Off the Page, with Joshua Knelman

Off the Page is an exclusive new series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear regularly on the NMA blog during the winter and spring of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning writer Joshua Knelman.

NMAF: Your new book – Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art – is getting great reviews. You mentioned in an interview with The Walrus how this book came to life after you won a National Magazine Award for a story on art theft (“Artful Crimes,” The Walrus, November 2005; Arts & Entertainment category). Can you tell us a little more about how you were able to turn your NMA success into a book? 

Joshua: The National Magazine Award was crucial into shifting The Walrus feature into a book project. Awards have a lot to do with luck. That being said, they also attract attention and provide some leverage.

After the magazine award, I received a few phone calls from literary agents, inquiring about the possibility of a book. I thought there was enough material for one, although I didn’t know exactly how the book would work, or where the research would lead me. I just knew I’d need my passport.

The NMA was also a source of confidence, to pursue the larger, broader story. It’s funny how an award can have that effect. The right agent  (Samantha Haywood) found me, and I am sure the NMA helped her in the all-important pitch to book editors and marketing departments; to be able to say the idea had already garnered a Gold Award from the community of magazine journalists.

It also gave my reputation as a writer some edge, and in the publishing business, any edge helps — especially for a first book. The Walrus feature, combined with the NMA and a dedicated agent who believed in the story, were a perfect storm of support to get a first non-fiction investigation off the ground and into the publishing bloodstream.

NMAF: Describe the feeling of a young writer winning his first National Magazine Award, especially after the long process of researching and writing the piece that became “Artful Crimes.”

Joshua: I remember the feeling, because it was the only year since I’d been working in magazines that I was not present at the actual ceremony. In fact, I was halfway across the world, in Russia, teaching at the Summer Literary Seminars, which had a partnership with The Walrus.

I completely forgot about the NMAs that night, because, let’s face it, I was wandering around a stunning, sprawling Russian city with a bunch of writers and editors.

There was this dingy internet café, called “Players,” where we’d go and check our email at odd hours. St. Petersburg, in June, does not experience full darkness. Often, I could be checking email at Players at 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning, and it seemed normal.

I went to check my email at a very late hour. I remember scanning the screen: it was full of new emails, probably 50 or 60, and they all had the same subject line: GOLD.

It was a beautiful moment. Shaughnessy-Bishop Stall had agreed to say a few words on my behalf [at the NMA gala] in case I won. I still don’t know what he said, but I’m thankful he did. I remember walking out of Players into St. Petersburg and feeling proud.

What I did not think: I will now write a book about international art theft. That happened later.

NMAF: What are you working on next?

Joshua: Hot Art took four and half years of research and writing, and if you include the arc of time from when I first stepped into a local art gallery to write a short article about a burglary, we’re looking at 2003-2011. I’d like to trim that time span down, just slightly, on the next book. I am, though, hoping there will be a next book. There are a few non-fiction stories that interest me. I’m exploring. As I learned with this book: you never know. Follow the thread, and see where it leads you.

Joshua Knelman is an award-winning writer and a founding member of the editorial staff of The Walrus. He has also been a volunteer judge for the National Magazine Awards. His new book, Hot Art, published by Douglas & McIntyre, is in bookstores now. See what other NMAs Joshua has been nominated for at our Awards Archive.

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