Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Shout from Copenhagen: Kennedy Dethrones King?

At the end of April I made an unexpected trip from Copenhagen to New York because I learned that I was one of six finalists for a so-called "Ellie" Award – the National Magazine Award 2008 for an essay I had published in New Letters magazine.

We were up against essays in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly – all magazines with millions or at least hundreds of thousands of circulation while New Letters has about 3,000. Among the other five essayists was Stephen King, the irony of that being that I am a "literary" writer, with very few readers, while Mr. King is a "commercial" writer read by millions all over the world. Augmenting the irony was the fact that Mr. King's essay was about J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books – millions upon millions of readers.

Surprisingly I won. Or the magazine that published me won. Or we both won. It was a heady evening at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall where for $480 a ticket (fortunately I didn't pay!), we ate canapés of the gods (bits of goat cheese and beef on chips of toasted rye, shrimp to die for, lobster tails – all served by handsome young people who looked pleased to please us), drank from an open bar (three kinds of vodka) and rubbed tuxedo sleeves with the magazine magnificos of America. The "Ellie" itself is a large, many-bladed sculpture designed by Alexander Calder, and it looks like something you could hijack a plane with.

Bob Stewart, editor of New Letters, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the theater for nearly two hours stuffed into our penguins, speculating whether it meant something that we were trapped on the inside end of the row, and I don't know about Bob, but I needed to micturate and didn't dare. At the urging of Lady Alice, I had worn my tux – fortunately I could still button it after 20 years (I must have already been fat back then) – but not a black tie; instead I wore a black tee shirt with a Sheela na Gig pendant she had silversmithed for me and my "leopard skin" pillbox hat (no red paint, please – it's synthetic), which she had commissioned the Danish Queen's hat-maker to design for a birthday present.

Finally, Charlie Rose was on stage to present the award in the essay category, and we experienced this surreal moment of having the pages of Bob's magazine with my essay projected up on a huge screen on the stage while 500 people looked on and the voice of a woman who sounded equally educated and merry was saying over the sound system, "Wince-inducing, outrageously honest and wickedly funny, Thomas Kennedy's account of his prostate-cancer scare is essay writing at its most original…"

Then Charlie Rose was saying, "The winner is New Letters, Robert Stewart, and Thomas E. Kennedy's essay, 'I Am Joe's Prostate.'" Bob yelled in triumph, pumping his fist in the air, while his wife Lisa and staff members Betsy and Amy screamed from the balcony (that scream was reported by the New York Observer), and I muttered, "Holy shit."

Then we were on the stage in the spotlight, and Charlie Rose was shoving the big-bladed "Ellie" at me and saying, "I'm gonna give you this!" as blitzes flashed, and Bob was making a speech of thanks, and we were coming down the stage steps again. I asked Bob, "Who was that?" and he looked incredulously at me. "That was Charlie Rose." I've been away a long time.

As all 500 of us bottlenecked out of the theater toward the post-ceremony champagne, people kept nodding, smiling, saying, "Congratulations," and "Love your hat!" and "Is that a leopard skin pillbox hat?" In the men's room, the guy at the next urinal smiled at me – something a man is never supposed to do! -- and said, "Congratulations!"

As we entered the reception area, I saw Albert Goldbarth, standing with the contingent from Virginia Quarterly Review (they also won, in the single-topic issue category), and he beamed and said, "If only I were drunk, I would kiss you!" A woman came over and introduced herself as the editor of Reader's Digest and another as editor of Good Housekeeping and then a tall dark-haired man shook my hand and said, "I haven't read your essay but I hear it is very funny and I look forward to it. And I hope your health is okay." I thanked him and then looked at Bob. "Who was that?" Bob smiled incredulously. "That was David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker !" I've been away too long.
I phoned Alice in Copenhagen where it was four in the morning and said, "I won." She began to cry. "I knew you would." It's true. She had assured me I would win – as had my friends Duff Brenna and Greg Herriges and Mike Lee and even Bob Stewart had seemed pretty confident.

I did not really think so and had been assuring everyone who would listen that I did not expect to win at all, that I was content with the honor of being a finalist – although the evening before, at another reception for the event, in the New York Public Library, somebody with a high position in the proceedings asked if my essay was available for Best American Magazine Writing, and another had looked at me in a certain way that seemed to intimate she knew something I didn't.

Then when Charlie Rose was going down the list of essay finalists, suddenly my nostrils were filled with longing to savor that famous sweet smell of success, and I knew that if I did not win, I would be disappointed, perhaps seriously so. The transformation from content-to-be-a-finalist to lust-for-victory had been instanteous. Suddenly I wanted it. Bad!

I would be a liar if I denied that it was nice to be called, but soooo much nicer to be chosen.

This prize is described variously as the Oscar of the magazine world and the Pulitzer of the magazine world. Oddly I bought the NY Times next day and took it to breakfast, to scan the pages for any mention of the "Ellie" – all except the real estate and the business sections, which I dumped in a refuse basket. There was not a word – but I found out later, there had been an article in the business section, I had even been mentioned by name, also in the Washington Post and some other places as well. Even some of the newspapers in Denmark reported that their American-in-residence had won the most distinguished prize in the American magazine world.

When I got back to this ancient kingdom, dear Lady Alice and my kids, Isabel and Daniel, had a "surprise" party waiting for me with about thirty guests. I was feted with flowers and wine and champagne and gifts. Tonny Vorm of the Danish magazine Euroman came bearing an amazing three-liter bottle of finest ecological beer in a gala wooden case – a gift from Euroman which offered to buy Danish rights to the essay for a nice fee. A journalist from the prestigious Weekendavisen scheduled an interview. There were scores of emails of congratulations. I was invited to read the essay at a bookshop in the city center – more flowers and champagne. Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to be visiting writer in creative nonfiction for another nice fee. Apparently the essay will be reprinted in Best American Magazine Writing 2008. And I don't know if it has any relation, but I received word that a novel I published in 2007 was also a finalist for ForewardMagazine's Book of the Year. Ripples keep rippling.

But let me put this into perspective. I was lucky. As Ken Kesey said when he wrote the phenomenal Cuckoo's Nest, "I caught lightning in a bottle." I certainly do not mean to compare my 5,000-word essay with that world-changing novel, but I know what Kesey meant. I had something I wanted to write about and this voice had occurred to me – this second person voice of extreme irony and wicked humor was handed up to me from wherever it is that our words come from and it began to say outrageous things to me that made me snicker, and all I had to do was write them down. Maybe the King of the Word Factory within had decided it was time for me to get a good shot of encouragement after 47 years of trying and decided to give me that voice with which to tell that essay.
So, my profound thanks to the King of the Word Factory for giving me the ammunition for this little coup. And my thanks to New Letters and Bob Stewart for their support and encouragement over many years and my thanks to Lady Alice for the leopard-skin pillbox hat and to my prostate for keeping on – and a salute to the other essay writer finalists – Walter Kirn in the Atlantic, Katrina Onstad in Elle, Sallie Tisdale in Harper's, Tim Page in the New Yorker, and most particularly Stephen King.

One of the local newspapers in Denmark ran an article about my winning the award that was entitled, "Kennedy Dethrones King." But I didn't dethrone Mr King. He still has millions of readers all over the world who have never heard of me and will never read my stuff.

Pst! Stephen - -could you loan me about a hundred thousand readers for my next book? No? Twenty thousand? I promise I'll be good to them. I promise to show them a good time.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy

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