NEW YORK >> For the first time since researching her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt is back in Las Vegas.
The occasion isn’t work, but another literary honor as Tartt received this year’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction Saturday.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was the nonfiction winner for her book on the progressive era of the early 20th century, “The Bully Pulpit.”
The medals each come with a $5,000 cash prize and were presented Saturday at the American Library Association’s annual gathering in Las Vegas, where parts of “The Goldfinch” are set. Founded in 2012, the awards are managed by the library association and funded through a grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York.
Tartt set some of “The Goldfinch” in Las Vegas, where a 13-year-old boy from New York City contends with his neglectful father. For Tartt, the award also helps uphold a family tradition: She is the niece and grandniece of librarians and as a teenager in Mississippi worked as a library aide. She wrote much of “The Goldfinch,” which took a decade to complete, at the main branch of the New York Public Library.
“It took so long to write ‘The Goldfinch’ that I went through three different research librarians,” Tartt said with a laugh during a recent telephone interview from her home in Virginia. She then recalled the importance of libraries during her childhood — whether it was the librarians who recommended books to her, or the books she recommended to patrons.
“You can really change someone’s life by giving them the right book at the right time,” she said. “All writers are readers before we write a word, so there’s a kinship and it’s very deep.”
The Carnegie medal is also personal for Goodwin, who has vivid memories of borrowing books from her childhood library in Rockville Centre, New York, and reading them with her mother, who had rheumatic fever and was too weak to get books on her own. As with Tartt, libraries have been second homes for Goodwin throughout her career, from the research at the Library of Congress for “The Bully Pulpit” to her time at the Franklin Roosevelt presidential library in Hyde Park, New York, where she worked on her Pulitzer Prize-winning “No Ordinary Time.”
“I loved how you had to leave your pocketbook outside and could only bring in a pencil,” Goodwin said by telephone from her house in Concord, Massachusetts. “And then to have the chance to look through actual documents from World War II really made you feel you were back in that time.”
Finalists for the Carnegie medal were Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americah” and Edwidge Danticat’s “Claire of the Sea Light” for fiction and Nicholas A. Basbanes’ “On Paper” and Sherri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” for nonfiction. Each author receives $1,500.