Others had won and lost prizes in young people’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Emcee Larry Wilmore attempted to link politics and literature with jokes.
Still, fiction nominee Paulette Jiles, a one-time San Antonian now living in Utopia, Texas had to wait. She has waited since Oct. 6, the day her novel News of the World was shortlisted for the National Book Award, two days after it publicly debuted.
At the tail end of an announcement dinner hosted by the National Book Foundation Wednesday in Manhattan, it was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that won the National Book Award for Fiction.
“I think that getting to be a finalist is such an amazing achievement in itself that it really doesn’t matter if she won,” said Katy Flato, executive director of the San Antonio Book Festival. “Paulette Jiles has consistently written deeply interesting and complex novels and once again she proves to all of us that she is a Texas treasure.”
Jiles herself, on Wednesday afternoon, said she was “very tired” after events leading up to the dinner. San Antonian Naomi Nye, a 2002 nominee in Young People’s Literature, said she gets it.
“It’s a mob of bookish people,” she texted from an event in Michigan on Wednesday.
The day after the event, Jiles texted that “despite not winning it was a great night. All finalists were supposed to show up in a state of glitter wearing their finalist medal, but with all the trouble getting into a formal dress with a cast on my arm, I forgot mine.”
An employee rushed back to the National Book Foundation offices and found an extra one for Jiles to wear. It turned out the medal belonged to an earlier finalist, poet Louise Glück. The stories of why her medal was left behind and how Jiles injured her arm will have to be left for another day.
Other San Antonio writers who have been nominated for the National Book Award are the late Jacques Barzun, nominated in 1960 and 2000 in the Nonfiction category, and John Phillip Santos in 1999 in Nonfiction.
While Jiles may not be a household name in San Antonio, she was well-known in King William where she lived with her husband Jim Johnson from the ’90s until the early 2000s when the couple split. Back then, she hosted springtime “Burn Your Socks” parties and attended poetry writing workshops with early San Antonio friend Naomi Nye. Between her association with local poets, outings in King William with Jim, and her well-respected devotion to writing, her name was best known in Southtown and among literary folk.
As one of two New York Times reviews said about News of the World, Jiles obviously is a poet. The characters and storyline of News of the World shine with veracity through a combination of research and inspired descriptions.
Her second book, a collection of poems called Celestial Navigation, was awarded the highest Canadian literary prize, the Governor’s Award for English Poetry in 1984, plus two others. Living a life of fruitful adventure in the Arctic, Canada, the Midwest, and San Antonio – now Utopia – she published 14 more books of poetry, memoir, and fiction. Best known are the novels Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, Stormy Weather and a favorite in Canada, Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Kola.
Winners of the 2016 National Book Awards in other categories are March, Book 3, by U.S. Rep. and civil rights leader John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell for Children’s Literature; Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human in Poetry; and in Nonfiction, Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.