Didion, Vollman Win National Book Awards

Joan Didion wins this year's nonfiction National Book Award for her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The fiction prize went to William T. Vollmann for Europe Central and W.S. Merwin won the poetry prize.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Winners of the National Book Awards were announced last night in New York. Joan Didion won for her memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking." The fiction award went to William T. Vollmann for "Europe Central." We have a report this morning from Martha Woodroof.

MARTHA WOODROOF reporting:

The evening began with 86-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti getting a standing ovation and the first-ever Literarian Award. Ferlinghetti, who began publishing in the 1950s, has written across many genres. He also co-founded and remains the public face of City Lights bookstore and publishing in San Francisco.

Toni Morrison then took the stage to introduce Norman Mailer, recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison said that the loud and justifiable praise for Mailer's writing has to compete with violent objections to some of his views. She has several of those objections herself, Morrison said.

(Soundbite of introduction)

Ms. TONI MORRISON (Author): Not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOODROOF: In accepting his award, Norman Mailer described the serious novel as running the risk of becoming an endangered species. Current successful fiction,' he said, `is too easy and too soon forgotten.'

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Author): The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one's passing needs, but to enter one's life, even alter it.

WOODROOF: Two other literary giants were the winners for poetry and non-fiction. W.S. Merwin, nominated seven times before, received the award for "Migration: New and Selected Poems." Joan Didion won for a book-length essay chronicling her year-long attempt to come to terms with her husband's death and only daughter's illness. Didion, a finalist for the second time, was at the pre-awards reception and had this to say about being nominated at such a difficult time in her life.

(Soundbite of reception)

Ms. JOAN DIDION (Author): Well, it's great. I mean, it's just--you--it makes you feel good, which is hard enough to find in this world, you know.

WOODROOF: It was also an evening of newcomers and little-knowns. First-time novelist Jeanne Birdsall hiked up the train of her gown and practically skipped up to the stage when her novel, "The Penderwicks," won in the young adult category.

(Soundbite of speech)

Ms. JEANNE BIRDSALL (Author) I've gotten many, many wonderful reviews for this book, but my very favorite comes from a third-grader on Long Island named Scott, and he said, `This book is about being a good listener even if you're a grown-up.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOODROOF: Everyone had wondered what this year's fiction category would bring. Last year's finalists caused a stir when they turned out to be five little-known women writers from New York. This year's finalists ran the gamut from the famous E.L. Doctorow to the relatively obscure William T. Vollmann, and William T. Vollmann won, surprising even himself.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN (Author): I thought I would lose, so I didn't prepare a speech. But...

WOODROOF: At an event the night before, Vollmann read a passage from his novel, "Europe Central."

(Soundbite of reading)

Mr. VOLLMANN: And the kaiser shouted, `Germany,' and before we could even wave our hats, all the Medusa faces which had glared somnolently on stone shields since the creation of Berlin, which was the creation of the world, woke up.

WOODROOF: The four National Book Award winners will received $10,000 each and a really impressive statuette that the evening's host, Garrison Keillor, suggested they keep on a high shelf, so guests will have to ask about it. For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof in New York.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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