National Book Award Winners and Finalists Reveal Life-Changing Books

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Katherine Paterson sobbed the first time she read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (Scribner). Cynthia Ozick reread E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey (Vintage) twice a year because it educated her heart. Mark Twain inspired E.L. Doctorow to write from a child's perspective. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights fueled Alice McDermott's passion for the storyteller. And cartooning gave Charles Johnson a critical eye for detail, but Richard Wright's Black Boy (Prentice Hall) dedicated him to black philosophical fiction.

Many authors have found their greatest mentors through the works of other writers. Fifteen National Book Award winners and finalists have revealed how their favorite books shaped, inspired, and changed their lives in The Book That Changed My Life (Modern Library), edited by Diane Osen, a freelance writer, editor, and consultant for the National Book Foundation (NBF). All profits from the sale of this book benefit NBF.

Osen told BTW, "Like everyone who loves to read, I've always been interested in the writing lives of authors, and as a consultant for NBF, which sponsors the National Book Awards, I've had the chance to design a number of outreach programs that enable readers to explore the ways in which the experience of reading can inform, and even transform, the act of writing. These reading circle programs led to the publication of the first book I worked on with [NBF] and Random House, The Writing Life, which was published in 1996. The success of that book led to The Book That Changed My Life, and to an opportunity to focus even more closely on the relationship between reading and writing.

"I truly believe literature can change lives. This book offered a unique opportunity to share with others compelling insights into literature that I gained through working with National Book Award authors," she added.

Meg Kearney, associate director of NBF, told BTW, "The book's purpose was to ask some of America's best writers who their literary influences were and to continue the dialogue with writers of this time. It's important to keep moving forward with ongoing dialogue of contemporary writers discussing past writers."

Osen's methodical approach to interviewing authors began with reading everything about and by the authors, and then devising questions that nurtured spontaneity. Her challenge was achieving a balance between formulating questions designed to answer certain questions and, also, allowing authors to follow the paths they chose.

"I found that those unexpected twists and turns usually led to insights I never would have gleaned had I stuck strictly to my own script," said Osen. This serendipity resulted in Jim Carroll's observation that "telling stories is what saves us, and that everybody was put here to do this," she continued. "They would also include the moments when Bob Stone spoke about how difficult it was for him to write about the agonies so many of his characters have endured; and when Katherine Paterson recalled sobbing the first time she read Cry, the Beloved Country, which I recalled doing as well; and when Don DeLillo indulged me in a rather lengthy discussion about one of my favorite characters from his book Underworld (Scribner)."

The Book That Changed My Life encourages readers to think about what book changed their lives and provides them with book recommendations. "Readers want to know where Grace Paley's work grew from," said NBF's Kearney. "There are also benefits to the authors. The interviews made some of them think about who influenced their work and prompted them to go back to recreating that moment in time. Whenever they do this, it affects their work in the future."

Osen said there were many "aha!" moments with the authors. One such epiphany was when Barry Lopez acknowledged the similarities in structure and theme between one of his favorite books, Moby Dick, and his own epic Arctic Dreams (Vintage). She said another insight was Grace Paley's realization that faith functions as a "second teller" in many of her stories.

A number of the authors touched on common themes during Osen's interviews. "The most compelling of these was the relationship some saw between faith and art, and storytelling and community," she explained. But what also surprised her was her discovery that many of the authors, despite their long experience and many accolades, consider the process of writing deeply mysterious, and difficult.

Osen believes that The Book That Changed My Life will engage readers of literary fiction, history, biography, or poetry. "And because the book includes a terrific Discussion Guide prepared by Random House, I think it would appeal very strongly to customers who belong to reading circles," said Osen. --Gayle Herbert Robinson