Seattle's Egan wins National Book Award
Seattle author Timothy Egan has won the National Book Award for nonfiction for his harrowing account of America's Dust Bowl catastrophe, "The Worst Hard Time:...
Seattle Times book editor
Seattle author Timothy Egan has won the National Book Award for nonfiction for his harrowing account of America's Dust Bowl catastrophe, "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl."
Egan got the news Wednesday night at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York. Jess Walter, a Spokane author who was a finalist in the fiction category for his post 9-11 novel, "The Zero," did not win – Walters was bested by Richard Powers' "The Echo Maker."
Reached last night in New York, Egan said, "I'm going to have a huge heart attack. Writers are so solitary, but the lead up to this was so wonderful."
The previous night, Egan received a medal along with the other finalists, and "it was like the Knights of the Round Table, and then there was a reading before 700 people. It's just been a fantasy from start to finish. And now I'll go home and rake the lawn and clean my gutters."
Egan said his acceptance speech cited the Dust Bowl survivors: "I said that I was honored to be the bridge from the story of these people who are dying now to the generation which will read about this."
Egan is the fourth Washington state resident to win the National Book Award, considered one of the most prestigious prizes in literature. Theodore Roethke won for poetry in 1959 and 1965; University of Washington professor Charles Johnson won for his novel "Middle Passages" in 1990. Pete Dexter, a Whidbey Island resident, won in 1988 for his novel, "Paris Trout," but the honor came before he moved to the state.
Egan, 52, is a Seattle-based national correspondent for The New York Times and a well-known figure on the Northwest literary scene. He has authored several books, including 1991's "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest," considered by many students of Northwest history to be one of the essential books on the region.
But for his prize-winning book, published by Houghton Mifflin, Egan went outside the Northwest. In an interview earlier this year with the Seattle Times, Egan said he got the idea for "The Worst Hard Time" after he did a series of stories for The New York Times, based on the 2000 census, that showed the southern Great Plains as "a giant black hole" of population loss. "Every county on the western edge of the Great Plains had lost population. I would hear people in the Southern Plains say, 'Yeah, it goes back to the Dust Bowl,'" Egan said.
Then a New York editor approached him about writing a Dust Bowl book. Egan was skeptical that he could craft a narrative until he began to track down Dust Bowl survivors in the dwindling small towns of the region. "Once I had three or four of these people I knew I could follow them," he said. "They move in, they dig in, they rise to a degree of prosperity — then nature exacts its terrible revenge."
Their stories, and the sheer scope of the economic and environmental disaster, drove Egan's impassioned account of the great swath of grassland – 100 million acres in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado – appropriated from the American Indians by cattle ranchers, who then sold to land speculators. The speculators then sold to farmers, who enjoyed bumper crops and a booming economy for a few rainy years. Then wet years turned to dry, and prairie land that should have never been plowed began to blow away, devastating both the land and the lives of the people who lived there.
Egan has also won three Washington State Book Awards: "The Worst Hard Time" won this year, "Lasso the Wind" won in 1999 and "The Good Rain," his first book, won in 1991. He also wrote "Breaking Blue," about a cold-case crime in Spokane, and a novel, "The Winemaker's Daughter."
Egan was born in Seattle and raised in Spokane. A University of Washington graduate, he worked for several years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before moving to the New York Times. His wife, Joni Balter, is a Seattle Times editorial writer. They have two children.
In other categories, Nathaniel Mackey's musical and mystical "Splay Anthem" took the poetry prize; and M.T. Anderson's "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I," a multi-formatted epic in 18th century prose, was cited for young people's literature. Winners each receive $10,000, runners-up $1,000.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.