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Thursday, November 17, 2005 - Page updated at 09:53 AM

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Joan Didion, William Vollmann receive National Book Awards

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Joan Didion, whose memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking" is quickly becoming a classic portrait of grief, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night.

"There's hardly anything I can say about this except thank you," said Didion, praising her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for supporting her as she wrote her acclaimed best-seller about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

In a minor surprise, William T. Vollmann won the fiction prize for "Europe Central," an 800-page novel about Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

E.L. Doctorow's "The March" and Mary Gaitskill's "Veronica" had been regarded as the leading contenders, even by Vollmann.

"I thought I would lose, so I didn't prepare a speech," joked Vollmann, who then turned serious as he said his book was inspired by a film he saw in elementary school "about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens."

Vollmann, 46, noted he was part German and wondered what he would have done had he lived under the Nazis.

"I'm very happy it's over," he said of his book, "and that I don't have to think about it anymore."

One of the world's great poets, W.S. Merwin, won the poetry prize for "Migration," which includes selections from 15 previous compilations.

The young people's literature award went to Jeanne Birdsall, whose debut novel, "The Penderwicks," tells of four sisters and their widowed father. Birdsall quoted from a letter from a young fan named Scott: "This book is about being a good listener, even if you're a grown-up."

Winners received $10,000 each. Garrison Keillor hosted, and honorary medals went to Norman Mailer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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