Katherine Boo won the National Book Award for nonfiction for “Behind… (Heleen Welvaart )
Novelist Louise Erdrich and journalist Katherine Boo took the top prizes at the National Book Awards in New York on Wednesday night. Although set half a world apart, both women's books express what Boo described as "small stories in so-called hidden places."
Erdrich won the fiction award for "The Round House," set among the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. The author of more than a dozen novels, Erdrich spoke in Ojibwe and English in her speech, citing "the grace and endurance of Native women."
Boo won the nonfiction award for "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity," a book that chronicled three years in the life of an impoverished family in the Annawadi slum. The author thanked her husband, who convinced her to write about poverty, as well as her translators, her literary agent and her publishers — the "ferocious women at Random House."
The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, has undertaken a high-profile campaign to bring a new measure of glamour to the event. It presented the awards at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani in New York City, hosted an afterparty with a DJ and, for the first time, had a red carpet for arriving authors. Hollywood didn't exactly come calling; the brightest stars at the event were literary lion Martin Amis and bestselling author Stephen King.
In recent years, genre fiction writers like King have been embraced by the literary establishment. That's due in part to the high bar set by longtime pulp writer Elmore Leonard, whom Amis presented with the organization's lifetime achievement award, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
"I'm energized by this award," Leonard said from the stage. "The only thing I've ever wanted to do with my life is have a good time writing stories. This award tells me I'm still at it." Now 87, Leonard is writing his 46th novel.
On this night of celebration, the publishing elite showed few signs of distress, despite turbulence in the industry. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., accepting the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, proclaimed definitively, "People are still reading."
Throughout the evening, speakers emphasized the intimate power of literature — "the deep mind meld that is reading," as novelist and fiction judge Lorrie Moore put it.
That connection is what the judges of the poetry prize lauded in the work of octogenarian David Ferry, who won for "Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations."
"Goblin Secrets," a fantasy novel by William Alexander, won the award for Young People's Literature. Los Angeles author Carrie Arcos had been a finalist for her debut "Out of Reach," about siblings and meth addiction.
This year, publishers submitted 1,285 books. The 2012 fiction finalists were Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers and debut novelists Ben Fountain and Kevin Powers. The nonfiction slate included Robert Caro's "The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4" and "House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East" by the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid.
The ceremony was streamed live by the National Book Foundation and broadcast by C-SPAN's Book TV.