National Book Awards: Live Blog

By Dianna Dilworth Comment

Welcome to the 62nd  National Book Awards! While the police are taking away books from Occupy Wall Street librarians, the book publishing industry is celebrating authors at a black tie event on Wall Street. We’re inside to bring you the action as it unfolds.

7:50 We are seated and getting ready for the ceremony to begin. We spoke to some authors including Lauren Redniss, John Waters & Amanda Foreman at the cocktail mixer who gave us advise to relay to young writers. Follow this link to find out more.

8:06 John Lithgow, the host, has taken the stage. He says he was expecting a salon, not this giant fete. He says, “This is a huge big deal.” Then reads a thank you note to the audience. Joking about feeling lesser than writers, he says, “I am an actor. I read words written by writers.”

8:10 Lithgow is giving us his defense on why an actor is hosting the event. He is giving his publishing history. Actor and author John Lithgow, he says. Making fun of celebrity memoirs, he plugs his own. “My first book for grownups came out in September.” It’s called Drama, an Actor’s Education.

8:13 Lithgow is introducing Walter Mosley.

8:15 Mosley presents the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community to Mitchell Kaplan, the bookseller who founded the Miami Book Fair International.

8:18 Kaplan is giving his thanks and says he is honored to be in the same press release as John Ashbery. He thanks his parents who he says taught him to follow inspiration in life and not to follow money.

8:23 Kaplan is talking about the inspiring places that small bookstores are.

8:27 Kaplan is speaking about the role of booksellers in the virtual world: “Writers are writing marvelous books. Readers want to read and find them…We need to reassert the place of the bookseller.”

8:29 Lithgow is back on stage introducing Ann Lauterbach.

8:31 Lauterbach is on stage. She points out that, “We are occupying Wall Street.” (Very true, the event is taking place at Cipriani in the heart of Wall Street). Lauterbach is on stage to present the 2011 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to John Ashbery. Ann Lauterbach says, “I was trying my best to become Sylvia Plath without killing myself.”

8:37 Ashbery is slowly entering the stage to a standing ovation, while slides of paintings rotate on the screens above.

8:38 He is thanking Ann and congratulating Mitchell. Applause. He is talking about Jean Cocteau’s film about Orpheus about a poet who describes his profession as, “It means to write and not be a writer.” That’s why there is Poets & Writers Magazine. At a cocktail party, he says you would never tell people you are a poet the way a writer would say they were a writer, but rather would call yourself an accountant.

8:42 “It is fun, though it isn’t supposed to be,” he says. Otherwise maybe he’d design miniature golf courses.

8:43 “What I write makes no sense. It lacks accessibility,” he continues.

8:44  “Wasn’t this what modern art was all about?” Years later he realized he had trespassed, he says. He said his own stuff was too difficult ranking on the scale with a root canal.

8:45 He is quoting his speech from when he won the NBA in the 1970s, saying that he didn’t mean to be inaccessible. “Each of us is truly alone.” “Too many words, but precious.”

8:48 The ceremony is breaking for more dining. The awards will be announced shortly. Stay tuned…

9:45 The awards begin now. David Steinberger, the chairman of the National Book Foundation is on stage. He is introducing all of the honored authors in the house. Now he is giving shout outs to the sponsors. Barnes & Noble, Google, Penguin, Wiley, ICM, HBO, Scholastic, etc.

9:49 He says, “Our mission at the National Book Foundation is to encourage the reading of great books.” Shout outs to Electric Literature, Yarn and Core Press.

9:51 Look Out Books from North Carolina and Random House are finalists he says. They come from Brooklyn and Alaska. He is wishing everyone good luck. Now it’s time for the awards.

9:52 Lithgow is back on stage.

9:53 Mark Aronson is now coming on stage to present the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The winner is Thanhha Lai for Inside Out and Back Again.

9:56 Lithgow is introducing Elizabeth Alexander to the stage to present the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. “Every book of poetry carries history and traditions with it,” she says. The winner is Nikky Finney. Huge applause! She wins for Head Off & Split. Finney is on stage, “We begin with history, the slave codes of South Carolina,” she reads. “We shiver together.” Wow, this is a beautiful speech. “To be in your company is to brightly burn.” “Black people were the only people in the United States who were ever officially not allowed to become literate. I am now officially speechless.”

10:06 Lithgow, “That was the best acceptance speech that I’ve heard for anything. It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry.”

10:07 Alice Kaplan is on stage to give the award for nonfiction. The 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction is Stephen Greenblatt for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Greenblatt is on stage talking about his book, saying that it is about having “someone long dead to be in the room with you to give you” and “what the magic of the written word is.” He is thanking these people from many centuries ago. A book involves collaborators, he says and is thanking his friends.

10:15 Lithgow is introducing Deirdre McNamer to present the award for fiction. The 2011 National Book Award for Fiction is Jesmyn Ward for her book Salvage the Bones. Huge applause.

10:21 Ward says she was inspired to write for her brother who died, which made her realize that life is feeble.  She wanted to do something meaningful. As she grew as a writer, it became about writing for the poor black community. Many thank yous to her publisher, publicist, friends and family.

10:23 Lithgow is concluding the event with a round of applause for the nominees who did not win.

Editor’s note: We have corrected the spelling of John Waters’ name in this post.