If you've never been to a Minnesota Book Awards gala celebration, you really should go, at least once. It's not just that it's fun to get gussied up and go downtown, and it's not just that it's fun to wander around and bump into the writers whose books you've read and loved--it's fun to see the celebration, the hoo-ha, the big to-do all centered around writing, and writers, and the written word. That's really something.
This year's celebration marked the 25th anniversary of the awards, so there was a little something special going on. They moved the gala from downtown St. Paul to the big city of Minneapolis. They showed a little film with funny and charming snippets from winners from years past--Jon Hassler, and Robert Bly, and Carol Connolly, and memoirist Patricia Hampl (who described memoir as, "Enough about me, what do you think about me?").
The emcee was writer and comedian Lorna Landvik, who said she agreed to host the event only if the St. Paul Friends of the Library waived all of her past and future overdue book fines, and only if the Highland Park branch library expunged from her record the fact that she had once checked out "Fifty Shades of Gray." "I only read the first paragraph," she said.
She also proposed a drinking game, in which every time someone at the podium said the word "book," everyone in the room would toss back a drink. And she also had a supply of party favors that, when she pulled a string, showered forth a little burst of confetti. It was that kind of evening.
The first winner of the evening was Louise Erdrich, who won in the Novel & Short Story category for "The Round House." It had already won a National Book Award, but Erdrich looked as delighted by the Minnesota Book Award as she surely did for the bigger prize. She thanked the crowd in Ojibway, and then she recited a limerick her father had written, which began, "There once was a girl from Max Bass..." ("When my father was bored at work, he wrote limericks," Erdrich said, adding that he had written one for every town in the state.)
There were poignant moments to offset the humor of the evening. Erdrich admitted that there had been hard times while she was working on "The Round House," and she thanked her youngest daughter: "Your smile and your hugs and your good cheer got me through those hard times," she said.
Geoff Herbach, who won in Young People's Literature, seemed genuinely surprised and thrilled when his name was called. He talked about his son, who had been an avid reader as a child but who, when he reached his teen years, "stopped reading. Which scared me," Herbach said. "So I wrote the book for him, and for his friends, who had also stopped reading."
He was the first writer--but not the last--to thank the Loft Literary Center for helping him get established as an author. "If it weren't for the Loft, if it weren't for Hamline University, if it weren't for Minnesota State at Mankato, I would not be a writer," Herbach said.
The poetry award, which was won by Patricia Kirkpatrick, was announced by two-time winner Michael Dennis Browne, who, instead of giving a speech, recited "To Be of Use," a poem by Marge Piercy, which ends with these lines:
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
There was more. There was much more. David Treuer, who won for nonfiction, sending a letter to be read (he lives in California part of the year), a letter funny and wise; picture-book author David LaRochelle thanking his illustrator, because a picture book without pictures would be boring, indeed; book artist Jana Pullman confessing that books are her passion--or, perhaps, obsession. Minnesota Book winner Gwen Westerman addressed the room in Dakota; Kay Sexton Award winner Robert Hedin noted how Minnesota had grown from being seen as a "literary backwater" to a place that the rest of the country looked to--"Well, first let's see how they do it in Minnesota."
Mystery writer David Housewright, who competed against two other writers and himself in the genre fiction category, lamented that it was the book he wrote alone rather than the book he co-wrote with his wife that took the prize. He said he would give the award to his wife, "and not just because of what promises to be an awkward ride home."
The enthusiastic table of the evening award, Landvik decided, went to the table where memoirist Atina Diffley sat. When Diffley's name was called (for "Turn Here Sweet Corn") the table whooped and screamed. Diffley herself grinned broadly as she mounted the stage. And then, when it was over, they all smooshed in close for a happy group picture.
Now don't you wish you'd been there yourself?