Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trip Report: Miami Book Fair

I'm gonna try to keep this snappy. I spent all of Monday afternoon on a plane and got home late last night from the Miami Book Fair International, where I was treated well, met some great people, and had a fine time. Going in I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and I got it.

Newly arrived at the hotel Saturday evening, I stepped out of the taxi into a crowd of handsome men in elegant evening wear and beautiful women in sequined gowns. "Holy crap," I thought. "If these people are authors, this will be the most humiliating weekend of my life." I hitched up my khakis, slung my canvas bag over my shoulder, and mustered all the dignity I possessed just to walk through the lobby, check in, and meet Editor Charlie in the restaurant. It turned out my anxiety was in vain: all the pretty people were there to attend an event hosted by Donald Trump hawking his latest investment scheme. I should've known. Writers are lucky if they remember to wear socks.

Even better, Charlie was at the restaurant with cartoonist, author and publisher Denis Kitchen, and longtime MAD Magazine editor Nick Meglin. I already knew Denis but I'd never met Nick, and I opened by expressing heartfelt respect for the man who led MAD through all the years I read it. He deftly deflected my star-struck flattery, and in a few minutes we were talking about comics like old friends. He's a very funny man with terrific stories.

The four of us left the hotel and made our way to an author's reception many blocks away, where we enjoyed a little wine, scant hors d'oeuvres, and some good company. That's where I met
Neil Kleid, creator of the graphic novel The Big Kahn, with whom I'd be doing my panel the next day. Neil and I had already swapped some ideas for our talk via e-mail, but really had our first chance to sit and talk about the panel and comics and life. Great guy. Buy his books.

Also at the party were a few more graphic novelists (notably Dan Goldman), writer and Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore, whom I did not approach, and writer Roy Blount Jr., whom I not only approached but pretty much stalked. Mr. Blount is a witty prose stylist with a distinguished literary career. I am probably the worst kind of fan an author like Mr. Blount could have: I know I've read a lot of his work and loved it, but I could not for the life of me think of a single specific piece of his to talk about. This had the effect of making me look like an idiot. Mr. Blount was nevertheless gracious and charming, even as he and a small group of us (including Charlie, Denis, Nick and Neil) ended the evening waiting on a dark Miami street corner for a promised shuttle back to the hotel that took forever to arrive.

Meeting Mr. Blount might've been the highlight of my weekend if I hadn't gone to the hotel bar afterward. I don't spend a lot of time in bars, but I was on West Coast time and midnight (9 p.m. Pacific) was just too early to retire. Neil and I adjourned for a beer and were joined by John Shableski, the sales manager for Diamond Direct Distributing, which makes him the most important person in the comics industry you've never heard of. John knows Charlie (everyone knows Charlie) and he's always had nice things to say about Mom's Cancer, particularly as an introductory graphic novel for those who don't know them. It was great to finally meet him and get his perspective on the business.

And then we were joined by cartoonist and teacher Carol Tyler. Maybe all you need to know about Carol is that she walked into a bar filled with wannabe Trumps slowly twirling a cheerleader's baton. It's just something she always wanted to learn. When she heard I'd done Mom's Cancer she jumped up and gave me a big hug. Then she gave everyone else a hug. Cynicism shrivels in her presence. I think Carol Tyler is a force of nature deposited on our planet just to create comics, inspire creativity, and make people happy.

The Fair took over Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus in the middle of the city. Little tented booths lined both sides of several streets--probably six blocks worth in total--with a dozen panels and talks happening simultaneously in different campus buildings.

Tightly packed booths lined the streets. I got in early and shot this photo before many people had arrived. It got crowded later, but never unpleasantly so.

That picture illustrates something about the Fair that struck me: although it's considered a major event in the book business and attracts top talent (speakers included Al Gore, Ralph Nader, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Lethem), the booths were mostly occupied by used-book peddlers and niche publishers rather than the big publishing houses I'd expected. As it was, I found the Fair an interesting and nice mix of high-powered literary wattage and affordable populism. I even bought a swell used book myself (Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA, 1980. Ten bucks!).

