Arts & Culture

Alum ‘shocked’ to win National Book Award

Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010

Correction appended.

Jaimy Gordon MA’72 DA’75 won a National Book Award in fiction for her novel “Lord of Misrule.”

“There was a stunned silence for a while” after she was announced as a winner at the Nov. 17 ceremony, Gordon told The Herald. “I was shocked and very happy. I gathered myself together and walked up front. Things have been very different since then.”

The book was chosen from among five finalists by a panel of judges who are published fiction authors, according to the National Book Foundation website. The winner of each of the National Book Award categories, such as poetry and nonfiction, receives $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.

The finalists “remind us of one of the great attributes of fiction: its power to keep surprising us,” said Joanna Scott, one of the judges, in her speech at the award ceremony before presenting the fiction award. In her speech, Scott said the fiction judges considered “the mission of imaginative writing” when choosing a winner.

The small independent press McPherson and Company, created by Bruce McPherson ’73, published the book. McPherson was also responsible for nominating “Lord of Misrule” for the award.

The victory “came as an utter surprise,” he told The Herald. “Just to be a finalist was an extraordinary long shot. It was like being struck by lightning, a bolt out of the blue. It’s an anomaly for a small press to win such a major prize,” he said, adding that “it’s going to bring some changes, but I’m determined not to change our basic philosophy.”

The company specializes in publishing books that most other publishers don’t, McPherson said. He published Gordon’s first book, “Shamp of the City-Solo,” after he graduated from Brown, and found her to be an “extraordinary writer with a psychological acuity that is extraordinarily rare.”

“Her writing is one that surprises with its aftertaste as well as with its glories of immediacy,” he said. “She was in the same (course) as me at Brown, and I remember thinking, here is the real thing. When will anybody notice?”

“All my books have found a gratifying amount of critical approval, but they certainly haven’t set the market on fire,” Gordon said. “I was afraid that the same thing would happen with this book, which would be a shame. When I first finished the complete draft of this book 10 years ago, I thought that, of all my books, this is the one with the most possibility of reaching a wide audience. It’s the most commercial book.”

Gordon added that McPherson was the one who pushed her to revise and finish the novel after publishers initially rejected it 10 years ago.

“I was happy to make him happy,” Gordon said. “He is extremely tolerant of my defects.”

The novel, Gordon’s fourth, was published Nov. 15, just days before the National Book Award ceremony.

“It is about one year of horseracing at a cheap, half-mile racetrack in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia,” Gordon said. It is set in 1970, around the same time Gordon herself worked on a racetrack, exercising racehorses in West Virginia.

“It may be in my genes,” said Gordon, who comes from a family of horseplayers — people who bet on horse races — on her maternal side. “I loved being on the racetrack. I love animals. I love horses. I like racetrack people.”

In fact, her decision to attend Brown for graduate school instead of the University of Iowa was partly due to the fact that there was a racetrack nearby. The other deciding factor was novelist John Hawkes, who was on the faculty at the time.

“I’m very proud to say I went to Brown when people ask me where I went to graduate school,” Gordon said. “As graduate programs go, this one has a very special character. It welcomes idiosyncrasies.”

At Brown, she interacted with students and faculty who were “powerful influences.” It is also where she met McPherson, then an undergraduate, with whom she worked at Hellcoal, a student-run literary press. Through Hellcoal, they published three books written by prisoners whom Gordon taught creative writing in Cranston.

“I’ve always had an interest in knowing what happens in American society from middle-middle to upper-middle class,” Gordon said. She added that she enjoys “incorporating in (her) work voices of people without money and education, but with very interesting things to say.”

Gordon’s next project is “The Picnic,” written from the point of view of a Jewish woman, married to a German man, who, “in a magical way,” encounters Jews who vanished from her husband’s old town. Gordon said she too is a Jewish woman from the United States married to a German scholar and writer, and has spent a lot of time in Germany, thinking about the Holocaust and German history.

For now, she is also still getting used to her newfound fame.

“I’ve never had the telephone ringing all day long. It’s really kind of exciting to have people sending you articles from small towns, from newspapers you’ve never heard of, to realize your name is everywhere,” she said.

Gordon added that she is “very happy” that at least one of her books will be remembered and thought about for some time.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described members of Jaimy Gordon’s MA’72 DA’75 family as “horse riders.” In fact, Gordon said her relatives were “horseplayers.” The Herald regrets the error.

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