Hanya Yanagihara interviewed by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A Little Life (Doubleday), Hanya Yanagihara’s remarkable second novel, follows four friends from college to middle age. The novel centers on Jude, who has suffered a traumatic history none of his friends can fathom and that he can’t bear to speak about, but that nonetheless shapes every aspect of his life as he ascends to the highest echelons of corporate law, acquiring wealth and influence he could never have imagined as a child. Spanning fifty years, the book is an exploration of the legacy of childhood abuse and of the power—and limitations—of friendship. By turns brutal and exhilarating, the novel brings the reader through some of the most frightening territory imaginable, yet remains relentlessly compassionate.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara book cover, 2015Kirstin Valdez Quade: You’ve written in Vulture about the visual art—photographs, paintings, and drawings—that inspired and shaped A Little Life, and certainly the prose has a visual—cinematic, really—immediacy to it. I love, for example, your description of that ghastly middle-of-the-night taxi ride Jude and Willem take to the doctor’s office and the streetlights, “which slapped and slid across his face, bruising it yellow and ocher and a sickly larval white…” What about books? Were there books that you were particularly in conversation with or that haunted you as you wrote?

Hanya Yanagihara: Not consciously, though after I was finished, I realized I’d in fact alluded to, or borrowed, what I might characterize as tonal chords from other books. Two of my favorite novels of the past decade or so are Mona Simpson’s Off Keck Road and Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, and both of those novels—one, a perfect study of a life alone, a small life, and yet a whole life as well; the other, an unforgettably unsettling study of dependency and manipulation and truth—resonated with me and, I think, found their way into my own book, though in ways I imagine are unrecognizable to everyone but me. (Plus—though you definitely wouldn’t know it from A Little Life—I admire both of those books’ brevity, their authors’ ability to make an entire world in a small amount of space.) There’s also Pnin, which, its genuine wit aside, has always struck me as the saddest of Nabokov’s novels. Finally, I was inspired by Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, in particular how boldly and commandingly he moves the literal universe to make room for his own: his creation of a shadow Oxford, for example—the details and physical realities of the actual one bended, reed-like, to suit his narrative—definitely influenced my creation of the boys’ university, which is never named, but for which I rudely displaced Harvard to make space for my invention.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]One person can’t save another. But to be a member of a real friendship means that you recognize that…and try anyway.[/pullquote]

KVQ: Philip Pullman! I never would have made that connection, but I see it now. There is a timelessness to your novel, and Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB inhabit a world that that is almost, but not quite, ours, unlinked as it is to the major events in our recent history. Your novel is primarily interested in the internal worlds of these characters as they navigate their relationships.

HY: I’ve spoken about this before, but I wanted to remove every external event from this book: once you remove historical landmarks from a narrative, you force the reader into a sort of walled space, one in which they have no choice but to focus entirely on the interior lives of these characters. There’s no distraction and no respite and no tether, either: I wanted the world of this book to feel by turns intimate and oppressive—and utterly inescapable.

KVQ: Would you talk about your title? One of the many pleasures of reading A Little Life—and there were many pleasures, despite the fact that I was often in tears or sickened or physically weakened as I read—was seeing how the meaning of the title shifts and morphs and is inverted over the course of the novel. What does the title mean to you? Were there others in the mix?

HY: It was always the title, though I had a backup—Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days: the name of one of JB’s shows—in case I needed it. But no one seemed to object. As you say, the title is meant to shape-shift as the reader moves deeper into the shadow of this book, and it’s indeed alluded to in different ways, but really, I meant it literally: We have such small lives, all of us. And this is the story of one of those lives.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Even darkness can be joyous to inhabit if it’s your darkness, if it’s something you’ve created and feel certain about.[/pullquote]

KVQ: This book is, at its core, a love story—a particular kind of love story based on deep and unconditional friendship. Regardless of how Jude might lash out or injure himself, Willem, Harold, and Andy remain steadfast in their commitment to him—and steadfast in their hope that their love can heal him. These aren’t relationships I often see represented in fiction. What especially interested you in the unconditional nature of the friendships?

HY: Among other things, I consider this book a story of two romances: the one between Willem and Jude, and the one between Harold and Jude. But I’m not sure that I’d consider either of their friendships with him—as generous and forgiving as they may be—unconditional. Part of what gives relationships their charge is the sense that they are breakable, that within each one is the possibility of a fissure. (This is true of every relationship between humans: One of the greatest socially sustaining fictions we’ve created is the idea that a parent’s love for a child is inviolable.) So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend, and our discussions about the topic. Friendship is ultimately revelatory because of, not despite, its limitations. One person can’t save another. But to be a member of a real friendship means that you recognize that…and try anyway. It’s the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

KVQ: And certainly Jude himself can never trust that his friends won’t abandon and hurt him, which is a major source of the book’s tension—and also why, in his darkest moments, he is compelled to test the limits of those friendships. Why do you think Jude never has any particular closeness with women (with the one exception of Ana, his social worker)?

HY: Well, it was deliberate. There’s a lot of artifice in A Little Life, and the near-erasure of women is certainly part of that artifice. Men have such a particular way of relating to one another that I wanted to focus on them. And men, to Jude, are both challenges and embodiments of danger. Often, we’re drawn most powerfully to people who we know have the capacity to harm us.

KVQ: The novel presents the reader with really joyful, transcendent moments, but spends a lot of time in some of the darkest and most frightening places fiction can go. I’ve read that you wrote the book in eighteen months. How did you occupy that darkness as deeply and consistently as you must have needed to in order to write about it so convincingly?

HY: Although the book was as exhausting to write as you might imagine, it was also glorious. Any artist knows and yearns for that period—sometimes hours long, sometimes months—when you feel like you know exactly where you’re going, when your work is propelling you down a track so swift and smooth that you daren’t examine the landscape because you don’t want to disrupt the ride. That’s what it felt like for large, exhilarating parts of this book: It often seemed when I was sitting down to write that I was settling into a toboggan, readying to zoom down a slope. Even darkness can be joyous to inhabit if it’s your darkness, if it’s something you’ve created and feel certain about.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]My hope was always that the experience of reading this book would mirror my experience of writing it: I wanted it to feel like quicksand, like entering a landscape that literally swallows you and then spits you up somewhere else.[/pullquote]

KVQ: This has been a year full of excitement and deservedly high praise for your book. What praise has meant the most to you?

HY: I don’t read reviews and I’m not on Twitter, so much of the praise I’ve heard has been from people who’ve written me or told me directly, which never loses its thrill. I always said that I wrote this book for two people—for me and for my best friend—so I’m amazed and humbled whenever anyone finds something in it that resonates with them.

KVQ: Finally, before I read A Little Life, I’d heard about it from several friends who were completely under its spell and couldn’t put it down. That was, indeed, my experience. The book is all-consuming, addictive, and there’s a remarkable quality of propulsion to your prose. From one writer to another, how did you do that?

HY: Well, thank you, Kirstin, that’s very kind of you! My hope was always that the experience of reading this book would mirror my experience of writing it: I wanted it to feel like quicksand, like entering a landscape that literally swallows you and then spits you up somewhere else. One of the ways I did this was by eliminating line breaks: once the reader enters one of the subsections, there’s no real natural stopping point until the end of that subsection. It forces the reader to immerse herself. The book is, I hope, a demanding one, not just of time and emotion, but also trust; it should feel greedy for the reader’s full attention and energy.


Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, which received a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere.

She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Beginning in 2016, she will be an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Lauren Groff interviewed by Tracy O’Neill

Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist. Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde Satterwhite, the golden boy with acne scars and fortune and the stately woman who loves him. Together, they are a beautiful couple with a beautiful life—but they aren’t without their secrets. Divided into two sections, one told primarily in the point of view of Lotto and the other in Mathilde’s perspective, the novel considers the narratives we tell ourselves in order to love. Intricately plotted and rendered with both lyricism and sly humor,Fates and Furies rides swelling waves before cresting with despair and glittering rage. Groff and I spoke in October, just a few weeks after the National Book Award Finalists were announced. We discussed under-read Shakespeare, sexy married life, and the conditions of genius.


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff book cover, 2015Tracy O’Neill: In Fates and Furies, Lotto’s father is described as “the spawn of a bear,” and his mother worked as a theater mermaid. Mathilde’s mother, a fishwife, returns home with hands “glittering with scales,” and Mathilde believes her children “would come out with fangs and claws.” These motifs advance a set of pseudo-creation myths for your characters and register a folkloric tone, but I wonder also if these animal elements gesture at a sense of what it means to be human.

Lauren Groff: You’re right, and thanks for the smart read. I’m always suspicious of the urge to minimize or simplify a person to a single character trait or category, which is something that we do to strangers every day. Our hearts are complex and are made exponentially even more complicated when our brains are in the mix, and there is no such thing as a perfectly good or perfectly bad person. There’s a little beast in all of us.

I wanted to talk about, among other things, a few universal emotions like rage (particularly feminine rage) and pride (particularly the pride of the creative person). Sometimes descriptors hold tiny cues for the characters’ personalities.

TO: Speaking of rage, during the second half of the book, a revenge narrative emerges at around the same time that Mathilde begins to think about how Shakespeare’s Coriolanus would not have been received as well if it had centered around his mother Volumnia. To what extent was the play an important influence on Fates and Furies? Were there other revenge narratives that you looked to in writing the novel?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Our hearts are complex and are made exponentially even more complicated when our brains are in the mix, and there is no such thing as a perfectly good or perfectly bad person. There’s a little beast in all of us.[/pullquote]

LG: I love Coriolanus! It’s underestimated, and I think it’s great, particularly in the figure of Volumnia. During the years I was writing this book, I read as many of Shakespeare’s plays as I could manage, failing to read them all, which was my original idea, but, hey, the historical ones were tough for me. I was most drawn to the figures of the Furies, or Erinyes, particularly at the end of the Orestia. By that, I mean, outside of Shakespeare, I was drawn to the Erinyes!

TO: One of the most striking bits of formal play in the novel is the interspersion of bracketed asides or interventions—I’m not sure if either term is an accurate description. For example, you write, “Lotto’s formidable memory revealed itself when he was two years old, and Antoinette was gratified. [Dark gift; it would make him easy in all things, but lazy.]” Could you talk about the role of these bracketed sections in the narration?

