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The 10th Annual 5 Under 35 National Book Award Ceremony

Last night was a celebration on many counts. First, it was the National Book Foundation’s annual 5 Under 35 event, honoring 5 novelists under the age of 35 to “highlight the work of the next generation of fiction writers.” Second, it was the 5 Under 35 award’s tenth year.  Third, LeVar Burton was the host! It was a literary-studded affair, from the authors being awarded,  to the the previous 5 Under 35 winners who nominated this year’s honorees, the attendees, and even the bartender and emcee, Rosie Schaap and Ben Greenman, respectively. The drinks were gin martinis, the sandwiches were grilled cheeses, and the room was full of excited literary folks.

After Leslie Shipman and Benjamin Samuels introduced the event and gave all of the proper thank yous and hellos, Burton took the stage. He joked, “You would have to pay people to get this many book lovers in one room in LA.” The audience laughed, most likely thankful to think that in some small way, LeVar Burton was telling us that we were all cool for coming out to this event on our own. Burton gave an impassioned speech about his mother, Irma Jean, who he described as being short, and “a buck thirty” but that he was still afraid of her. He went on to say that every time he gets to speak to a room full of people he says his mother’s name because without her, he would not have grown to love stories, and that his love of stories shaped his whole life, landing him his famous roles as Kunta Kinte in Roots, Geordi LaForge in Star Trek, and of course, his beloved role of the host of Reading Rainbow. Before bringing the emcee onto the stage, he delighted the audience by saying, “You can go anywhere in the world in your imagination.”

Illustration of LeVar Burton by Last Night's Reading

Illustration of LeVar Burton by Last Night’s Reading

Next, emcee Ben Greenman, author of The Slippage, and co-writer of Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues, came up to introduce the “selectors” of this year’s nominees, as he called them.

This year’s winners were:

  • Colin Barrett, author of Young Skins (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 2015), selected by Paul Yoon
  • Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), selected by ZZ Packer
  • Megan Kruse, author of Call Me Home (Hawthorne Books, 2015), selected by Phil Klay
  • Tracy O’Neill, author of Hopeful (Ig Publishing, 2015), selected by Fiona Maazel
  • Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, author of Fra Keeler (Dorothy, a Publishing Project, 2012), selected by Dinaw Mengestu

After each author was introduced by their “selector,” Greenman asked this year’s winners a series of questions ranging from what the impulse for their books were to if they knew what the last work of their book was. One of the most heartening moments was when the authors were asked what they’d be doing if they weren’t writing. Kruse said, “Psychology? I don’t know, something with people,” while Barrett said “I was working as quality control at Vodaphone, I might be regional manager by now!”  Later an audience member asked what it felt like to be on that stage, considering how far they’ve come, and Van Der Vliet Oloomi confessed that sometimes she missed those little jobs she had before her book came out. Barrett admitted, “I wish it made it easier. It took me 9 months to write a short story after finishing [Young Skins]. It was terrible.”

More LeVar Burton!

More LeVar Burton!

Another audience question brought out interesting comments when he asked what the best or worst question they’d all received at a reading was. Flournoy said, “The worst questions are comments,” which got a knowing laugh from the room. Van Der Vliet Oloomi replied that the best question she ever got was from a 12 year old girl who asked her if “she was feeling inspired lately.”

“Someone asked if I was into white guys,…not that white guy,” laughed O’Neill. Barrett told a harrowing story of a woman who deadpan asked how many words a short story should be. She wouldn’t take no for an answer “so I said 3,762 words or something like that.”

When asked what art form they feel closest to other than writing, Kruse said, “I never let myself have any other hobbies!” Flournoy said, “Definitely rapping.”

The conversation portion of the evening ended with a question about how scared the authors were when they finished their books on a scale of 1-10? Flournoy wasn’t afraid to be finished, she was more afraid that she wouldn’t finish. O’Neill said, “Ten. I was terrified.” But perhaps the most surprising answer came from Van Der Vliet Oloomi, “I was mostly feeling grief. I missed spending time with the narrator.” The evening closed out not with grief, but with more grilled cheeses and cocktails and much more merriment between authors and attendees alike.

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