Members Of 'Lonely Craft' Gather For National Book Awards

James McBride won the National Book Award for fiction Tuesday for "The Good Lord Bird," about a young slave who meets and travels with abolitionist John Brown. The nonfiction award was won by George Packer for "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." The poetry award was won by Mary Szybist for "Incarnadine."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Each year the best in American fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature is honored at the publishing industry's glitziest gathering, the National Book Awards. NPR's Lynn Neary attended the gala, and has this report.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Ask any writer and they will tell you, writing is a lonely craft. Which is why the nominees for the National Book Awards often seem both thrilled and slightly overwhelmed by all the attention they get during publishing's big party. Gene Luen Yang, nominated in the young people's literature category for his graphic novel "Boxers and Saints," pretty much summed up the feeling in a couple of words.

GENE LUEN YANG: It's crazy; it's nuts.

NEARY: Jesmyn Ward, who won the prize for best fiction in 2011, said she felt like a kid in the company of some of the greats.

JESMYN WARD: So many writers that I admire, you know, so many legends are here tonight. And I'm just, I'm in awe.

NEARY: Maya Angelou and E.L. Doctorow were among the literary heavyweights in attendance. Both were honored for their lifelong contributions and service to American literature. Angelou was introduced by her good friend and fellow writer Toni Morrison, who said Angelou was a legend who had opened doors for many African-American writers. Angelou responded by expressing her gratitude in song.

MAYA ANGELOU: There's an old statement that's - which is - (Singing) When it look like the sun will not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. (Speaking) Amazing, amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

NEARY: In his speech, E.L. Doctorow took on the Internet, beginning by praising all the "content providers" who had been nominated, and warning against the loss of privacy that comes along with the advantages of being connected. Techies, he said, sometimes forget that reading is the essence of interactivity. The love of reading, and words and language, was palpable in this crowd; not the least when Mary Szybist, who won for her poetry collection "Incarnadine," took the stage and paid homage to her often-overlooked genre, which even she sometimes loses faith in.

MARY SZYBIST: If it cannot do what I want it to do, if it cannot restore those I have lost, then why bother with it at all? There's plenty that poetry cannot do. But the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.

NEARY: Other writers honored last night were Cynthia Kadohata, in young people's literature, for "The Thing about Luck"; and in nonfiction, George Packer won for "The Unwinding," which he describes as a collage of stories about both ordinary and well-known Americans from all walks of life.

GEORGE PACKER: And it's a portrait of institutions and structures coming undone as the economy works more and more for a few people, and against the many.

NEARY: The final award of the night was for fiction. James McBride took the prize for "The Good Lord Bird," the story of a young slave who disguises himself as a girl, and joins up with fiery abolitionist John Brown. McBride said he didn't prepare a speech because he was sure he wouldn't win against some formidable competitors.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Had Rachel Kushner or Jhumpa Lahiri, or Thomas Pynchon or George Saunders won tonight, I wouldn't have felt bad because they were - they are fine writers. But it sure is nice to get it. (Laughter)

(AUDIENCE APPLAUSE)

NEARY: Writing may be a solitary occupation, but that doesn't mean writers can't relish a little adulation every now and then.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York.

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