“What are you reading?” may not be quite as ubiquitous (or have quite the same meaning) as it did back in the days before we all became tethered to our smart phones, but more often than not the question still commands a rather keen answer. For Miamians, the answers are also many and varied. Oh, it’s not so much because we’re such a polyglot town (though of course there is that); it’s more that we’re blessed with a multitude of ways in which we’re inspired to read. Between author events and writers workshops, drive-by book sales and writers-in-residence, Miami has more going for it, book-wise, than just about any other city in the country, if not the world.
When November rolls around the reading ante is upped to such an exponential degree even a mathematical shut-in would find it difficult to accurately compute. Yes, we mean Miami Book Fair International, which for nearly three decades has given us books and authors in increasing abundance, and in so doing has abundantly increased our reasons to read. MBFI 2012 will be exceptionally no exception, but you can bet a library’s worth of words it will be unmitigatedly exceptional.
Everyone knows Books and Books’ Mitchell Kaplan co-founded MBFI with Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón and Raquel Roque. And they’ve all been duly praised. So this year SunPost decided to get with The Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College Program Coordinator Lissette Mendez, who’s in on everything from setting up the Children’s Alley to overseeing each year’s Literary Death Match. Here’s what the good gal had to say:
What, in general, does your position entail?
During Book Fair I work on all aspects of the author program — booking about half the authors, and then everything they do. General schedule and all the side programs. Literary Death Match, which I oversee, but Nicole Swift works on directly. I am also specifically responsible for comics, I oversee, with our operations director, all of the children’s programs, Children’s Alley. And then also the program that brings the kids on field trip. Teachers Fun Day (workshops for teachers). Anything that has an author in it, I work on it in one way or another.
And in addition to Book Fair?
I develop and implement literary programs year round — The Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College’s creative writing program — nonfiction courses — every semester, as well as the two Writers Institutes (conferences) during Book Fair and in May. I also implement all of the other programs — the Big Read, Generation Genius Reads (kids), StoryArts (kids), visiting authors who come to the campus, readings and other presentations. Just about everything we do (in English) I work on, or I am responsible for. We are a tiny team.
How many authors has Book Fair got on tap this year?
468, in Spanish and in English.
Is scheduling their appearances pretty much a year round challenge?
We start booking authors in April, and then we have a couple of intense weeks in September during which Paola (my colleague), Mitchell and I pair authors and schedule them. It is really intense and we take it very seriously. We are very careful.
Speaking of which, have there been any unusual challenges bringing in a particular author either for 2012 or for previous Fairs?
Nothing unusual in terms of bringing them in. Everyone loves the Fair. Now, of course, some have security concerns, such as with Michael Moore last year. He is an awesome, sweet man, but his security team required a lot of coordination. Another awesome fun event was the children’s event for the Wimpy Kid book last year. Jeff Kinney came to sign. We had like 3,000 people, and he signed for five hours. And I worked with Abrams and the Fair’s logistics team to make the event happen — Jeff was traveling with a trailer that made snow, so we had a blizzard for all the kids, complete with snowballs and ice hockey and other games in the back of Children’s Alley. This year Sandy has caused some disruption with the Isabel and Ruben Toledo evening on Sunday. They were not able to get to Miami until today and the opening of their show at the Freedom Tower has been delayed until December.
Without naming names (unless you want to), have any authors demanded rock star treatment?
LOL Most author are pretty low key, cool people. No, I can’t say that we have had any rock star attitude, not even from the rock stars! Iggy Pop was awesome and down to earth; did not request anything but water and fruit — totally normal. Susie Essman was amazing — her publicist asked for Evian, and so I made sure we had it, but it wasn’t even her who really wanted it… her publicity team just put it in her rider! She was so funny and down to earth. We talked real estate on the Beach the whole time. I am totally expecting to bump into her at yoga any day. Another super down to earth person was Michael Moore. We met because I escorted him to Jonathan Franzen’s presentation the year before last, and all he wanted to do was sit in the back. He didn’t even want front row seats. I wish I could give you juicy details about spoiled stars, but I’ve dealt with everyone (been with the Fair since 2004) and everyone has been lovely. Patti Smith just wanted somewhere quiet to read over what she was going to read from; John Waters was super sweet and all he wanted was coffee (we chatted and in his dedication he called me his bodyguard), and Isabella Rossellini asked me to watch her purse, like we were just girlfriends out for lunch.
I wish I could catch anything. I can’t stay in one place long enough and usually my mind is racing about what has to be done next. But I want to see Tom Wolfe and Adam Gopnik; Aline Crumb, and the panel with Chris Ware; Chip Kidd and Charles Burns, also the conversation with Derf (My Friend Dahmer) and his editor Charlie Kochman, who is one of my favorite people. Camille Paglia, who I saw at Book Fair like 20 years ago when I was barely out of high school. And here I am working with her, and she will be in the same room. I am a fan of Susie Bright from way back. Jo Nesbo, Etgar Keret, and my good friend Pablo Medina whose writing I love. Campbell McGrath and Richard Blanco, also good friends. Eric Erlandson’s conversation about his life in music, buddhism and Hole, and of course Kurt’s suicide. I am a huge fan of Hanna Rosin. And I would love to catch Naomi Wolf and listen to her talk about this new book. I want to go to all of it. Hugh Howey, Victor LaValle. All of it. Before I came to work here, I came to Book Fair every year. I would save money for months to buy books. I would pack the days from one session to another. I never missed the Fair since I was in high school. So it was kind of destiny. Plus I can’t do anything but read. I am quite useless otherwise.
