Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Insights from 2010 National Book Award judge Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr has weighed in on the year she just spent on the judging panel for one of the four National Book Awards. (She's in the Young People's Literature category, where she was a 2007 finalist for Story of a Girl.)

Sara abides by the agreement not to divulge any arguments or near-miss books, but still offers a lot of valuable insight.

My favorite part comes when she quotes or paraphrases Richard Rodriguez saying that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it. Damn, I love the way he said that. I have always believed it.

"If that’s true," Sara says, "and I think it probably is, that means 100 readers could have 100 different experiences of the same book. Which can be frustrating, but is also kind of magical and also tells you something about what it is to be a person, an individual."

Good word, magical. That's how I feel. That's what makes books and films and music so enthralling for me—from both sides of the creation.

The writer does most of the heavy lifting actually getting the damn thing onto the page. But then the reader takes over. Everyone takes it in differently, starting with basics like drawing in the landscapes and the faces and the buildings from the choice little details carefully provided by the author. (That's essentially why I refused to put photos in Columbine. That's the reader's domain.)

It gets much more complex from there: turning our five, ten or fifty pages on a character into a fully-developed human, assessing that person, possibly judging, chastising or second-guessing them. And then the ideas. Whoa.

Writing is the first half of the creation process, reading is the second half. Actually half? I don't know. I'm not going to quibble about the percentages, but each one is a separate act of creation and significant.

This sentiment from Sara really resonated with me, too:
Most of all, what I feel now, having been through this process, is: awards and good reviews are nice to have, and probably good for your career, and should be celebrated. If you get them, be proud. Other than that, they don’t mean too terribly much. They certainly don’t mean books that don’t get them are failures, are unworthy, or should be dismissed.
I had the joy of riding the awards train last season. It was a thrill. It was maddening a few times, too. I had to look at myself a few mornings and admit I was more invested in the lists I was left off of--or more pitiful to whine about: making the group's long list, but not the short. I could admit out loud to close friends how ridiculous that was, but it still stung. Rationality could not sooth my feelings.

I'm wishing good thoughts this season for all the great writers appearing on these lists, and left off, especially the writers on their first book. I am thrilled at some of the deserving people making the big lists, and I'm surprised at some NBA omissions, like Rebecca Skloot for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack and Laura Hillenbrand for Unbroken.

(I'../../2010/11/why-i-love-patti-smith-rooting-for-you.html">my hero Patti Smith.) That just means that one group of five bright readers liked a handful of other books more. But Rebecca and Laura are definitely getting their due. I would not be surprised if they are each a tiny bit sad today, though. Maybe not. Hopefully they're more mature than me. Haha.

Reading Sara' reflections on all the unexpected pleasures she encountered while judging also makes me think about all the great books out there getting lost. Some of my friends have written incredible books. Some of those found a great big audience and made their way onto awards lists, others did not.

I believe my mentor Lucia Berlin was one of the great short storytellers of the last century, and I had the amazing fortune of being dropped into the final years of her life. Most readers have never heard her name.

(If you're one of the millions yet to discover Lucia, you might start with Homesick, winner of the American Book Award. (Awards, she won. A sizable audience, she's been denied.) I'd go straight to the amazing "My Jockey," which tells an entire story in one page.)

It's a scary thing, investing years of your life into a single work, and wondering if people will even notice. For get the bad reviews, what about no reviews? Or great reviews but few readers?

I think what most writers want more than awards are readers. I will confess to giddiness when I heard my name called a couple times, and I sure loved the adulation and the pat on the back, but I can just as honestly tell you that the main thing on my mind was the readers each award or list might bring. The awards don't do much there on the shelf. I want to see my book in peoples' hands.

I'm still waiting for that thrill, by the way: Of walking onto an airplane or a subway or wherever, and spotting a stranger with a copy of Columbine in their hands. Still has not happened. The closest I've come is in a bookstore, when they had a stack of them in the front on display. That happened several times, but it's not the same. The deck was stacked.

Next book, hopefully. Or who knows, maybe it will still happen on this one. Then I'll need to invent a new dream. Hahaha.

I'm just welled up with a lot of feelings about these awards and lists today. For everyone on them, I really hope you're relishing the ride. For all the writers out there left off some or all, the game ain't over yet. Keep writing. Write great stuff.


  1. I read Columbine all over--restaurant tables, dark bars, waiting rooms, and maybe on a subway train or two. I made the mistake of reading an early chapter or two on an airplane. (Mistake because it was hard to conceal my crying with people sitting within inches on all sides of me.) You just weren't there to see it!

    And I wish I could have gotten to study with Lucia. And Ron. And Marilyn. And Linda. All the good ones were gone, except for Peter and Sidney, by the time I got to Hellems.

  2. I like that. Thanks.

    Peter made a big mark on me, too, and Reg.

  3. Reg had retired too, but I got to hang out with him here and there. I'd definitely add him to the list.