April 25 2012 12:00 AM

Award-winning Michigan authors take the spotlight at Night for Notables

Three recent National Book Award honorees found the prize created an almost oxymoronic situation for them: They couldn’t write.

Jesmym Ward, Jaimy Gordon and Bonnie Jo Campbell all discovered that their brush with writing fame left them overscheduled, living out of suitcases and a little gun shy about living up to the expectations created by the coveted award.

Ward, who won the National Book Award in 2011 for “Salvage the Bones,” and Gordon, the 2010 award winner for “Lord of Misrule,” will join 2009 finalist Campbell (“American Salvage”) for a conversation about winning, writing and life after the award at the 2012 Night for Notables award ceremony Saturday at the Library of Michigan.

Given their commitments it’s almost incredible to see three National Book Award honorees on the same program, said Carolyn Sparks, executive director of the Library of Michigan Foundation, which hosts the event. 

Besides the obvious, the three writers have much in common. All were considered underdogs in the award competition. Gordon and Campbell’s books were published by small presses, and Ward was a virtually unknown author.

All have Michigan ties. Ward graduated from the University of Michigan; Campbell lives in Portage, and Gordon is a professor of English at Western Michigan University.

None of the authors had any inkling they would be in consideration for the award before the announcement of the finalists. Gordon didn’t prepare any comments for the award ceremony, Campbell had to borrow a dress, and Ward says she still can´t believe it.

“It was such an impressive list," she said. "It still isn’t real to me. It has made my life very busy.”

All three writers candidly admit that before being honored their writing careers were on the ropes. Ward considered taking up nursing, Campbell thought about replacing writing with teaching, and Gordon was losing hope.

In a recent essay, Gordon, who wrote about a down and out race track in “Lord of Misrule,” compared her writing career to a race horse at the end of its career that makes one last unexpected run for glory.

“I always wanted to publish ´Lord of Misrule´ ... with a major press. I wanted more people to read at least one of my books. I wanted it to be difficult for anyone in the business to dismiss me.” 

Gordon, who said she was published for 35 years by “good small presses,” was treated as an unknown writer when she became a finalist. “Vulgar as this is, I wanted one book with my name on it in airport bookstores, with the front cover turned out to passersby.”

The writers will also discuss a common aspect of their writing: Each has a strong, young female protagonist — all lost girls — who overcomes her flaws, looking out for herself and others.

Moderator Campbell hopes to thoroughly investigate that idea. “Our characters seem to defy expectations," she said,  "and I want us to talk about why that is.”

The Michigan Notable Book Award is celebrating its 20th year and has its roots in the state’s Michigan Week celebration. Each year, a committee (including this writer) reviews hundreds of books written by Michigan authors, or books about Michigan.

Bruce Kopytek, whose book on the history of a department store (“Jacobson’s, I Miss It So”) and its closing was selected as a Notable Book, said, “My book is in good company, but as a first-time author I was caught off-guard. The honor certainly goes to the subject matter.”

Several first-time authors were selected as award winners, including Scott Sparling, for his edgy, noirish crime novel “Wire to Wire,” and Ellen Airgood’s “South of Superior,” about a charming Upper Peninsula diner and its denizens.

Other award winners helped resurrect the lives of important Michiganians who otherwise may have been lost to time, such as Detroit News reporter Susan Whitall’s biography of Detroit soul and blues singer Little Willie John (“Fever: The Fast Life and Mysterious Death of Little Willie John”). Former Washington Post writer Sara Fitzgerald’s “Elly Peterson: ´Mother´ of the Moderates,” illuminated a Michigan activist who was one of the first major female political leaders in the country.

Next week, the award-winners start touring the state, making appearances at 50 local libraries.

Night for Notables

5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28

Library of Michigan

702 W. Kalamaozo St., Lansing


(517) 373-1300


This year’s Michigan Notable Books:

“Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates,” by Sara Fitzgerald (University of Michigan Press)

“Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan,” by Craig Fox (Michigan State University Press)

“Fever: Little Willie John, A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul,” by Susan Whitall (Titan Books)

“Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, Contemporary Michigan Literature,” edited by Keith Taylor and Laura Kasischke (Wayne State University Press)

“Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn´t Want to Be One,” by Mark Kurlansky (Yale University Press)

“Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life,” by Michael Moore (Grand Central Publishing)

“In Stitches: A Memoir,“ by Anthony Youn, M.D. (Gallery Books)

“Jacobson´s, I Miss It So!: The Story Of A Michigan Fashion Institute,” by Bruce Allen Kopytek (History Press)

“Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art,” by J.H. Shapiro and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Charlesbridge)

“Michigan and the Civil War: A Great and Bloody Sacrifice,” by Jack Dempsey (The History Press)

“Misery Bay,” by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books)

“Miss Martin Is a Martian,” by Colleen Murray Fisher and illustrated by Jared Chapman (Mackinac Island Press)

“Motor City Shakedown,” by D. E. Johnson (Minotaur Books)

“A Nation´s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis,” by Matt De La Pena and illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Dial Books for Young Readers)

“Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America´s Big Three Automakers — GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow)

“Once Upon a River,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell (Norton)

“Songs of Unreason,” by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press)

“South of Superior,” by Ellen Airgood (Riverhead Books)

“Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike: From Sand Trails to US-31,” by M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson (Arbutus Press)

“Wire to Wire,” by Scott Sparling (Tin House Books)