WASHINGTON -- Don DeLillo, the celebrated novelist who once complained that as a young writer he "lacked ambition," has been named the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The new lifetime achievement award, announced Thursday by Librarian of Congress James Billington, will be presented at the 13th annual National Book Festival in September.
For his many fans, this presents a rare opportunity. DeLillo, who usually avoids such public events and hasn't done a book tour in years, has agreed to speak at the festival, which last year drew more than 200,000 people to the National Mall in Washington.
"I'm a writer in perennial hiding," he admits by phone from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. You won't find him on Twitter, like so many Web-savvy authors, plugging his latest book. "I'm not a recluse, but there are things I do differently, things I avoid and invitations I turn down constantly."
According to a statement from the Library of Congress, the new Prize for American Fiction "seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that -- throughout long, consistently accomplished careers -- have told us something about the American experience." The prize continues in the tradition of the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction, given to Herman Wouk in 2008, and it replaces the Library's Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, which began four years ago in connection with the National Book Festival. Previous Creative Achievement Award winners have included John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Philip Roth and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
In his official announcement, Billington said, "Like Dostoyevsky, Don DeLillo probes deeply into the sociopolitical and moral life of his country. Over a long and important career, he has inspired his readers with the diversity of his themes and the virtuosity of his prose."
That career includes the postmodern classics "White Noise" (1985), "Libra" (1988) and "Underworld" (1997), along with more than a dozen other novels that wind around themes of consumerism, sports, political and corporate corruption, and cataclysmic moments in modern history. Regularly cited as one of the most influential writers in the United States, DeLillo has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award and been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice.
DeLillo said that when the library contacted him with news of this latest honor, his first thoughts were of his mother and father, who immigrated from Italy. "They spoke little or no English," he said. "It was a new language and new culture and many challenges in every direction, and so I like to think of this prize as a tribute to their memory."
They lived to see him become a writer after a brief stint in advertising. "They ultimately trusted me to follow the course I'd chosen. This is something that happens if you're the eldest son in an Italian family: You get a certain leeway, and it worked in my case."
But the extraordinary trajectory of his career still surprises him. "I was working on my first novel, 'Americana,' for two years before I ever realized that I could be a writer," he says. "I had absolutely no assurance that this book would be published because I knew that there were elements that I simply didn't know how to improve at that point. So I wrote for another two years and finished the novel. It wasn't all that difficult to find a publisher, to my astonishment. I didn't have a representative. I didn't know anything about publishing. But an editor at Houghton Mifflin read the manuscript and decided that this was worth pursuing."
Since "Americana" appeared in 1971, DeLillo has written plays, short stories and novels that have never failed to garner critical -- and often popular -- interest. His most famous books have explored the prevalence of conspiracies, violence and political terror in a world of mass media saturation. Time spent living in Greece in the late 1970s exposed him to the horrors of terrorism long before planes flew into the twin towers and awakened Americans to the destruction that very small groups could wield. "Novelists tend to see things in the culture that perhaps escape the very careful attention of other people," he says.
But the New York Review of Books famously dubbed him the "chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction."
"I have to try to disown that line," he laughs. "I have written about paranoid characters, but I don't at all consider myself one of those people. I do think that my work, to some extent, was shaped by the assassination of President Kennedy and the years of randomness and ambiguity that followed -- and paranoia as well, absolutely. But I don't think I fell into the group itself."
One thing he's clearly not paranoid about is the state of literature. Despite a steady stream of laments about the future of the novel, DeLillo says, "I do not share that anxiety at all." But his encouragement is of the tough-love variety: "Even if the audience diminishes and if the significance of the novel diminishes, that makes it all the more important, and it becomes even more obvious that committed writers have to keep working -- even if they don't get the recognition they might have received 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. And even if they don't make the kind of money that they used to make in earlier days. The idea is to keep the novel alive, and perhaps it will become even more precious than it used to be in healthier days."
He's doing his part. While Philip Roth recently announced that he had stopped writing, DeLillo says, "I'm working hard on a very challenging novel." He's still pounding away on his Olympia manual typewriter, transcribing his startling vision of modern America.