‘A lasting contribution to Midwestern and American letters’

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Possibly the low point of his career, novelist Kent Meyers said in Chicago Tuesday evening, was when he opened a manila envelope from his agent that contained 23 rejection letters.

“I sat at the kitchen table, and I was leafing through them, and I thought to myself, this is as good as I can write,” Meyers said at the annual book awards banquet of the Society of Midland Authors at the InterContinental hotel. “If I can’t get this book published, I can’t get published. So I may as well quit.”

Although it took him 18 years to get into print, Meyers didn’t quit. And the reason he was in town, after traveling from his home in Spearfish, S.D., was to accept the society’s adult fiction award for books published in 2009 for his novel Twisted Tree.

Keir Graff, one of the judges in the book competition, called the novel “a stunning achievement” and “one of the most haunting things I have ever read.”

“It’s a book about the sometimes frayed connection between the people in the wide open spaces of the Plains states, about how little we really know one another, about the bones that lie beneath the land,” said Graff, who also is an author and senior editor of Booklist Online. “Meyers has written other fine books and will write more, but if this were his only book it would still make a lasting contribution to Midwestern and American letters.”

Other winners and finalists were Richard Powers of Urbana for Generosity: An Enhancement; Achy Obejas of Chicago for Ruins; James McManus of Kenilworth for Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker; Sean B. Carroll of Madison, Wis., for Remarkable Creations: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species; Lawrence Rothfield of Chicago for The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum; Leonard Zeskind, of Kansas City, Mo., for Blood & Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Richard C. Lindberg of Chicago for The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine; James Ballowe of Ottawa for A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton; Paul Taylor of Troy, Mich., for Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer; Jane S. Smith of Chicago for The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants; Saundra Mitchell of Indianapolis for Shadowed Summer; Gloria Whelan of Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich, for Waiting for the Owl’s Call; Christine Taylor-Butler of Kansas City, Mo., for Sacred Mountain: Everest; Candace Fleming of Oak Park for The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum; Jim Harrison of Livington, Mont., for In Search of Small Gods, and Marc J. Sheehan of Grand Haven, Mich., for Vengeful Hymns. Tom Williams, originator of chicagocritic.com won the James Friend Memorial Award for Literary and Dramatic Criticism. Steve Edwards, acting program director of WBEZ-Chicago Public Radio, was master of ceremonies.

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