What It’s Like to Win a Literary Award

I earned my first literary award in Folsom. This time? Las Vegas…


ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Awards, presented at the 2014 American Library Association Conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

IndieFab CertificateFolsom prison has its thugs, killers, and seething sodomites perched like gargoyles, set to pounce on the right bounce, but it’s got nuthin’ on exposed armpits in Vegas.

What is it about Las Vegas that makes tank tops so ubiquitous? From wife-beaters to big, tie-dyed side-wallers, it seems six of every ten meanderers goes sleeveless, choosing the display of warty pits over dignity. It’s as if they think armpits, with all of their “character,” have become substitutes for good ink work. They haven’t. And we’re not talking about your nicer tank tops, either – more like saggy, cigarette ash ‘n mayo varnished nightwear. Blech.

Yes, I know it’s Sin City; let it all hang out; blah-blah-blah. But that’s no excuse for flaunting your weight-loss stretch marks each time you roll some dice, lift a fork, jab at a slot machine button, or u-turn your rented casino scooter into another herd.

When planning a trip to Vegas, it’s helpful to adjust your expectations a notch below your last memories of the place, ’cause Vegas today is all about elastic waist bands, approximated quality, billowy tank tops, and carry-along toy trumpets of frozen, fruity booze.

I realize that Frank Sinatra’s life has been highly mythologized, but I’m confident there was a moment when he looked at Vegas and thought: it’s only downhill from here.

WORST ROOM KEY GRAPHICS EVER_Where Excuses Go to DieHarrah’s check-in…

Thursday-to-Saturday Vegas beats Friday-to-Sunday anytime. Just ask road-weary parents of toddlers and teenagers  –which my wife, Crystal, and I are not– or drivers –like we are– who hate being stuck behind card-carrying members of Snails of America. Once your return trip eats up an entire Sunday, ending with a drive directly into the blazing sunset, you won’t make that mistake again.

Midnight departures out of Los Angeles are the best, and nondescript commuter vehicles are the smartest. (A little over 3½ hours is our best time.) The only drawback to getting a room at three on a Friday morning in Vegas is who and what you encounter upon arrival. Since the front desk area is much quieter than normal, you tend to notice the first of your fellow visitors.

George C. Scott_Sony Pictures EntertainmentIn our case, this meant shit-faced twenty-something women. With their volume set to “annoying drunk” they paraded by, managing mumbly boyfriends and wardrobe failures. A glimpse of their filthy bare feet was my personal, “Oh, right – Vegas.”

One couple stopped to lean on a counter obviously more stable than they were. Older woman, younger guy: these two were long past the point of knowing for sure whether Harrah’s was their hotel or just a shortcut. Clad in a one-piece Lycra tube dress that had ridden up to where it was tucked under her butt cheeks, this woman, too, had bare, dirty feet, but a pair or four-inch pumps dangled from her fingers.My wife says I should clean my scanner bed but underwear germs dont live this long

Her date was hiding his drunken boyishness in her ample cleavage, though it was more like he’d hooked his face there and let his body hang like a coat. She turned my way at one point, and man oh man, she had the beaten mug of a Staten Island sanitation worker circa 1959. (Come to think of it, she looked a lot like the late George C. Scott.)

This was one of the ugliest women I’ve ever seen. I was fascinated. They were both a mess. And suddenly crumpled cash started falling from under her fruit roll-up of a dress. She was oblivious, coddling the man-boy under her chin. I elbowed Crystal, too busy checking us in to join my impolite gawking.

When they wobbled away the money went with them, stuck to her feet. I can only imagine what made her feet adhesive, but when two of the bills freed themselves, I raised my hand to say something, then dropped it just as quickly. I let them round a corner, went over, and pocketed the singles. I scanned one, and here it is. Let’s move on.

Harrah’s Carnival Tower, Room 1431… 

Rather than let the realization that the room was dumpy sit for just a minute, outta my mouth came, “Oh right, it’s crappy Harrah’s. Look at this garbage. Two queen beds? I bet there’s bird flu on these glasses. Why’d you pick Harrah’s again?”

Harrahs Las Vegas_Looks great untill you look closerCrystal explained the conference discount hotel block (for what she claimed was the third time). She ticked off the other hotels we could have chosen – all about the same in terms of “luxury” accommodations. Then she reminded me of Tommy Allison’s wedding at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The officiant was a blackjack dealer and Tommy’s boss came with hookers on each arm (women he was rumored to have paid in coke). We skipped that all night party and instead learned to play craps with some lucky rollers. “Harrah’s was good to us once,” Crystal told me. “Maybe it will be again, when they announce the winners.”

What’s a tired grump gonna do with that? We climbed into beds made of germs and splinters for the few hours we figured we’d catch. Fortunately, we were tired enough to doze off.


Tangled-wiresNinety minutes in to an already fitful sleep, the alarm clock sent us both scrambling. But bash the thing as we might, its already beat-up buttons wouldn’t respond.

