Thursday, November 20, 2008

Texans well-represented in National Book Awards competition

Texans well-represented in National Book Awards competition

12:00 AM CST on Wednesday, November 19, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Tonight's National Book Awards is the book world's equivalent of the Oscars.

The annual black-tie ceremony in New York City draws glitterati and literati alike. They come to ogle, to flirt and, at the popular cocktail party beforehand, to handicap the contenders for the four $10,000 prizes.

This year, 200 publishers submitted 1,258 books to compete for the awards honoring the year's best works of fiction, nonfiction, young people's literature and poetry. Of those, 20 finalists were selected, five in each category. What may surprise the bow-tied crowd is that four Texans grace the list.

Livingston-born Annette Gordon-Reed was shortlisted in the nonfiction category for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a group biography of one family of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson. It covers Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, who became a lover and bore him children, as well as the rest of her family.

Ms. Gordon-Reed, now a professor at New York Law School, believes the book is especially relevant because of this year's election.

"It's amazing to contemplate that the president I write about held black people as slaves, and we will now inaugurate a black president," she said.

Recalling her segregated childhood in Conroe, Ms. Gordon-Reed said: "I can remember as a little girl going to separate waiting rooms at the Sadler Clinic and sitting in the balcony at the Crighton movie theater. I integrated our school district, which wasn't the easiest thing for a 6-year-old, but it gave me an early sense that blacks were on a journey of sorts, from worse to better, I hoped and still hope."

Kathi Appelt was born in Fort Bragg, N.C., came to Texas as a child and graduated from Houston's Spring Branch Senior High School and Texas A&M in College Station, where she still lives. The author of some 30 illustrated books for children, such as Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers and the beloved Bubba and Beau series, Ms. Appelt is a finalist in the young people's literature category for her first novel, The Underneath.

The book is the story of a lonely hound dog and a mother cat who come to depend on each other for survival in East Texas. She also weaves throughout the book a folk tale of a 10,000-year-old shape-shifting water moccasin – itself inspired by her interest in the Caddo Indians.

In addition to the vivid, rich characters, the landscape itself comes to life. "I just love the pine forest, the swamp – it's so mysterious," Ms. Appelt explained. "There's just the feeling of magicalness to it."

In a coincidence, poetry finalist Reginald Gibbons also graduated from Spring Branch Senior High. Now a professor of creative writing and classics at Northwestern University in Illinois, he is shortlisted for his 11th poetry collection, Creatures of a Day. Though he left the Long Star State at age 18, he acknowledged, "Texas has had a pervasive influence on my life – it is present in some way in each of my books." He also credits underappreciated Trinity-born writer William Goyen as "one of three or four writers who have been most important to me." (Mr. Gibbons serves as Goyen's literary executor.)

Mr. Gibbons was the first to publish the work of two other of this year's NBA-shortlisted authors, Chicago novelist Aleksander Hemon (fiction) and Patricia Smith (poetry), both while he was editor of the literary journal TriQuarterly from 1981 to 1997.

Houston, said Mr. Gibbons, is far more interesting to him today than when he was a child.

"There is so much more literary life there than when I was growing up in the '60s," he said, "a big part of which stems from the creative writing program at the University of Houston, which brings in many powerful writers."

Among those to whom Mr. Gibbons refers is Mark Doty, a New Yorker who spends half the year teaching at UH. Mr. Doty's eighth book of poetry, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems, is a finalist in the poetry category. The book covers some two decades and provides a kind of conversation between the younger self and older self. Mr. Doty couldn't be reached for comment.

Though the National Book Awards are a competition, all the finalists win in a way: Each gets a medal, and the attention alerts new readers who might not have noticed them before.

"It makes me feel that my work is very present at this moment in the U.S.," said Mr. Gibbons. "The country is so huge and so many thousands of books are published, that it's not often that happens."

That is reward in itself.

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