LG: I chose the brackets for a few reasons: asides are my favorite things in plays, and Lotto’s a playwright, so it seems appropriate. I was playing around with time, and ideas about time, and had reread To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and loved how in the “Time Passes” section, Woolf was able to write about a much different kind of time, a more elemental, moody, larger, weather-based time that isn’t quite like human time, though human time comes in with these brackets and reminds the reader that this novel is about people. And my original idea for this book was for it to be two books, but they were written in such wildly different styles that I needed to find a way to stitch them together and the voices from the distance, swooping in like hawks, then out again, was my way of joining them. To clarify on the Virginia Woolf bit, I pictured the voices being from a different distance, a different layer of time, bringing the granular human drama into a kind of perspective. I was doing the opposite of what she was doing, in a way.

TO: Addressing Lotto’s marriage, a young composer named Leo says to him, “it’s exhausting to live with a saint.” Is part of the pain in this book caused by the sacralization of human beloveds?

LG: I think that because we can’t see inside our beloved’s skulls, and because we love them, we may assume that they’re purer and kinder and more generous than they may be. Constant emotional imagination, picturing the internal landscape of a beloved, is an act of love. Not being vigilant about doing that can make us stop seeing our loved ones, so that they seem as if they’re unchanging. But we are always changing, and wildly so.

That failure of imagination, I’d say, is part of the pain of the book in that Mathilde couldn’t be as good as Lotto thought she was, and that he didn’t, perhaps bring to her the kind of imaginative attention she deserved.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Constant emotional imagination, picturing the internal landscape of a beloved, is an act of love.[/pullquote]

TO: For me, some of the best moments in the book were those of deadpan humor. For example, Mathilde says in response to a question about her “strange” appearance, “Oh. That’s because I’ve stopped smiling.” At another point, when Mathilde tries to explain that she doesn’t belong to her husband, Lotto sort of agrees to her terms, then begs for her to bring him a glass of water. Could you elaborate on how you see humor working in the tragic novel? And, would you consider Fates and Furies a tragedy?

LG: I tried consciously to use a lot of memes and structures to play up Lotto’s own idea of himself as a tragic hero, but I attempted to undermine that with the second part—so, no, it’s more of a weirdo hybrid with tragic elements. I wanted this book to be as different from the other one that I was working on that the same time, Arcadia, which was a more intimate book, but more painful—this one I wanted to have lots of sex and modes of storytelling and some broader comedy in it. The deadpan bits were often me making fun of something set up earlier as deadly serious, a way of puncturing.

TO: I’m glad you brought up sex. It permutes in valence throughout the story, sometimes reading as sublime, at others transactional or as an insufficient salve. What specifically were you interested in capturing about sex?

LG: Oh, god, sex is the trickiest and deadliest thing to write. There’s the tired sitcom trope that one stops having sex when one gets married, which is frankly stupid, and I wanted to work against it by having my characters do it a lot, yet I wanted to write something more interesting than the kind of sex scenes I’ve been seeing more and more, where the dude is a fumbly-charming and ends up embarrassing himself. In the end, I just settled on sex being a kind of dynamic conversation with power subtly being traded (or not) throughout, the way that good dialogue is really about the power underneath it.


[Warning: Plot spoilers follow!]

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]The single-genius model of creativity is insane and destructive and wrong. If you make anything, you’ve been able to make anything because other people have done much of the work for you.[/pullquote]


TO: At one point in the book, Lotto notes that “if he was the one who had the relevant anatomy, a mistake would already have been made with the birth control and little Lotto would be even now kicking its heels in his gut. It was unfair that women could have such primordial joy and men could not.” Lotto may believe he’s entitled to a child, but Mathilde has her tubes tied. Is part of Mathilde’s power her power to not create?

LG: YES. It’s part of her power to make her own reproductive decisions. (I used a curse word but took it out for the NBA, ha). And to know that Lotto, charming as he may have been, would have been absolutely no help, and so she would have raised a kid with this man, resented him, ruined the sexy life they’d made and in which she felt secure for the first time. The way she did it was maybe not the right way. But, according to her, the only way she would have been able to keep Lotto’s attention. I think she was right.

TO: In an interview with The Paris Review, Lorrie Moore said, “I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about.” In Fates and Furies we discover not only that Mathilde has performed all the accounting, cooking, planning, and, early on, earning, but she’s coerced her wealthy uncle to anonymously fund her husband Lotto’s first play and has secretly revised Lotto’s plays. To what extent is an author’s work ever her “own” work? What are the conditions necessary for genius or, at least, very good artistic creation?

LG: I love that Lorrie Moore quote. This was the very basic seed of the whole project, Tracy—I wanted to talk about privilege, how it’s invisible and is often taken for granted. I read lots of biographies of famous playwrights and the wife’s always this shadowy figure, who is supposed to have done nothing to help this great man create his work, when the truth is blatantly obvious that she did a huge amount of work toward the creation of the work. The single-genius model of creativity is insane and destructive and wrong. If you make anything, you’ve been able to make anything because other people have done much of the work for you. It’s so much worse, somehow, when the people taking their privilege for granted are also sensitive and creative—you sense it’s willful ignorance, not just plain ignorance. Very good artistic creation needs enough peace, money, and shelter to come about. Sometimes education, too. These things are rarely the product of a single person’s hard work, but are rather due to millions of invisible hand—taxpayers’, friends’, parents’, you name it.


Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful. A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree, she has published fiction in Granta, Guernica, The Literarian, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TheAtlantic.com, Grantland,Bookforum, RollingStone.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the NewYorker.com. In 2012, she was awarded the Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction.

Angela Flournoy interviewed by Alex Gilvarry

Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, is a remarkable tale of a Detroit family and the difficulties and secrets that now separate them. It is a debut of immense power that moves through generations—from the 1940s to the present national housing crisis—to touch upon decades of Americana. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy was one of this year’s “5 under 35” honorees, and the New York Times has called The Turner House “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel” with “a Márquezian abundance of characters.” But Flournoy is by no means a precocious novice. Her novel demonstrates a masterful style, ultimate empathy, and introduces us to a novelist working at the highest level of the craft.


The Turner House by Angela Flournoy book cover, 2015Alex Gilvarry: Congratulations on your nomination for your remarkable novel, The Turner House. Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Angela Flournoy: Thank you! I’ve had an excellent fall season of celebrating, first for the long list then the short list. I was at home at my apartment in Brooklyn when the long list was announced, getting ready to do laundry, when I found out via Twitter. I screamed, and called my mother who lives in Southern California and was very much asleep. Once she figured out what I was yelling about at such an early hour, she screamed too.

AG: Detroit is an often-neglected city, both in reality and in literature. Do you have a personal connection to the city? What drew your imagination there? And how did you land on Yarrow Street?

AF: My father is from Detroit, so I’ve visited the city throughout my life. He was raised on the east side in a neighborhood that is now in similar condition to the fictional Yarrow Street. My personal experiences with Detroit have been largely positive. It’s a city that has faced unprecedented hardship, but it’s also a place with strong cultural institutions and proud traditions. I’d never seen both sides of the city rendered in fiction, so that was something I set out to do in my novel.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction.[/pullquote]

AG: Let’s talk about the Turner family. They seem to be intertwined with all aspects of Detroit and American history. Which character came first and how did this family evolve?

AF: Lelah, the youngest Turner child came first. I imagined her creeping around the vacant Turner house at night, using her phone as a flashlight, and I wanted to know why. I had the sense that she had secrets, and I decided that the people closest to her did not know about her gambling addiction. From this first decision bloomed all of the others. I come from several large families, so I wanted to explore the dynamic of being a part of something so vast and interconnected. I initially thought I’d focus on only Lelah the youngest, and Cha-Cha the oldest, but the more I read about the history of black Americans in Detroit, the more I knew I also had to include the stories of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner. This widened the scope of the novel.

AG: There are 13 children in the Turner clan, many our main characters–we follow Lelah, Cha Cha, Troy; then there’s Viola and Francis their parents. Was it intimidating to create such a large family and all of those distinct personalities? It’s no short order for a novelist.

AF: I’ve always loved novels with large casts of characters. In some ways they seemed to be very much like real life. None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction. The most challenging part was deciding which voices would get the most time on the page, and which would appear less frequently.

AG: I want to ask you about “the haint” or the ghost that haunts this novel. It’s such a great word and I’ve never heard or seen it before.

AF: “Haint” is a southern colloquialism for ghost or spirit; I’ve read explanations of it as a variant on the word “haunt,” or somehow related to the word “ain’t.” It’s the term I was familiar with from the ghost stories I grew up hearing, so I thought I’d employ it in this novel that features migrants from the south settling in the north. I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.[/pullquote]

AG: Who inspires you?

AF: I’m always open to inspiration, and I find a lot of it comes from my peers, or writers who are only a little older. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division, and his honest and love-filled nonfiction has been inspiring to me these last few years. My friend Justin Torres wrote a novel called We the Animals which is a slim, emotional gut-punch of a book, and I learned a lot about language and brevity by reading it. I’m a fan of the visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, and I follow her on Instagram to see photos of her works in progress. They’re a reminder that consistent, incremental work can add up to something beautiful.

AG: Do you have a favorite National Book Award winning book?

AF: There have been so many great winning books. I readJesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones the fall it won the National Book Award, and was immediately evangelical about it. I was living in Iowa City at the time, and I told anyone who would listen that they needed to read this book. I stopped just short of grabbing strangers by their lapels in the street. It is an elegant and urgent novel. I think I read it in 2 days.


Alex Gilvarry is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and has been one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 honorees. His second novel, Eastman Was Here, is forthcoming from Viking.

Karen Bender interviewed by Courtney Maum

The characters in Karen E. Bender’s Refund, a Finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards, live in tenuous comfort, struggling across the changing territory of financial plains. An ailing eighty year-old swindler boards a cruise ship with the last of her savings in a red velvet purse. A dedicated employee who went into airport security after losing both her parents in a car crash is told that she’s a candidate for layoffs. A cat causes a married couple to reexamine their relationship when he tells the wife he loves her. That’s right—the cat. Because that’s the thing about the thirteen gripping tales in this collection, as much as they are about the disappointments accrued during our hourly wage lives, they’re also about the moments of grace that get us up in the mornings to go through it all again. We chatted on the phone while Karen was getting take-out and then followed up by e-mail to talk in more detail about her third book.