As if one mind, our arms stabbed for a plug, only to find a middle finger from hotel electricians so devious it earned our grudging respect. The lamp and alarm clock cords led to a big tangle of unrelated, randomly selected wires bundled together, then came out the other side and disappeared into the floor. Anyone running a hand back there would feel a knot designed to defeat someone high on bath salts using nothing but exasperation. And what a marvelous clump it was: spiraled phone cords, ethernet wires, even headphone wires in all sorts of colors. Everything was tied into knots, and the knots themselves were zip-tied to one another.

Unfortunately the mind-bending electronic chirp shattered our patience and cut short our admiration. The only way to make the thing stop was to reset the alarm. Truly sadistic. Knowing we were due for a room upgrade, we, of course, chose 4:08 am. No reason not to share the madness.

Sixty bucks for Bro tacos…

I would sooner chew a sheet of aluminum foilFor today’s Vegas low-roller, the place is one big interconnected food court specializing in flavorless cruise ship nutrition. Steakhouses are so pervasive they might as well be creepy oil portraits with eyes that follow you – especially the large, mausoleum-looking ones off the Strip: patches of undeveloped land allow ’em to keep watching even after you’ve turned the corner.Armpits aren't just those things above your elbows.

You can drive or cab it to Henderson or Summerlin for healthier, less insultingly priced options, but time was an issue for us. Conference registration was at hand, and we weren’t exactly sure when the ForeWord Reviews IndieFab Awards would be announced.

Wandering through damn near identical casinos, looking for a place to eat while hungry (on a total of 2.5 hours of sleep) is pretty much a worst case scenario. The exercise, we enjoy; woozy hypoglycemia and armpits, we don’t.

Every place with a menu had a 30-minute wait just to be seated. The peeved faces of those outside Hash House a Go Go triggered “food mood,” at which point 7-Eleven burritos become an arguable option.

Gastrointestinal bleed-outWe’d normally howl with laughter at the tequila castle we settled for, but it had precious few customers, and sitting amongst empty tables in the air conditioning was appealing. So while the playpen crowd did Jäger shots at the bar and smeared things on themselves, we collected our thoughts about the day ahead. Oddly enough, it was here that I first really contemplated the journey of Where Excuses Go to Die from jail scribbling to spoken word readings, and from self-indulgent manuscript to literary award finalist. Each step of the way required only one thing – the one I’m not known for. Perseverance.

And P.S. we shoulda gone with the 7-Eleven burritos.

Room swap…

Into the Armpits of Strangers_Where Excuses Go to DieConcierge Desk at Harrahs Las Vegas_Dirty Bare feet WelcomeAfter breakfast, at the 490-foot long “concierge” counter, I saw countless people slugging cans of beer and hefting 12-packs while standing in line to check in. Yeah, don’t wait for the Vegas experience to load up or anything, just skip the power of anticipation and jump to the sensory overload. I don’t see this behavior as much different from staying home, putting on some music, and shocking yourself with an electrical cord. Don’t get me wrong, I understand radicalized partying and appreciate that my own party suicide vest hasn’t yet killed me. But Vegas was never much of a factor in marking my transition from teenager to man-child.

My eye caught an electronic ad for a bar selling cans of beer in paper bags, ostensibly for sidewalk enjoyment. I looked around and thought, to visit a place of incalculable resource consumption, where the gods of waste hide their faces in embarrassment and where a poverty themed hotel may one day stand, only to walk around with a $14 can of beer in a bag…is like puking into a mirror.

To the Vegas Convention Center! (But first, the craps tables…)

Discovering that we needn’t register at the conference for several hours was a lucky bonus. The IndieFab announcements wouldn’t take place until the opening conference reception, scheduled for late afternoon. So we bee-lined it for the craps tables with a $5 minimum.

Two hours later, I could see that Crystal had been right to pick this place. Harrah’s was again good to us; I only hoped we hadn’t depleted our luck. We headed up to our new room, a “mini-suite” in the recently renovated Mardi Gras Tower, then out to the conference.

Conference registration and the pride of community…

John Nelson_Author_Where Excuses Go to DieFIND ONE EXPOSED ARMPIT IN THIS PICTUREThe walk across the Vegas Convention Center parking lot was painful. Not a stick of shade and 108°, it’s an environment impossible for us puny humans to appreciate. Yet despite the heat, we saw fewer exposed armpits: librarians tend to dress with a creative approach to casual Friday. You’ve got your funny hats, your flair, and even your personalized formal wear, but the glue holding this ambiance together is neither loyalty to the alphabet nor to a specific dress code. It’s womanhood.

