“I’m a writer in perennial hiding,” he admits by phone from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. You won’t find him on Twitter, like so many Web-savvy authors, plugging his latest book. “I’m not a recluse, but there are things I do differently, things I avoid and invitations I turn down constantly.”
According to a statement from the Library of Congress, the new Prize for American Fiction “seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that — throughout long, consistently accomplished careers — have told us something about the American experience.” The prize continues in the tradition of the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction, given to Herman Wouk in 2008, and it replaces the Library’s Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, which began four years ago in connection with the National Book Festival. Previous Creative Achievement Award winners have included John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Philip Roth and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
In his official announcement, Billington said, “Like Dostoyevsky, Don DeLillo probes deeply into the sociopolitical and moral life of his country. Over a long and important career, he has inspired his readers with the diversity of his themes and the virtuosity of his prose.”
That career includes the postmodern classics “White Noise” (1985), “Libra” (1988) and “Underworld” (1997), along with more than a dozen other novels that wind around themes of consumerism, sports, political and corporate corruption, and cataclysmic moments in modern history. Regularly cited as one of the most influential writers in the United States, DeLillo has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice.
DeLillo said that when the library contacted him with news of this latest honor, his first thoughts were of his mother and father, who immigrated from Italy. “They spoke little or no English,” he said. “It was a new language and new culture and many challenges in every direction, and so I like to think of this prize as a tribute to their memory.”
They lived to see him become a writer after a brief stint in advertising. “They ultimately trusted me to follow the course I’d chosen. This is something that happens if you’re the eldest son in an Italian family: You get a certain leeway, and it worked in my case.”
But the extraordinary trajectory of his career still surprises him. “I was working on my first novel, ‘Americana,’ for two years before I ever realized that I could be a writer,” he says. “I had absolutely no assurance that this book would be published because I knew that there were elements that I simply didn’t know how to improve at that point. So I wrote for another two years and finished the novel. It wasn’t all that difficult to find a publisher, to my astonishment. I didn’t have a representative. I didn’t know anything about publishing. But an editor at Houghton Mifflin read the manuscript and decided that this was worth pursuing.”