Patti Smith's 'Just Kids' wins National Book Award for nonfiction

Thursday, November 18, 2010; 12:08 AM

NEW YORK - Patti Smith is a literary star.

Smith's "Just Kids," the singer-poet's memoir about life in New York City in the 1960s, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night.

The book is a bittersweet look back at her deep friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during a revolutionary time in the country.

A tearful Smith, 63, recalled working decades ago at a Scribner's bookstore and stacking up the National Book Award winners, wondering what it would feel like to receive such a prize.

"So thank you for letting me find out," said Smith, who now claims an honor previously given to Rachel Carson, Gore Vidal and Joan Didion.

The fiction prize was a surprise: Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule," a wry racetrack comedy, was chosen over such better-known works as Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That" and Nicole Krauss's "Great House."

Gordon, who for 20 years has been releasing books through small publishers, spoke briefly. She acknowledged she had not expected to win and cited friends who had told her that she had given them hope just by being nominated.

Gordon's fate has already changed. Her next novel will be published by an imprint of Random House.

Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird" - inspired in part by "To Kill a Mockingbird" and by the Virginia Tech shootings - was cited for young people's literature. Cited for a story featuring an 11-year-old girl who has Asperger's, Erskine praised parents who encourage their children to ask questions and teachers who inspire students to read and to "think for themselves."

Terrance Hayes's "Lighthead" won for poetry. Hayes thanked his wife and his editor for being "the best kind of partner," one "who lets you be imperfect."

Honorary medals were presented to "Bonfire of the Vanities" novelist Tom Wolfe and to Joan Ganz Cooney, who is one of the creators of "Sesame Street."

Winners in the competitive categories for the 61st annual awards each received $10,000.

- Associated Press

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