My Sunday brunch, shortly before I had to go to work. Several food stalls were set up at the Fair, including the Greek place where I bought this. The salad and rice were ordinary, but the shish-kabob was really extraordinary. I don't know how it was marinated but it was extremely tender and tasty. Also note the yellow cloth bag illustrated with the official poster of the Miami Book Fair, drawn by Jeff Kinney. I swear, everywhere I look . . .

Editor Charlie (left) moderating a panel immediately before mine--in fact in the same room--on the art and life of Harvey Kurtzman, longtime contributor to MAD and Playboy. He was joined by former MAD editor Nick Meglin, Denis Kitchen (who wrote a book on Kurtzman edited by Charlie and published by Abrams), and Kurtzman's daughter Nellie.

The audience for the Kurtzman panel, which I'm including because it looked a lot like the audience for mine.

Neil and I ready to start our panel, which ended in insults and a slap fight. I'm embarrassed I've already forgotten the name of the woman introducing us, but she was nice and had a lovely French accent.

I think our hour-long panel went well. Neil and I weren't quite sure why we were put together in the first place; I was told it was because our work shared a theme of fathers and sons, which as a panel topic didn't really inspire either of us. Neither were we much interested in doing a traditional reading, which prose authors can get away with but I always find frustrating and awkward when cartoonists do it. I mean, you can project the page on the screen and read it aloud, but the audience usually reads ahead of you and it seems fairly pointless to me.

Instead, we decided to focus on the language of comics--the graphic and narrative tools comics offer a writer that no other medium does--illustrated by examples from our books. We hoped to offer something for both people who already knew comics and those who may love books but are still figuring out how these new-fangled graphic novels work. We each showed some slides and then spent several minutes just talking to each other, took some good questions, and were done. I think it was kind of a risky approach but I also think it worked, and gave our audience something they probably wouldn't have gotten at any other panel.

Neil and I signing at a table downstairs immediately after the panel. Unfortunately, the Fair didn't receive its order of Neil's books in time, which was a big disappointment. Neil instead offered to draw sketches for anyone who wanted, and was a big hit with a couple of families' kids.

WHTTWOT for sale directly across from the signing table. We sold a couple. This picture's going in my Facebook Fan Page's "In the Wild" album.

Oh yeah . . . and it looks like I'm doing a new book.

Man. I didn't keep that snappy at all.



Sherwood Harrington said...

Sounds like a terrific and worthwhile time, and you kept the news of your new book snappy enough, coy fellow that you are.

Two raised eyebrows:

First: how could you not approach Larry Wilmore? He's one of my favorites on the Daily Show ensemble. Ah, maybe he's a snot in person, though.

Second: Miami Dade College is one of the largest institutions of "higher education" in the world, with more than 150,000 students and eight physical campuses (in addition to a healthy set of internet-based classes), so, while the campus that hosted the book fair may have been small, it was just the camel's nose.

When I joined DeAnza College twenty years ago, there was quite a little boasting skirmish going on between Miami Dade and DeAnza about pre-eminence in the world of community colleges. Since then, DeAnza's growth has been fitful, but Miami Dade has burgeoned. In fact, in 2003, they started doing something that we're prohibited from doing by law: granting some four-year degrees in addition to the conventional cc's certificates and associates' degrees.

Do they really call themselves "Miami Dade University" now? That's a bit of a stretch.

So... what's this about another book?

Brian Fies said...

See, now you made me go and look stuff up. All I knew about Miami Dade is what I saw, which looked like about six buildings covering four square blocks. I see now that I was on the Wolfson Campus, one of eight in a larger, more impressive system. I also had the name wrong: it's Miami Dade College, not University, and I'll edit the post accordingly.

Larry Wilmore seemed like a nice, unsnotty guy. He was just always talking to someone and I didn't want to bother him.

It seems like there was something else I wanted to mention, but it slipped my mind.

Mike said...

I'm hoping for some talking ponies.