A Washington Irving Award, Thank You

Back to Cabinworld after an afternoon at the Washington Irving Awards, presented at a local Hilton.

Compared with hotel air, the azaleas, violets and weeds seem to bloom a bit more riotously.


The smell of rain in the air. The first angry-sounding, toothpick-billed hummingbird of the year dive-bombed me near the feeder with its red sugar-water.

My weathered old three-legged stool (note pegs that join the top, no nails) is ready for duty as a summer-porch-time computer stand.


At the conference to get one of the awards, I spent time with librarians (hundreds, representing the Westchester Library Association) and authors (20 or so, all Westchester residents). Funny, sometimes, inspiring, always. I saw some friends, nonfiction, fiction and librarian. I always feel a little sleepy after a rubber-chicken luncheon, but I pepped up for the remarks of keynote speaker Barbara Stripling, current head of the American Library Association.


Barbara’s remarks, passed along with both bubbly mannerisms and erudition, talked among other things about finding a “gorgeous balance” between digital and paper resources. She spoke about libraries changing lives. But first she told a story about when she was in college, craving an A on a paper and seeing only a lot of plus signs in the margins. She stuck up her hand and demanded to know the meaning of the notations. Those were actually t’s, she was told – they stood for trite.


Does the use of primary sources encourage empathy? That’s the question she asked in her Ph.d. studies, going into high school classrooms that were studying slave narratives. It’s a fascinating line of inquiry.


It’s hard for people to use primaries, she found, without some sort of context. I get that, I suppose. Although as a historian I generally find the original sources when they are embedded in some author’s history to be the most exciting part of the work. They themselves give the context. That’s where you find the BITADs, the bite in the ass details that really give the flavor of a time or place or person.

I liked another story Barbara told, too, about a knitting club that refused to be shut into one of the back rooms at a public library for  their weekly stitch n’ bitch, but instead colonized a  table in the center of the building. Well, a technology club soon discovered the knitters and found what they were doing interesting, and the two groups ended up knit-bombing the library – the mouse, the circulation desk, etc.

knit tech

Everything covered in knit and purl by tech geeks and old ladies.

A library “provides the thinking spaces for civilization,” said Jaron Lanier – he’s the computer geek who popularized the term virtual reality.


He has a new book just out, Who Owns the Future? Certainly worth a look.

The feeling that you are just another mouth in a chorus of songsters is a welcome one when you spend a lot of your time on your own at your desk. That is what I brought home from talking to my fellow writers and hearing them deliver brief remarks at the podium. Being one of the crowd, one of a club.

Allison Gilbert won a Washington Irving Award for her book Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children. Allison lost her own parents at a tender age, but the book is much more than a memoir or advice manual.


It’s not her first book on the subject, and support groups of parentless parents have sprung up around the country to deal with the difficult subject. Allison announced some news, that some these groups have banded together to make a trip to Peru to help orphans there.

It gave me goosebumps to hear about another project she’s got lined up, because the excitement in her demeanor was just so visceral. There’s a real life journalist she wants to write about who went from panning for gold in the early 1900s to penning regular columns for Hearst in one dramatic lifetime. Apparently this person was a rabblerouser, a women’s rights advocate and is now – but perhaps not forever – all but forgotten. What a great topic, a great kernel of history to unearth.

Writers were honored today from all over the literary map.

My colleague Karen Engelmann was there for her novel The Stockholm Octavo, a magical work set in 18th century Sweden. Delicious, witty and swooping are some of the buzzwords used around her book.

jean and karen

Doesn’t everyone look happy today? If a bit blurry? Karen’s next novel is well underway, and she promises to jump forward a few centuries and incorporate greeting cards rather than fortune-telling into the mix.

I stood up to say a few words about The Orphanmaster. How The Orphanmaster is a love story wrapped around a murder mystery that takes place in a tiny settlement in the middle of a vast wilderness. And about libraries. That over the years I’ve not only dug into books and mususcripts, taken thousands of pages of notes and written many chapters in libraries, but eaten and drank within their hallowed halls. My hometown library growing up, in Hastings-on-Hudson, where I read Tristram Shandy for the first time:

hastings library

I’ve also taken some great naps, with fantastic dreams.

Some of what I was saying felt as if it were in the rearview – I’m working on the Savage Girl copyedit, and just took a first peek at the proposed cover for the novel. The art is beautiful and chilling and only needs a little fine tuning to make it perfect. I am obsessed with Savage Girl at the moment, though I have to wait until January 2014 for the book to be published.

Still, The Orphanmaster has just come out in paperback, well in time for another season of beach reading. And to be given an award for The Orphanmaster by librarians, for librarians to appreciate it, was a very special thrill.

Without librarians, said Maggie Barbieri, one of the fiction writers getting an award, we’re “a bunch of noisy trees echoing in an empty forest.”


Filed under Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Knitting, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

2 responses to “A Washington Irving Award, Thank You

  1. Thank you for keeping up with me, and for writing back. I certainly find my world interesting, and I hope to interest others in it!

  2. Lori

    You inhabit a very interesting world, Jean. I really enjoy reading your blog every day, and I look forward to reading your finished (Does a writer ever really finish writing a book?) work, Savage Girl, when it finally comes out. I suppose that is what some authors are here to do: share their world with others. Your blog gives me the feeling that you and I are friends, even tho we’ve never met, nor are we likely to, and you know so very little about me.
    Not that I’m going to take up stalking or anything. I have a nice life here and I don’t want to disrupt yours.
    However, it is nice reading what you choose to share about your life.

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