James McBride won the National Book Award on Wednesday night for The Good Lord Bird, an irreverent, sharp-eyed novel narrated by an escaped slave. It was published by Riverhead Books, part of Penguin Random House. Taking the stage with a stunned expression, Mr. McBride, who was considered an underdog in speculation before the awards, said he had not bothered to write a speech.
Mr. McBride wrote the book amid personal tragedies, he said, naming the deaths of his mother and his niece, and the unraveling of his marriage. “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around,” he said.
The awards, in their 64th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street. More than 700 guests attended, an increase over recent years, the organizers said. To be eligible for a 2013 National Book Award, authors had to be American citizens and to have written books that were published in the United States between Dec. 1, 2012, and Nov. 30, 2013.
In keeping with tradition, the judges met on the day of the ceremony, at a decadent lunch at the restaurant of their choosing, to select the winners. The winners received $10,000 and a bronze statue. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, the host of the ceremony, kept publishing jokes to a minimum, a departure from the usual maudlin digs about e-books and the supposed end of print. “Books still make the world interesting and exciting and wonderful,” Ms. Brzezinski said, opening her remarks. “Where would our world be without them?”