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'Small-Press Author' After Winning The Book Award


Tonight, the American literary establishment gathers here in New York for the National Book Awards. It's not quite the Oscars, but the honor can change the career of a novelist, historian or poet and vault a book to the top of the best-seller lists. Last year, the fiction award went to a little known author for her novel "Lord of Misrule," which had an initial press run of 2,000 copies. They've had to reprint. Jaimy Gordon joins us in just a moment. We'd like to hear from you too.

Writer, artists, athletes, musicians, if you've received sudden recognition, how did it change your work and your life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Author Jaimy Gordon joins us now from member station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she's also a professor of English at Western Michigan University. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.


CONAN: And you're about to pass the baton to a new winner this evening. I suspect that's a little bittersweet.

GORDON: It's about time, I think, for me to stop traveling in connection with having won the National Book Award. So even though it's been wonderful and I got to talk about "Lord of Misrule" a lot of places - Portland, Denver, Nashville, even Moorhead, Minnesota, Neal...


GORDON: ...where you had me read all the most naughty parts of the book to an auditorium full of Prairie Lutherans. Do you remember that?


CONAN: I do.

GORDON: That was fun.

CONAN: And I do remember there were naughtier bits I didn't have you read but...

GORDON: I can hardly believe it, but still, it was fun. All that's been great, but, as I always confess, I'm distractible. I'm notorious for not being very prolific, which is one reason that I was such an obscure author at the age of over 60. Let's just leave it at that. So I have to point out not that I would complain, because I had can't complain tattooed on the inside of my eyelids when I won the National Book Award. And I almost made it through the whole year without complaining.

But I'm not getting as much work done as I should, and I have a book contract to fulfill. I really want to do that. And I'm getting a little panicky. So that's as close as I'm going to come to complaining but...

CONAN: It's hard to imagine a writer with a book contract who's - contract who's not panicky. But in any case, one of the nice things, I suspect, about winning the National Book Award is that you - the benefits extend to those with whom you are associated, in this case your publisher, who's been very loyal to you.

GORDON: My publisher is one of my oldest friends. I wish it on everybody that they should have a tremendous stroke of luck just when they're about ready to give up on their career, and they should have it with one of their very best friends from the beginning. It's been a lot of fun, not that we have occasionally had a tiff over this or that, but it's - between us, it's really like family. So that's Bruce McPherson of McPherson and Company in Kingston, New York.

The funny thing that happened with Bruce was that when I heard that he didn't want to go up to even 8,000 copies – eventually it sold 45,000 copies, but he was reluctant to go to 8,000, I called him and said what's going on? Why don't you just ask the printer to do 6,000 more? He said but, you know, I like pretty books, and I don't want to sacrifice my embossed endpapers.


GORDON: So I actually hung up the phone before I exploded about that, but then - but he changed his mind quickly.

CONAN: There is that first run, and that will become publishing legend. Then there are all the hardback copies, but there is a realm of paperback immortality and there's now a chance for that as well.

GORDON: I think that Random House published enough of the paperback so that it will be a kind of immortality. I hope not an unpleasant kind of immortality for them. I actually love that paperback. I love the sepia photograph on the cover. And if nothing else happens, then I'll buy all the ones that are left in paper (unintelligible) with them because I just love the way that book looks so much.

CONAN: We want to hear from others who have had unexpected and sudden recognition in whatever field. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. But, Jaimy Gordon, I - when we were there in Moorhead, Minnesota, one of the things you told me was that this was, in some ways - in a lot of ways - a story you had lived and a story you had been writing one way or another for many, many years. It must be both astonishing and a little disconcerting to share that story, not with a couple of thousand readers, but with tens of thousands of readers, maybe hundreds of thousands of readers.