Refund book cover by Karen Bender, 2015Courtney Maum: These timely and disturbing tales about the role of money in our lives move expertly between scenes of hilarity and despair. That’s what I loved so much about this collection—you really capture the way that beauty exists even in our darkest moments and vice versa. Could you talk a little bit about how you decide—instinctively or otherwise—to balance hopelessness with humor?

Karen E. Bender: I tell my students that powerful writing balances at the edge of hope and despair. Humor works in fiction because it is the individual shouting back at the abyss, and the reader engages with the humor and shares a moment of power with the writer. I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.

One example: the story Refund deals with New York City right after September 11th, which is obviously a very dark topic. But the story has moments of somewhat surreal absurdity that reveal the strange experience of living in downtown Manhattan at that time. A local park is closed for asbestos cleaning, as the parks were covered in toxic dust, and there are signs warning people not to enter the park. Clarissa, the main character, and her young son, walk into the park and her son hurls his ball toward a garbage bin and a sign that announced, “No playing in or around this container.” Clarissa is terrified, but a janitor tells her not to worry—that the container just held rat poison. Then Clarissa observes—“She never thought the term rat poison would sound nostalgic, but she was strangely calmed.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.[/pullquote]

CM: Your portrayal of parenting in these stories (whether biological or not) perfectly communicates the desperate attachment, the furious exhaustion, the helpless rage against mortality that parenthood can bring. Do you think that being a parent yourself has influenced your writing?

KB: The journey of parenting is deep and gorgeous and complicated—but parenting is perhaps the most cute-ified activity in American culture—the little onesies decorated with hippos one receives at the birth of a child distract you from the immense, helpless love that overtakes you, and also the fact that the child (from the moment she/he decides to be born!) has her/his own clear desires, complex plans. Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.

CM: Employment—both the securing and maintaining of it—is central to all these stories. During a writing seminar, I heard the author Benjamin Percy plead with his students to give their characters jobs. What do you think of the way jobs and job hunting is portrayed in American fiction today?

KB: I agree with Percy, mostly because the world of work and job-hunting is so dramatic! I recently taught a wonderful story by Mavis Gallant, (who is Canadian), called “From Zero to One,” (in her collection Varieties of Exile) which is about her character’s experience as the only woman in an all-male office during World War II; one line that I love from that story is “The fact is that I did not know the office was dull.” Andrea Barrett’s story, “The Ether of Space,” (in her collection Archangel), features an astronomer and her work as gorgeous metaphors; John Cheever writes beautifully about the strangeness of the work world of New York City. Knowing what a character’s work (or lack of work) is can really help you ground a story.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.[/pullquote]

CM: Where were you when you got the news of the nomination? You shared with me that this collection’s path to publication was hard and long. Do you have any advice for other writers out there who are working on short story collections right now?

KB: I learned about Refund’s place on the NBA Longlist when it was announced on the Internet, along with everyone else. I knew that the Fiction Longlist would be announced at 9 am on Thursday, and I was curious who was on it, so I clicked on the NBA site then. I saw the cover of Refund there, that glimmering gold, and for a moment, I thought I had gone insane. I was out of town, and I called my husband, and said, “Refund is on the NBA Longlist. Can you check? Is it real?” And he looked and said, “It’s real.” And then we screamed.

Yes, the road to publish this book was long and complicated. To writing students, I would say: if you like to write short stories, read them, discuss them in book clubs, engage with them; make them part of the literary conversation. And write what you want. Work hard. Don’t let your work into the world until it is finished. Don’t ever stop.


Courtney Maum is the author of the debut novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone; the humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review.”; and the book reviewer for the 2022-based news outlet, “Sirens” founded by Richard Nash. She also co-writes films with her husband and names products for various branding agencies around the country. @cmaum

Norman Mailer Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution in American Letters

Presented at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 16, 2005
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Garrision Keillor (host): Toni Morrison has won so many awards and prizes it is easier to talk about the ones that she has not won like the Heisman Trophy, the Cy Young Award. To the best of my knowledge, at least, she has not. She has won this prize and the other one and the one named for Joseph Pulitzer and she has, of course, won the prize where the phone call comes in the morning from the guy with the Swedish accent. You must wonder which of your friends would be capable of doing this to you. This year it is 35 years since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Please welcome Toni Morrison. [Applause]

Toni Morrison (introducing Norman Mailer): Thank you. Thank you. Actually, several people ought to be standing here next to me to complete this recognition of Norman Mailer’s career. No one perspective can voice or even successfully accomplish it. Certainly, there should be someone who experienced World War II. There should be another with very keen memories of the Vietnam era. A third who fell under the sway of Muhammad Ali. There should be a fourth who understood the interior void of a death row inmate, how attractive death is to a killer, even or especially if it is his own.

Such a collection of readers and writers who prize the carnivorous intelligence accompanied by huge and provocative talent would underscore what I believe to be simply undeniable, that the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer. [Applause]

In fiction, nonfiction, polemic, literary criticism, he has plumbed war, Hollywood, the CIA, death row, politics, moon shots, his gaze as wide as his intellect is passionate. Well, loud and justifiable praises of his prowess as a writer, however, competes with some rather violent objections to some of his views. I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race, [Laughter, applause] which I have to say even he admits to.

But at the very least, excoriating this particular writer’s view is a battle worth engaging. It is not a pseudo-struggle with a sly dissembling antagonist who hides behind the pale pose of the mediocre. Norman Mailer is nothing if not a worthy adversary. If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods. It has always seemed to me that the body of his work is very much like the America he loves and chastens. Like the country, the man, the writer, is fascinated by the romance of violence. Like the country, he is confrontational in his despair of American military confrontations. Like the country, he is routinely disrespectful of borders, trespassing literary genre and classifications with glee, innovative, creating new vocabularies as he merges the traditional with the new. He is willing to dissect the imperial demands of his own ego while he deplores the demands of the national ego, endlessly confessional, offering his feelings and experiences to help educate and shape those of others.

Generous, intractable, often wrong, always engaged, mindful of and amused by his own power and his prodigious gifts, wide spirited. Like the nation itself, sui generis, a true original. I think you would agree that for a writer this prolific, this able with language, he should have the last word. So let me quote it. If, as he has said, “Writers are the marrow of the nation, its nutrient,” then as a nation, as readers, we are healthier, stronger, smarter, more resistant, perhaps even more honest because of him. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer: It’s a curious night. First I was cursing Larry Ferlinghetti because he was saying all the things that I’m going to say and then I was being honored by Toni Morrison whose gift, I think, was to show me, since she was talking about me, her gift was to show me that I am obtuse about women. [Laughter] Which reminded me of my wife because my wife can hear 50 paeans of praise and one small criticism and all she will ever remember is the small criticism.

So I’m obtuse about women but wary of them. At any rate, I thank Toni Morrison for her prodigious generosity. On my best days, I have that high an opinion of myself but not on my worst ones.

Now, here comes the speech, the speech for which I cursed Ferlinghetti. Something interesting happened with this speech on the way to the occasion which is that I forgot it. We were ten minutes away from my home and I shrieked and said to my wife and one of my sons, “We have to go back. We have to go back. I put my speech in the wrong suit jacket.” It never happened to me before. May it never happen to me again.

All right. In these years, I’m feeling the woeful emotions of an old carriage maker as he watches the disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile. The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with the

same poignant concern we feel for endangered species. There is all but unspoken shame in the literary world today. The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered. Indeed, how many of you even in this audience do not obtain more pleasure from an egregiously cruel review of a good novel in the New York Times than from the art involved in reading that good but serious book?

Meanwhile, we are told that literacy is improving and more novels are being read than ever before. That may be true. It is just that the vast majority of such successful fiction is all too forgettable. The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one’s passing needs but to enter one’s life, even alter it. So the great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising worlds.

Nature’s rude beast has appropriated the marketplace. The good serious novel, and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this marketplace. The most dedicated novels of the future are lucky, therefore, to have the same lack of relation to the ambitions and greed of the world as fine poetry offers today. So too will the serious novel be seen as doing little harm provided it is kept on that high shelf we save for family whatnots.

If these gloomy predictions are correct, let us look at least at what we may be losing. Civilization has become a dangerous vehicle, hurtling toward a fate that could be dire. Is it not by now a giant who can no longer see? It is too blind in its ambitions and blind in its wars. Its great limbs do not coordinate with each other. Theology is one of those limbs, is helpless before the unanswered questions of the holocaust, even as formal religion insists on an all good and all powerful God. While fundamentalists are gung ho in their manic rush to godly judgment, liberals are in a state of woe before their increasing powerlessness.

The great light of the Enlightenment which fortified their sense of entitlement over the last three centuries is now a flickering light. The military would do well to become familiar with the works of Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí since war has become surrealist.

What then can a great novel offer such a world? It is possible that the novelist, if his or her talent is deep, may even unravel enigmas that major disciplines are not ready to approach. Our field, our ground, our illumination does not derive from disciplines which have hardened over the centuries to advancing one chosen field of inquiry at the expense of others. We are bound to no discipline but the development of our own experience or, if we are fortunate enough to find it, our vision. So a gifted few may even be ready to explore experience far into moral advances that are not available to other professions.

On the other hand, novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which goodreaders can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust?Who does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered? Who says that compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels?

So where are the future Tolstoys, the future Joyces, Dostoevskys, Prousts? In the interim, let me salute the award winners who are yet to be honored on this evening. May they startle us with the breadth and power of their vision. May there be a Theodore Dreiser or a Herman Melville among them. I would say thank you for this award you are giving me tonight and I would add one coda: Would the English nation have been as great in surviving without Shakespeare? Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today if not for James Joyce? Thank you.



Judy Blume Accepts the 2005 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Presented at the 2004 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 17, 2004
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York

Deborah Wiley, Photo credit: Robin Platzer

Deborah E. Wiley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Book Foundation (introducing Judy Blume): Thank you, Garrison. And thank you Abby for such a wonderful reading.

One of the great pleasures of being the Chair of the National Book Foundation is having the honor of presenting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This year is the first time the Foundation will bestow the Medal on a writer whose principal audience has been young readers, and whose work has made her one of the most influential and important writers in America.

