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Thursday, October 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Local authors finalists for National Book Awards

Seattle Times book editor

Two Washington state authors are finalists for the 2006 National Book Awards — one for his nonfiction account of America's Dust Bowl catastrophe, the other for his fictional take on a city's struggle to come to grips with a 9/11-style act of terrorism.

Timothy Egan, a Seattle-based national correspondent for The New York Times, was nominated in the nonfiction category for his book, "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" (Houghton Mifflin). Jess Walter, a Spokane resident, is a finalist in the fiction category for "The Zero" (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins).

Walter's nomination is one surprise in a finalist list that largely bypassed big-name authors. Novels by Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Thomas Pynchon and Charles Frazier were passed over.

Egan, one of five finalists for nonfiction, is in distinguished company; Taylor Branch's third volume of his biography of Martin Luther King is among the nominees.

Egan said today that he was "on the ceiling." When a representative of the National Book Foundation called him yesterday evening to give him the news, Egan thought it was a joke: "I parried with him for about 10 minutes, thinking that it was one of my friends."

"It's a great thing, if you're from Washington state," he said, as well as validation for West Coast writers in general.

In a January Seattle Times interview, Egan, author of several books ("The Good Rain," "Breaking Blue") said that he was first approached by a New York editor with the idea of doing a Dust Bowl book. He was quickly drawn in by the stories of the Dust Bowl survivors, an aging, dwindling group which Egan tracked down by visiting the small towns, libraries and museums of the Dust Bowl region. Their stark stories of survival compelled him, he said: "It seems so far removed from our time ... these people were our grandparents. It makes us seem like whiners by comparison."

Walter, a writer of critically acclaimed crime fiction, departed from form for "The Zero," the story of a police officer grappling with the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a city clearly modeled after New York.

In a Sept. 29 Seattle Times interview, Walter said he got the idea for his book while in New York ghost-writing a book by the city's police commissioner, Bernard Kerik. "I was there five days after the terrorist attacks. I saw what everyone saw — amazing tragedy and heroism, but also absurd stuff."

In the poetry category, Port Townsend's Copper Canyon Press is the publisher of one of the finalists, "Angle of Yaw" by Ben Lerner.

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Winners in the four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature — will be announced Nov. 15 at a ceremony in New York, with author-humorist Fran Lebowitz serving as host. Poet Adrienne Rich and two founders of The New York Review of Books are to receive honorary awards.

Here are the nominees:

Fiction: Mark Z. Danielewski, "Only Revolutions" (Pantheon); Ken Kalfus, "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" (Ecco/HarperCollins); Richard Powers, "The Echo Maker" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Dana Spiotta, "Eat the Document" (Scribner/Simon & Schuster); Jess Walter, "The Zero."

Nonfiction: Taylor Branch, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68" (Simon & Schuster); Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" (Knopf); Peter Hessler, "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" (HarperCollins); Timothy Egan, "The Worst Hard Time."

Poetry: Louise Glück, "Averno" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); H.L. Hix, "Chromatic" (Etruscan Press); Ben Lerner, "Angle of Yaw" (Copper Canyon Press); Nathaniel Mackey, "SplayAnthem" (New Directions); James McMichael, "Capacity" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Young People's Literature: M.T. Anderson, "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing" (Candlewick Press); Martine Leavitt, "Keturah and Lord Death" (Front Street Books/Boyds Mill Press); Patricia McCormick "Sold" (Hyperion Books for Children); Nancy Werlin, "The Rules of Survival" (Dial/Penguin); Gene Luen Yang, "American Born Chinese" (First Second/Roaring Book Press/Holtzbrinck).

For more information, visit www.nationalbook.org.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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