NBCC Award Winner Diana Athill’s Thank You: Not Just a Piece of Luck

By Jane Ciabattari

Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End won the National Book Critics Circle award in autobiography last week. At the awards ceremony on March 11, her W.W. Norton editor, Tom Mayer, accepted the award, reading an email she wrote to him after being named an NBCC finalist in the category, and another email in which she described being nominated for the Costa prize.

Sadly, I am not Diana Athill, but she sends her deepest regrets that she cannot be here tonight. As her editor it has been my distinct pleasure to email with her as we prepared for the publication of this book. Diana is a remarkable writer, as you all know, but she is also a wonderful correspondent. After I emailed to tell her about the nomination she wrote, “What FANTASTIC news.  This little book never stops astonishing me!!!! I'm sure the competition must be formidable, so we mustn't allow ourselves wild imaginings, but being a finalist ….WOW!”

This, coming from a woman who for fifty years sat with her authors at awards shows, hoping to win but expecting the worst at what she called “sadistic ceremony[ies], in which all the competitors in their party dresses have to sit round after a huge dinner waiting to learn who won, trying hard to rehearse their Brave Smiles in case of disappointment.”

That was how she described the Costa Prize, which ultimately went to Sebastian Barry, but she wrote again, just after receiving the nomination

Dear Tom 

…   At this end I have to report that the world seems to have run mad!!!! Altho' until 2 days ago I was too ill with the horrible bug to enjoy it, it was still amazing to know that hardly a newspaper appeared without an article about me, with picture, in it; that a newspaper was prepared to pay… for an extract; ……. Today alone I had a long long interview with an apparently enamoured young man from The Times and a briefing about a television interview on a program which (I’m told) commands 4 million viewers…… I still don't believe the book will win the Costa prize — but I AM beginning to think, after all this, that anything could happen, so fingers crossed. It really is MOST extraordinary, having lived all these years as a cheerful but inconspicuous blue-stocking, grey-haired, back-seat publishing lady, to have become at 91 a sort of show-stopper. On the day I fell ill but had not yet realized it I went to a party and it was jaw-dropping — they all went on as though some great beauty had just arrived!!!!!!!

I’m sure when she wakes up tomorrow to this news she will be as profoundly honored and grateful as I am to accept this award for her. On Diana’s behalf, Thank you.

This week, Athill sent along a thank you email about her NBCC award:

All awards are gratifying, but there is something extra-special about one which comes from a group of judges so highly qualified as the Book Critics Circle.  On other occasions the feeling has been “What a marvellous piece of luck!”.  On this one, now that you have placed me side by side with the two British writers I most love and admire, I dared to feel “It seems that I really have written a good book!”  That, as I am sure you will understand, is the best feeling that a writer can possibly have:  so THANK YOU.  

Excerpts of Somewhere Towards the End appeared in Granta, and Granta Books published the memoir in the UK. Norton, her American publisher, will reissue her earlier memoirs, Yesterday Morning and Stet: An Editor's Life,  this summer. (In Stet, she describes her experiences over a half century as the editorial director of André Deutsch, where she worked with such authors as Jean Rhys, Gitta Sereny and V. S. Naipaul.

Here's John Barber's Globe and Mail interview with Athill, discussing her earlier memoirs, her life and work, and Somewhere Towards the End.

And former Granta editor Ian Jack's appreciation for The Guardian.