The National Book Award is one the most prestigious literary prizes in the country, given every year since 1950 to celebrate the best writing in America. This year, three finalists for the award have links to Vermont.
The award, given across categories like fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature, is for the first time this year recognizing translated literature. It's the first new category added to the award in over two decades.
Colin Calloway is originally from northern England—Yorkshire—and he now lives in Norwich. He’s a professor of Native American History at Dartmouth College. His book The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, The First Americans And The Birth Of The Nation is a finalist in the nonfiction category.
“My book is really about how Native America and Native Americans shaped the life of George Washington, who of course is the man who shaped the nation," Calloway tells Vermont Edition.
Calloway has worked at Dartmouth for a quarter of a century. For this book he got a fellowship at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Virginia. He says the fellowship allowed him to immerse himself in Washington scholarship—and gave him “uninterrupted time” to work on the book.
He says he was shocked and honored by the nomination—and pleased the recognition may help his work reach a wider audience.
"One of the largest challenges that confronted [George Washington] was dealing with Native America, especially because he understood that he was building a nation, and to build a nation it had to be built on Indian land."
"I think that is probably the core to understanding this book, the acknowledgment that this is, after all, a nation built on Native America Land."
Her novel The Great Believers follows a group of friends in Chicago from 1985 through 1992, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Every other chapter is set in 2015 Paris, where a younger sister of someone who died of AIDS in the 1980s is tracking down her estranged daughter and coping with the emotional turmoil of the past decades.
Thematically, Makkai says the book is about friendship and surviving.
“Survivor’s guilt, on the one hand, but also what it means to fight for your survival. And that's something that I believe is really relevant for so many people now, fighting for survival when a government doesn't care if you live or if you die."
Despite that, she says it's also a hopeful book. "I would say it's defiantly hopeful."
Makkai says the National Book Award nomination is validating, but the discussions it has sparked with readers have made it even more rewarding.
"I’ve had such wonderful conversations around this book," she says. "People [share] their own memories of the time of the AIDS epidemic, their own life stories."
"Knowing this nomination will mean the book will get into more readers’ hands is the thing that makes me happiest.”
Montpelier author M.T. Anderson’s latest book The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge was nominated in the category for children's literature. Anderson co-wrote the book with illustrator Eugene Yelchin, and says he wanted to imagine what it’d be like to live in a typical fantasy world—but in the part of the world run by the bad guy.
"It's sort of like a spy novel, but set in Mordor. Not JRR Tolkien’s world, but sort of the 'land of evil.' And I was wondering, what would it be like to be a goblin citizen of the land of evil?"
"In a sense, I thought, what would it be like to be in a nation run by a dark lord? Run by a kind of evil presence?"
The book's illustrations, Anderson says, adds another layer to the story.
"The illustrations are at odds with the text. They are in conflict."
The illustrations show a "hapless elfin emissary" visiting the Kingdom of the Goblins, whereas the text is from the point of view of the goblins.
"The reader suddenly finds themselves with two versions of the same event, trying to see how it is these two incompatible cultures can understand each other and somehow find a way to work together. It suggests the way that all of us are always telling stories to ourselves about what we see, and often times, we don't understand how other people see things."
"Oftentimes we see the same events in diametrically opposed ways, and that can fundamentally change the way we react to other people and other cultures."
Anderson says he’s honored to be nominated, and this year has special significance as the award for the first time recognizes books in translation.
"I think this is an exciting new time for the American world of letters, that the National Book Award is recognizing global literature and the way that the literary traditions of the whole world contribute to the richness of literature in this country."
Makkai, Calloway and Anderson are three finalists for the 2018 National Book Award who live or work in Vermont. The winners of this year's awards will be announced Wednesday, Nov. 14.
Broadcast on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.