It was a glitzy night of bow ties and bon mots in New York City. But the real attractions at the 66th annual National Book Awards were the winners themselves: Adam Johnson, in fiction; Ta-Nehisi Coates, in nonfiction; Robin Coste Lewis, in poetry; and Neal Shusterman, in young people's literature.
For the second year in a row, a short story collection took home the award for fiction, Fortune Smiles by Johnson. The Pulitzer Prize winner — for The Orphan Master's Son in 2012 — kept his acceptance speech brief on Wednesday night. But he was more expansive in an August interview with NPR's Scott Simon. Johnson called the collection a kind of return for him as a writer.
"I think the short story is a machine, and it has lots of gears that turn: voice, style, architecture, chronology, scene selection," Johnson said then. "I think they're difficult, but they can be very perfect and powerful — I missed them, working on a novel for many years."
Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, to virtually no one's surprise, earned the prize in nonfiction. The book, phrased as a letter to his teenage son, is something of a hybrid narrative: part memoir, part history, part journalism. But at its heart, Coates said in his acceptance, is the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, who was killed in a police shooting in 2000.
"I have waited 15 years for this moment," Coates said, dedicating his award to Jones.
"What I do have the power to do is say, 'You won't enroll me in this lie. You won't make me part of it,' " Coates said, closing his speech on a declaration: "We are not enrolled in a lie, we are not part of it."
In poetry, a newcomer took home the honor: Robin Coste Lewis, for her debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems. She beat out a field of nominees that boasted a previous National Book Award winner (Terrance Hayes, in 2010) — and she did so with a book she published even while studying for her Ph.D.
Among the most moving speeches of the evening was Neal Shusterman's. His young adult novel Challenger Deep won the medal for young people's literature. A probing look at mental illness, Shusterman's book was inspired by the struggles of his own son, Brendan, who Shusterman says was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression when he was in his teens.
For a while, Challenger Deep was only a title that he had in mind but didn't connect with his son, Shusterman said. Then, he heard Brendan say once: "Sometimes it feels like I'm at the bottom of the ocean, screaming at the top of my lungs and nobody can hear me."
And so, Shusterman said, he set to work on his novel, working together with Brendan to capture and reveal the experience of a teen like him — and to show that others with mental illness are not alone. He finished his speech by bringing Brendan to the stage to share in the win.
The speech capped a night that left behind the fiery rhetoric (and the controversy) of last year's ceremony, producing instead a series of warmly personal acceptance speeches — including two from longtime literary heavyweights who earned honors early in the night.
Novelist James Patterson won the literarian award, a medal given for service to the literary community. The prolific best-seller was recognized for donating books — more than 250,000 books for children, by the National Book Foundation's estimation.
"I'm doomed to being a doer," Patterson said, speaking of his efforts and issuing a call to action: "Let's make sure there's another generation of readers out there, and bookstores and publishers."
And, watching from home, viewers found the live stream of the ceremony duck out just as novelist Don DeLillo took the stage to accept the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. As he delivered his speech to those in attendance, those watching remotely had to content themselves with a prepared illustration and the slightly ominous words: "This portion of the broadcast is audio only."
Still, the acclaimed novelist's husky voice could be heard clearly as he recalled his own reading life. DeLillo spoke for many in the audience as he concluded his brief acceptance speech.
"Here, I'm not the writer at all," DeLillo said. "I'm the grateful reader."