Various authors desire different outcomes from their work, including fame, fortune, social influence, political change, love, and to leave an everlasting mark. Perhaps young adult writers have a special place for the last item on that list. Their books reach still-forming minds and have the opportunity to imprint themselves, to help these growing personalities over a few of the rough spots, to explain a bit about how the world works, and, perhaps most important, to be enchanters, to be literary alchemists, to be the sorcerer’s apprentice who takes the jumble of letters and words and sentences, and out of them creates lifelong readers.

Judy Blume is just such an artist and artisan. You see her readers on school buses and subways and in bookstores, their noses buried deep into Fudge or Superfudge or Tiger Eyes, or late at night when they are supposed to be asleep they huddle under the covers with a flashlight and speed through Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Though boys often read her work, especially the Fudge books, it’s to girls she has spoken most powerfully. You can turn to your neighbor tonight and if she’s under 55 Judy Blume was one of her best friends from the ages of 9 to 13. If she’s over 55, Judy Blume was her daughter’s best friend in those years. Few writers in America have had such an enormous impact in encouraging children to be children and adolescents to be adolescents, and inspiring them to develop in their own ways, in their own time, in accordance with their own dreams.

Her individual works are among the most acclaimed books for young readers in the country. Blubber won the New York Times Outside Book of the Year, Tiger Eyes was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and won the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. And in these perilous times, just two months ago, the American Library Association designated her as the second most censored author in America over the past fifteen years. She has taken up the gantlet of that censorship and dedicated her time, energy, fame and money to ensure that the written word will continue to be free and unfettered in our society.

On behalf of the Board of Directors, it gives me great pleasure to present the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Judy Blume.

Photo credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio, Judy Blume accepting the NBF's Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Medal.

Judy Blume: Thank you, everyone, thank you so much for being here and for your applause, making me feel so welcome. Abby, thank you for reading that passage [from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret]so beautifully. Dick Jackson and I were holding hands remembering. And to Deborah and Harold and all the Members of the Board of the National Book Foundation, thank you so much for this great honor.

Garrison [to Garrison Keillor]– in my book, Summer Sisters, there are two young girls who call a guy they covet “The National Treasure.” But you truly are our national treasure. [Applause] And thank you for being with us tonight.

I can’t believe I’m standing here, as my family will tell you. This honor was so totally unexpected it left me speechless and for months I remained speechless, even knowing I would have to stand up here tonight and deliver a 15 to 20 minute speech. Yes, that’s how long it’s going to be before you get your main course.

Standing in this darkened room tonight, which is exactly how Stephen King described it to me, knowing that you’re all out there even if I can’t see you, I feel totally connected — to you, to those who have been honored with this award before me, to the nominees, to all the writers in this room, and especially to those who write for young people. By honoring me, the National Book Foundation is also honoring the community of children’s book writers and a more talented, hardworking group I’ve never met. I dedicate this beautiful medal to them – especially those who most inspired me when I was starting out: Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh and Elaine Konigsburg. [Applause]

I have my readers to thank for my career and not a day goes by that I don’t remember that. I doubt there’s a more loyal, supportive audience anywhere and almost from the start, as many of you know, they have written to me. So I wanted to share a couple of their earliest letters, which remain my favorites.

Dear Judy,
How do you do these books? Do you do them with your mind or do you use a kit?

Dear Judy,
Please send me the facts of life in number order.

My connection to books goes way back. Some of my earliest memories have to do with books. Sitting on the floor at the Elizabeth Public Library in New Jersey, not just turning the pages and pouring over the pictures but sniffing the books. I loved the way they smelled, like a warm, ripe blankey. When I got my first library card, I decided I would become a librarian — and it wasn’t just that librarians got to spend all day surrounded by books, it was that they had magical pencils, pencils with rubber stamps attached so you could write and stamp the date at almost the same time. I hope somebody here is old enough to remember those pencils. No one else had pencils like librarians.

Photo credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio Judy Blume with Harold Augenbraum, National Book Foundation Executive Director

I was a small, shy, anxious child with eczema, as fearful as Sheila the Great, as imaginative as Sally J. Freedman. I could play alone for hours, bouncing a pink Spalding ball against the side of our brick house, making up stories inside my head. One day I was a tough, gritty detective in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the next, a double agent during World War II. Sometimes I was a surgeon amputating the arms and legs of my paper dolls, then taping them back together. My patients were eternally grateful.

I was always a storyteller, although no one ever told me I could grow up to become a writer, and it certainly never occurred to me. I never shared my stories but they were there as far back as I remember. In my early fantasies, I was Esther Williams, a movie star of my youth. (I hope somebody remembers her.) She could swim underwater and smile at the same time without ever getting water up her nose. This seemed totally amazing to me, a little girl who always kept one foot on the bottom of the pool just in case.

Though I was a reader — and I owned all the Oz books, bought Nancy Drew mysteries at the Ritz Bookshop for 25¢ apiece, and loved the Betsy-Tacy series — I never found my kind of reality in children’s books. No child was anything like me. No child thought the kinds of things I did, leading me to believe I definitely wasn’t normal — which my brother, who is here tonight, might say is true — so I thought I had better keep this inner life of mine a secret.

By sixth grade I had lost interest in children’s books so when it came time for book reports, I would make up a title, an author and a theme (I hated themes — I still hate themes) and I would stand up in front of the class and report on this imagined book. I must have been convincing because I always got an “A” on those reports, and when I reported on a book I’d actually read, I didn’t.

For the most part, I couldn’t report on the books I was actually reading because those were the books I found on my parents’ bookshelves: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye and an illustrated copy of Lysistrata I found particularly interesting. I loved those books. I may not have understood everything in them but they gave me a glimpse into the secret world of adults which is what I was after, and I’ll always feel grateful and connected to those authors.

And then for a while in my twenties I became disconnected, not from books but from my inner life. I was married then with two small children, living in the suburbs of New Jersey. I adored my children but inside was an empty space, a gnawing, an ache that I couldn’t identify, one that I didn’t understand. The imaginative, creative child grows up and finds that real life, no matter how sweet, is missing some essential ingredient. I’m often asked how and why I began to write and I answer, “Out of desperation,” although now with “Desperate Housewives” on TV, I may have to rethink that. I was physically sick with one exotic illness after another in those years but once I started to write, my illnesses magically disappeared. I found an outlet for all that emotion, all that angst. Writing saved my life and it changed it forever.

When my first manuscript was returned with a letter of rejection, I hid in my closet and cried. “Does not win in competition with others,” was the reason checked off on the rejection form. I discovered rejection hurts; it can even be humiliating, but it doesn’t kill you. You still eat your supper, bathe your kids, go to sleep and get up again the next morning. Rejection only made me more determined. I stopped crying in my closet.

I didn’t know anyone who wrote or anyone who had ever written. I didn’t know anyone even remotely connected to the world of publishing. But I was a reader and by reading I learned to write. Why children’s books? It never occurred to me to write anything else. I’d always identified with children and I was so connected to the child I was, I remembered everything so vividly, that when I sat down to write Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which is, by the way, my third book – we’ll forget the first two – Margaret spilled out spontaneously. And yes, for those of you who are wondering, I really did do those exercises, and no, they don’t work, at least not for me.

I had no agenda. I wanted only to write the best, the most honest books that I could. I hoped, I prayed, that some day I would be published, and later, that some day I might reach my audience. After two years of rejections, I was discovered in the slush pile at Bradbury Press by Dick Jackson. [Applause] You just don’t know; you can’t imagine being that lucky. Those who do know, understand that Dick is one of our most gifted editors. I hope I’m not going to embarrass him by saying this, but Dick is legendary in the world of children’s books. And he saw something in my early work – don’t ask me what — that made him take me on. He taught me well. He was gentle, wise and funny. He still is. Dick, thank you for being here with me tonight and thank you for believing in me all those years ago.

I was in a hurry in those days. Life in my family was short. I grew up sitting Shiva. Shaped by death, I was alternately fascinated, terrified and consumed by the ultimate ending. Like my mother in her later years, who on the day she finished knitting one sweater started another, sure that God would not take her in the middle of a sleeve — as soon as I finished one book, I started the next. I’m not in such a hurry now, though I know my mother would not want me to tell you that, just in case someone is listening.

Looking back, I believe that not knowing anything about writing or publishing worked in my favor. I was free to write just as I had been free to make up stories inside my head when I was nine years old. There were no rules. There was no critic on my shoulder taunting me, no censor warning me that I was heading for trouble.

My work has saved me when I was sure I couldn’t cope, when I was sure my personal life was falling apart. It’s given me a strength, an identity, a reason to keep going.

I think there must have been something in the water in Elizabeth, New Jersey because the town produced quite a few writers, Mickey Spillane for one – does anyone remember I, the Jury? My Uncle Bernie taught Mickey Spillane in high school. Do you remember when Mike Hammer discovered she was a real blonde after all? It took me a long time to figure that one out.

And just a few miles away in the Weequahic section of Newark was Philip Roth. I am more connected to Philip Roth than he will ever know and I’m not just another fan, although I surely am a fan. His mother and mine went to high school together in Elizabeth. When Wifey, my first novel for adults, was published, my mother ran into Mrs. Roth on the street. Mrs. Roth had some advice for my mother: “Look, Essie,” she said, “when they ask you how she knows all those things, you say, ‘I don’t know, but not from me’.”

When you write a sexy novel, old boyfriends crawl out of the woodwork and contact you. They’re all sure they missed out on something hot when they were teenagers. Believe me, they didn’t. My favorite Wifey letter, though, comes from a stranger:

You’re rude and crude, depraved and lewd
You’re caught in a moral crunch.
You’re vexed, perplexed and oversexed
So when can we have lunch?

How sweet it was in the first decade of my career.

But then my life as a writer took another turn, unexpected and frightening. I never dreamed my books would become a target of the censors. I mean, this is America, right? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate our intellectual freedom? That’s what my parents taught me. That’s what I learned in civics class in sixth grade, ironically, about the same time as the McCarthy hearings.

I’ve always believed that learning to think for yourself, learning to make intelligent, thoughtful decisions, is one of the most important parts of an education. So it makes me sad and very angry that encouraging young people to think for themselves is seen by some as subversive.

