There is no shortage of book awards presented each year—the next in line are The Quills Awards (of which PW is a sponsoring partner). But do awards make a difference in a writer's career? Here's what five baby boomer authors said winning meant to them.
Winner of the Newbery and a National Book Award for Young People's Literature—both for his 1998 Holes—Louis Sachar found his inspiration for his first children's book in a fitting place: an elementary school. While attending the University of California at Berkeley, he took a job for college credit working as a teacher's aide, which was for him a life-changing experience. When he graduated in 1976 he decided to write a children's book based on the students he had worked with. Sideways Stories from Wayside School was accepted by a publisher during the author's first week of law school.
“I had always thought of being a writer, but until I worked at the school, the idea of writing children's books had never entered the equation,” says Sachar. “I decided I'd write one children's book, thinking perhaps that would open doors for me. But I found that I liked writing for children.” Sachar eventually abandoned his part-time legal work to write full-time and went on to pen more than 20 other novels for youngsters, including There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom; the Marvin Redpost series; Wayside School Is Falling Down; Holes and its companion novel, Small Steps.
When Holes was published, the novel received excellent reviews and, Sachar recalls: “People told me that it might win the Newbery. That was the last thing I wanted to hear or to expect, since I didn't want to jinx it. And I didn't want anyone to base how good my book was by whether or not it won an award, though of course I was very glad to win it.” Clinching the Newbery has not changed how the author approaches his writing, but it has, he notes, changed how people describe him: “I am now called 'Newbery Award—winning Louis Sachar,' so it seems to add more credibility to what I do—but not in my own mind.”—Sally Lodge
It's nice to meet an author who admits that a literary award like the Quill is important to him. “Winning meant a lot,” John Grogan, author of the bestselling Marley & Me (William Morrow/HarperCollins), tells PW. “It's a popular vote... [and] in many ways it's a recognition of how loyal your fan base is. I really did take it as a validation that my story was resonating with people around the country. The Quills do a lot of great work in promoting literacy. I think it's a great venue for publicizing the need for everyday Americans to get involved in helping our fellow citizens who don't know how to read.”
Grogan really wanted to win in the Biography/Memoir category—and he did, beating out the likes of Joan Didion and Anderson Cooper. What came as a shock was also winning in the Audio Book category. “I was so surprised about the Audio,” Grogan says. “If I remember right, Frank McCourt was in that category [for Teacher Man] and who can say a story out loud better than Frank McCourt? So when they announced my name it was one of those 'holy shit' moments,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. “Oh, my God, I don't have anything to say.”
Asked if there are any more Marleys scheduled for the future, Grogan enthusiastically replies, “Yes, there are. I am now in the process right now of writing a second Marley picture book in the series. Bad Dog, Marley! came out in May and I'm doing a follow-up book that will come out, I believe, for the holidays of 2008. It's a picture book for 3—7-year-olds.”—Dermot McEvoy
For Julia Glass, winning the National Book Award in 2002 for her novel Three Junes (Pantheon) was, in her words, “a fairy tale.” The book, which PW described as “a dazzling portrait of family life,” catapulted her name and her book into the literary limelight—and very definitely changed her life.
“Three Junes was my first novel,” Glass recalls during a phone interview from her home near Boston. “I was 46, and the best expectation for the book was that it would be very well received critically, sell decently and be a nice groundwork for my career. But I was in no way favored to the win the award. I remember enjoying being a finalist so much that I wished it would go on and on. I know my publisher was shocked when I won—maybe as much as I was.”
Shocked and richer, in more ways than the obvious one. “There's no guarantee that an award means you're going to sell lots of books,” she says, “but Three Junes really took off with book groups and independent booksellers after the award.” Five years later, the book is still selling well, and the financial security it provided enabled her to buy her first home. But Glass seems equally pleased by the less tangible benefits of winning the National Book Award.
“One of the surprise dividends was getting to meet authors I really admired,” she says. “Now I can talk shop with writers like Richard Russo. I got to watch the Preakness with Jane Smiley—that was a blast! Opening the door to writers who were heroes to me was the biggest surprise of winning.... I felt I'd finally found my tribe.”
Glass finished her second novel in 2006 (The Whole World Over, Pantheon) and she's working on a collection of linked stories. “There's a lot of anxiety associated with a big prize,” she says. “But would I trade it for anything? No!” —Tim Peters
Prolific romance novelist and 2005 Quill winner for her novel 44 Cranberry Point (Mira), Debbie Macomber sees winning a Quill Award as a way of focusing positive attention on books in general and, of course, her own work. She cites the bridge the award creates between her and her readers as the most important part of winning: “It was truly a career highlight—a real honor. I'm especially pleased that the ultimate judges were readers themselves. ”
The recognition that book awards provide, according to Macomber, brings a kind of attention to writers that they would not normally recieve in the book world: “Because the craft of writing is for the most part a solitary occupation, and writers generally receive little media and popular recognition, we need to celebrate every award.” —Craig Morgan Teicher
For most poets, book sales are never very high, and toiling in obscurity is just par for the course, even for a successful poet. Winning a major book award, though, can summon a kind of attention most versifiers aren't used to. Since winning the 2006 National Book Award for poetry for has latest collection, Splay Anthem, published by New Directions, Nathaniel Mackey has noticed that “it's brought my work to the attention of people and readers who probably would not have otherwise been aware of it. Something like the National Book Award is news, so it gets wide attention.”
And what does “wide attention” mean for a poet, especially for one like Mackey, who writes challenging, experimental poems, poetic sequences and novels? “Mainstream media—or media that is more mainstream than the kind of poetry venues that I'm usually associated with—have shown some attention to my work,” says Mackey. “Things ranging from getting an invitation to send poetry to the New York Times and being interviewed on Tavis Smiley's radio program were direct results of the award, as well as more local stuff: articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and that kind of thing. It certainly seems to have had an impact on sales of Splay Anthem,” says Mackey, which is now in its third printing and has sold 8,000 copies.
Mackey has a sober and practical view of the purpose of book awards: “These awards are publicity vehicles and marketing vehicles, and the National Book Foundation explicitly makes a point of that. Certainly the publishers make use of that, and New Directions is no exception. Publishers see that sort of thing as a feather in their cap.” Mackey's next book, on the back cover of which “there is reference to me as a national book award winner,” he notes, is a novel called Bass Cathedral (New Directions).