Sunday, November 15, 2009

Miami Book Fair 2009

I spent the day in Miami, hobnobbing with authors, librarians, booksellers, and of course readers. The weather was beautiful, but the pickings were slim. There were a lot of authors I wasn't familiar with, which is sometimes a nice way of finding new authors, but instead I went with authors somewhat more familiar.

We didn't get down there until after 10; I wasn't willing to get up before 7 on my day off to see Al Gore. I heard the room was packed so I'm sure I wasn't missed. Just wandering the street fair I ran into Carol Fitzgerald from The Book Report Network, owner of www.Bookreporter.com, www.ReadingGroupGuides.com, www.AuthorsOnTheWeb.com, and several other excellent, book related websites. She promised to email me the titles of two upcoming St. Martins/Minotaur books that sounded fabulous.

My first panel of the day featured funny thriller writers Paul Levine (pictured top) and Jeff Lindsay (pictured bottom.) Richard Belzer was scheduled to be with them but was a no-show. No great loss though, Levine and Lindsay were, as always, very entertaining. They were introduced by Chauncey Mabe, the long time book editor of the Sun Sentinel who informed us that he was no longer in that position, but was now a freelance writer. Note to self: check into that story...

Paul Levine opened by telling the audience that he was sure he was speaking for everyone in the room when he said, "Jeff, you are a sick puppy." Lindsay is the author of the Dexter series, the lovable serial killer that kills other serial killers that has since been made into the hit TV show on Showtime.

Levine then spoke a little about the Miami he remembered - he was a practicing lawyer for 17 years before going Hollywood and writing for TV shows, Jag and Lassiter, among others. He spoke about his latest book, Illegal, which is a really good thriller about a boy and his mother trying to move to the US from Mexico, illegally of course, and they get separated. It's a really good story and very suspenseful. Levine spoke about the opening, saying it "opens with something a lot of lawyers do; a lawyer trying to bribe a judge."

Lindsay spoke next, opening with "So much time, so little to say." Every time I see him I am reminded that he once tried his hand at stand-up comedy - lots of one liners. People got to ask questions at the end, and someone asked him if the Michael C. Hall character got into his head when he was trying to write the book. He says it doesn't affect him; he tries to keep away from Hollywood as much as possible. He doesn't write for the show and there are some discrepancies between the books and the show. One in particular he found confusing - the character Vince Masuoka in the book became Vince Masuka in the TV show. He wondered why Hollywood made Vince lose his "o".

One of the most interesting questions came from a librarian. She asked whether Dexter's name came from "dexterous", meaning left handed, and "sinister", meaning right handed. Lindsay was stunned, saying it was only the second time he's ever been asked this. She was correct - he said the book's original title was the "Left Hand of God".

After the mystery panel, it was time for politics so we headed over to see Taylor Branch. His new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President offers unprecedented access to a sitting president. Branch spoke about how he met Clinton when they roomed together during the McGovern campaign in the 1970s. Branch decided he was too "cynical for politics" and became a journalist, but Clinton realized he had a gift for politics. Years later, Branch was invited to an inaugural party for newly elected President Clinton at Katherine Graham's house, where Clinton greeted him by saying in amazement, "Can you believe this?"

Shortly after that, Branch was summoned to the White House. Clinton told Branch that he was interested in recording history in the making, and asked Branch if he would be interested in helping. Branch said he was amazed at how idealistic Clinton still was, after twenty years in politics. Branch agreed, and they began meeting on a regular basis, usually late at night and in secret. Clinton would talk about whatever was going on, and Branch recorded it, asking questions along the way. Clinton offered almost unlimited access to a sitting president, all of it on the record, which was quite extraordinary. Branch says the book is not a biography, that he was too close to the subject and too close in time to create such a book. Instead, he views it as a "first hand record of being with a sitting president," recording his thoughts on events while they were happening.

Branch told some great stories. I especially loved the one about how President Clinton was awakened one night at 3:30 in the morning by the secret service. Apparently Boris Yeltsin was visiting and staying at Blair House, but he had "escaped" and was standing on the lawn, drunk and in his underwear, yelling for a pizza. The secret service wanted to know what to do. Suffice it to say Yeltsin got his pizza. He also talked about how Clinton had been invited to go to Japan for some conference, but refused to go because Chelsea had her junior year midterm exams, and he didn't want to leave her during that stressful time.

Branch also told a hilarious story about how there was some sort of summit, and Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush all ended up staying over at the White House. It was the first time ever that four presidents sat down and had breakfast together in the White House. It was a quiet meal, they didn't have much to say to one another until the subject of Ross Perot came up. It turned out that the one thing they all had in common was that they all hated Perot, especially Bush! They shared Perot stories all morning long.

Someone asked Branch if he wondered if Clinton was telling the truth, or just being a "storyteller", trying to make his own history. Branch pointed out that Clinton would have had to have been clairvoyant to do that, he was speaking on events as they happened, and would have no way of knowing how things would spin out later on. Being the Bill Clinton fan that I am, I was completely captivated and bought the book. I have to say that Branch seemed genuinely delighted to sign every book put in front of him. He shook hands, chatted, and was just his amiable self.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta was scheduled next for the hall where C-Span was recording all day for BookTV. However, he had cancelled, and Mike Farrell had agreed to fill in for him. At the closing of the Branch segment, it was announced that Farrell had cancelled as he had a death in the family the day before. So there was a gap in the schedule, just in time for lunch.

After lunch we headed back to see Gwen Ifill. She is always so calm and laidback on NPR, but was quite feisty and charming at this event. She spoke about her career, how she started in print journalism until Tim Russert dared her to do TV full time. She acquiesced, and was on NBC for years with her good friend and mentor, Russert. She is thrilled with her move to PBS however, and was asked about today's TV journalists. She said she feels like she needs to be just a conduit of the news, and that too many people prefer to use the media to just "confirm conclusions they've already reached."

Ifill also spoke about moderating the debate during the election, and even made reference to Queen Latifa - which was my first thought when I saw her on the schedule at the fair. She took a lot of flack about her, at the time, upcoming book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, but she was protected from it as she prepared for the debate. The book didn't come out until long after the election, and she was vindicated when it did - it is not a biography of Obama. It is a book about black men in politics, and Obama is just one of several including Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Ifill says "the good thing about writing about race - something is always happening."

Something that is dear to Ifill's heart is The History Makers Project. This is a website that archives interviews of famous African Americans as a way to preserve their history. Ifill has done several interviews, including Quincy Jones and Eartha Kitt, shortly before she passed away.

Wally Lamb was scheduled after Ifill, but I'd seen him before and didn't care to see him again. The only other author I would have liked to see was John Hodgeman, but he wasn't scheduled until 5, which would have had me driving around Miami (and frankly, not the nicest part of Miami) after dark, so I passed.

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