The winners seemed stumped at the National Book Awards.
There were few prepared speeches on Wednesday night as most recipients managed few words beyond thanking the usual suspects. Patti Smith, who has some experience before audiences, became tearful as she accepted the nonfiction prize for "Just Kids," a bittersweet look back to New York City in the 1960s, when anything really could happen and Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe were just a couple of young artists out to break the rules. (Read Laura Miller's review of "Just Kids" here.)
Smith became the rare rock star to win a competitive literary award (Bob Dylan has win an honorary Pulitzer) and the one-time punk rocker offered an old-fashioned tribute to books. She begged publishers not to let the printed page die in the electronic age and recalled working decades ago at a Scribner's bookstore, stacking the National Book Award winners and wondering how it would feel to win one.
"So thank you for letting me find out," said Smith, 63, who now claims an award previously given to Rachel Carson, Gore Vidal and Joan Didion.
The fiction prize Wednesday night was a surprise, Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule," a wry, hard-luck racetrack comedy chosen over such better known works as Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That" and Nicole Krauss' "Great House."
Gordon herself is a story of luck turning. For years, she has written books released by small publishers, most recently, McPherson & Company, based north of Manhattan in Kingston, N.Y. She spoke briefly, acknowledged she had not expected to win and mentioned friends who told her that she had given them hope just by being nominated.
Gordon's fate has already changed. The paperback of "Lord of Misrule" has been acquired by Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House, Inc. Her next novel will be published by another Random House imprint, Pantheon. Meanwhile, the head of McPherson, Bruce McPherson, handed out business cards after the ceremony and remembered meeting Gordon when both were studying at Brown University in the early 1970s.
"She certainly stood out," McPherson said.
Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird," inspired in part by "To Kill a Mockingbird" and by the Virginia Tech shootings, was cited for young people's literature. Awarded for a story featuring an 11-year-old girl with Asperger's, Erskine praised parents who encourage their children to ask questions and teachers who inspire students to read and to "think for themselves."
Terrance Hayes, whose "Lighthead" won for poetry, thanked his wife and editor Paul Slovak at Penguin for being "the best kind of partner," one "who lets you be imperfect."
Winners in the competitive categories for the 61st annual awards each received $10,000. The black-tie ceremony was hosted by humorist Andy Borowitz and held under the towering columns of Cipriani Wall Street.
Honorary medals were presented to "Bonfire of the Vanities" novelist Tom Wolfe and to one of the creators of "Sesame Street," Joan Ganz Cooney. Smith did not sing Wednesday, but there was music on stage, as the white-suited Wolfe crooned a few lines from "The Girl of Ipanema," part of a long, leisurely talk that made up for the brevity of the other winners. He shared memories of his early newspapers days and of the party thrown by Leonard Bernstein and attended by members of the Black Panthers, a gathering immortalized by Wolfe as "radical chic."
The celebrated "New Journalist" well exceeded his declared deadline of six minutes to tell his story. Midway through his speech, the last before dinner was served, waiters began approaching tables and some of his words were hard to hear over the clatter of plates being set down.