Tressie McMillan Cottom was in the studio Monday afternoon recording a podcast she co-hosts when a New York phone number popped up on her cellphone.

She didn’t recognize the number, but she has family in New York so she answered — worried it might be a family emergency.

Instead, the National Book Foundation’s executive director, Lisa Lucas, was on the other end of the line with news that Cottom, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is one of five finalists for the National Book Award’s nonfiction category, the country’s highest award for books.

“You write mostly in a vacuum and you can’t ever know how people will receive it and certainly not how the marketplace will receive it so it is overwhelming and extremely edifying,” she said in an interview Tuesday after the foundation had publicly announced the finalists.

Her book, “Thick: And Other Essays,” was published in January. It’s a compilation of Cottom’s essays on beauty, media and money, among other things.

“It does not fit neatly into any specific genre,” she said of the book, adding that she’s been surprised both by the number of people who have read it and their responses to it. “[The book] hopefully prompts people to rethink or re-imagine what they think they know about a lot of our most tried and true public conversations.”

The other finalists in the nonfiction category are:

  • “The Yellow House: A Memoir” by Sarah M. Broom;
  • “What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance” by Carolyn Forché;
  • “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present” by David Treuer;
  • “Solitary” by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George.

The winner of the National Book Award is expected to be announced Nov. 20.

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Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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