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Some authors you can't refuse

We caught up with the four winners of this year’s National Book Awards, which were presented on Nov. 14 in New York City

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Pulitzer winner Katherine Boo is no stranger to awards, but she’s grateful for the boost that the recognition will give Behind the Beautiful Forevers. ”A book like mine, which is about people buying and selling garbage in a Mumbai slum, is not sexy,” she says. ”If people read it, that makes publishers more receptive to the next three writers who are trying to write about unsexy, difficult topics.” While it may not be sexy, Forevers is riveting, life-affirming, and impossible to put down.

Literary awards have a reputation for overlooking genre fiction. But third-time nominee and first-time winner Louise Erdrich intended The Round House to read like a crime thriller — partly because the absorbing story of revenge pivots on complicated, often arcane laws that harm people living in Native American communities. Erdrich says that the thriller aspects of her novel helped make its social messages more palatable: ”I wanted to make a really great panini with spinach in it, so I had to have a lot of melted cheese to get the readers to eat it.”

Young Readers
Gritty, realistic books, often centering on patently grown-up problems, tend to dominate this category. Yet this year, Goblin Secrets, a middle-grade fantasy novel about goblins with theatrical aspirations, took the honors. Author William Alexander notes that only a few other fantasy writers have won the award — his heroes Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander among them. ”No relation, though I’m really happy to be next to Lloyd Alexander on bookshelves,” he says.

At 88, David Ferry was the oldest nominee among the poetry finalists, so his win was particularly sweet. ”Who knows, at my age, Bewilderment may be my last book of all,” he says. Ferry drew upon his depth of life experience and literary knowledge — he’s translated the Odes and Epistles of Horace and the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil — to write his latest collection. Upon accepting the honor, Ferry joked that it was a ”pre-posthumous award.”