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The Blog

NBA Acceptance Speech

A brief prologue, before my actual remarks:

After I was named a finalist for the National Book Award, I was strongly advised by a good friend who had once served as a judge to prepare remarks in advance, in case I won. I felt rather foolish as I did so; it was so much easier in 2003, when I was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, because Robert Caro was a finalist with Master of the Senate, and it was transparently obvious he would win. On that occasion, I truly relaxed during the ceremony and had a nice time.

Such books are rare, though, so I don't think I'm insulting my fellow finalists when I say that no one had any idea who would win this year. Far from it: They all wrote excellent works, and they seemed to me like truly decent people as well. Any one of them could have gone up to accept instead of me.

But I did not anticipate the emotional intensity of being declared the winner. Jonathan Segal, my tough-minded, highly professional editor, unexpectedly wrapped me in a long bear hug that seemed to say that this was the culmination of our long collaboration. I was already in shock, and I frankly had to struggle to keep some semblance of composure.

So preparing remarks in advance turned out to be an excellent idea. I reproduce them here as I wrote them. Naturally there were some variations when I actually delivered them (starting with my declaration that this was an "out-of-body experience"). CSPAN's BookTV broadcast the event, which can be watched here, at minute 72, if you wish to see how I actually spoke these words.

Here are my remarks, in full, as written:
* * * * *
I would like to preface my thank-yous with a few words which I hope will give them more weight. Before I became a full-time writer, I worked for ten years in publishing, both academic and trade. When I told my last boss I was leaving to write, she said, "I always knew you wanted to be on the other side." You would have thought I was going to tunnel under the Berlin Wall.

Well, I'm reporting back to say there is no other side. But I rather knew that from the beginning, when I was first hired at Oxford University Press, straight out of graduate school, by Woody Gilmartin. Woody, a fine writer with an MFA from Cornell, taught me that this thing all of us here inhabit, the culture of the written word, is a complex ecosystem filled with interdependent species—and most of them could be making a lot more money in some other swamp. The author is at the center, yes, but every book exists only because of countless people who care about writing and knowledge.

These are people who know that the book lies at the heart of all our culture, that it is the repository of knowledge, the breaker of news, the collector of wisdom, the thing of beauty. These are people all of us in this room have relied upon, sometimes yelled at, and have been ourselves—and may even be at this moment.

So before I thank the specific people who have helped to bring my book into existence, I want to thank the editorial assistants, copywriters, marketing managers, copy editors, graphic designers, production managers and managing editors. I want to thank the indexers, publicists, receptionists, and sales people. I want to thank the mail room guys, warehouse staff, bookstore clerks, and independent-bookstore owners. I want to thank the book reviewers, academic scholars, MFA students, librarians—especially the librarians—agents, and the unsung archivists. I suspect that the advent of the e-book is fooling some people into believing that none of these people are necessary anymore, or perhaps that they do not even exist. But if they cease to exist, then e-books will only be worth the paper they're not printed on.

And I sincerely thank my fellow finalists, as well as the excellent writers whose books did not fall into this particular final five. One of the great virtues of a prize like this is that it makes all of us stand up and say, "Really? What about this book?" The very arbitrariness of picking just one reminds us that the book is alive and well in our digital age. And I sincerely thank the judges, too, who had the unimaginable task of ruling out one outstanding book after another, who labored tirelessly and for nowhere near enough money, simply because they, too, love the written word.

I will close with just a few specific names. It is my great honor to work with my brilliant longtime editor, Jonathan Segal, who is a rarity—a true literary editor who understands the business as well. This book would not be what it is, might not even exist, if it were not for him. My agent, Jill Grinberg, is a real friend as well as an excellent representative, who has believed in me for a long time now. My parents, Dr. Cliff and Carol Stiles, are here tonight, having come all the way from Foley, Minnesota, the little farm town where I was born, having encouraged my intellectual pursuits since I was very young. And my wife, Jessica, is brilliant, thoughtful, beautiful, soulful, and a real professional when it comes to writing. We barely made it here this week, having both been hit last week with a bug that sent me to the emergency room. Our son Dillon is at home recovering as well, in my mother-in-law's care. But Jessica made it here, just as she's been there for me every step of the way. Thank you.
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