Adam Johnson gets National Book Award – and boy, was he surprised!


He told his family to stay home.

Short story collections don’t often win a National Book Award, but one did last night – and we couldn’t be more delighted that it did. Pulitzer prizewinning Adam Johnson‘s Fortune Smiles was awarded the fiction prize. No one was more surprised that Adam himself. He was clearly not expecting to be on the stage Wednesday night.

“I told my wife and my kids, ‘Don’t come across America because this is not going to happen,’” he told the Los Angeles Times.

A short story collection won last year (Phil Klay’s Redeployment) and lightning doesn’t often strike the same place twice with the big-ticket literary award.

Adam won a Pulitzer for his Orphan Master’s Son, but he first came to critical notice with in the short story genre, one that he missed after working on his long novel about life in North Korea, which he called a drama with “one central character, and a supporting cast of 23 million” (read it here).

“I think the short story is a machine, and it has lots of gears that turn: Voice, style, architecture, chronology, scene selection,” Johnson said in a recent NPR interview. “I think they’re difficult, but they can be very perfect and powerful — I missed them, working on a novel for many years.”

When I first wrote about Adam six years ago here, he thought he would always be a niche artist:

fortune-smilesHe admitted that not everyone will be a fan of his “off-kilter, quirky humor.” When he sees furrowed brows and incomprehension at his readings, he thinks, “Don’t buy it! It’s not for you!”

He sees writers occupying more of a niche market, like magazines. No one insists, he pointed out, “You have to read the latest Cat Fancy – you’ll die if you don’t!”

Hence, while most authors dream of immortality, Johnson anticipates obscurity: “There will be no statues of Adam Johnson – I don’t think so,” he said, smiling slyly and sipping his iced coffee.

We’ll wait and see, Adam. We’ll wait and see.

Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Between the World and Me, a visceral exploration about the experience of black men in America.

“Every day you turn on the TV and see some kind of violence being directed at black people,” Mr. Coates said in an emotional acceptance speech. “Over and over and over again. And it keeps happening.”

Read more about this year’s awards at the New York Times here.

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