Eliot Schrefer now knows how it feels to be a finalist for a National Book Award.
"It's pure giddiness here," he said, "like I've had 10 cups of coffee, when actually I've had zero."
Schrefer, who lives in Manhattan, is a 1997 graduate of Countryside High School. His sixth book and fifth novel, Endangered, was named one of five finalists for the 2012 National Book Award for young people's literature in an announcement Wednesday morning.
Schrefer, 33, will be in St. Petersburg to talk about Endangered at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 20 (festivalofreading.com).
His mother, Barbara Schrefer, still lives in Countryside. "I called her this morning," he said. "You know how when you hear something big, you fixate on details? She just wanted to know how to watch the video" of the announcement, made on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
Endangered is a labor of love, Schrefer says. The novel tells the story of teenage Sophie, whose parents are divorced. Her mother runs a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo for bonobos. They are great apes that are similar in appearance to chimpanzees but very different in behavior, living in largely peaceful matriarchal groups; some scientists believe they may be humans' closest relatives.
When Sophie arrives from the United States in Kinshasa, Congo's capital, for a visit, she unexpectedly acquires an orphaned bonobo infant — and then she finds herself fighting for her survival and the ape's as the brutal wars that have plagued Congo for decades get too close for comfort.
"I absolutely fell in love with bonobos," Shrefer says. "I had an interest in conservation as a child that I kind of let slip. Now I'm just so inspired by them."
It was a real switch in subject matter from his previous novels, which are peopled mostly with privileged American teenagers. His first novel, Glamorous Disasters, was based on his experiences as an SAT tutor in Manhattan after he graduated from Harvard.
He also wrote a nonfiction book, Hack the SAT, and, he says, "I still do one-on-one SAT tutoring in Manhattan. It's a great side lifestyle for a writer. I don't need to make my rent with the next book, and I'm exposed to teenagers, which is who I write about."
Schrefer says he plans to attend the National Book Foundation's awards ceremony in New York on Nov. 14. "I have to buy a tuxedo." He'll be in well-known company — other finalists this year include Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Katherine Boo and Robert Caro.
Finalists receive $1,000, and the winner in each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature) receives $10,000.
But for Schrefer, the recognition has a purpose beyond himself. "What happened to this book was much more important to me than a simple career thing," he says. "I'm kind of a missionary about it. I may have too much zeal."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.