Patti Smith was writing long before she became known as a rock performer, so the accolades she has been receiving for her written work have a complete-the-circle sort of feel.
She won the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction for "Just Kids," her vivid memoir chronicling her close relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1970s New York, and in November she'll be returning to the city of her birth as the recipient of the 2014 Chicago Tribune Literary Award.
"I was born in Chicago, so to receive recognition from Chicago has special meaning to me," the 67-year-old poet/songwriter/singer/artist said from London last week before embarking on a European concert tour. "It's like one's blood where we're born."
Smith will receive her award the morning of Nov. 1 at Symphony Center during the Chicago Humanities Festival. The Tribune's Heartland Awards for nonfiction and fiction, respectively, will be presented in separate programs that afternoon to Jesmyn Ward ("Men We Reaped") and Daniel Woodrell ("The Maid's Version") at the Harold Washington Library Center.
Smith became a New York punk-rock pioneer with her poetic 1975 debut album "Horses," and she achieved broader recognition with the 1978 hit single she co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, "Because the Night," as well as subsequent FM radio staples "Dancing Barefoot" and "People Have the Power." A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, she is scheduled to perform at Riot Fest Chicago in Humboldt Park the weekend of Sept. 12.
But her interests have extended far beyond music to include poetry, visual and performance art, acting and activism. Among her credits: She co-wrote and co-starred (for one night) in the play "Cowboy Mouth" with Sam Shepard, the 2010 Tribune Literary Award winner.
"In selecting Patti Smith for the Chicago Tribune Literary Award, we honor a Chicago original — a woman who moved across the genres of rock music, poetry, visual arts and literature, leaving her unmistakable mark on all," Tribune editor Gerould Kern said. "Across her career, she demonstrated the courage and creativity to transcend boundaries and challenge us to think and see the world anew."
Although her family moved to Philadelphia from their Logan Square rooming house while she was still a toddler, Smith said she still felt connected to the city where she was born during a late 1946 snowstorm. "I think my mother had tickets to see (figure skater) Sonja Henie," Smith said. "She wound up having me instead during a huge blizzard …. I was baptized on Logan Square."
Although "Just Kids" was her first published work of nonfiction, "I've written since I was a kid," she said. "I've written most of my life. That was always my primary vocation for myself. Whether I was publishing or not, I've always written."
Now she said she appreciates how much people are responding to the writing.
"In the past they've come up to me and talked to me about 'Horses' and the records I've done, and now they come up and talk to me about the book and that's very gratifying," Smith said. "As I get older I'm certain the lion's share of my efforts will go into writing."
Aside from a book of poetry, she said she is close to finishing a hard-to-capsulize nonfiction work that is "more in present tense, sort of a chronicling of the present. But I do plan after this book to write a kind of a sister book to 'Just Kids.'"
Previous Literary Prize winners include Edward Albee, Elie Wiesel, Stephen Sondheim, Shepard and Tony Kushner.
Ward is another National Book Award winner, having collected the 2011 fiction prize for her second novel, "Salvage the Bones." "Men We Reaped" is this rural Mississippi native's first nonfiction work, a memoir that explores the lives and deaths of five young men, including her brother's.
Woodrell may be best known for his 2006 novel "Winter's Bone," which filmmaker Debra Granik made into the best picture Oscar-nominated 2010 movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career (and netted her a best actress nomination). "The Maid's Version," like most of Woodrell's work, is set in the Missouri Ozarks as it digs into the mystery of a 1929 dance hall fire the killed 42 people, including the title character's sister.
"Ward and Woodrell guide us to corners of the nation that have been obscured from view, and they transform life into story," said Elizabeth Taylor, the Tribune's literary editor at large. "They report from the front lines of those making the best of a world that has not necessarily been good to them."
Woodrell said on the phone from his Missouri home that he appreciates the Heartland designation, particularly as he's always viewed the Ozarks as being more Midwest than South. He said he has found literary inspiration from the Midwest as well, particularly Chicago author Stuart Dybek's short story collection "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods."
"In an odd way a lot of those stories resonated with me more than the Flannery O'Connors and the others people assume I'm imbued with," he said. "It wasn't my world, but it was close enough."
Woodrell also said he's very happy to receive this honor, especially when he scanned the list of the previous Heartland winners. "About two-thirds of my recent writerly heroes and favorites seem to be on there," he said.
Ward was not available for comment.
Recent Heartland fiction winners include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, E.O. Wilson and Jayne Anne Phillips. Recent nonfiction winners include Thomas Dyja, Paul Hendrickson, Isabel Wilkerson, Rebecca Skloot and Nick Reding.
Ticket and pricing information for the award presentations will become available at tribnation.com/events.
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