Jaimy Gordon wins the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction
November 17, 2010
“I think I’m universally acknowledged to be the darkest, dark horse in the fiction field,” said Jaimy Gordon at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 17, 2010. With competition from better known writers including Peter Carey and Nicole Krauss, Gordon’s self-description was fitting given the subject matter of Lord of Misrule. The Baltimore-born author’s fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, introduces the reader to the fierce world of low stakes horseracing and the vibrant, gritty band of characters, including a down-and-out horseman and his gutsy but troubled girlfriend, who frequent the racetrack.
Gordon’s personal experiences and meticulous research lent the book its tangible believability. After she graduated from college in the late 1960s, Gordon took a number of "real life" jobs including working as a groom and hot-walker at Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. Then, when she conceived the idea for Lord of Misrule, the novelist once again delved into the world of horse racing. “Doing far more textual research than I need is one of my favorite ways of avoiding writing,” noted 66-year-old Gordon. Hoping to develop one her novel’s main characters, Medicine Ed, Gordon asked a trainer she knew to find and introduce her to an older black groom who had worked most of his life at track. Thus began her friendship with Bubbles Riley, a 96-year-old groom at tracks in West Virginia and Maryland. “Bubbles had done much more than rub horses in his day,” said Gordon. “And he is far too foxy, worldly, gregarious, savvy in business, and downright postmodern to have been the model for Medicine Ed, but he told me hundreds of things I needed to know in the course of writing Lord of Misrule, and he still does.”
A professor of English at Western Michigan University since 1981, Gordon recalls that she dreaded the idea of writing another book featuring a spirited, reckless young female protagonist (see Bogeywoman, She Drove without Stopping, and The Bend, The Lip, The Kid). “I emphatically did not want to write a fourth of that kind, but as it turned out, when I had the first finished draft of Lord of Misrule in hand, another plucky 25-year old with bad judgment was grinning out at me. Then, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t rewrite it: I had an aversion even to reading it that lasted, obviously, for years.”
But her friend, publisher Bruce McPherson, struck a deal with Gordon based on an early draft of Lord of Misrule: his small company could have the book if she didn’t eventually sell it to another publisher. “Towards the end of last summer,” recalled Jaimy, “I hadn’t even looked at the book.” So when McPherson sent her an unrevised draft of Lord of Misrule as a gentle reminder of their agreement, Jaimy was surprised by how much she liked it. It was “as if somebody else had written it. I even cried twice – that was when I thought I probably had something.”
The National Book Awards judges agreed, calling Lord of Misrule a “vivid, memorable, and linguistically rich novel.” The author Joanna Scott presented the award for best fiction book at the ceremony to an astonished Gordon and a cheering audience. “We might need some smelling salts over in the corner there,” joked Scott as Gordon got up from the table to accept the honor. “I am totally unprepared and I am totally surprised,” said a humble Gordon, trophy in hand. The author went on to thank her friends and fellow dark horse writers. “I feel as though this is as much for them as it is for me, and for everybody who was involved in this book in any way. Thank you.”