Patti Smith's 'Just Kids' Wins Nonfiction Award

Rock musician Patti Smith is now a literary star. Her memoir about life in New York City in the 1960s, Just Kids, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The literary awards were handed out Wednesday night in New York City. Lord of Misrule author Jaimy Gordon won for fiction.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So there's an update on new media. Let's go to old media - books. Last night, Tom Wolfe was honored at the national Book Awards for his lifetime contribution to American literature. Wolfe is a best-selling author who has spent much of his career in the limelight. Not so for many of the other writes honored at the awards event. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, they enjoyed their chance to step onto center stage.

LYNN NEARY: At the entrance to the glitzy hall where the event was held, writer Justin Spring was signing in.

Mr. JUSTIN SPRING (Author, "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward"): Spring, S-P-R-I-N-G. You know, I'm waiting for my flowers.

Unidentified Woman: Oh you're a judge, too?

Mr. SPRING: No, I'm a finalist.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, finalists don't get flowers. I'm sorry.

NEARY: Spring didn't waste any time fretting over flowers. He was having too much fun. His book "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward" was one of the five finalists in the nonfiction category. And Spring was happy to bask in the attention being showered on him last night.

Mr. SPRING: It's electric. You know, you work for nine or ten years in a basement writing a book, nobody seems to understand you, you can't explain what you're doing to anyone - particularly in my case, because I was writing about a man who was virtually unknown - and here tonight, everybody is greeting me as if I'm somebody. It's wonderful.

NEARY: Peter Carey, a finalist in the fiction category, should be used to these events by now. He's won the Man Booker Prize twice. And this year, he was nominated for that award again for his novel, "Parrot and Olivier in America." Carey says he was thrilled when the book was also nominated for the National Book Award.

Mr. PETER CAREY (Author, "Parrot and Olivier in America"): This means such a -really a lot for me. This is my first American award, and I've lived here for a third of my life. So it feels like I've joined the national conversation on the page, in a way. And that so, it's emotionally, it's a big deal for me.

NEARY: Carey was considered one of the frontrunners for the award last night, Jaimy Gordon was not.

Ms. JAIMY GORDON (Author, "Lord of Misrule"): I think that I'm universally acknowledged to be the darkest dark horse in the fiction field.

NEARY: It's appropriate that Gordon uses betting lingo to describe herself, since her novel, "Lord of Misrule," is about horse racing. And she says it almost didn't make it to the finish line. Her publisher pushed her to get the book done by last summer.

Ms. GORDON: Because he said we were he was going to nominate it for the National Book Award, which I thought was hilarious. But he's never been so insistent, so I finally got the book ready. And to my amazement, his fantasy came true.

NEARY: But the fantasy didn't end there. In a turn of events that took everyone, including the author, by surprise, Gordon went on to win the award for fiction.

Other winners included Kathryn Erskine in the category of Young People's Literature, for her novel "Mockingbird." And in the poetry category, Terence Hayes won for his collection, "Lighthead." Hayes is known for the playfulness of his poetry, which was on display during a reading the night before the awards ceremony.

Mr. TERENCE HAYES (Author, "Lighthead"): (Reading) If you are addicted to silence, find guard dogs, traffic or infants. If you are addicted to infants, try reliable contraception or try asking yourself what's wrong with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: The most emotional moment of last night came when Patti Smith won the non fiction award for her memoir "Just Kids," about her lifelong friendship and early love affair with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith said she promised Mapplethorpe she would write the book the day before he died of AIDS.

Ms. PATTI SMITH (Author, "Just Kids"): I was the only one that could write it really, since we grew together, we evolved as artists together. And he could also trust that I would present him to the world as I knew him, which was as an artist, a loving friend; mischievous, generous, kind, funny and beautiful. So I did my best.

NEARY: In accepting her award, Smith recalled the time when she was a young girl, new to the city, working at Scribner's Bookstore and dreaming of writing her own book one day.

Ms. SMITH: And when I would have to unpack and put up the National Book Award winners, I used to wonder what it would feel like...

(Soundbite of sobbing)

Ms. SMITH: ...to - sorry - to be a National Book Award winner. So thank you for letting me find out.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

NEARY: It can be easy to dismiss awards as frivolous, almost foolish. But those who have spent years earning them, like Patti Smith, understand what it means to win.

Lynn Neary, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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