T.J. Stiles has won the 2009 National Book Award in the non-fiction category for “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” his expansive biography of the early American railroad mogul.
Stiles grew up in Foley, Minn., and received a degree in history from Carleton College before heading to New York for a career in publishing and journalism. Winning the award was “an out-of-body experience,” he says. “I know I’m very fortunate to have been plucked out of so many excellent authors, not least the other finalists, but it’s nice to have this vindication for my collaborators, friends and audience. And, as my friend Colum McCann said in his acceptance speech, an award like this is a challenge, a call to meet the highest standards and try to do something important in the future.”
Although Stiles now lives with his family in California, Minnesota’s landscape and history is firmly lodged in his identity, and occasionally comes out in his writing; most notably in his first book, “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War,” which visits Northfield, Minn., in its most infamous moments, when the James Gang cruised through town to rob a bank but exited minus a few key members.
“I’m drawn to writing historical biography for the same reason I think many readers enjoy it: It allows me to tell good stories and ask big questions. I want to understand how the modern world came into existence, but I also want to write a compelling narrative with rich, complex characters. A biography is a work of history that insists on the individual human being, which is, of course, the way we all experience the world,” says Stiles, who is accepting the prize today at a ceremony in New York City.
C-Span’s “BookTV” will broadcast the ceremony and Stiles acceptance speech at 9 p.m. Saturday.