Thursday, November 17, 2005

Didion, Vollmann, Merwin Win National Book Awards in New York

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka and Philip Boroff

Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Joan Didion won the National Book Award for nonfiction last night for ``The Year of Magical Thinking,'' her chronicle of a year in mourning following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

William T. Vollmann was the surprise fiction winner for ``Europe Central,'' an 811-page World War II epic focusing on the German invasion of Russia in 1941.

The awards were announced at a black-tie dinner in New York that is the book industry's version of the Oscars. Each winner received $10,000.

In addition to the book prizes, writer Norman Mailer and San Francisco bookstore owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti were honored for lifetime contributions.

The prestigious prizes give winners invaluable publicity, said Jane von Mehren, who oversees trade paperbacks for the Random House Publishing Group.

``A new group of people will hear about a book and possibly buy it,'' she said in an interview.

Didion's book is a primer on grief and captures the symbiosis of a 40-year marriage that ended when Dunne died on Dec. 30, 2003. In her minute-long acceptance speech, the frail, 70-year-old author thanked Knopf for publishing the book.

The unit of Bertelsmann AG ``accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book that was not about anything at all and that it would work,'' she said.

`Europe Central'

Vollmann's ``Europe Central'' (Viking) mixes surrealistic and mythological characters with historical figures. The 46-year-old author once fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (chronicled in 1992's ``An Afghanistan Picture Show'') and smoked crack to research a book (2000's ``The Royal Family'').

Vollmann, a former mainframe computer programmer, said in an interview he hopes his upset win (over E.L. Doctorow's ``The March'') will raise his profile.

``If my books sell a little better, I can keep writing books,'' he said.

Mailer, who used two canes to hobble to the stage, bemoaned the marginalization of novels in American culture and the implications for the country.

``Would the English nation have been as great at surviving if not for Shakespeare?'' Mailer, 82, asked. ``Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity if not for Joyce?''

Jeanne Birdsall won the young people's literature award for ``The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy'' (Knopf).

W.S. Merwin won the poetry prize for ``Migration: New and Selected Poems'' (Copper Canyon Press). It was his first victory after eight nominations.