Behind the Literary Award

If the winner of the Ross Macdonald Literary Award doesn't want to go to Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival, the committee will decide another recipient, said Program Director Kate Schwab.

In order to confirm that this year’s winner, James Ellroy, would receive the prize in person at the opening ceremony in the Victoria Hall Theater on Sept. 26, Schwab contacted a PR guy, who got in touch with Ellroy’s publisher, before the final decision was made.

"Ellroy has no e-mail address," she said. "He doesn’t even have a cell phone."

Each year, the Ross Macdonald Literary Award goes "to a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence," according to Schwab. Ray Bradbury (2003), Dean Koontz (2004), Sue Grafton (2004), and Mark Salzman (2005) are among earlier recipients. The prize itself consists of a glass sculpture with the above-mentioned formulation inscribed on it together with the names of both the award and the winner.

The recipient is expected to make a public speech. According to Schwab, authors are honored to speak in front of a lot of people.

"They think it’s kind of cool, because writing is a very solitary profession," she said. The award also includes some other benefits. "We pay a hotel. I took Ellroy out on dinner. We have a great party."

The event wasn’t sold out this time, as it was last year, when Tom Nolan, biographer of Macdonald, interviewed T. C. Boyle on stage.

"Last year was so much my idea, so I think that was a great evening," Schwab said.

The prize ceremony still got a lot of media attention, according to Schwab, who pointed out that the Santa Barbara News-Press had a huge article. She and her colleagues also did some radio, she said.

Schwab moved from Indiana 13 years ago to open the first Borders bookstore in Santa Barbara.

"I was assistant manager, and then I became the big manager, and I was a general manager for about eight years," she said. "Then I stopped doing that to become a marketer." Altogether, she worked for Borders for 20 years.

"In June, my marketing position was eliminated," she said. "It gives me a lot of opportunity to work with the book festival."

However, Schwab has no influence over the decision of the winner.

"On the Board of the Committee, there’s a subcommittee," she said.

The subcommittee consists of only three or four people: a worker from a Borders store in Goleta, the head of the library, and Fred Klein.

"He’s sort of the guy who started the festival 10 years ago," Schwab said, referring to Klein.

Before he retired, Klein spent 30 years as a Vice President of Bantam Books, which has published several books by Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz. According to Klein a nominating committee consisting of 4 to 5 board members recommends a number of writers, who are voted on to receive the award.

The authors have been contacted either directly or through their publishers.

"In the case of Sue and T.C. (Boyle), it was because they each had been interested in the Festival from its beginnings," Klein said.

He claims he originally wanted the trophy to look like an archer to remind of Lew Archer, the hero of Macdonald’s crime novels. Funding is from the Ross Macdonald Foundation, according to Klein.

In 2002, Schwab met the first recipient of the award, Ray Bradbury, who had written the classic science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). In many high schools across the nation, children read books by Bradbury in the classroom. Today he’s almost 90 years old but still working, Schwab said.

She also remembers Dean Koontz. In 2003, he came and had dinner with six local fans, which helped to pay the festival, Schwab said.  Robert Crais, who lives in Los Angeles, was the first to whom she handed the award in 2006.

"He was growing up with Ross Macdonald, and I think he was really honored to get the award," Schwab said about his early reading habits. "He had a good crowd." 

In an e-mail, Crais confirms that he was tremendously honored to receive the award.

"Not only is the man (Macdonald) one of my favorite and most influential writers, but his contributions to the field of crime fiction and literature in the larger sense are widely acknowledged."

Schwab thinks Sue Grafton was honored as well, because on the book jacket of her mystery novel, "S" is for Silence (2005), she put that she was the winner of this award in 2004. As an author, Grafton calls Santa Barbara for Santa Teresa in homage to Ross Macdonald, who used that fictional name for the city, which six years ago invented a literary prize to ensure that his memory lives.

This years winner, Ellroy, believes the award will help promote him abroad.

"Now you read my novels in English," he said after the prize ceremony. "And when you go back you tell everyone, so my books will be published in Sweden... Stockholm, right?"

© Torgny Lilja (2008)