Was there an author you wanted to book but couldn’t?
Do your author duties in any way tie-in to what you do at the Miami Writers Institute?
Totally. All the writers who teach are also presenting at the Book Fair, and when we do the MWI in May, I often call on authors whom I know because of Book Fair, or whose work I came across because of the Fair.
What exactly is MWI anyway?
It is a conference for writers, so tthere are workshops, publishing talks and information, one-on-one manuscript consultations. People who want to write a book or have something in progress. The workshops are three and four days, but three hours long and very intense. Some are shorter, too. It is deep and of good quality. I came out of an MFA program (FIU) and so I wanted to create something that was of that quality and seriousness for people who can’t pursue MFAs for whatever reason.
Does it in anyway tie in to the Generation Genius literacy programs?
No, Generation Genius is the banner under which we group all of the children’s and teen’s literacy and learning programs, while MWI is for adults seeking creative writing instruction. Now there is also a Generation Genius Writes program, which is creative writing for kids, tweens and teens, and we have workshops throughout the year including at Book Fair.
Won’t Generation Genius be the kinda guiding light behind this year’s Children’s Alley?
Yes, behind everything for kids really. We all we sat down and looked at everything as one and (as I saw my own kids, 5 and 2, learning to read and/or learning period) it occurred to me that we needed to re-imagine what we do, and which we do very well and which is beloved, to tie in with the way kids learn across the curriculum, but of course keeping it all about the books, and making it fun. So we worked with the same committee of super volunteers to create activities. Also we partnered with MAM and Museum of Science and History Miami as well as with Children’s Trust and Early Learning Coalition. We re-imagined the pop-up venues: one is about art, another music, then history/culture, science, health and the body and then there is one for toddlers that just offers age-appropriate activities. And within those subject areas we chose books and developed activities. We give away thousands of books. Thousands and thousands over the week. We also do field trips, thousands of children, including kids with special needs and abilities. We give them them books as well.
Literary Death Match, and my favorite Lemony Snicket. I think every part of the Fair is awesome and can never understand people who are indifferent about it. I love books, I love everything that has to do with books. I have a tattoo that reads Born to Read.
Before we go, is it true you’re a writer in your own right?
I was, but now I work too much to write!
So we’re not gonna see Lissette Mendez making her own Book Fair author appearance?
When I retire!
Three Book Fair Evenings Not to Be Missed
As Miami Book Fair queenpin Lissette Mendez so intimidatingly indicates in this week’s SunPost cover story, the 2012 edition of America’s biggest book confab boasts 468 authors. Considering the bulk of those authors will be appearing over a single weekend, it’d be literally impossible for anyone to catch every one that they’d like. Even worse, the onslaught often forces book lovers to choose between some of their most cherished favorites, placing an irrevocable strain on a long-standing relationships. So we’re not even gonna try to spare you the trouble of having to choose one loved one over another. Instead here’s three must-sees that will leave you keenly dreamy.
Sandy may have rained on the Toledo sibs parade and forced them to hold back their Freedom Tower retrospective till December, but that won’t in any way diminish the fact that two of fashion’s all-time finest will be making the scene. Joined by The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman, who’s written the lives of such esteemed types as Isak Dinesen and Collette, this chat promises to be the kinda conversation which will be as heady as it is stylish. And it’ll make for a stunning prequel for when they return with Toledo/Toledo: Full Circle. Sunday, Nov. 11, 7:00 p.m., Freedom Tower
By now all the world knows the legendary Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood is epically set right here in Miami, and that it might just be his best novel since The Bonfire of the Vanities. That the ever dapper wordslinger didn;t need no stickin’ Savanorala to spur him along and instead set out to “single-handedly spawn a great revival of the social novel as practiced by Zola, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis” is either testament to his unflagging ambition or to Miami’s remarkable capacity to inspire the world’s most unflappable minds. We’re thinkin’ it’s a bit of both — and then some. Sunday, Nov. 11, 6:00 p.m., Chapman Conference Center
Book lovers have been digging Sandra Cisneros since even before The House on Mango Street made her name a proverbial household word. From Bad Boys to Loose Women the Chicano Lit kicker has in a way always turned that house inside out. Recipient of Fellowships from both the National Endowment of the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation (the latter which led her to organize Los MacArturos), as well as more awards than any single mantel might safely hold, Cisneros not only set the stage for 21st century women, she paved the way for their men, so that they too could respect, honor and cherish all the inherent grace and dignity. Tuesday, Nov. 13, 8:00 p.m., Chapman Conference Center