Two writers with local ties nominated for National Book Awards

  • Gazette file photo

  • Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2021 7:05:09 PM

Two writers with local connections are finalists for the National Book Award — one of them for the third time.

Novelist and short-story writer Lauren Groff, a 2001 graduate of Amherst College, has been nominated for her novel “Matrix,” a story set in 12th-century Europe that’s based in part on a real though mysterious medieval author, Marie de France, a young woman who’s expelled from the French royal court and banished to England.

There Marie is expected to become the new prioress of a crumbling abbey made up of sick and starving nuns. But Marie ends up turning it into a self-sufficient commune for women, challenging the Catholic Church and patriarchal order in what NPR calls “an inspiring novel that truly demonstrates the power women wield, regardless of the era. It has sisterhood, love, war, sex.”

“Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions.” 

Groff, who today lives in Florida, has written six books of fiction and been nominated for numerous awards, including two previous National Book Awards. She has also won The Story Prize, the ABA Indies’ Choice Award, and France’s Grand Prix de l’Héroïne.

She was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Prize for her 2015 novel “Fates and Furies” (former U.S. President Barack Obama called it his favorite book of that year) and a finalist for a National Book Award for her 2018 short story collection “Florida.”

Nominated for a National Book Award in poetry is UMass Amherst English Professor Martín Espada, whose most recent collection is “Floaters,” which the Boston Globe calls “[a] work of grace-laden defiance” that lands “jabs of bright, hard wisdom.”

“Floaters” takes its name, as the Gazette wrote in an article earlier this year, from a term that some U.S. Border Patrol agents use to describe migrants who drown trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to the U.S.

In his poems, Espada takes a hard look at the anti-immigrant vitriol that’s become common in the last several years while also drawing on his own family history and personal observation for ideas.

Publishers Weekly calls “Floaters” unique for “the way it captures the world-weary voice of a poet and political activist who doesn’t simply call for change, but offers a sense of the long, difficult struggle toward justice.”

Espada has won numerous awards for his work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a $100,000 purse for lifetime achievement, and he was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 collection “The Republic of Poetry.”

The winners of the National Book Award will be announced Nov. 17 in an online ceremony. More details are available at

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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