Sunday, March 7, 2004
New York Edward P. Jones, winner of this year's National Book Critics Circle fiction prize, took 10 years to write his novel and felt so embarrassed about the delay that when he finally finished he couldn't bear to tell his agent, Eric Simonoff, on the phone.
Instead, he sent a letter to Simonoff, who duly left a complimentary message -- a sign of much praise to come -- on Jones' answering machine.
"I still have that message," Jones said Thursday as he accepted his award for "The Known World," the story of a black slave owner and the plantation's collapse after his death.
Other awards Thursday went to Paul Hendrickson's "Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy" for general nonfiction and William Taubman's "Khrushchev: The Man and His Era," for biography-autobiography. Rebecca Solnit's "River of Shadows," a study of high-speed photography and other 19th-century technology, won in the criticism category, and Susan Stewart's "Columbarium" was cited for poetry.
Studs Terkel, 91, the oral historian and self-described champion of the "uncelebrated," received a lifetime achievement prize. "I feel redeemed tonight, and I haven't seen Mel Gibson's film yet," joked Terkel, referring to "The Passion of the Christ."
Jones, 53, won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1993 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his first book, "Lost in the City," a collection of short stories about life in 1950s-1970s Washington, where Jones grew up. "The Known World," was a finalist last fall for the National Book Awards and is now in its eighth printing, with 100,000 copies in print.
But the author, a former proofreader for the trade magazine Tax Notes, took years to get going on his novel. He acknowledges being a slow worker who doesn't like writing anything until he has the story constructed in his mind. He also had a computer incompatible with other online systems.
"There were days I decided I wasn't in the mood, so I just put it off," he told The Associated Press last fall.
Monica Ali's "Brick Lane," Caryl Phillips' "A Distant Shore," Richard Powers' "The Time of Our Singing" and Tobias Wolff's "Old School" were the other fiction nominees.
Finalists in nonfiction categories included William T. Vollman's seven-volume, 3,300-page "Rising Up and Rising Down" and Susan Sontag's "Regarding the Pain of Others." Sontag's book is a partial refutation of her influential "On Photography," which won an NBCC award in 1978 and contended that repeated exposure to images of violence and suffering numb our emotions.
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, is a not-for-profit organization of about 750 book editors and critics. The NBCC awards are prestigious, if not profitable, offering no cash prizes.