Joan Didion Accepts the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction

The 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

BRENDA PINEAPPLE: Unfortunately, I was asked to say a few words about the process of choosing the nonfiction finalists. Fortunately, I can think of only four words: Five hundred and forty-two. That was the number of nominations this year, the most, I’m told, ever. Terrific biographies, eloquent histories, riveting memoirs, erudite and charming books about physics and physicists, about mathematics, about rock musicians and paintings and painters, heart piercing books about Iraq and Vietnam and veterans of yesteryear, about immigrants and travel and the myriad peoples of America, about American presidents and power, about women prisoners in courtrooms and crossword puzzles and illness and trees and religions and rugs, as well as books about marriage, about mountains, about lightening and, of course, about that most exciting of all endeavors, the writing life.

With such variety of subject matter and style, ours then was a daunting, humbling, often demoralizing task, true jury duty. After a certain point, I talked to no one, saw no one, went no place and for sustenance depended completely on the four enormously talented writers who for several months were the only people on earth except my husband who knew, understood and forgave the manic obsessiveness that our task entailed. These extraordinary judges are Mark Bowden, Dennis Covington, Tony Horwitz and Gregory Wolfe. [Applause] I thank them for their passion, their conviction, their stubbornness, their equanimity, their incredibly hard work and, best, for their ability to articulate over and over what good writing means, what it can do, how it changes us.

Together, we congratulate our five outstanding finalists:

  • Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion by Alan Burdick published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch, published by Houghton Mifflin.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, published by Knopf.

    Jeanne Birdsall and Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
  • 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, published by Times Books.
  • Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild, published by Houghton Mifflin.

This year’s National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

JOAN DIDION: There is hardly anything I can say about this except thank you, and thank you to everybody at Knopf who accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book about something that was not exactly anything but personal and that it would work. Thank you all. [Applause]

William T. Vollman Accepts the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction


Good evening. I will be very brief. It was a true joy and an honor to read through this mountain of books these last four months. I thank the National Book Foundation and Harold Augenbraum for allowing me to do this. I want to publicly thank my hardworking judges, Rikki Ducornet, Cristina Garcia, Thomas LeClair and Anna Quindlen. They worked hard. [Applause]

William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images).

At this point in the evening, I’m so nervous I’m about to throw up and I’m not one of the finalists. So I’m going to get right to it. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction are:

  • The March by E.L. Doctorow, published by Random House
  • Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, published by Pantheon
  • Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Holy Skirts by René Steinke, published by William Morrow
  • Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, published by Viking Press.

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Fiction is Europe Central by William T. Vollmann.


I thought I would lose so I didn’t prepare a speech. Well, let’s put it this way: When I was in elementary school, they showed me a film loop about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens. I was really horrified, and later on I understood that I was partly German. I thought, you know, am I somehow guilty for this? I mean, I probably have relatives over there who had something to do with the Third Reich. How could this possibly be?

William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction. (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)
William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction.  (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what that book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

I’m very grateful to my wife for being here. I want to thank my agent, Susan Golomb, for all her hard work on my behalf. I’m so grateful to Paul Slovak and Viking for taking care of me for so many years. Thanks to the National Book Foundation. I never expected this honor. Thank you. [Applause]


It’s good to see a big prize go to a very nice young man. Thank you all for this evening. Thanks to all of our sponsors for putting on this wonderful festive occasion. Thanks again to all of the judges for doing the hard work. Congratulations to all the nominees. Good night.

M. T. Anderson Acceptance Speech for the 2006 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature

Young People’s Literature Chair, Margaret Bechard: It’s an honor to represent the judging panel for the Young People’s Literature award. If I were writing this story, I could not have created a better group of fellow judges. Patricia McKissack, Linda Sue Park, Ben Saenz, and Jude Watson brought intelligence, humor, and passion to our deliberations. There’s no greater pleasure than talking about and discussing and yes, heatedly arguing about books with four other people who care deeply about good writing. And if you don’t think that children’s book authors heatedly arguing isn’t a pretty terrifying sight, well you haven’t seen children’s book authors. We had much to discuss. We read picture books, easy readers, middle grade and young adult novels, graphic novels, poetry, and nonfiction. It was exciting and gratifying to see the depth and breadth of creativity, talent, and artistic courage exemplified in the children’s books published in this past year. Our committee looked for stories that would leave us breathless, for characters that would haunt our lives and our dreams, for authors who would indeed be vigilant witnesses to the wonderful and fearful complexity of life. We found five outstanding authors. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award in Young People’s Literature are M.T. Anderson for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, published by Candlewick Press; Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death, published by Front Street Books, a division of Boyds Mills Press; Patricia McCormick for Sold, published by Hyperion; Nancy Werlin, for The Rules of Survival published by Dial Books, a division of Penguin Putnam; and Gene Yang, for American Born Chinese, published by First Second, a division of Roaring Brook Press. And the winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature is M. T. Anderson for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.


M.T. Anderson: Thank you. Thank you so much Margaret and to the whole committee. It’s an incredible honor to be included in this list of books. There are actually several reasons why it is wonderful, the most salient of which is that this, I believe, is the first time that a graphic novel has been included in the nominees. And I know there is a lot of the dithering that goes on in the blogosphere about whether graphic novels are literature or not, and I think that anyone who has read Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese can see that it is poignant, it is sophisticated, it is literature for young people. So anyway, I’m just really glad that we are leading that charge. I would just like to thank my parents, my girlfriend Nicole, and John Bell, the historian who did the fact checking for this book, The Boston Athenaeum where I did a lot of the research, and last but in fact foremost, Candlewick Press, which published the book. Usually when one goes to a publisher of children’s books and says, ‘Hey, would you like a 900-page two volume historical epic for teens, written in a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose by an obsessive neurotic who rarely leaves his house or even gets dressed,’ usually that children’s publisher will say ‘No, we would not like to buy that book.’ But Liz Bicknell, my editor, purchased the book and has just been incredibly supportive for the last several years. The sales and marketing department has taken this basically un-sellable product and has just done amazing things with it. It’s just a testament, I think, to what a small press can do just by taking risks. So thank you Candlewick for taking this risk on me, for showing the incredibly poor judgment to accept a manuscript that has allowed us to come here tonight. Thanks. Thank you all.