Manhattan, eat your heart out. The National Book Awards just announced its 2012 finalists, and four Texas-related books made the lists. (Given that there are only five finalists in each of three categories, that’s a pretty good representation.) Dallas resident Ben Fountain and recent UT-Michener Center for Writers alum Kevin Powers were nominated in the fiction category for their debut novels Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds (both of which deal with the fallout of the Iraq War) and LBJ biographer Robert Caro and (the dark horse in the race) South Texas native Domingo Martinez were nominated in nonfiction for, respectively, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 and the debut memoir The Boy Kings of Texas.
Reached by email, Martinez described how he found out about being a finalist:
My phone started glowing around 6:00 a.m. this morning, and I happened to be awake. My first thought was, 'Wow, those bill collectors are starting much earlier nowadays,’ and I ignored it, until it went off again about five minutes later and it was my agent, Alice. Alice doesn't mess around; when she calls, it's important, so I answered, and I could tell right away something was up because of the controlled excitement in her voice.
I depend on her to translate most of what happens in this business because I'm so new at it, and I was registering some serious excitement, but I didn't know how to interpret it. I mean, I know the National Book Award, but it just wasn't computing that I was A FINALIST for THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD.
I think that if I understood it more, I'd be much more intimidated than I am now, but even so, to be listed among Robert Caro, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum, I just kind of want to shrink down into myself and not draw their attention, for fear they might find me out as a fraud. Make sure you don't tell them; this is just between us. (Kidding.)
What's really funny is, when you read through that list, it's almost like the writers are putting question marks behind my name and book title, like ‘Who the hell is this guy??’
And Ben Fountain also weighed in on his nomination:
I found out this morning around 9 a.m. My editor Lee Boudreaux called me on the street from New York, she'd just come up from the subway and found the news on her e-gadget. "There's one Ecco author on the finalist list for the NBA fiction award," she said. "Richard Ford?" I said.
I try to stay oblivious to the awards calendar. I don't want that stuff rattling around in my head. But someone told me on Monday that the announcement was coming today, and would be on Morning Joe, and I have to admit it was on my mind ever since, even though it's absurd and unrealistic to get your hopes up for something like this. So many books, and so many variables when it comes to who the judges are, their tastes, what they had for breakfast that morning, whether their kid was teething when they happened to get to your book. The outside world gives you a lot of disappointment in this business; the only way to keep your head together over the long haul is to focus on the work itself, on getting the sentences down on the page in a way that pleases you.
I didn't watch Morning Joe. I just went about my business. Had breakfast, sat down at the desk to work. Any kind of TV in the morning makes me kind of ill, anyway, sort of like drinking Jaagermeister at 8 a.m.
I'm very happy to be in there with Kevin Powers, whose The Yellow Birds is an outstanding book. And maybe having those two Iraq war books in the running will generate some useful conversation about the war--how and why we got into it, what it's done to the young men and women who fought in it, and what it's done to the country. We've only just begun that conversation.
Three of these books were written up in our pages. You can find my interview with Fountain here, Brian Sweany and Greg Curtis’s discussion of Caro’s book here, and David Romo’s rave review of Martinez’s book here.
The winners of the National Book Awards will be announced November 14.