander had been selected as a pick. She also talked about being told by a teacher that she could not write after she wrote a story called Diamond: Horse of Mystery as a child and she did not write again til she was 21. She talked about her love of being a historian and how she backs that down into fiction.

Next up was Sara Gruen whose book Water for Elephants is one of my favorites of 2006. She always wanted to write and she left a job as a tech writer with the confidence of her husband that she should take two years or two books to see if this worked. Water for Elephants is not one of those first two books, but it's clearly the one we all know her for. She talked about how the story came to her after reading a newspaper about a depression circus one morning right after she had finished a research trip for a novel. Reading that story she knew this was a story she had to write and she got busy with that research.

For background she met two elephants and a host of circus folks from through the years who gave her great stories to shape her characters and the mood of the times. She spoke about her next book, which will be about a group of apes whose DNA closely matches humans. I know I look forward to reading it.

Bank contributed a very funny story about writing that made me wonder if she has a second career in standup comedy. She talked about how hard it is to write and how it does not come naturally. There are days she says that scooping ice cream in high school was more gratifying. She also says that trying to write is not writing much like trying to go to the gym is not going to the gym. I think she should start from both those ideas and the character she has been musing whose name is Robin.

Next I wandered over to the Mystery Stage and caught a talk with Lee Irby, Marshall Karp (who wrote The Rabbit Factory, which I loved) and Lisa Jones Johnson. No notes from here though I was happy to run into Stacy Alesi, whose website is Stacy did the BEST coverage of Thriller Fest and I was happy to be able to finally tell her how great it was.

Next I had no real plan so I drifted over to a talk being done by Danny Meyer, author of Setting the Table and Jay McInerney, who had done A Hedonist in the Cellar. Jesse Kornbluth had praised Setting the Table on his website, and thus I was looking forward to hearing more from Meyer. And I was not disappointed. He talked about the restaurant business bringing up all the find points about it that I love ---- the atmosphere, the ambience and the cuisine. Later I looked up his restaurants. I knew Union Square Cafe and Grammercy Tavern off the top of my head, but then I saw that Tabla and Eleven Madison Park are also among his establishments, which are two of my favorite restaurants and reasons I wish our offices were downtown.

Their talk was lively with Jay talking wine and wine writing and Danny showing every inch of his passion for the dining experience. For the record I am in awe of the floral arrangements at Eleven Madison Park as much as I love the food. Each time I am there i know something special is happening and I want to read Setting the Table to see more of the "secrets" behind making the restaurant business hospitable.

Next I wandered over to see a panel with Jane Hamilton, Jennifer Egan, Julia Glass and Roger Rosenblatt. I felt the star here was Rosenblatt who did not read, but rather talked about his work. Of those who read, Hamilton was the only one who really grabbed me. I really love talking more than reading.

I jumped back over to the Mystery Stage and caught James Grippando, Paul Levine and Barbara Parker for a bit. Paul, as always, had great jokes and quick wit. And Grippando quickly reminded me just how insane his writing schedule was this year with three adult novels and a YA novel as well.

I had to zip from this to the panel being done by Charles J. Shields, the author of Mockingbird, the story of Harper Lee and Peter Richmond, who is the author of Peggy Lee's biography. I knew little about Peggy and more about Harper. This was one of the best panels as both authors were excellent speakers and clearly knew how to present their subjects. Shields made me want to travel to Monroeville with a hope of catching Harper eating breakfast or lunch in town.

My day wrapped with another Mystery Stage event, this time with James O. Born, Edna Buchanan, Jonathan King and Tim Dorsey. Three of the four are journalists with Born being a Special Agent in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Each knows Florida really well and they shared fun stories of their lives as Floridians and work colliding, which made this a special event. Born got a copy of his new book, a stand alone called Field of Fire into my hands, which I look forward to reading. Next time I am down there I am going to have Born take me to a shooting gallery as after reading many crime and thriller novels, I am curious as to what this is like!

From there it was a drive to the Ft. Lauderdale Airport, which has one of the best car rental setups in the country, as well as Jet Blue, my favorite airline. As I walked through the airport I saw NASCAR fans heading back to their flights. I do find it somewhat amusing that the fact that once again the NASCAR race was in Miami the same weekend as the Book Fair. On my flight down I was seated with a woman who was in town for NASCAR, but as I told her what I did we proceeded towards the terminal yakking about books and favorite authors. Which just proves that you never know where you will find a reader. And in Miami last weekend there were several hundred thousand of them!

True thanks to Mitch Kaplan, one of the founders of the fair, who is as one person coined him, "the most unassuming man in publishing" and the team at Miami-Dade College who hosted this brilliant event. I already have my calendar marked for this event next year and I have been telling friends and colleagues that they really want to join me as this is a weekend they would not want to miss.