STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On a Wednesday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
We are surrounded in our studio this morning by books and that's because we're breaking some news - we're announcing the finalists for the National Book Awards. We made that announcement earlier this morning on MORNING EDITION and now we're going to talk through the list with Mitchell Kaplan. He is the owner of Books and Books, an independent group of South Florida stores with a self-explanatory title and also co-founded the Miami Book Fair, which is one of the great book festivals in this country.
Welcome to the program.
MITCHELL KAPLAN: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: We're going to talk about the National Book Awards, I can say, one of the most distinguished literary prizes in the country. But I want to mention, I tweeted yesterday we were going to make this announcement and I heard back from Tom Ricks, who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and he tweeted back, these are like, high-class Pulitzers, right?
What are the National Book Awards, exactly?
KAPLAN: Well, I think he's actually very, very accurate about that. The National Book Awards are - it's the 65th anniversary of the awards. And they're given each year and they are for books that are published from December 1 through November 30 of last year into this year and they are in a number of different categories. There are five judges in each category. As we know, they're in the categories of young people's literature, poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
INSKEEP: And we're going to talk through the nominees now and make some announcements. And let's talk through these together, Mitchell Kaplan, we'll alternate. And let's start with nonfiction, the nominees for nonfiction. Nonfiction include Anand Gopal - "No Good Man Among The Living: America, The Taliban And The War Through Afghan Eyes." That's from Henry Holt.
KAPLAN: Right. We then have Evan Osnos' "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China." And that's published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
INSKEEP: There's John Lahr - "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage Of The Flesh." That's a biography published by Norton.
KAPLAN: And Edward O. Wilson's "The Meaning Of Human Existence" published by Liveright, a division of W. W. Norton.
INSKEEP: And Roz Chast - "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" That's by Bloomsbury.
Quite a list here. What stands out for you?
KAPLAN: Well, what's interesting is that Roz Chast's book is the very first graphic novel that is on the adult list. There have been other graphic works that have been on the kid's list before.
INSKEEP: She's noted as a cartoonist, of course.
KAPLAN: Of course, for The New Yorker. And what's really interesting about this, is that we have in this list very, very different approaches.
John Lahr's book is a very well-researched biography of one of America's great writers, of course. Edward O. Wilson brings a lifetime of biological research and he's got about three dozen books to his credit and he discusses the physical and metaphysical in life. And then, Gopal and Osnos's books are studies of America's recent foreign policy. The other thing that I find kind of interesting about this is that they're mainly about contemporary topics.
INSKEEP: Not so much history, with the exception of the one biography here?
KAPLAN: And certainly not a lot of history about the American Republic, either, which is interesting.
INSKEEP: Interesting. Well, we better move on because I'm sure there are writers and their fans dying to get the rest of these lists out here. Young people's literature is the next category we're going to go through - and why don't you start?
KAPLAN: Eliot Schrefer for "Threatened" published by Scholastic Press.
INSKEEP: And then there's Steve Sheinken and for the "Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny And The Fight For Civil Rights" published by Roaring Brook Press.
KAPLAN: And John Corey Whaley for "Noggin" published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
INSKEEP: Also on the list for young people's literature - Deborah Wiles - Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two." Scholastic Press.
KAPLAN: Jacqueline Woodson for "Brown Girl Dreaming" published by Nancy Paulsen Books at Penguin Random House.
INSKEEP: And we should mention this book is in free verse. She is African-American - Woodson is - and she told us in an interview that at first poetry seemed alien to her.
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JACQUELINE WOODSON: Until then, I thought it was some code that older white people used to speak to each other. I didn't know what was going on with the line breaks and the words.
INSKEEP: Well, obviously she figured it out - she's a nominee on this list.
KAPLAN: She is indeed. And what's very interesting about this list is that it has a great deal of social and contemporary relevance, in this list.
INSKEEP: Let's go on now to poetry, since we ended that last category on a book of poetry. Let's talk about the category of poetry.
And I'll start this time. Louise Gluck - "Faithful And Virtuous Night" is one of the nominees for poetry. This, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
KAPLAN: Then we have Fanny Howe for "Second Childhood" published by Graywolf Press.
INSKEEP: Maureen N. McLane - "This Blue" also by Farrar, Straus.
KAPLAN: Fred Moten - "The Feel Trio" published by Letter Machine Additions.
INSKEEP: And Claudia Rankine for "Citizen: An American Lyric" published by Graywolf Press.
What stands out for you here?
KAPLAN: Well, what's very interesting here is that we have a lot of small presses that are represented. We have two from Graywolf Press and then Fred Moten's book is from Letter Machine Additions, a very, very small press as well. Also this is a very balanced list in terms of writers' style. Louise Gluck is probably the best-known of the five and she's won a Pulitzer Prize in the past. You also have Fred Moten who was originally thought of and is thought of as a critic. You also have Claudia Rankine whose book is a mix of poetry, prose and graphics. So it's a very, very diverse list of poets.
INSKEEP: Now, fairly or not, novelists and short story writers are considered among the heavyweights of literature so let's go to this final category now - fiction. This is huge and the first nominee is Rabih Alameddine for "An Unnecessary Woman" published by Grove Atlantic.
KAPLAN: It is. And there's also Anthony Doerr for "All The Light We Cannot See" published by Scribner.
INSKEEP: Emily St. John Mandel for "Station Eleven" published by Knopf.
KAPLAN: And there's Marilynne Robinson for "Lila" published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
INSKEEP: And we have Phil Klay for "Redeployment." This is published by the Penguin Press. It's a book of short stories, stories about different characters and each character is speaking in the first person with a lot of military jargon.
And in an interview the author explained to us why that is.
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PHIL KLAY: A lot of times, you're interacting with people for whom you're one of the very few veterans that they've met or had a lot of interactions with and so I wanted to have very different viewpoints, very different experiences, just so the reader could kind of think about what they're trying to say and how they clash with each other.
INSKEEP: Interesting. It's not the only book on this list of fiction nominees that's about war.
KAPLAN: No. In fact, four of the five books are set against a backdrop of civil or political strife. The exception of course, is Marilynne Robinson's book. We explore contemporary Lebanon in this collection of titles, contemporary Iraq. Emily St. John Mandel's book is an exploration of America after a medical apocalypse, which is certainly in the news. And Marilynne Robinson's book continues the story of the fiction town - fictional town - of Gilead and this is the third novel in that exploration.
INSKEEP: Well, Mitchell Kaplan, let's talk about what happens now. We've now announced the 20 nominees - four categories, 20 nominees - and you can find all this at npr.org if you missed a name or anything else. What is the next step?
KAPLAN: Well, the next step is that the judges get together the actual afternoon of the awards ceremony - which is on the 19th of November - and they have lunch together and they figure out who's going to be the winner.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute - do you mean it's not like a secret that's already known? We don't know who the winners are, even the judges don't know yet who the winners are?
KAPLAN: Even the judges don't know.
INSKEEP: And won't know until the day of?
KAPLAN: And they won't know until the day of.
INSKEEP: Wow. That's almost like an election campaign. There could be some stunning surprise at the end, couldn't there?
KAPLAN: And there probably will be.
INSKEEP: Mitchell Kaplan, thanks very much. Glad you could join us.
KAPLAN: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: He is the proprietor of Books and Books in Miami. He's also former president of the American Booksellers Association and once again, the National Book Award winners will be announced on November 19. We're delighted to have brought them to you this morning. And again, if you should miss anything, you want to get back and look at those lists, go to npr.org. You can find all the information that you need.
Glad you're with us right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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