I never planned to become an activist but things happen. You either take action or you don’t. Standing up and speaking out for what you believe in — well, it feels a lot better than doing nothing. And while you’re doing it, you find out you’re not as alone as you thought you were.

I am proud to be able to introduce you tonight to my Fab Four – they don’t know I’m doing this – my Fab Four are tireless freedom fighters who work day after day to protect our First Amendment rights. I know they won’t want to, but I’m going to ask them to stand up anyway.

Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. [Applause] Please, please, if you’re not already members, join this most amazing organization. The newsletter alone will make you glad you did. And what a celebration we had last night for NCAC’s 30th birthday.

Chris Finan, President of ABFFE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. And if you haven’t already, please do sign the Reader’s Privacy Petition to amend the Patriot Act. It will be in the lobby as you leave.

Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. The first time I heard Judith speak I was wowed by her articulate, fearless stance on behalf of free speech. I am wowed every bit as much today.

Pat Scales. Pat is a librarian and teacher extraordinaire, who came all the way from Greenville, South Carolina to be with us tonight. It would take me all of my twenty minutes to tell you what Pat has done on behalf of Free Speech. But besides everything else, and one of the things I am always most impressed by, is that Pat teaches kids what the First Amendment means and what it would mean to lose those rights.

I can’t begin to thank these four for their commitment to writers, readers, students, teachers and librarians. I fear they are going to be busier than usual during the next four years and for years to come. You know, the urge to ban is contagious. It spreads like wildfire from community to community. If it happens at your school, your library, your theaters or museums, please speak out. Censors hate publicity.

I want to thank my long time publishers for their continuing support, especially the teams at Dutton, Penguin Putnam, Random House and S&S (Simon & Schuster) for keeping my books alive and well for so many years. And especially to Beverly Horowitz and Carol Baron. They’ve worked with me almost from the start and I thank them for their smart and savvy publishing and for being godmothers to my books.

Thank you, Owen Laster, my current agent. And I would like to remember Claire Smith, who guided my career for almost three decades. She would have loved this. My wonderful loving family is here with me tonight — my daughter Randy, my son Larry, my grandson Elliot, who said he would come tonight if he could sit next to Stephen King. Elliot, I wish I could have arranged that for you. Elliot is my inspiration, the light of my life. And you look handsome in your tux. My brother David is here, and my sister-in-law Maggie, and my dear, dear old friends who know me best. Thank you for sharing this moment with me.

Finally, to my husband, George, who I sometimes accuse of having wrecked my career because in our 25 years together I’ve been happy, and contentment isn’t nearly as good for writing as angst. I love You, You’re Perfect, Don’t Change!

And now, because this is where it all began and this is why I’m standing here tonight, one more letter:

Dear Judy,
My mom never talks to me about the things young girls think most about. She doesn’t know how I feel. I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who I am. That’s why I read. To find myself.
Elizabeth. Age 13.

And Elizabeth, wherever you are, you are the reason I continue to write.

Thank you. Thank you so much. [Applause] I told Elliot before we left tonight, “Elliot, this is a big night for me.” And it really is. Thanks to all of you for making me feel so warm.

Copyright © 2004 Judy Blume and the National Book Foundation. All rights reserved. This speech may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

Stephen King Accepts the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

photo of Neil BaldwinNeil Baldwin (host): Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Book Awards. Before we begin the ceremony, I have some special welcomes to give. First of all, there are more than 900 people here and there are more than 125 authors in this room right now without whom there would be no National Book Awards. So I would like all of the authors to stand and be applauded. And don’t be shy, every single one.

My second welcome is to all of our visitors from Bangor – I hope I got that right. Not “Banger,” as I was told is incorrect. And we have many new guests here who have never been to a National Book Awards before and I wanted to say, especially to you, that I hope you will return many times in the future, take as many tables as you would like.

I’d like to thank Carolyn Reidy and Michael Selleck of Simon & Schuster, because they published this beautiful brochure which you all have on your tables. This brochure tells the story of the National Book Foundation and how we grew from a $5,000 pledge from Larry Hughes in 1989, which were our total assets – and that is true – to this. And so I urge you to read this story of the National Book Awards.

Speaking of stories, I would like to make a tremendous pitch for Walter Mosley’s book, The Man In My Basement. This book is being published by Little, Brown in January and we have managed to – it wasn’t very difficult – but we did manage to obtain some bound galleys from Little, Brown and we put them on your tables and we hope that you will take a look.

Walter has written a veritable page turner. I read this book in two days. And this is a page turner with a denouement that makes you really think. Walter Mosley is a prolific stylist with a purpose who crafts a great read and is also a dialectical philosopher. He dreams up memorable characters and then subjects them to the whims of his imagination. Walter is an observer of the current world situation and he’s not afraid to map out a challenge for black people. Walter is a man who believes in “giving back”. He served on the Board of the National Book Foundation for many years and he enriched our institution with humor and vision and devotion and his own funds.

Walter has been a tireless instigator and a cheerleader for me personally and I know many of the writers in this room owe a great deal to Walter’s inspiration and encouragement. So when Walter inscribes books to me, he usually writes something like, “Here we go again,” on the front page of the book. So in that spirit, I’d like to give an exceptionally warm welcome to our Master of Ceremonies, Walter Mosley.

Walter Mosle,yPhoto Credit: Anthony Barbosa

Walter Mosley (introducing Stephen King): Thank you. Thank you very much. Hello everybody. I’m really, really, really, really, really, really happy and really honored to be here tonight for a lot of reasons, you know, one my long affiliation with the National Book Awards, my commitment to understanding that in order to change the world, you have to become part of it, and becoming part of the National Book Awards was a wonderful thing for me. Working to make things different and seeing how willing people were to make things different made me very happy.

Of course, you know, the National Book Foundation, we all know, gives awards to writers. But actually, the National Book Foundation is such an incredibly important and wonderful organization because it’s so committed to literacy and to literature and to reading and to making the wonderful writers of America available to people who are not always able to get to those writers. It’s just, really a wonderful organization and I’ve always been happy to be affiliated with it.

The other day I was in Idaho and I got a call from Neil Baldwin, which was kind of funny, to be in Idaho and get a call from the National Book Foundation. You go, what, you know? And he says, well, I want you to be the host, we’ve decided you’re going to be the host. And the first thing I said to him was what I’m saying to you tonight, “but I’m not funny.” I’m not Calvin Trillin, I’m not Wendy Wasserstein. I’m certainly not Steve Martin. That’s just not going to happen. But he said no, we really want you here. We really want you here to come and to be a part of it and to represent it. So I said, all right, I’ll do that, I’ll come here and do this.

So I was given a couple of jobs and one of the jobs, of course, is to introduce the man that we’re honoring tonight, Stephen King, which I thought was very wonderful. It’s a big challenge to me because, in order to be able to say something about this wonderful writer, this wonderful man, this wonderful character in our literary landscape was a big thing and it took me quite a few months to write these three pages. Actually, it took more time to write these three pages than at least a couple of the novels that I’ve written.

I was standing outside – I have a little thing I’m going to read about him, I like reading things – but I was standing outside and somebody, a friend of Mr. King’s was saying, “You know, he’s very honored to receive this award. He’s feeling very honored.” And I went, “Really?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “You know, the honor is really ours.” It’s really for the National Book Awards, don’t you think? Mr. King has done all the work and now we’re capitalizing on that work. That’s just the way it is, that’s what we do. And that’s okay. But it’s not a question of we’re honoring him, but we’re getting a lot more from it in many, many ways, some of them monetary but most of them spiritual.

You have to think about that, when people are supporting you. It’s wonderful when you get to that moment in your career. I haven’t gotten there yet. I love it, how Neil said that I give my money to the National Book Foundation. I think it’s very important that people invest in who we are. I think it’s important that you people are here tonight. I think it is important that we are investing in the National Book Awards because this is the life of publishing here. This is the life of what we’re doing. If we don’t support ourselves, it’s not going to get there.

One of the reasons I read things is because I’m not so good as to say all the important things that are in my head off the top. It is an honor and a pleasure for me to introduce the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s a blessing that this recipient is Stephen King. There is no writer in America more worthy of recognition for his contributions to literature, to literacy and for his generosity to writers.

This mark of distinction is not only meant for Mr. King, however, but it is also a tribute to his readers and his connection to their world. Most of the great writers throughout history have been extraordinarily popular. These writers range from Homer to the nameless author of Beowulf to Shakespeare to Dickens to Mark Twain. They have told magical tales of brutality and grace and of sinners and redemption to the common man and woman. They tell us stories about our lives and the forces, either real or metaphorical, that govern those lives.

Greatness in literature is anchored in the experience of the age and then later judged by the depth of that experience. Universities do not dictate this greatness. Day laborers and seamstresses do. Political movements do not define the value of this literature because a well-told tale lives on in spite of the censor and the zealot.

Because I believe these words, I realize that all I have to do to present Mr. King is to talk about his work. It’s no surprise we live in dark times, extraordinarily dark times. Malignant forces roam free in the land and threaten us in our daily lives. These modern day horrors come from the most pedestrian, the every day aspects of our lives, the mailbox, the airplane, gas in our cars, our buses and subways, even our paychecks.

There is famine and war and terrorism throughout the world. There are also random acts of inexplicable violence in the workplace and in schools. The existence of these dangers causes an equally dangerous reaction in us. We limit our own freedoms and send our children off to die while our prisons are overflowing with myriad responses to hopelessness.

Most of us are conscious of how alone and small and unprotected we are. Maybe this has always been true but lately, we’ve been forced to face our frailties. Cambodia is not so far away as it once was, nor Rwanda nor Bosnia. Like the victims of these far-off and, for most of us, almost mythical places, we have very few heroes, very few chronicles to tell us what to expect or how to act. It sounds like one kind of Stephen King novel, a story of horrendous challenges that we may not all survive.

Not a story about great generals or superhuman secret agents armed to the teeth with the finest weaponry and training. Not the selective history lessons taught in substandard schools but a story about losing a wife, a child or a friend, about an unemployed carpenter or an alcoholic housewife or a small boy, hectored by bullies until he is ready to commit murder or suicide. A story about looking in the mirror and seeing something that no one else sees. It’s a story about everyday people finding heroes in their own hearts or maybe next door.

