This March, English professor Paul Hendrickson will walk the writing world’s equivalent of the red carpet for his third time.
The National Book Critics Circle named Hendrickson a 2011 NBCC Awards finalist in the biography category last week for his new biography, Hemingway’s Boat.
Hendrickson describes his book, a seven-year endeavor, as a “selective quasi-biography of a man’s life.” He explores Hemingway through the lens of the famous writer’s beloved fishing boat, Pilar.
“This book is riskier,” Hendrickson said. He inserts himself into the story at times, speaking directly to the reader. And rather than focusing exclusively on Hemingway, the book also looks into lesser-known characters, like Hemingway’s sons.
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Hendrickson said, reciting a line from Emily Dickinson. “It seems to be what I know how to do … writing this kind of off-kilter book.”
Hendrickson is not optimistic about his chances at the Mar. 8 awards ceremony, where his book will be pitted against more traditional biographies.
“The judges made me a finalist, but for them to pick me as the winner would be a leap of faith.”
Nonetheless, Hendrickson said he’s honored to be nominated as one of only five biographies out of tens of thousands published each year.
“The fact that he’s in the top five is sort of like being nominated for best actor of the Academy Awards,” said Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, where Hendrickson teaches. “You’ve done just about everything you can. Everything else is arbitrary.”
The NBCC named Hendrickson a finalist twice before. He won the award in 2004 for Sons of Mississippi, a story of the lives of seven police officers depicted in a 1962 photograph preparing for an upcoming civil rights protest.
Before coming to Penn, Hendrickson wrote for The Washington Post as a features writer for nearly 25 years.
“I would be a failed novelist,” he said, referring to his devotion to nonfiction. “I have to have the plot given to me.”
“But,” he added, “if you work hard enough on a piece of nonfiction, you can bring to it the art of fact and have the same emotional resonance as you could achieve in a novel.”
Hendrickson teaches several nonfiction writing and storytelling courses at Penn.
“He’s really charismatic in the classroom,” said Kristen Martin, a Kelly Writers House research assistant and 2011 College graduate. “He really cares a lot about his students.”
For Hendrickson, each book he writes is the product of sleepless nights and moments of both fear and accomplishment. “You go through those terrible periods of doubt while you’re writing it,” he said. “You’re thrilled to have completed it … then you go through the roller coaster stage of the reviews.”
Hendrickson won the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship earlier this month and will focus his next book on the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
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