- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Patti Smith is a literary star.

The singer-poet’s memoir about life in New York City in the 1960s, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award for nonfiction. “Just Kids” is a bittersweet look back at her deep friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and at a revolutionary time in the country.

A tearful Smith, 63, recalled working decades ago at a Scribner’s bookstore and stacking up the National Book Award winners, wondering if she would ever receive such a prize.

“So thank you for letting me find out,” said Smith, who now claims an honor previously given to Rachel Carson, Gore Vidal and Joan Didion.

The fiction prize Wednesday night was a surprise, Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule,” a wry, hard-luck racetrack comedy chosen over such better known works as Lionel Shriver’s “So Much for That” and Nicole Krauss’ “Great House.”

Gordon, who for 20 years has been releasing books through small publishers, spoke briefly. Currently published by McPherson & Co., Gordon acknowledged she had not expected to win and cited friends who had told her that she had given them hope just by being nominated. Gordon’s fate has already changed. Her next novel will be published by an imprint of Random House Inc.

Kathryn Erskine’s “Mockingbird,” inspired in part by “To Kill a Mockingbird” and by the Virginia Tech shootings, was cited for young people’s literature. Cited for a story featuring an 11-year-old girl with Asperger’s, Erskine praised parents who encourage their children to ask questions and teachers who inspire students to read and to “think for themselves.”

Terrance Hayes’ “Lighthead” won for poetry and thanked his wife and his editor for being “the best kind of partner,” one “who lets you be imperfect.”

Winners in the competitive categories for the 61st annual awards each received $10,000.

Honorary medals were presented to “Bonfire of the Vanities” novelist Tom Wolfe and to one of the creators of “Sesame Street,” Joan Ganz Cooney.

Smith did not sing Wednesday, but there was music on stage, as Wolfe crooned a few lines from “The Girl of Ipanema,” part of a long, leisurely speech that included memories of his early newspapers days and of the party thrown by Leonard Bernstein and attended by members of the Black Panthers, a gathering immortalized by Wolfe as “radical chic.”

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