There are not many places in this fine world where, during the course of a couple of hours, you can hear esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson speak redneck and rocker Patti Smith suddenly lose her place in a song, then laugh it off.
But such is the serendipitous nature of Miami Book Fair International, where on Friday night at Miami Dade College, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilson spoke about writing his debut novel Anthill, and Smith sang and read from her memoir Just Kids, which on Wednesday night won the National Book Award for nonfiction. (She is, she told the audience, thrilled at the honor.)
Wilson has been called "the only living heir to Charles Darwin'' and has made his career studying ant colonies. Smith lived with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1969 (scientifically proven as the absolute coolest thing a human being could possibly do). They may not seem to have much in common. After all, there's a wide gulf between exploring the complexities of the natural world and living on a dime and a dream and playing Vanilla Fudge records in the late '60s.
But on Friday, Wilson and Smith were just writers, and they succeeded in wowing the crowd.
Wilson was up first to discuss Anthill, a coming-of-age novel about a young Alabama boy who discovers a pristine tract of land and is transported by it - only to learn it's targeted for development.
Writing a novel was strange and new, said the Harvard professor, who also pleaded his pet cause: the desperate need to protect biodiversity.
"A scientist thinks like a poet and writes like a bookkeeper," he explained. Dialogue was tough, but he muddled through, confessing he was "particularly proud of doing redneck." Hence a demonstration of his best ‘‘cut-throat backwoods'' accent.
There's no missing Wilson's Southern gentility, though he's been in Cambridge all these years. "I've been there 59 years, and I don't feel at home up there at all."
After Wilson made everybody feel just slightly guilty about that can of Raid under the sink - though not too guilty, because he assured everyone ants would be just fine when the rest of us were long gone -Smith took the stage. Clad in jeans and boots and getting briefly (and understandably) cranky when the lights went out, she quickly charmed the audience with brief readings from Just Kids interspersed with songs and stories about her life with Mapplethorpe, days of sharing lettuce soup and learning to be the artists they'd become.
As a teenager, she said, she fell in love with the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, and when she couldn't afford a copy of his Illuminations, she stole it. But: "I wouldn't support that at the Miami Book Fair."
Smith also led the crowd in a sing-along of her biggest hit, Because the Night. Fitting, because the night belonged to (book) lovers.