GORDON: You know, winning the National Book Award was very good. I - that made me very happy. But the high point of the year might have been winning this award, called the Dr. Tony Ryan Award for the year's best book about horse racing, because there was such a exquisite irony about receiving this beautiful Irish crystal trophy at Castleton Lyons Farm outside Lexington, near where the Kentucky Derby is run - at least the poshest place you can imagine where the studs stand for $25,000 a pop - for a book about Indian Mound Downs, the most rundown half-mile race track in West Virginia where most of the race horses could be bought for 1,500 bucks. It just - it was wonderful. And I didn't really expect that crowd to like my book, but they did. God bless them, especially if they were both horse people and readers. So I really lucked out there.

CONAN: The - we should point out that the "Lord of Misrule," the horse that plays such a psychic role and in the end, a physical role in the novel, I don't think would ever a whiff of Churchill Downs, though a mighty competitor at Indian Mound Downs.

GORDON: I was trying to suggest about "Lord of Misrule" that actually he might have been a stakes horse at one point. He was preserved in phenylbutazone by then, but he'd been a great horse in his day.

CONAN: In his day?

GORDON: That sometimes happens.

CONAN: That's - not at that stage of his career. Not at that stage of his career and not when, as you entered him in a race that is rich with metaphor against top competitors who are - all represent various qualities.

GORDON: I just want to mention another writer who has kind of a magical animal in her book. Next week, I'm going to be reading at the Miami Book Fair with Tea Obreht who's a finalist for the National Book Award tonight. We'll know tonight whether "The Tiger's Wife" won. It's just a gorgeous book that has a wonderful, magical animal in it. In that sense, it's kind of in the same family with "Lord of Misrule." And we're kind of excited about that. I like that book and I haven't met her before.

CONAN: You will still be going to book festivals for quite some time, and your next book is due when?

GORDON: Oh, please, don't ask me that.


GORDON: You know, I've actually repressed the date. I think it's at the end of 2012, but I'm hoping that there's a little bit of rubber, a little bit of elasticity in the date.

CONAN: It must have been interesting to negotiate that new contract.

GORDON: It was wonderful. And, you know, the whole thing happened before I even the National Book Award. Thanks to my agent, Bill Clegg. He had the whole thing taken care of. And I was one of the few people at that banquet who was having any fun. I was even eating the chicken and - because I was so sure that I was not even in the consideration. I mean, I felt that the judges, may they be blessed, had already done enough for me, just to make a finalist. And there was no reason for them to go any further out on that limb since the book hadn't even really been officially published yet. Its pub date was the same date as the National Book Award. So there hadn't been any reviews. And in that sense, they were definitely taking a chance on me. But as I say, I wasn't the least bit worried about it. I was having fun. My sisters were there. And I was hardly even - well, I was listening. I was listening, but not as much as people who might be expecting to win.


CONAN: Let's see if we get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Jaimy Gordon - until later this evening, the current winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. "Lord of Misrule" is the name of her book. Let's start with Susan. Susan with us from Watertown in Massachusetts.

SUSAN: Hi, Neal. thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

SUSAN: I - it's funny that you all are talking about this because my husband is a musician and, oh, just yesterday, he received a very gracious and nice Facebook posting from Nick Hornby who is an author, that he really admires - and he was saying how much he admires my husband's music and how he puts some - his music on all of these, you know, playlist that he gives to his friends, and he's a big fan, and he hopes he keeps up the good work. And my husband was just blown away now. This happens just yesterday, so nothing has really happened yet. But I can tell you my husband was like on cloud nine, you know, talking to his friends and the family. So it was just such a neat thing for, you know, an accomplished author like him to sort of help out the little guy.

CONAN: And Nick Hornby's, if you haven't heard, "High Fidelity" among many others.

SUSAN: Right, which is a book based on musicians, and so, you know, my husband is such a huge fan.

CONAN: Well, Susan, and how old is your husband, if I might ask?


SUSAN: He's 42 so, you know, he's, you know, your guest was mentioning, you know, with this sort of happening later in her life. And my husband is still plugging away at it and, you know, hoping that it will happen. So it was really, really nice of Mr. Hornby to contact my husband.

