In general Owl is not fond of ritzy parties. They make her break out into a nervous sweat. She’s usually kitted out in a dress that makes her look pot-bellied, from another century, like a depraved poodle or all of the above. Usually she ends up hiding somewhere within easy reach of the desert buffet or lurking near the coat check. She’s never really understood why people like parties.
That is, until Shep invited her to the National Book Awards. Owl asked Shep if a onesie covered in poetry counted as black tie. He informed her it did not and he was wearing a tux. Deflated, Owl took herself dress shopping with a seriousness she usually devotes to procuring desert. This involved poking her head out of the changing room and begging a Russian woman who was also trying on dresses to make the final decision.
Woman: You are going to a wedding?
Owl: An award ceremony.
Owl: The National Book Awards! The National Book Awards! The---
The woman told Owl to get a navy dress before Owl could burst into song. Owl paid up and wrote the cost off as the price of worshiping at the altar of books. If you’re going to meet your heroes, the last thing you want to worry about is looking like a poodle.
The National Book Awards were held at Hotel Cipriani, which has the kind of high-ceiling-marble-hallway grandeur found in banks from the Gilded Age. Shep commented his high school prom had been held here. Owl told Shep he was bougey and then stopped talking. The high ceilings had soft blue lights glowing from them, the dinner tables were all covered in books, and off to the side of the room was a red carpet. Owl was awed into silence.
“I just saw Neil Gaiman,” someone commented.
Owl’s heart stopped. She read all of Gaiman’s books growing up and then reread them and reread them until her parents demanded she read something else.
“Do you want his autograph?” Shep asked.
Owl managed to nod and squeak.
Shep pushed her in Neil Gaiman’s general direction. Owl tiptoed up to Gaiman, tapped him on the shoulder (that’s right, Owl touched Neil Gaiman and is never washing again) and vomited out a flood of words about being-such-a-fan-loved-your-books. She added that one of her friends lives in his neighborhood, but ya know, neglected to say which friend or mention the neighborhood. In addition to being a killer writer, and super attractive, Neil Gaiman is also very very nice about talking to incoherent fans. He whipped out a fountain pen and signed Owl’s program, and said he was absolutely charmed.
Owl was reduced to a speechless pile of mush with huge pulsing gooey hearts in her eyes.
Shep wanted to know who Gaiman was. Heathen.
When Owl recovered, she and Shep made their way over to the tables and were seated. Owl must have looked dimwitted with delight because the waiter kept stopping by to ask if she was alright, and if he could replace her food with salmon or something vegetarian. Owl thanked him profusely and managed not to sob with happiness on his sleeve. She restrained herself from staking a claim on the books in the center of the table, but later set one—and only one—aside for a keepsake.
Lemony Snicket—Lemony Snicket!!—got up to MC. Owl spent hours reading his books, puzzling out his numerous mysteries, and wondering who the man behind the name was. Snicket in real life, it turns out, is hilarious. He speaks in a deep ponderous voice—and says things that are slightly uncomfortable, and then while you’re wondering what he’s going to do with all the tension in the room, he tosses in a joke, and everyone dissolves into laughter.
Lemony Snicket: When I decided to MC the National Book Awards, people said I was only doing it to promote my new novel. But I ask, how could I promote my new novel, We are Pirates, when I’m about to introduce the presenter of the prize for non-fiction?
Neil Gaiman got up and talked about what Ursula Le Guin meant to him. (One of Owl’s favorite writers talking about one of Owl’s favorite writers. Owl had to fan herself.) Ursula Le Guin gave a killer speech on how important it is to remember writing is an art form, not a commodity. And Owl who used to write for the pure love of it, but spends far too much time obsessing over traffic and clicks, wanted to stand up and cheer.
Louise Gluck got up on stage in a killer vah-vah-vah-voom dress that was all black, with sheer gauze, and said brokenly, “I’m not going to cry because that’s such a waste of time,” and then so clearly was crying. “Losing is hard,” she said, “but winning is harder, because there is no script.” Owl wanted to pat her on the back, because it must be hard—to work and work, to lose (Gluck has been a finalist before), and then to suddenly, when you are least expecting it, to win.
