National Book Award Winners Coming To Lansing

Apr 25, 2012

For a writer, winning the National Book Award is a prestigious honor. Being nominated can even be enough to boost your career.

Two National Book Award winners will speak at the Library of Michigan’s Night For Notables this weekend. The event honors the state’s notable authors.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl spoke with Jesmyn Ward and Jaimy Gordon about what the award has meant to them.

Jesmyn Ward claimed a National Book Award last year for her book Salvage The Bones, her second novel. It’s about a motherless family in a coastal Mississippi town as a hurricane builds in the Gulf of Mexico. Ward got a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2005.

She describes winning the award as “a total and complete shock."

The news came at a time when she was already finished with the first draft of her next book. Now, she sees the award influencing her work.

“For me,” Ward says, “there is some pressure in going back to this manuscript and revising what I have. And then also, in thinking about my next fiction project because my next book that will be coming out will be creative non-fiction and then the book after that I’ll return to novels. So, there is a certain amount of pressure.”

Jaimy Gordon won her National Book Award a year earlier for Lord Of Misrule, the story of a cheap horse racing track in West Virginia. She calls her win “an almost earth shattering shock.” It’s led to numerous invitations to travel, and she’s been reluctant to say no. Gordon says all the traveling has taken time away from her ability to work on her next book.

“I think things will quiet down a little more now,” Gordon states, “but I haven’t kept a writing schedule the way one should if one was really seriously worried about meeting a deadline. I’m well known for taking about ten years to finish a book, and I certainly hope that doesn’t happen in this case.”

Awards bring added pressure

As for whether or not winning puts new pressure on her to write another great book, Gordon says simply that “it should.”

Both Ward and Gordon are teachers. Ward is an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama; Gordon has retired from the faculty at Western Michigan University. Both say they think of themselves as being a writer who teaches, rather than the other way around.

“I’m shy,” Ward explains, “and I can be reticent, so teaching is not something that comes naturally to me as far as being gregarious and talkative and outgoing. It’s something that I really have to work at.”

Gordon says winning a National Book Award influenced her decision to retire.

“That puts me in the position to travel to other schools for visiting semesters, or for briefer residencies,” Gordon says, “and I think that’s all I really need to do. I’m very happy that there are lots of invitations, so I don’t think I’m going to teach anymore in quite the same way.”

At the age of 67, Gordon looks back at a teaching career that she says included a number of terrific students, including Bonnie Jo Campbell. She was a National Book Award finalist herself for her collection of stories called American Salvage. Campbell will moderate the Night For Notables program at the Library of Michigan Saturday evening.

The event will include a number of the authors of Michigan Notable Books for 2012, who will be on hand for book signings.