My first novel won the National Book Award.
Let me back up a bit. Here’s how the week unfolded.
On Monday, November 12th I flew to NYC with my lady Alice and our extremely wee lady Iris, who turned precisely two weeks old that very day. Flying to NYC was a summons, and not a request. When you’re a finalist for the National Book Award, they send for you and you come.
On Monday night I met my fellow finalists in the Young People’s Literature category at Books of Wonder.
On Tuesday morning the five of us reunited for the Teen Press Conference. This particular event gave me hope for humanity. Dozens and dozens of kids asked us piercingly insightful questions.
On Tuesday night Harold Augenbraum, Director of the National Book Foundation, awarded medallions to all twenty finalists. This was pretty much exactly like the end of Star Wars IV. Each medallion is large and heavy and shiny and I am reasonably certain that it can stop bullets or ward off vampires.
At the ceremony I got to meet legendary people whose words I’ve loved for years.
We had Iris with us. Everyone told Alice how astonishing it was for her to take on so much crazy activity a mere fortnight after giving birth. Everyone should continue to marvel at this.
Next came the Finalist Reading. All twenty finalists read a bit of their books to a packed auditorium. You can watch the whole thing, if you like. Mine is near the end, but don’t you dare skip past Tim Seibles. That guy has a voice like magnificent clouds that have decided not to rain, but might still change their minds. He gave an ode to his hands. Afterwards he and I chatted about bedtime stories, and how both of our mothers had a gift for reading character voices. “That’s where it starts,” he said, laughing like those heavy clouds. “That’s where all of this starts.”
Here’s something you should know: Absolutely no one had any idea who the winners would be. None of the National Book Foundation staff knew. The director did not know. The judges would meet for lunch on the following day to decide. Meanwhile all of the finalists were treated equally, and honored equally. This is important. It was one of my favorite things about that night–something I wanted to recapture later, when I had to give a speech.
But I’m skipping ahead.
Wednesday morning I got to meet much of the ensemble crew that helped create Goblin Secrets. Books are very much the product of team effort, even though the author’s name is the only one on the front cover. But unlike a theater troupe this kind of cast and crew rarely gathers together in the same room, so it was excellent to finally meet the people responsible for giving my book physical form, and those responsible for getting it out into the world.
Wednesday night was the ceremony, the great big party, the literary equivalent of the Academy Awards. We left Iris at the hotel with our oldest friends (luckily they happened to be NYC locals and therefore available to babysit), drove through hurricane-devastated blocks of Manhattan, and then followed a red carpet into the opulent and surreal Cipriani ballroom. Agent Joe introduced me to Susan Cooper (someone who sits very high in my own personal pantheon of childhood literary heroes) and Gary D. Schmidt, whose work I really wish I could have read as a kid. If I ever find a time machine then I will read his work as a kid. Both of them were, and are, kind and generous and brilliant. They were also the only two judges I met in person; I’d have loved to chat with Daniel Ehrenhaft, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Marly Youmans that night, but correspondence will have to do.
We schmoozed and laughed and clinked glasses and I was bone-shatteringly nervous the entire time.
Then Gary Schmidt stood onstage, said many wonderful things, and afterwards said my name. I was a little bit astonished.
This is the speech I gave:
Okay, we now have proof that alternate universes exist.
There is a place where Endangered wins this award. There must be. In several dimensions the book was actually written by a bonobo author about an orphaned human, but closer to home there is a moment, this moment, just a small step sideways away, in which Endangered takes this award home.
Another step and it belongs to Out of Reach for creating such substance out of wrenching absence. Another and we are all listening to a speech about the devastating importance of narrative in Never Fall Down. And once we exclude the set of Earths already destroyed by the bomb to consider instead the set of Earths in which we survived to gather here tonight, those include Bomb winning in several.
But we happen to live here, and I happen to write fantasy. For why that’s important, I differ to Ursula Le Guin–as everyone should–who says that “the literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”
The way things are is not the only possible way that they could be. We have to know that, we have to remember it, and stories are the very first way we figure that out.
Thank you, Karen. Thank you, Joe. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Alice. Congratulations to my fellow finalists, in every possible version of our world. Thank you all for joining me in this one.
That’s what I jotted down beforehand, anyway. I didn’t actually have the piece of paper with me at the podium, so the words that came out of my mouth were a little bit different. You can watch it happen here. The quote is from Le Guin’s book of essays Cheek By Jowl, which absolutely everyone should read.
Thus ends my quick recap of the National Book Awards. John Sellers at PW and Patrick Condon at the AP have since written my two favorite articles about, um, me. Click their way if your curiosity demands more details.
Now I’m home, changing diapers, teaching classes, finding my classroom decorated by marvelous students, and continuing to flail like a happy muppet.
Ciao for now. Next time I need to tell you about the audiobook.