Owl sort of blanked on non-fiction, but cheered for Evan Osnos and let Shep explain Osnos's writing and career at the New Yorker. “Non-fiction is the only important category,” Shep said.
Phil Klay accepted the award for fiction for his book Redeployment which was based on his experiences in Iraq. Klay smiled, cracked jokes, and then looked straight into the heart of the audience, speaking slowly, as if the words were lost and a long time coming. “I came back not knowing what to think,” he said. “What do you do when you’re trying to explain in words, to the father of a fallen Marine, exactly what that Marine meant to you?”
The room went silent, as Klay asked impossible questions. What do you tell middle schoolers who want to know if you have killed anyone and are disappointed when you haven’t? What do you say when the unspeakable has happened to you and the people you care about? What do you say when it’s still happening?
Klay didn't have an answer. Klay's answer was to write.
The book awards were over. Owl got up and went to the bathroom. This, it turns out, was a tactical error. By the time she came back all of the books decorating the tables were gone, including the one she had set aside. Owl swallowed her disappointment and dragged Shep out to the red carpet where the winners were getting their photographs taken.
They spotted Klay holding his award, talking to his wife. Neither Owl nor Shep had read Redeployment, but Owl wanted badly to speak to Klay, to let him know his words meant something and that she was going to read his book as soon as she could.
Owl and Shep gathered their courage and congratulated Klay. Klay was lovely. He asked Owl and Shep if they wanted to hold his award—they did—and laughed when then staggered under its weight.
Thank you, Owl told him. Thank you for writing. Thank you for writing about things we need to hear about.
“Good luck with your own writing,” Klay told them. When Owl ran into him later, he had a smile and a nod for her.
Then they spotted Evan Osnos, the non-fiction winner, and it was Shep’s turn to wibble and Owl’s turn to push Shep to ask for an autograph.
Osnos told Shep and Owl to write about far-away places. “The world wants to hear about places they haven’t been to,” he said, and Owl and Shep took heart. Shep writes about China, and Owl about India and Indonesia. Both of them have been told that American audiences don’t care.
And finally, Owl spotted Jacqueline Woodson, the young adult winner. “Thank you for writing young adult books,” Owl told her.
“You don’t have a book,” Woodson said. “Nevermind, take mine.” She handed over her copy of Brown Girl Dreaming and signed it. Owl’s night was complete.
Owl looked hard for other writers, but the trouble with writers is that their words are famous, not their photographs. She couldn’t recognize anyone even though she knew Michael Cunningham, Art Spiegelman, and Marilynne Robinson were in the crowd. Even though she’d spent hours in English class staring at Michael Cunningham’s photograph on the back of The Hours, she was afraid to make inquiries on the off chance that someone who looked like Cunningham was actually just a doppelganger.
Owl retreated to the edge of the dance floor. On the dance floor men and women dressed in their black tie best spun around and around in dizzying circles with books tucked under their arms. This was a gathering of people who worship the written word, and everyone was decked out in their best for the sheer love of books.
And Owl was incandescently, indescribably happy. True, she had not read---honestly, any of the books on the short list or the long list. But she was delighted to have a chance to congratulate the winners. To dress up and attend a fancy party thrown in honor of books.
Owl was, in many ways, a strange misfit of a child. She was asthmatic and she was lonely, so she spent much of her time reading. Books saved her when she was too sick to go outside, they saved her during family reunions in foreign countries, and during awkward social events.
When Owl read, it didn’t matter where she was, the world and all of its troubles fell away. All that mattered was Owl read, and having read, knew something more of the world. For that, she wanted to thank everyone who sets pen to paper and goes about the horribly difficult task of writing in a world that pays most writers in pennies and skepticism.
Thank you, and thank you, she wanted to tell everyone. Thank you for being here, thank you for letting me be here. And in that moment of gratitude, Owl understood why people throw ritzy parties. Sometimes there’s no better way to say thank you than to throw a huge fancy party to show people that they are important, worthy of pomp, ceremony and splendor.