A Q&A with Winners of the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction
Timothy Egan received the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. Richard Ford received the Medal for Excellence in Fiction, for Canada. The following excerpts are from interviews with Egan and Ford conducted by Booklist editors Brad Hooper and Donna Seaman, respectively.
TIMOTHY EGAN, SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER
BRAD HOOPER, BOOKLIST: To establish what Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is about, tell us who Edward Curtis was.
EGAN: Curtis was an almost forgotten American who created a masterpiece. What I was trying to do with this book was bring his story back to life. This person with no more than a 6th-grade education, who at one time was the portrait photographer in the US—I compare him to Annie Leibovitz—gave it all up to try to document the vanishing customs and faces and lifestyles of the first Americans. He thought it would take him five years; it ended up taking him a lifetime. His accomplishment was called The North American Indian, perhaps one of the greatest single bibliographic undertakings in our history. It came to be 20 volumes long. It was Curtis’s masterpiece, his magnum opus. He set out to document photographically, but also with anthropological detail, the customs, cultures, lifestyles, social habits, diet, myths, creation stories, all of that; in other words, the complete nation-stories of about 80 Native American tribes.
BOOKLIST: Tell us a little bit about the importance of libraries and librarians in your young life and in your professional life.
EGAN: If I could just take one moment to talk about libraries and librarians in Curtis’s life. There is a great end to his story. I don’t want to spoil it for too many readers, but in his old age—Curtis lived to be 84—his work was discovered by a Seattle librarian, who went through musty archives and found this masterpiece, and she was just blown away by it. She started a correspondence with the aging Curtis, and over the course of three years, he told the story of his life to the librarian, and these letters move me to tears. This is where I got a lot of my information, the 40-some letters Curtis wrote back and forth with a Seattle librarian. So we owe a librarian for so much of what we know of Curtis’s story.
Now, my connection to libraries. I came from a big blue-collar Irish Catholic family, with little money, but I had two things that changed my life early on. I had a mother who loved books and history, and so she would take me to a bookmobile. It was the greatest day of my week. I’d come home with adventure stories and some Curious George books, and I could escape. The second thing was that I could not have told this story without the keepers of the story, the great archivists in American libraries. We have good ones in Seattle, but there are good ones in every town. As long as people keep our various stories, and that’s what so many good libraries do, someone like me can come along and retell one of the stories.
RICHARD FORD, CANADA
DONNA SEAMAN, BOOKLIST: You’ve used the phrase “morally provoking” to describe what you hope to achieve in creating your characters. Is fiction a moral laboratory?
FORD: Yes. That’s one thing it can be. In the hands of someone else, it needn’t be. Fiction can be almost anything we make of it. For me, part of what interests me in writing stories is that it can be about people making decisions that are either good or bad; either right or wrong; or, in a nuanced way, a little of both. I think that fiction at its best is an experiment in all ways, irrespective of whatever kind of verisimilitude it chooses.
BOOKLIST: Do you remember your first library?
FORD: Absolutely! I remember my first library and I happen to have a picture of it on my wall here in my study. It’s the Carnegie Public Library in Jackson, Mississippi, then on High Street. And at the bottom of the photograph is a line from Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, and it says, “Jackson’s Carnegie Library was on the same street where our house was.” And underneath that, Eudora has written to me, “And your house was.” That was my first library. I am a boy from the Carnegie Public Library. It’s gone now. It was replaced when I was still under 10. It is now the Eudora Welty Public Library.