Meet the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35

When Brit Bennett got the phone call that could change her career, she was sitting in a Coffee Bean in Encino, the neighborhood where the 26-year-old novelist now makes her home.

“I got a phone call from an unknown New York number,” Bennett recalled. Minutes later, she learned that she’d been selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees for her not-yet-published debut novel, “The Mothers” (it will hit shelves Oct. 11).

It was an unforgettable moment for Bennett, who started writing “The Mothers” when she was a high school student. And it was made sweeter by the fact that her book was selected for the honor by Jacqueline Woodson, an author who Bennett had long admired and once met briefly.

“[Woodson] said someone had interrupted her while she was reading [my book], and she was annoyed she’d been interrupted, which is a pretty great thing to hear,” Bennett said, laughing. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined she would have nominated me for this type of award.”

“I was truly struck by Brit’s ability to tell such a compelling and thoughtful story about community, the complexities of friendship, marriage, choices,” Woodson told The Times by email. “‘The Mothers’ gives the world a glimpse into lives that are both everyday ordinary and, through Brit’s mastery, startlingly extraordinary.”

The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, launched its 5 Under 35 program in 2006 to highlight the work of young literary talents; this year each writer gets a $1,000 cash prize and will be invited to participate in public readings.  

“We ask acclaimed authors in the Foundation’s family to pay it forward by identifying young, debut fiction writers whose work shows the marks and promises of greatness,” Benjamin Samuel, the director of the program, explained in an email. That family includes previous finalists and winners, such as Woodson, who received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014. “We’re able to champion both the rising stars as well as writers you might have otherwise missed.”

Many past 5 Under 35 honorees have gone on to further acclaim. Nam Le’s short story collection “The Boat” won the international Dylan Thomas Prize; Tea Obreht’s novel “The Tiger’s Wife” took the Orange Prize for fiction; and two honorees, Dinaw Mengestu and Karen Russell, were each later awarded MacArthur Fellowships.

But the point of the 5 Under 35 honor is to discover such talents in an extremely crowded field. A new crop of aspiring authors graduates each year from more than 500 creative writing programs across the country, a huge pack of writers all striving to find publishers and readers.

For Samuel, notifying the honorees — “this Ed McMahon moment where I call the writers to tell them that they’ve won” — is one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.

One of those writers this year is S. Li, who took up creative writing as a hobby when he was in medical school. The 31-year-old neurologist’s debut novel, “Transoceanic Lights,” was published by Harvard Square Editions, a small independent press.

“I had sent the book to the National Book Foundation for consideration for the National Book Awards, fully knowing that my chances were zero,” Li said from his home in Burlington, Mass. When he received the email informing him he’d been chosen as an honoree, “I thought it was a scam. And then I realized it wasn’t. I had no idea this was even in the cards.”

Li’s novel, about a Chinese immigrant family, is based on his own childhood. He was 5 years old when his family moved from Guangzhou, China, to Boston.

“I was sort of teaching myself the craft of writing,” Li said of his years writing fiction while also learning medicine. “And so it just made natural sense to go with material that comes easiest to you, and that’s your childhood.”

Li is one of two immigrants honored in this year’s program. Yaa Gyasi, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Homegoing,” was born in Ghana and moved with her family to the United States when she was 2.

Gyasi, 27, now lives in Oakland. She, like Bennett, was in a coffee shop when she found out she had been selected for the award — by author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“It was incredible to hear, and to know that Coates had chosen me,” Gyasi said. “I’ve been reading his work since college. I wasn't really expecting it at all. A lot of writers that I respect have been chosen in the past, and so it feels like a very big honor.”

Gyasi credits Lan Samantha Chang, her thesis advisor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, with giving her the confidence to finish her novel.

“She was the first person to read the whole book and has been really supportive,” Gyasi said.

For Greg Jackson, author of the short-story collection “Prodigals,” the phone call from the National Book Foundation came at an inopportune time, but that didn’t stop him from being “thrilled” by the news.

“I was encumbered with grocery bags,” Jackson, 33, said in an email to The Times. “I had to ask them to call me back because I didn't have enough hands for the phone, the bags, my excitement, and the door.”

Jackson, who lives in Brooklyn (“for lack of imagination”), was selected as an honoree by “Fates & Furies” author Lauren Groff, who called the writer “a stellar talent.”

“He has a sense of exuberance, but also humor, and he’s really dark and wonderful and kind of morbid in surprising ways,” Groff said. “I felt like I can see the writer he's going to be, and he’s going to be astonishing. He’s already a fully-fledged masterful talent, but I think he’s going to write other amazing books as well.”

Humor also marks many of the stories in “Hall of Small Mammals,” the short-story collection from 5 Under 35 honoree Thomas Pierce. Like Jackson, Pierce didn’t initially envision a book when he started writing the stories that now comprise it.

“The stories began to intersect in unexpected ways, and the characters all seemed to live in the same universe,” Pierce, 33, explained by email.

Like the rest of his cohort — which will meet for the first time at the awards ceremony in New York on Nov. 14 — Pierce was caught off guard when he first learned he’d made this year’s list.

“When the phone call came, I initially thought it was a telemarketer or a pollster since we don’t get too many legitimate calls on the landline,” said Pierce, who lives in rural Virginia with his family. “Once I sorted out what was happening, however, I was equal parts thrilled, honored, and flustered. I still am, I suppose.”

Schaub is a writer who lives in Texas.

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