Mr. King’s novels are inhabited by people with everyday jobs and average bodies, people who have to try to find extraordinary strength when they’ve never been anything but ordinary. Stephen King once said that daily life is the frame that makes the picture. His commitment, as I see it, is to celebrate and empower the everyday man and woman as they buy aspirin and cope with cancer. He takes our daily lives and makes them into something heroic. He takes our world, validates our distrust of it and then helps us to see that there’s a chance to transcend the muck. He tells us that even if we fail in our struggles, we are still worthy enough to pass on our energies in the survival of humanity.

Mr. King’s phenomenal popularity is due to his almost instinctual understanding of the fears that form the psyche of America’s working class. He knows fear. And not the fear of demonic forces alone but also of loneliness and poverty, of hunger and the unknown we have to breach in order to survive. We go with him to the Wal-Mart and to the mechanic who always charges $600 no matter why you went there. He shares with us the awesome reverence for life, that magical formula that not even the most arrogant scientist or cleric or critic would date to define.

Tonight we honor Stephen King, our Everyman and our guide. Giving this award to him is also recognizing and celebrating the millions of readers who are transported, elated and given hope by his pedestrian heroes in a world where anything can and does happen.

I’d like to ask Deborah Wiley, Chairman of the Board of the National Book Foundation, to come up onto the stage and to make the formal presentation of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Stephen King. And Mr. King, would you please join us on the stage?

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

Stephen King: Thank you very much. Thank you all. Thank you for the applause and thank you for coming. I’m delighted to be here but, as I’ve said before in the last five years, I’m delighted to be anywhere.

This isn’t in my speech so don’t take it out of my allotted time. There are some people who have spoken out passionately about giving me this medal. There are some people who think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea. There have been some people who have spoken out who think it’s an extraordinarily good idea. You know who you are and where you stand and most of you who are here tonight are on my side. I’m glad for that. But I want to say it doesn’t matter in a sense which side you were on. The people who speak out, speak out because they are passionate about the book, about the word, about the page and, in that sense, we’re all brothers and sisters. Give yourself a hand.

Now as for my remarks. The only person who understands how much this award means to me is my wife, Tabitha. I was a writer when I met her in 1967 but my only venue was the campus newspaper where I published a rude weekly column. It turned me into a bit of a celebrity but I was a poor one, scraping through college thanks to a jury-rigged package of loans and scholarships.

A friend of Tabitha Spruce pointed me out to her one winter day as I crossed the mall in my jeans and cut-down green rubber boots. I had a bushy black beard. I hadn’t had my hair cut in two years and I looked like Charlie Manson. My wife-to-be clasped her hands between her breasts and said, “I think I’m in love” in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

Tabby Spruce had no more money than I did but with sarcasm she was loaded. When we married in 1971, we already had one child. By the middle of 1972, we had a pair. I taught school and worked in a laundry during the summer. Tabby worked for Dunkin’ Donuts. When she was working, I took care of the kids. When I was working, it was vice versa. And writing was always an undisputed part of that work. Tabby finished the first book of our marriage, a slim but wonderful book of poetry called Grimoire.

This is a very atypical audience, one passionately dedicated to books and to the word. Most of the world, however, sees writing as a fairly useless occupation. I’ve even heard it called mental masturbation, once or twice by people in my family. I never heard that from my wife. She’d read my stuff and felt certain I’d some day support us by writing full time, instead of standing in front of a blackboard and spouting on about Jack London and Ogden Nash. She never made a big deal of this. It was just a fact of our lives. We lived in a trailer and she made a writing space for me in the tiny laundry room with a desk and her Olivetti portable between the washer and dryer. She still tells people I married her for that typewriter but that’s only partly true. I married her because I loved her and because we got on as well out of bed as in it. The typewriter was a factor, though.

When I gave up on Carrie, it was Tabby who rescued the first few pages of single spaced manuscript from the wastebasket, told me it was good, said I ought to go on. When I told her I didn’t know how to go on, she helped me out with the girls’ locker room stuff. There were no inspiring speeches. Tabby does sarcasm, Tabby doesn’t do inspiration, never has. It was just “this is pretty good, you ought to keep it going.” That was all I needed and she knew it.

There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire. It was a time when my wife might have been expected to say, “Why don’t you quit spending three hours a night in the laundry room, Steve, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer we can’t afford? Why don’t you get an actual job?”

Okay, this is the real stuff. If she’d asked, I almost certainly would have done it. And then am I standing up here tonight, making a speech, accepting the award, wearing a radar dish around my neck? Maybe. More likely not. In fact, the subject of moonlighting did come up once. The head of the English department where I taught told me that the debate club was going to need a new faculty advisor and he put me up for the job if I wanted. It would pay $300 per school year which doesn’t sound like much but my yearly take in 1973 was only $6,600 and $300 equaled ten weeks worth of groceries.

The English department head told me he’d need my decision by the end of the week. When I told Tabby about the opening, she asked if I’d still have time to write. I told her not as much. Her response to that was unequivocal, “Well then, you can’t take it.”

One of the few times during the early years of our marriage I saw my wife cry really hard was when I told her that a paperback publisher, New American Library, had paid a ton of money for the book she’d rescued from the trash. I could quit teaching, she could quit pushing crullers at Dunkin’ Donuts. She looked almost unbelieving for five seconds and then she put her hands over her face and she wept. When she finally stopped, we went into the living room and sat on our old couch, which Tabby had rescued from a yard sale, and talked into the early hours of the morning about what we were going to do with the money. I’ve never had a more pleasant conversation. I have never had one that felt more surreal.

My point is that Tabby always knew what I was supposed to be doing and she believed that I would succeed at it. There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way.

That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness rather than her more common wit and good natured sarcasm that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint. I believe that on some level of thought I was expecting to have that conversation. If she had suggested that you can’t buy a loaf of bread or a tube of toothpaste with rejection slips, I would have gone out and found a part time job.

Tabby has told me since that it never crossed her mind to have such a conversation. You had a second job, she said, in the laundry room with my typewriter. I hope you know, Tabby, that they are clapping for you and not for me. Stand up so they can see you, please. Thank you. Thank you. I did not let her see this speech, and I will hear about this later.

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Of course, I only have my own senses, experiences and reading to draw on but that usually – not always but usually – usually it’s enough. It gets the job done. For instance, if an elevator full of people, one of the ones in this very building – I want you to think about this later, I want you to think about it – if it starts to vibrate and you hear those clanks – this probably won’t happen but we all know it has happened, it could happen. It could happen to me or it could happen to you. Someone always wins the lottery. Just put it away for now until you go up to your rooms later. Anyway, if an elevator full of people starts free-falling from the 35th floor of the skyscraper all the way to the bottom, one of those view elevators, perhaps, where you can watch it happening, in my opinion, no one is going to say, “Goodbye, Neil, I will see you in heaven.” In my book or my short story, they’re far more apt to bellow, “Oh shit” at the top of their lungs because what I’ve read and heard tends to confirm the “Oh shit” choice. If that makes me a cynic, so be it.

I remember a story on the nightly news about an airliner that crashed killing all aboard. The so-called black box was recovered and we have the pilot’s immortal last four words: “Son of a bitch”. Of course, there was another plane that crashed and the black box recorder said, “Goodbye, Mother,” which is a nicer way to go out, I think.

Folks are far more apt to go out with a surprised ejaculation, however, then an expiring abjuration like, “Marry her, Jake. Bible says it ain’t good for a man to be alone.” If I happen to be the writer of such a death bed scene, I’d choose “Son of a bitch” over “Marry her, Jake” every time. We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one’s own work in particular.

I’m sure I’ve made the wrong choices from time to time. Doesn’t the Bible say something like, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of Chaucer?” But every time I did it, I was sorry. Sorry is cheap, though. I have revised the lie out if I could and that’s far more important. When readers are deeply entranced by a story, they forget the storyteller completely. The tale is all they care about.

But the storyteller cannot afford to forget and must always be ready to hold himself or herself to account. He or she needs to remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it. If you tell your reader, “Sometimes chickens will pick out the weakest one in the flock and peck it to death,” the truth, the reader is much more likely to go along with you than if you then add something like, “Such chickens often meld into the earth after their deaths.”

How stringently the writer holds to the truth inside the lie is one of the ways that he can judge how seriously he takes his craft. My wife, who doesn’t seem to know how to a lie even in a social context where people routinely say things like, “You look wonderful, have you lost weight?” has always understood these things without needing to have them spelled out. She’s what the Bible calls a pearl beyond price. She also understands why I was in those early days so often bitterly angry at writers who were considered “literary.” I knew I didn’t have quite enough talent or polish to be one of them so there was an element of jealousy, but I was also infuriated by how these writers always seemed to have the inside track in my view at that time.

Even a note in the acknowledgments page of a novel thanking the this or that foundation for its generous assistance was enough to set me off. I knew what it meant, I told my wife. It was the Old Boy Network at work. It was this, it was that, on and on and blah, blah, blah. It is only in retrospect that I realize how much I sounded like my least favorite uncle who believed there really was an international Jewish cabal running everything from the Ford Motor Company to the Federal Reserve.

Tabitha listened to a fair amount of this pissing and moaning and finally told me to stop with the breast beating. She said to save my self-pity and turn my energy to the typewriter. She paused and then added, my typewriter. I did because she was right and my anger played much better when channeled into about a dozen stories which I wrote in 1973 and early 1974. Not all of them were good but most of them were honest and I realized an amazing thing: Readers of the men’s magazines where I was published were remembering my name and starting to look for it. I could hardly believe it but it appeared that people wanted to read what I was writing. There’s never been a thrill in my life to equal that one. With Tabby’s help, I was able to put aside my useless jealousy and get writing again. I sold more of my short stories. I sold Carrie and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s been a certain amount of grumbling about the decision to give the award to me and since so much of this speech has been about my wife, I wanted to give you her opinion on the subject. She’s read everything I’ve written, making her something of an expert, and her view of my work is loving but unsentimental. Tabby says I deserve the medal not just because some good movies were made from my stories or because I’ve provided high motivational reading material for slow learners, she says I deserve the medal because I am a, quote, “Damn good writer”.

I’ve tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack. For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. Witness my childish resentment of anyone who ever got a Guggenheim.

But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first. You have been very good and patient listeners and I’m going to let you go soon but I’d like to say one more thing before I do.

Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, shame on you.

There’s a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub. He’s just published what may be the best book of his career. Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it?

