Louis Begley, a successful attorney long before he was a novelist, was especially pleased to learn he had been voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
"I won't be coy about what the election meant to me. I was truly delighted because I take it as a sign that my colleagues _ my fellow writers _ have accepted me as one of them," says the 77-year-old author of "As Max Saw It" and "About Schmidt," the basis for a film of the same name starring Jack Nicholson.
Begley was a partner for decades at the high-end firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and only in his mid-50s did his first novel, "Wartime Lies," come out. He has had eight novels published, with a ninth due next year, but he still questioned whether he belonged in the literary field.
"My life has been so different from the lives of really all American novelists I can think of _ I've never served an apprenticeship, attended a creative writing program or taught a creative writing course _ that I couldn't help seeing myself as an outsider."
Begley is among 10 new members of the academy, an "honor society" founded in 1898 and the country's unofficial inner circle of the arts. Housed in a beaux arts complex in upper Manhattan, the academy has a core group of 250 artists, musicians and writers, including Philip Roth, Ornette Coleman and Jasper Johns. Openings occur upon a member's death, with current members nominating and voting in new ones.
The academy said Wednesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove also were selected, along with visual artists Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Malcolm Morley and James Turrell, architect Robert A.M. Stern, composers Martin Boykan and Aaron Jay Kernis and sculptor-composer Walter De Maria, who back in the 1960s played drums in a band with future Velvet Underground founders Lou Reed and John Cale.
Poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy, the academy's president, noted the range of ages in this year's class. Besides Begley, older inductees include Boykan, 80, and Morley, 79. Meanwhile, Kernis is 51 and Dove and Cunningham each are 58.
"It reminds that the academy is a place for old masters and for artists still in the middle of their careers," McClatchey said.
Honorary members chosen were dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones and three foreign artists: The novelist and Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek of Austria, South African artist-filmmaker William Kentridge and Canadian poet-translator Anne Carson.
The new inductees will be honored at a ceremony in May, with the keynote speech _ the Blashfield Address _ to be given by Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, currently the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Previous Blashfield speakers include Helen Keller, Thornton Wilder and John Updike.
"He (Landesman) was a little intimidated at first by the list of people who have given this speech in the past," McClatchy says. "But we were able to assure him. It's a crucial time for the arts and arts funding and we were very interested to hear what he has to say about the arts endowment."