Writers in the spotlight

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First-time novelist Julia Glass won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night. Her "Three Junes" beat four other relatively unknown works in what the judges called "the year of the thunderclap debut."

Flush with emotion, Ms. Glass told the 800 editors, publishers, and writers in Times Square that she hoped her victory would encourage new writers at any age.

"I remember laying in bed when I was very pregnant," she said, "and thinking, 'Who am I to think that I can get a book published when I'm this old?' But then I remembered that a bunch of doctors had told me that I couldn't get pregnant again. So this is for anybody who blooms late in life."

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The judges turned to a familiar name for the nonfiction prize, however, choosing Robert Caro for the third volume of his widely praised biography of Lyndon Johnson, "Master of the Senate." This was Mr. Caro's third nomination for the National Book Award. He has previously won the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

The poetry prize went to "In the Next Galaxy," by Ruth Stone, a writer who has been mentoring other poets for almost 50 years. "I suppose you gave me this prize because I'm old," Ms. Stone quipped. "I've been writing poetry since I was five years old. I couldn't stop."

Nancy Farmer, a two-time Newbery honoree, won the young people's literature award for "The House of the Scorpion," a gritty science-fiction novel about a future in which human drones serve a Mexican drug lord. The judges noted that the 160 books they considered "obliterated any boundaries left between the young-adult novel and the adult novel."

Responding to a question about the mature nature of her themes, Ms. Farmer said, "Young readers are awfully hardy, because they're generally more hopeful than adults. These kinds of complex problems really appeal to them, and they're able to think about them."

Philip Roth received a life-time achievement award from the National Book Foundation, an honor which returned him to the stage he mounted 42 years ago when his first novel, "Goodbye, Columbus," won the National Book Award.

In his keynote address, Mr. Roth described the vast difference between the Jewish culture in which he was raised in New Jersey and the great writers of the American West and Midwest who fascinated him as a teenager.

"Through the ruthless intimacy of literature," he said, "the aversion to generality that is fiction's lifeblood, I came to know their American places as specifically as I knew my own."

Taking issue with the way he is often categorized, Roth said, "I have never thought of myself as a Jewish-American writer anymore than Hemingway thought of himself as a Christian-American writer."

For the fourth consecutive year, the $1,000-a-plate ceremony was hosted by writer-comedian Steve Martin. "I'm so glad that Robert Caro was nominated this year," Mr. Martin told the crowd, "because it brings the total number of authors I've actually heard of here to two."

After a lengthy recitation of Philip Roth's various honors - National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, a Pulitzer, the National Medal of Arts - Martin leaned into the microphone and sneered, "That doesn't impress me. Where's his Golden Globe? If he's so great, where is his hit sitcom 'Philip'?"

The winning authors received $10,000 each. The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards ceremony, conducts literature programs throughout the year around the country.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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