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From Boy King Of Texas To Literary Superstar

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Domingo Martinez is the author of The Boy Kings of Texas. He has been nominated for a National Book Award in the nonfiction category.

Yesterday morning I'm lying in bed and the phone rings. It's way too early. I'm thinking — "Wow, bill collectors are calling earlier and earlier."

Except it wasn't a bill collector. It was Alice Martell, my agent. She was calling to tell me that I'd been nominated for the National Book Award.

I didn't really understand what she was telling me. Probably, if I did, I would be even more intimidated than I am now. I'm the only author in my category without a Pulitzer.

Actually, if I stop to think about it, I might seize up. So instead, I'm reorganizing my Netflix queue. And concentrating on keeping my iPhone from switching to "landscape" mode — anything, as long as I don't have to think about what I'm up against.

I've thought about this award before. I remember one November about two years ago, I was stuck on my commute listening to Patti Smith accept her award. I was miserable, the weather was gray, and I was managing a print shop in Seattle. I was mad at Patti because it wasn't enough for her to change rock and roll, and blaze the trail for women: She had to go and win a National Book Award. MY award.

I had written a book by this time, but it had taken me almost 15 years to finish. I'd had these fantasies of the publishing world: I'd get the agent, the phone call, sold! Then I'd get my check and I'd walk around in a pinstripe suit. A three-piece New Orleans jazz band would follow me around everywhere I went.

But that's not how it happened. As an unpublished writer, the closest I could come to the award was buying Patti Smith's book.

My book did get published, eventually, but I took a crooked path. I carved it on my own with no compass, no map and no idea of what I was doing.

I didn't know how to write memoir. But I found that when I told people about growing up in Brownsville, Texas — it sounded to them like stories from another world. Stories about families swapping children, and smuggling drugs with my parents, or my whole family sending out a chain letter, terrified of what would happen if we didn't. Those stories astonished people ... so I wrote them down.

I wrote the book without the help of academics, writing groups or peers. I taught myself the art of storytelling by telling myself my own story, over and over again. I layered it with the emotional complexity that I had for the place. I think it worked.

The term "dark horse" has been mentioned once or twice since yesterday, and I have to chuckle. I wasn't even in the race two years ago. I wasn't even a horse, for that matter.

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