There’s another writer here tonight who writes under the name of Jack Ketchum and he has also written what may be the best book of his career, a long novella called The Crossings. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it? And yet Jack Ketchum’s first novel, Off Season published in 1980, set off a furor in my supposed field, that of horror, that was unequaled until the advent of Clive Barker. It is not too much to say that these two gentlemen remade the face of American popular fiction and yet very few people here will have an idea of who I’m talking about or have read the work.

This is not criticism, it’s just me pointing out a blind spot in the winnowing process and in the very act of reading the fiction of one’s own culture. Honoring me is a step in a different direction, a fruitful one, I think. I’m asking you, almost begging you, not to go back to the old way of doing things. There’s a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.

That said, I accept this award on behalf of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard, Peter Straub, Nora Lofts, Jack Ketchum, whose real name is Dallas Mayr, Jodi Picoult, Greg Iles, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connolly, Pete Hamill and a dozen more. I hope that the National Book Award judges, past, present and future, will read these writers and that the books will open their eyes to a whole new realm of American literature. You don’t have to vote for them, just read them.

Okay, thanks for bearing with me. This is the last page? This is it. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My message is simple enough. We can build bridges between the popular and the literary if we keep our minds and hearts open. With my wife’s help, I have tried to do that. Now I’m going to turn the actual medal over to her because she will make sure in all the excitement that it doesn’t get lost.

In closing, I want to say that I hope you all find something good to read tonight or tomorrow. I want to salute all the nominees in the four categories that are up for consideration and I do, I hope you’ll find something to read that will fill you up as this evening as filled me up. Thank you.

Copyright © 2003 Stephen King and the National Book Foundation. All rights reserved. This speech may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.

Steve Martin Presents Philip Roth with the 2002 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

2002 National Book Awards Host Steve MartinSteve Martin: Every year since the 1988 National Book Awards ceremony, it has been a tradition to present the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On behalf of the Board of Directors, this award is given to an individual, and I quote: “Who has enriched our literary heritage during a life of service or to a corpus of work.” Tonight we are gathered with great anticipation to honor and listen to Philip Roth, who received the National Book Award in 1960 for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. He was twenty-six years old.


Over the four decades since, he has produced twenty-four more books. He won a second National Book Award in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater. Mr. Roth has fulfilled both aspects of the mission of this award. He has indeed led a life of service to the English language, and thereby to all serious readers, who are the only kinds of readers he tolerates. Well I am sure he and I will find some other common ground. Like three great modern writers he deeply admires, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has invented a style by turns obsessive, lyrical, erudite, and of necessity, painfully human. To read Roth properly, you must permit yourself to become overwhelmed. Then will follow a refreshing, new understanding of the power of narrative. As Nathan Zuckerman observes in I Married a Communist, “The book of my life is a book of voices. When I ask myself how I arrived at where I am, the answer surprises me – listening.”

We know all too well that Philip Roth the author does not like to be conflated with his literary characters. However, that kind of empathy has informed the entire corpus of his work, which brings us to the second dimension of tonight’s award. This brief citation cannot do justice to the themes that have preoccupied Philip Roth. How is it possible that one writer, in one lifetime, can be utterly consumed by so many issues of profound, unsettling intensity; the endless sexual dance of men and women in and out of marriage and love; the constantly mutating shape of Jewishness in America; the constantly mutating shape of America; the sometimes subtle, often horrific ways in which politics infiltrates daily life – the enthralling, ugly and comic drama of families, and perhaps the most complex of all, the mysterious mirror images of identity. Who are we? Why are we here?

“Frankness is everything to me,” Philip Roth said in a recent interview. We are grateful tonight to this distinguished writer for not sparing us the facts as he portrays them in his inimitable manner. Ladies and Gentlemen: Philip Roth.

Philip Roth: [Speech not available]

Ray Bradbury Accepts the 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

NOVEMBER 15, 2000

Images: 2000 National Book Awards Host Steve Martin.Steve Martin: Each year the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation confers a special award upon an individual who has enriched our literary culture through a life of service or a corpus of work. The National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters will be presented tonight to Ray Bradbury.

Novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and poet, Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois 80 years ago. He grew up in Illinois and Arizona and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where Mr. Bradbury has lived ever since. He married Marguerite McClure in 1947. They have four daughters: Tina, Ramona, Susan, and Alexandra.

Ray Bradbury’s first published story was called “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” and it appeared inImagination! Magazine. The author was 18 years old.

Since that time, how can we even begin to count all of the ways in which Ray Bradbury has etched his indelible impressions upon the American literary landscape? There are few modern authors who can claim such a wide and varied province for their work, spanning from the secret inner-worlds of childhood dreams, to the magic realism of everyday life, to the infinite expanses of outer space.

Half a century ago, The Martian Chronicles was published and soon thereafter Fahrenheit 451 (by the way in Europe that would be “Centigrade 283”)–the quintessential book lovers’ book written in nine days; and then Dandelion Wine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Illustrated Man, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes. (By the way, the original title was “Look Out, Here Comes Something Wicked”.) Ray Bradbury’s prodigious and seemingly never-sleeping imagination continues to delight us, and next fall his new novel, From the Dust Returned, will be published by Avon Books.

What better way to conclude this introduction to Ray Bradbury than to show a clip from the classic film “Fahrenheit 451”, directed by Francois Truffaut starring Oscar Werner and the incomparable Julie Christie. We extend thanks to Universal Pictures for providing this excerpt. Let’s roll the film.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 2000 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images.

Mr. Bradbury: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, here I am. I have one good eye, one good ear, one good leg, and there’s other things missing but I’m afraid to look.

This reminds me of my encounter with W. C. Fields when I was a kid. My folks wandered out to Los Angeles because my dad was looking for work in the Great Depression and I was enamored of movie stars and I wanted to see famous people so I put on my roller skates, I was 13 years old, and I roller-skated out to Hollywood and there standing on the steps of Paramount Studios was everybody’s hero, Mr. W. C. Fields himself. I roller-skated over to him; I said Mr. Fields, can I have your autograph? And he signed it and gave it back to me; he said, “There you are, you little son-of-a-bitch.” And here I am. I felt as if I was knighted that day.

This is incredible. This is quite amazing because who you’re honoring tonight is not only myself but the ghost of a lot of your favorite writers. And I wouldn’t be here except that they spoke to me in the library. The library’s been the center of my life. I never made it to college. I started going to the library when I graduated from high school. I went to the library every day for three or four days a week for 10 years and I graduated from the library when I was 28.

And so I’ve written more short stories and novels and plays and poems about other writers than any other writer in history. I’ve been madly in love with them. I’ve written poems about Edgar Allen Poe being my father. Emily Dickinson being my mother. I’ve written a poem the title of which is “Emily Dickinson Where Are You? Herman Melville Mentioned Your Name Last Night in His Sleep.” I’ve written a wonderful story called, “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine” in which Charles Dickens comes to live in my grandparent’s home when I’m 12-years-old during the long summer of 1932. You didn’t know it, but I helped him finish A Tale of Two Cities with a nickel tablet and a yellow Ticonderoga #2 pencil.

So my dream has always been; I’ve never been jealous or envious of other writers. I have been in love with them and my dream always was that some day I could go to the library and look up on the shelf and see my own name gleaming against L. Frank Baum and the wonderful Oz books, or against Edgar Allen Poe’s or leaning against many other similar writers and knowing that Jules Verne was on a shelf down below me along with H. G. Wells. These are all my companions.

I wrote a long poem a few years ago about taking a journey across England to Land’s End and I said to myself, “Who would I want to take on such a journey late at night, and just sit up all night and listen to them and not say a word myself?” I’d have Rudyard Kipling there and Charles Dickens and Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville and listen to their talk all night and go to sleep with the lazy talk of these wonderful people inside my ears.

So when it comes to a novel like Fahrenheit 451, I don’t know how many of you know, but I wrote it in the library, the basement at UCLA. This is 50 years ago. I had no money to rent a proper office. I had a large family at home and I needed to have a place where I could go for a few hours. I was wandering around the UCLA campus and I looked down below and I listened and down in the basement I heard this typing. So I went down in the basement of the UCLA library and by God there was a room with 12 typewriters in it that you could rent for 10 cents a half-hour. And there were eight or nine students in there working away like crazy, so I moved in there one day with a bag of dimes and I began inserting dimes into the machine and the machine released the typewriter and you’d have half an hour of fast typing. I ran upstairs in between sessions.

Can you imagine what it was like to write Fahrenheit 451 in the library where you could run upstairs and feel the ambience of your beloved writers; and you could take books off the shelf and discover things that you might want to put in your book as a quote and then run back down and finish writing another page. So over a period of nine days I spent $9.80 and I wrote Fahrenheit 451.

You might say I wrote a dime novel, right? But, later Ballantine Books came along and they wanted me to add some material to it so I wrote another 2,500 words. That was during the Joseph McCarthy period. He was giving a bad time to a number of people and I wrote the additional pages to Fahrenheit 451. I still needed some extra income because my family was growing, and I tried to sell it to various magazines who were afraid of the subject matter because Joseph McCarthy was making such a ruckus in the country.

A young editor came along who was starting a new magazine and needed material. He said, “I have very little money. I’ve got $400. Is there something you could sell me for $400?” I said,”Yes, I have this novel and I’d like to have it published in the magazine before it comes out in book form,” and he said, “I will take it.” So I sold Fahrenheit 451 and it appeared in the second, third, and fourth issues of Playboy.

Not a lot of applause from you men here. [APPLAUSE] That’s more like it. That’s more like it. Where would you have been when you were 14 without that magazine, huh? We didn’t have anything like that when I was growing up. It was a terrible, terrible time. Hugh Hefner came up to me at a party a year ago and said, “Thanks for being there when it counted.” And no one knew what he was talking about, but I did. He gave me a chance upward.

It’s been a long, slow process and I’ve been helped by a number of wonderful friends. Number one, my wife took a vow of poverty to marry me, and when we got married we had $10 in the bank.

This is back in 1947, and my wife had to go to work immediately. We had a ceremony at an Episcopal Church and I put $5 in an envelope and handed it to the minister. He said, “What’s this?” I said, “That’s your pay for the ceremony today.” He said, “You’re a writer aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then you’re going to need this.” He handed it to me. I took it back and many years later I sent him a decent check.