Mind you, library conferences aren’t all women, but their numbers are greater and you can hear it in the laughter. I don’t do gun shows or Comic-con, but from a guy’s perspective, it was a relief to be at a convention where the female form wasn’t being used as a doormat. Naturally, library conferences are places where books are the star of the show. In fact, everything library-related was represented: publishers, scholastic service providers, communications and archival companies, library science, logistics, and so forth.

So to be acknowledged here, to be judged by a select group of librarians and booksellers from across the country, felt pretty cool. And hey, I was a librarian once – a prison librarian. I could make your late fees disappear for a pack of cigarettes or some other commodity. This conference felt personally satisfying, which even helped me get past my fear about the one title we figured was our toughest competition, a memoir that was already the recipient of a PEN American award.

Watching the presenters get things dialed in…

Watching things get dialed things inForeWord Reviews complimented and honored Where Excuses Go to Die, so it was nice to thank its editors and publisher personally at the conference. Besides, it felt like I’d already won. ForeWord is a quarterly magazine covering the publishing industry, acquisitions, independent and university presses, authors, and trade shows from BookExpo America to international shows in China and Europe, so it meant a lot to have their endorsement, even as a finalist.

ForeWord logoAs noted previously, ForeWord’s IndieFab Book of the Year Awards are unique in that winners are chosen by working librarians and booksellers. The other finalists’ submissions were yet another reminder of how far we’d come and how hard we worked. Where Excuses Go to Die wouldn’t have been among any of ’em had I quit when I’d been tempted to.

We hadn’t known a lot about ForeWord before they gave Excuses a glowing review, but bringing to their attention the example they’re helping me set –someone who started this journey in a prison cell– seemed like the most important thing to do all weekend.

Acceptance speech not necessary…

Apparently this was to be a press conference-style announcement of medalists and editors choice awards, which was good news for the audience. Had they been forced to endure thank-yous from the IndieFab winners in every category, we would have been there for 4½ hours. (All I’m asking is that you read this long-ass blog post.)

As the names were read, I realized the results wouldn’t be as black ‘n white as I’d anticipated, with a single winner in each category. An honorable mention, bronze, silver, and gold prize allowed a 1-in-4 chance of being recognized, which was a relief. On the assumption that there’d be only one winner, though, I’d beaten myself up in advance over seeing myself as a mere also-ran. We writers, we do that to ourselves.

PrintStraight CoverBack and forth my mind went like this for 30 minutes, the only point in this journey I’d call manic. It was exciting and torturous.

Shelby Smoak’s “Bleeder” is a terrifically titled coming-of-age story that was the intimidating entry on the horizon. Smoak, a hemophiliac to begin with, contracted HIV through a bad blood transfusion. Talk about a world of hurt.

Yet our stories have isolation, loneliness, mistakes, and presumptuousness in common. I couldn’t help but wonder which of us had written about these in a more compelling way. Smoak’s prose is taut and accomplished. Like Excuses, it’s a dark story told humorously, which had me and many other readers hooked right away.

We were pretty sure our book would make the top four, but when Autobiography/Memoir was announced and it received neither an honorable mention nor a bronze medal, my mind had one more split-second to poke me with its all-or-nothing pinpricks…

Bleeder gets the gold; Where Excuses Go to Die, the silver…

And how does that feel?

indiefab-silver-imprintDamn good. The knowledge that it took 170+ literary professionals to make the decision illustrates the worthiness of my writing. It will help bring balance to those who unknowingly put conditions on an author’s success with questions like, “Yeah, but how many books have you sold?” or “Now you need to make it into a movie!” as if such things were printed on numbered sushi menus. Getting professional recognition will at least help me explain how difficult it is (but why it’s worth it) to keep oneself at the fucking keyboard day in and day out.

So many of today’s writers –myself included– have to wear multiple hats and become their own best advocates. Yet we do this because we know readers care about quality, not the prestigious brand of a publishing imprint or logo. Nobody walks into a bookstore asking for the latest from Random House. My book was published by Highrise Press, and it’s companies like ForeWord Reviews who recognize small presses and indie publishers and help spread the word about plain ol’ good writing.

The top IndieFab prize winner has a damn good story, written well, and I’m pleased to be in his company and that of of all the other finalists. Memoirs and autobiographies must be as tough to judge as books on algebra. I’m definitely grateful.

Crystal and I left the conference and went straight back to our mini-suite with its fluffier towels and cleaner glasses. Instead of an A/C unit that sounded like a helicopter hovering overhead, as we’d enjoyed in our first room, this one silently blew ice cold air. Standing in front of it, fresh out of the shower, was terrific.

I gave in to the steakhouse idea. We went to Ruth’s Chris and were seated in a circular glass room containing only three other tables. It was quiet and they had a dress code against exposed armpits, so I got to enjoy good conversation and a little eavesdropping, a huge ribeye, and the look of pride on my wife’s face.

So what is it like to win even a small Literary Award?

For me – something like this:

What its Like to Win a Literary Award_Where Excuses Go to Die

No references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were made in the creation of this blog post.