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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now back to awards for literature, for just a moment - the National Book Award finalists. This year's list includes Robert Caro, the late Anthony Shadid, Katherine Boo, on the nonfiction list. And then there is Domingo Martinez. He's nominated for his memoir about growing up on the border in Brownsville, Texas. And perhaps no one was more surprised than Domingo Martinez.

DOMINGO MARTINEZ: Yesterday morning, I'm lying in bed and the phone rings. It's way too early and I'm thinking wow, bill collectors are calling earlier and earlier. Except it wasn't a bill collector. It was Alice Martell, my agent. She was calling to tell me that I'd been nominated for the National Book Award.

I didn't really understand what she was telling me. Probably, if I did, I would be even more intimidated than I am now. I'm the only author in my category without a Pulitzer. Actually, if I stopped to think about it, I might seize up. So instead, I'm reorganizing my Netflix queue, and concentrating on keeping my iPhone from switching to landscape mode - anything, as long as I don't have to think about what I'm up against.

I've thought about this award before. I remember one November, about two years ago. I was stuck on my commute, listening to Patti Smith accept her award. I was miserable; the weather was gray; and I was managing a print shop in Seattle. I was mad at Patti because it wasn't enough for her to change rock 'n' roll, and blaze the trail for women. She had to go and win a National Book Award - my award. I had written a book by this time, but it had taken me almost 15 years to finish. And it hadn't even left my flash drive.

I'd had these fantasies of the publishing world. I'd get the agent, the phone call, sold! Then I'd get my check, and I'd walk around in a pinstripe suit. A three-piece, New Orleans jazz band would follow me around everywhere I went. But that's not how it happened. As an unpublished writer, the closest I could come to the award was buying Patti Smith's book.

My book did get published, eventually, but I took a crooked path. I carved it on my own with no compass, no map, and no idea of what I was doing. I didn't know how to write memoir. But I found that when I told people about growing up in Brownsville, Texas, it sounded to them like stories from another world - stories about families swapping children; and smuggling drugs with my parents; or my whole family sending out a chain letter, terrified of what would happen if we didn't. I taught myself the art of storytelling by telling myself my own story, over and over again. I think, in the end, it kind of worked.

SIEGEL: Domingo Martinez, who was nominated for the National Book Award for his memoir, "The Boy Kings of Texas." You can comment on his essay at our website. Go to nprbooks. org.

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