James McBride
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes it’s the pain of loss that pushes the creative. James McBride won the National Book Award in fiction, and upon accepting his award he spoke about his recent tragedies. He told the audience of 700 guests at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City that he wrote The Good Lord Bird—his novel about a young slave who joins the abolitionist John Brown in his famous raid on Harpers Ferry—while he was dealing with the deaths of his mother and his niece and the metaphorical death of his marriage.

"It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around," he said, according to the Associated Press.

McBride's book was a bit of a dark horse in the fiction category, which featured literary darlings Thomas Pynchon and Jhumpa Lahiri. In fact, the New York Times reports that McBride didn't even have a speech prepared.

Toni Morrison presented Maya Angelou with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, the New York Times reports. "Her creative impulse struck like bolts of lightning," Morrison said. "Her example is not one of survival. It truly is one of triumph. Dr. Maya Angelou, you improve our world by drawing from us, forcing from us our better selves." Angelou received two standing ovations and accepted the award from "all you literary folks.

"You are rainbows in my clouds," she said. "You have decided to honor me, and I’m grateful to you."

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Angelou credited her longtime editor, Robert Loomis, for more than four decades of work. "Over 40 years—imagine it—I have tried to tell the truth as I understand it in prose," she said. "Easy reading is damn hard writing. But you know all that."

In nonfiction, George Packer won for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for Incarnadine. The award for young people’s literature went to Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck.

The awards ceremony is in its 64th year, and each winner receives $10,000 and a bronze statue.

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Read more at the Associated Press and the New York Times.