Never has two minutes been so satisfying.
That’s all the time each of the 23 long-listed writers, finalists and winners of the National Book Award had to read from their various works Friday night at Miami Book Fair. In the final “Evenings With…” program, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, audiences got a taste of their work – and could then decide who they wanted to see in longer sessions over the weekend at Miami Dade College.
Wrangling 23 writers into their seats is slightly easier than herding cats (but only slightly), but everyone finally got seated. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, told them mock sternly they had two minutes each to read, then he’d ask each of them a question.
As Michael Paterniti (nominated for his nonfiction work Love and Other Ways of Dying) joked: The event was a lot like literary speed-dating, although the evening turned out to be far more satisfying.
Three of the winners were there: poet Robin Coste Lewis (Voyage of the Sable Venus); young adult author Neil Shusterman (Challenger Deep); and fiction writer Adam Johnson (Fortune Smiles), who turned a passage in his devastating, dark story Interesting Facts into a humorous piece.
“This is my favorite place to be as a writer in the world,” he said of the Book Fair.
But two minutes – or slightly longer in some cases, as nobody was really counting – proved sufficient to pique interest in all of these works, from Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens to Lawrence Raab’s elegant, funny poem Sirens from Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts.
The poets – who also included Ada Limon (Bright Dead Things); Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Heaven); Ross Gay (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude); and Jane Hirshfield (The Beauty) – may have had the easiest task: It’s easier to clock in under two minutes with a poem than it is to boil down a complicated passage from a nonfiction book. And yet the nonfiction authors persevered. They included Cynthia Barnett (Rain); Martha Hodes (Mourning Lincoln); Sy Montgomery (The Soul of an Octopus); Carla Power (If The Oceans Were Ink); and Michael White (Travels in Vermeer).
The line of the night came from Angela Flournoy, a finalist for her novel The Turner House, who, when asked about the characters in her book, talked of how some of them demanded her attention and she had to rebuff them.
“A novel is not a democracy,” she said.
“That’s my takeaway from the evening,” said poetry winner Lewis.