I settled into this small bungalow with Maggie back in ’47, but that same month a wonderful thing happened. A young editor at Simon & Schuster wrote me. I had met him briefly that summer before and was incredibly impressed with him. His name was Don Congdon and he said in his letter, “I’m stopping being an editor now this month. Do you need a literary agent?” And I responded to him, “Only if it’s for a lifetime.”

I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife. So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes. And saying to me every time something came up, “What is this going to mean 10 years from now or 20 years from now? We’d better not do it.” So that’s the best advice you can have.

And then along the way I had wonderful editors like Kathy Hourigan over at Knopf, and Bob Gottlieb, and now I have Jennifer Brehl at Avon. But a wonderful thing happened concerning one of my first books. Back in 1949 my wife was pregnant and we had absolutely no money in the bank. Our friend Norman Corwin, the great radio writer, producer, director, a dear friend, said to me, “Ray, why don’t you come to New York and let the editors see your face and maybe you’ll sell something there.” So I got on the Greyhound bus, four days, four nights to New York. Have you ever done that on the Greyhound bus? Don’t. Don’t. Those were the days before air conditioning and toilets.

I arrived at the YMCA, the Sloan House, moved in there for $5 a week and proceeded to show my short stories to editors all around New York City, but nobody wanted my short stories. They said, “Don’t you have a novel?” I said, “No I’m a sprinter. I’m a sprinter.” But finally I had dinner my last night in New York with Don Congdon and Walter Bradbury, no relation of mine. Walter Bradbury at Doubleday. And sitting at dinner that night he said to me, “Ray, what about all those Martian stories you’ve been writing in the pulp magazines during the last 10 years? Don’t you think they would make a novel if you wove them together in some sort of tapestry and called it The Martian Chronicles?” I said, “Oh my God.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson when I was 24 and I said to myself, ‘Oh God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday I could write a book as good as this but put it on the planet Mars.'”

I made an outline, I named some characters, but I forgot all about it and suddenly here was Walter Bradbury suggesting to me a possible novel I’d written without knowing it. So he said, “Do an outline. Come tomorrow to the Doubleday offices and if I read your outline and like it I’ll give you $750.”

I stayed up all night at the Y. I wrote the outline. I took it to him the next day and he said, “Yes, this is it. Here’s $750.” He said, “Now do you have any other material that you could give me that we could kid people into thinking it was a novel?” And I said, “Yes, I have a short story about a man with tattoos all over his body and at night when he dreams he perspires and the tattoos on his body come to life and tell their stories.” And he said, “Here’s another $750.”

So in one day I sold The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man for $1,500. I was rich. And that’s, you know, 53 years ago and money went a long way then. It paid for our rent for the next two years. Our rent was only $30 a month. It paid for our baby. Babies were cheap back then. It cost $100 for our baby. And it was a down payment on a little tract house when we moved inland further. The book came out and there were very, very few reviews. In fact, only one. I was in a bookstore. I bumped into Christopher Isherwood. I did not know him. I grabbed a copy of my book; I signed it and gave it to him. I thought, Oh Christ, you know, I know he’s thinking, “One more book to read. Oh God.”

But three days later Christopher Isherwood called me and said, “Do you know what you’ve done?” I said, “No, what have I done?” He said, “You’ve written a remarkable book and I’m going to be the book editor and writer for Tomorrow Magazinenext October and this will be my first review.” So he did a three-page review of The Martian Chronicles which introduced me to the intellectual world and saved my soul.

So that was the only review. But he introduced me to Gerald Heard and finally my hero, Aldous Huxley, at tea one day. I hate tea. My God, I hate tea. And you have to pretend to like tea when you’re sitting with Aldous Huxley. And Mr. Huxley leaned forward during tea and he said, “Do you know what you are?” And I said, “No, what am I Mr. Huxley?” He said, “You’re published. You’re a poet.” I said, “Is that what I am? Is that what I am.” Aldous Huxley was telling me that I was a poet and I had yet to write one decent poem. I was working at it but it didn’t come right, so I put all my poetry into my books.

So through Isherwood, I met a lot of wonderful people and over the years slowly, slowly, slowly, The Martian Chronicles came into being. I wrote a whole series of essays and short stories and one day woke up and saw that I’d written a novel, and that’s still around.

All of my work is a wonderful surprise and a delight. I take joy in what I do. I have a wonderful relationship with my waking self every morning and that hour around 7:30 when your brain is not connected to your ears, when it’s floating around inside your head full of metaphors. I lie in bed and I watch the metaphors collect and drift and when they reach a certain point of collision, I jump out of bed and get them down before they go away. Everything I’ve done is a surprise, a wonderful surprise. I sometimes get up at night when I can’t sleep and walk down into my library and open one of my books and read a paragraph and say My God, did I write that? Did I write that? Because it’s still a surprise.

Along the way people said to me, “Ray, when are you going to do a screenplay?” Because I love motion pictures. I’ve seen just about every one ever made. A lot of the bad ones and a lot of the wonderful ones over and over again. I said, “Yes, there’s one man I’d love to work for, that’s John Huston,” and I knew that I wanted to work for him. Well, I gave John all of my books of short stories one day in 1951, and he wrote back from Africa where he was making “The African Queen” and he said, “Yes, I agree with you, someday we’ll work together. I don’t know on what.”

The day finally came. I came home from a bookstore one day and my wife said, “John Huston just called. He wants you to come to his hotel.” I went to John Huston’s hotel. I walked into his room. He put a drink in my hand. He sat me down and he leaned over and he said, “Ray, what are you doing during the next year?” I said, “Not much, Mr. Huston. Not much.” And he said, “Well, Ray, how would you like to come live in Ireland and write this screenplay of ‘Moby Dick’?” And I said, “Gee, Mr. Huston, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing.”

He’d never heard that before and he thought for a moment and then he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what Ray. Why don’t you go tonight, read as much as you can, and come back tomorrow and then tell me if you’ll help me kill a white whale.”

So I went home that night and I said to my wife, “Pray for me.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I’ve got to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow.”

Luckily I was at the right age to read the book. I was 33 years old. I’d tried when I was younger. It just didn’t work. But what I saw there is a part of myself, the gift of metaphor.

All the early writers in America, Melville and Poe and many of the others wrote in metaphorical style. You could remember their stories. I raced through the book. I didn’t read it. I looked at all the metaphors and I came back the next day and I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I went to live in Ireland for the better part of a year and it was hellish work. Terrible work because I read some sections of the novel over 100 times. Some sections 200 times. Some sections 300 times. Other sections not at all because you’re looking for the metaphor. You’re finding a way to combine things and put them together. And finally, after seven months of hard work, a day of great passionate relaxation came to me. I got out of bed one morning in London and I looked in the mirror and I said, “I am Herman Melville.” I sat down at the typewriter and in eight blazing hours I wrote the last 40 pages of the screenplay and it all came out right; for that one day, for a few hours, the ghost of Melville was really in me. Was really in me.

I ran across London and I threw the screenplay into John Huston’s lap and I said, “There, I think it’s finished.” And he read it and he said, “By God, start the cameras.” That happened after all that research and trying to get Melville into my bloodstream, a very important, very important thing. Along the way after “Moby Dick” I worked on many other things. I worked on many screenplays. Did some more short stories. And finally, one of the great things in my life had to do with space travel.

People are always asking how I can be so involved with outer space. Why do I care about space travel. My answer has always been because I think there is a chance for us to become immortal. Our endeavor to go into space has to do with our living in other worlds and moving life from earth out to Alpha Centauri and perhaps further with all the bumps and wrinkles, with all our inconsistencies, with all our evil things, but not with all of our bad things because we’ll be taking along Shakespeare and many others, Emily Dickinson, many other people to fund the universe with our knowledge.

When we landed on the moon, David Frost asked me to appear on his show so that I could explain my ideas about the reason for us being alive at all. So I went over to the “David Frost Show” and I was there at 8:30 at night when we landed on the moon. A great moment. I was crying. I think all over the world people were crying. One of the greatest nights in the history of the world.

So I prepared to go on the show and say what I had to say, and David Frost said, “And now we have a great American here, a pure genius. He’s a wonder,” and I thought, That’s got to be me. It’s got to be me. And he says, “And here he is, Engelbert Humperdinck.” No, no, no! He came up and sang his stupid song, and then he started another introduction I thought, “Well this time it’s got to be me.” And he did another introduction and it was for Sammy Davis, Jr. He was a very nice guy, a very talented guy. I knew him. I took my daughters out to see him the day before on the set of the studio, but this was not a night for Sammy Davis, Jr. or Englebert Humperdinck.

I walked off the show. I went out to the parking lot, the producer came running after me and said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “I’m leaving.” He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Watch my dust. That idiot in there has ruined the greatest night in the history of the world. I don’t want to be on the show with him. Get me a cab and get me out of here.” They got me a cab and I crossed London and I went to meet with Walter Cronkite. I did a show with Walter Cronkite on Telstar around the world and I was able to say what I had to say about the possible immortality of mankind.

We’re always asking, “What are we doing here on earth?” We are the audience. There’s no use having a universe, a cosmology, if you don’t have witnesses. We are the witnesses to the miracle. We are put here by creation, by God, by the cosmos, whatever name you want to give it. We’re here to be the audience to the magnificent. It is our job to celebrate. That’s what I wanted to say and what I did say on the Cronkite show.

I stayed up all night that night we landed on the moon. I was on nine different shows around the world. I said all these things. I cried all night I was so happy. At nine o’clock in the morning I walked back across London exhausted but very, very joyful, and out in front of my hotel I saw a little London newspaper and it said, “Neil Armstrong walks at 6:00 a.m., Bradbury walks at midnight.” So I had the satisfaction of that moment, of being part of our landing on the moon, and my hope is that we will go back in the near future.

Now it’s time to wind this up and to show my appreciation for this magnificent Medal. My moment with Herman Melville in many ways is equal to what has occurred to me in my lifetime and what you have told me tonight. I’ve researched my life. I’ve looked into myself. I’ve tried to find me. Along the way I’ve located myself.

Tonight I can look in the mirror and say to myself, My God, who’s that there? Why, that’s Ray Bradbury. I can’t believe it. You’ve done it to me. Thank you very much.