The National Book Awards announced Wednesday night honored both longtime writers and new authors, from Louise Erdrich who won for her novel The Round House to Katherine Boo, who was honored for her debut nonfiction work, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Erdrich has been a highly regarded author for nearly 30 years. She'd been a finalist twice before but said being honored is "all the more meaningful when you're older ... because you don't know if your years of writing at your very best are behind you."
Round House is the second of a planned trilogy, about an Ojibwe boy and his quest to avenge his mother's rape. A clearly delighted and surprised Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, spoke in her tribal tongue and then switched to English as she dedicated her fiction award to "the grace and endurance of native people."
Erdrich says she hopes the National Book Awards will help bring a wider audience to the book, and to the issues it covers. "Recently, The New York Times reported on the lack of funding for tribal police and the enormous disparity in justice, especially reservations and especially for women," Erdrich says.
Boo, who won the nonfiction prize for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, also hopes to focus a spotlight on an overlooked community — a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Mumbai. In accepting the award, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist thanked the people of that community for allowing her to tell their story.
"If this prize means anything, I think it's this: It's that small stories in so-called hidden places matter," she said. "And one of the reasons that they matter, I think, is because they implicate and they complicate what we generally consider to be the larger story in this country, which is the story of people who do have political and economic power."
In recent years, the National Book Awards have been criticized for nominating too many little-known authors while ignoring big names. The award, some people whispered not too softly, was losing its allure. In response, the National Book Foundation looked for ways to attract more attention. This year it announced the finalists on morning TV, and a number of well-known writers were included among the nominees.
Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, insists there was no change in the way the awards were judged, but he says the National Book Awards should have a higher profile. "We are trying to attract more attention because I think the more attention you attract will help us meet our goals," Augenbraum says. "And the goal really is to get more people to read good literature and good writing."
The awards ceremony already has its share of glitz. For several years now it has been held in an ornate venue on Wall Street just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange. Tim Siebles, a finalist for the poetry prize, says he's not used to so much glamour. "The whole scene ... I've never been in anything like this," Siebels says. "I mean, it's like an Oscar for writers."
In addition to Erdrich and Boo, other winners Wednesday night included David Ferry for his collection of poems and translations, Bewilderment, and William Alexander, author of Goblin Secrets in the young people's literature category.
Novelist Elmore Leonard was honored for his distinguished contribution to American letters. Leonard says he was just starting what he thought might be his last novel when he got the news.
"And I thought, with this kind of boost coming out of nowhere, how could I be working on my last book?" he says. So if nothing else, the National Book Awards this year will assure that Leonard will keep on writing.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.