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Winners’ Circle

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Does winning a book award make a difference? Impact sales? Change an author’s life? We asked recent winners of prominent book awards to answer these questions for us. Read on to find out how it feels to be a winner!

Nina McConigley

Author, Cowboys and East Indians (Curtis Brown Unlimited), Co-winner of the 2014 PEN Open Book

Winner_McConigleyIt sounds like such a cliché, but it felt like a dream. Since my book was with a small press, its reach had been very small. Its distribution had been limited. I loved my book, but it was hard to spread the word. So when I won, all of a sudden, people knew of the book. The actual day I found out I won, my first thought was: maybe it was a mistake? I had to read the email a few times. Then I showed it to my parents—and asked them, “I am reading this right, right?” For a little book to all of a sudden have a new life, it was amazing.

Cowboys and East Indians CoverMy book all of a sudden was being read more widely—and being taught in Indian lit and Western lit classes. People tend to notice an award-winning book, which seems silly, but it’s very true. But this biggest thing for me is that after years and years of adjuncting, I got a tenure-track job at the University of Wyoming. They recognized winning PEN as a big achievement, and changed my job accordingly. Having my teaching load change has meant more time to write, which is a dream.

Robin Coste Lewis

Author, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf), Winner of the 2015 National Book Award (NBA) for Poetry

Winner_Robin Coste Lewis2It felt and still feels inconceivable to me that I would be nominated at all, not to mention win, and for a first book too? How can one ever make historical sense of it all? Even though I danced all night, I was also permeated with a deep quiet that night. I couldn’t sleep because all I could think about was the tremendous legacy of African American literature, what a triumphant history. That I could in participate in even the slightest way, or be of service to that tradition at all, will always astonish me. In short, I feel deeply honored.

Voyage of the Sable Venus.Robin LewisWinning the NBA, and the press surrounding the award, literally put my book into the hands of many more people than would have read it had I not won the award. What’s remarkable for me is just how many people are working behind the scenes—from editors and executive directors to publicists, agents, and interns—so many people working quietly but passionately, primarily in an attempt to contribute and enhance our cultural landscape. That’s extraordinary. I hope my winning the NBA helps to propel that overlooked history into the popular sphere.

Jeanne Theoharis

Author, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press), Winner of the NAACP Image Award in 2014

Theoharis-withnewcopyIn 2014, my Rosa Parks biography won an NAACP Image Award. This national honor from such a venerated civil rights organization was beyond my wildest imagination, and seemed to signal the ways the book spoke to our current political moment and how we hunger for lessons from a lifelong freedom fighter like Rosa Parks. The red carpet ceremony felt [a] once in a lifetime [experience]. Brooklyn College was in the process of putting me up for CUNY Distinguished Professor, and the award certainly helped in the final stages of that process.

Shawn Vestal

Author, Godforsaken Idaho (Little A/New Harvest/Amazon Publishing), Winner of the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction

Godforsaken Idaho coverIt is no hyperbole to say that winning the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award in 2014 was a life-altering experience. I had struggled to find a publisher for my collection of short stories, Godforsaken Idaho, and was thrilled simply to be a nominee. I came out for the awards ceremony thinking that the trip itself was a prize—some time in the city, a chance to see friends and colleagues, and an opportunity to elbow-rub with the literati. When my name was called—by Louise Erdrich!—I about fainted.

The award bought me the most precious commodity that most writers can have: time. More than that, however, it was incredibly affirming, and continues to be so.

Chigozie Obioma

Author, The Fishermen (Little, Brown and Company), Winner of the 2016 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction

Winner_chigozie-obioma-photocredit-zach-muellerThe most wonderful thing about art, to which writing belongs, is that it is a deeply personal enterprise. And less could not at all be said about the creation of The Fishermen. It was born out of nostalgia, and nursed by fury. It was incubated in the silence of dim-lit rooms, but announced by howls. The duality of its creation also mirrors the duality (or multiplicity) of its mission. On one level, it is a love letter to my siblings, and a family drama. On the other level, it is a commentary on the agonizing failure of my country [Nigeria] to achieve its full potential. This was why I said on the jacket of the book that it felt necessary.

I thank the Los Angeles Times for honoring this effort, and I’m humbled, as I have been for very long now by the fact that The Fishermen is the fulfillment of a dream: To become a writer someday. This prize further validates the idea that I have finally become one. And for this, I’m grateful.

Scott Ellsworth

Ellsworth_TheSecretGameAuthor, The Secret Game (Little, Brown and Company), Winner of the 2016 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing
The PEN/ESPN Award has already changed my life. Writing, by nature, is such a solitary profession, and to be recognized by my peers, by other writers, has meant more to me than I can express.


About the Author:

Lynn Rosen

Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rosen was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College. She is the author of Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests and currently serves as editorial consultant for the IBPA Independent.

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