National Book Award authors spoke to a rapt audience about their craft, passions and the journey to get to their latest books.
Water – blood-chilling 47-degree octopus tank water or the deepest place in the ocean – was the start of a riveting conversation. Both Sy Montgomery’s “The Soul of an Octopus” and Neal Shusterman’s “Challenger Deep” begin with water, but quickly dive into emotional soul-searching topics.
Montgomery, a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction, and Shusterman, National Book Award winner for young people’s literature, took the stage at Concordia’s annual National Book Awards at Concordia event. The authors discussed their books and the art of writing them with the event host, NPR’s John Ydstie ’74.
Montgomery listed the great anthropologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas as her heroines and approaches her work with the same care for the natural world.
“I write about animals and people sometimes creep in,” Montgomery says, talking about her octopus research. “They have minds and so do all the other mammals and birds and I wanted to get to know them.”
Montgomery read a passage from her book about meeting her first octopus, Athena. She plunged her arms into the cold water of the tank and waited as the octopus put its arms on hers and tasted her with its suckers.
“As soon as my hands would work (from the cold) I would take notes,” Montgomery said. “In the ocean I had a dive slate I could write on.”
Shusterman’s novel is about being in the depths of mental illness. While “Challenger Deep,” named for the deepest place in the ocean, is fiction, much of the information about mental illness was drawn from the journey through mental illness with his son, Brendan.
Shusterman said that as a teen Brendan spiraled into paranoia and depression quickly and it took years of treatment to bring him back.
“Brendan said to me, ‘Dad, I’m at the bottom of the ocean screaming to get out and no one can help me.’”
Shusterman’s story about Caden, a teen with mental illness, takes place in two worlds – the real one and the one inside Caden’s head. With permission from his son to write it, Shusterman said it was difficult yet freeing.
“It was cathartic and healing taking what happened and … turning it into a ray of light to help other people,” he says.
Both authors have new books coming out this year. Montgomery will delve into the world of the great white shark and Shusterman creates a utopian world that might not be what we’d all want.
National Book Awards at Concordia is in its 11th year and is underwritten by Earl Lewis ’78 and Susan Whitlock.