NEW YORK (AP) — Phil Klay's "Redeployment," a debut collection of searching, satiric and often agonized stories by an Iraq war veteran, has won the National Book Award for fiction.
Klay was chosen Wednesday night over such high-profile finalists as Marilynne Robinson's "Lila" and Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven." His book was the first debut release to win in fiction since Julia Glass' "The Three Junes" in 2002, the first story collection to win since Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever" in 1996 and the first fiction win for an Iraq veteran.
Clearly surprised and moved, the 31-year-old Klay — among the youngest fiction winners ever — spoke of his work as an essential way to understand and communicate his 13 months in Iraq and the adjustment back home.
"War's too strange to be processed alone," he said, thanking readers who "decided to join the conversation."
The nonfiction prize went to Evan Osnos for his book on modern China, "Age of Ambition." Former U.S. poet laureate Louise Glueck's "Faithful and Virtuous Night" won for poetry, and Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming" won for young people's literature.
All five fiction nominees had grim stories to tell.
The books were set everywhere from Beirut to Berlin to Iowa and looked to upheavals past, present and future. Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See" alternates chapters about a blind French girl and a Nazi recruit during World War II. Mandel's "Station Eleven" imagines a future decimated by disease. "Lila" follows the life of an itinerant young woman who becomes an elderly Iowa preacher's wife. In Rabih Alameddine's "An Unnecessary Woman," an elderly Beirut resident reflects on the devastation of her native country and on the books that made life at least bearable.
"War, war, war," was how fiction judge Geraldine Brooks summed up the finalists. But they also were stories of humor, hope and "the amazing power of art to elevate our spirits," she said.
The winners of nonfiction and young people's literature both cited ties to the past in their acceptance speeches. Osnos is the son of longtime publisher Peter Osnos and he said his decision to write a book made him understand what "George W. Bush must feel like." Woodson's book reflects on growing up during the civil rights era, and she urged the audience to "talk to our old people before they become ancestors" and the chance to learn their stories is lost.
Glueck praised her fellow nominees, saying her work would not be possible without their work, which had "astonished" and "moved" her.
The evening started with honorary prizes being presented to literary advocate Kyle Zimmer and to science fiction-fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, both of whom championed the role of books in a free society. Le Guin attacked a recurring villain in publishing, Amazon.com, as a cold-hearted "profiteer" and praised fantasy writers for their ability to go beyond documenting the present and imagine the future.
"Any human power can be changed by human beings," she said, noting that capitalism may prove no more invincible than "the divine right of kings."
The awards, in their 65th year and presented by the nonprofit National Book Foundation, were announced at a Manhattan ceremony hosted by author Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame.
Winners in competitive categories each received $10,000.
A total of 1,425 books were submitted for the awards, with finalists chosen by five-member panels in each category that included writers, booksellers and other members of the literary community.