CONAN: Jaimy Gordon, you must have met a million other writers who say, you know, you won for me too.

GORDON: That's right. And who say, well, you give us hope. You know, I feel as though, in this literary world of the moment, we probably need a slightly changed model for fame, more to go around but less of it for each person. Because I - we live in a world of writing programs now. There are 300 university writing programs. And there are probably more truly interesting writers out there producing a lot of interesting new books and fighting for attention.

It doesn't - and there has been quite a bit of talk about, not only my case, but suddenly, there seemed to be small-press authors or not such well-known authors making it into the top awards for a number of awards, not only just in the U.S. And I think that might have to do with a changed demographic of a kind, for writing, so...

CONAN: Susan...

GORDON: ...a shallower sea of fame with hundreds of writers splashing around in it.

CONAN: Maybe just 10 minutes of fame for everybody.

GORDON: That's right.


CONAN: Susan, thanks very much for the phone call.

SUSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And our guest, again, is Jaimy Gordon. "Lord of Misrule" won the National Book Award for Fiction a year ago. Another prize will be handed out - well, several more prizes, here in New York City tonight. I'll see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Douglas, Douglas with us from Fairhope in Alaska?


CONAN: Alabama, AL. I apologize.

CAZORT: That's OK. I enjoy your show every afternoon.

CONAN: Thank you.

CAZORT: And I have my 15th seconds of fame on NPR. Linda Wertheimer interviewed me on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for a book that I wrote called "Under the Grammar Hammer: The 25 Most Important Grammar Mistakes and how to Avoid Them." The real interesting thing about that is that was 19 years ago this month, and the book is still in print.

CONAN: You're kidding.

CAZORT: On the following year, I came out with "Chairman Cazort's Little Red Book of Writing," and it was not on NPR. And it went out of print in one year. So thanks to Linda Wertheimer, thanks NPR.


CONAN: We will extend your gratitude. Thanks very much for the phone call, Douglas.

CAZORT: Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Craig, and Craig is on the line from Boise.

CRAIG: Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

CRAIG: Yeah. I got into writing from another writer that encouraged me. Back in 1995, I published a book. It's an outdoor book. It's very small demographic, but it opened the doors, with the success of that book, to several magazine articles. And currently, I'm working on three other books just because it just excited me. And the encouragement that I've got from everyone that's read the book, it's changed my life a little bit.

CONAN: In what way?

CRAIG: I'm constantly writing things down. I keep journals on a daily basis. I'm always jotting ideas down. Currently, I'm working on a fiction book, and it just opened a different door. I'm a consultant on a technical side, project management in renewable energy, so it's totally outside of what my realm of professionalism is. And it's opened another door, I think that - eventually, my goal is to continue doing this and use this as part of my retirement.

CONAN: Well, Craig, good luck. Keep writing.

CRAIG: Thank you.

CONAN: Jaimy Gordon, we just have a few seconds left with you. But if you could tell us in what way do you think this changed your life.

GORDON: It changes in every way. I think that for an older writer and probably even among the writers who identified with my success because they are hoping so much to move out of obscurity themselves, only the older ones could have begun to worry, what's going to happen to my papers? What's going to happen to my letters? Will anybody be reading my books, will they'll totally disappear? I feel as though, at least that question is answered because I'll always be on that list for having won the National Book Award, and it's a very good list.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GORDON: It has a lot of books that I love on it, like Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers." I mean, it's a great thing to be next to writers of that stature, and I'll always be there. So someone will - even if I don't become more prolific than I've been to date, someone will be looking at that book, "Lord of Misrule..."

CONAN: Well...

GORDON: ...and checking it out.

CONAN: ...belated congratulations. And we'll be thinking of you tonight.

GORDON: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: Jaimy Gordon, author of "Lord of Misrule," winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction, also a professor of English in Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She joined us from there, our member station WMUK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.