Journalist Jack Fairweather Wins £30,000 Costa Book of the Year

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What jurors call ‘an extraordinary and important book that people need to read,’ Jack Fairweather’s timely ‘The Volunteer’ wins the Costa program’s top honor in London.

Jack Fairweather speaks in London on winning the 2019 Costa Book of the Year award for ‘The Volunteer.’ Image: Costa Book Awards

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Trying To Inform the World’
Tonight in London (January 28), former war correspondent Jack Fairweather has been honored with the 2019 Costa Book of the Year in an announcement event at Quaglino’s in Bury Street. His book The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz (Penguin Random House / WH Allen) is being called by jurors, “an incredible story, pacy like a thriller.”

Organizers are pointing out, of course, that the date of Fairweather’s win is compelling. The Nazi German death camp in Poland was liberated 75 years ago, on January 27, 1945, by the Soviet army. By the time the Russians got through, the Nazis had murdered some 1.1 million people, 960,000 of them Jewish.

The Volunteer is Fairweather’s account of the Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki who infiltrated the camp as a prisoner to develop and underground force. Only in the 1990s did it become clear how extensively Pilecki’s work had been disruptive to the Nazi effort, and his Witold’s Report is said to have been the first comprehensive account of the unspeakable atrocities at Auschwitz.

He was executed by the communists in 1948 at age 47.

The HarperCollins cover

In the United States, the book is published by HarperCollins as The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz.

In announcing the award for Fairweather this evening, Sian Williams, who chairs the jury for 2019, is quoted, saying, “The judges were unanimous in choosing The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. It’s an incredible story; pacy like a thriller, it reads like fiction and yet it’s not, it is fact.

“It’s a story none of us have read before–this is an extraordinary and important book that people need to read.”

Fairweather wins £30,000 (US$39,069).

‘He Built Something Really Powerful’

Fairweather has covered warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the author of A War of Choice and The Good War. He worked as The Daily Telegraph’s Baghdad bureau chief, and as a video journalist for The Washington Post in Afghanistan. His war coverage has won a British Press Award and an Overseas Press Club award citation. He divides his time between the UK and Vermont in the United States.

In her July interview with Fairweather, he told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro that of all things Pilecki was unable to shake a sense of failure, despite his amazing effectiveness during his three years in the camp.

Fairweather said:

Jack Fairweather

“I was really struck by Pilecki’s sense of guilt, both toward the end of his time in the camp and afterwards. You think, you know, this guy who had spent so much energy trying to inform the world, you know, would emerge with a sense that he had done all he could.

“But that wasn’t the case. He was wracked with–I think, we would call it survivor’s guilt now–this fear that gnawed away at him that he hadn’t found the way to connect with people.

“And, you know, he went on to fight in the Warsaw Uprising. He went on to fight against the communists after the war. But there was almost not a day that went by in which he wasn’t writing about Auschwitz, just trying to understand what the experience had meant.

Witold Pilecki

“But also, I think his own confusion and difficulty in reconnecting with his own life–I mean, he struggled to connect again with his family after the war.

“One of the scenes that I found very effective in the book was when his daughter catches him fiddling with something in his pocket. This is shortly after he’s reunited with her. And he reveals it’s a scrap of bread.

“Just because of that memory of hunger from early months in the camp was so strong, he just always carried a scrap of bread with him ever after. And seeing him working away at it in his pocket, you know, brought home to his daughter what he had been through.”

In an interview published on Sunday (January 26) at one of his former news media, The Washington Post, Fairweather describes to Gillian Brockell  the remarkable feat of organization Pilecki was able to accomplish undercover in the camp.

“With almost a thousand men by 1942, and—barring for one incident with a Gestapo spy—not one of Pilecki’s men betrayed each other, in extraordinary circumstances of starvation and violence,” Fairweather says.

“He built something really powerful in that camp.”

A Second Holocaust-Era Winner

It’s interesting to note, as award organizers are pointing out, that last year’s Costa top prize also went to a Holocaust-era book, The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es.

As Publishing Perspectives will remember, the overall book-of-the-year is the Costa program’s top honor and is drawn from the five category winners.

The Penguin UK cover

The other shortlisted books in the 2019 biography category were;

  • Laura Cumming, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons, Chatto & Windus
  • Lindsey Hilsum, In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin, Chatto & Windus
  • Adam Nicolson, The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels, William Collins

And Fairweather’s book was chosen by the jury for the book-of-the-year honor over:

Williams was joined on the 2019 book-of-the-year jury by novelist John Boyne; poet and critic Jade Cuttle; historian and author Suzannah Lipscomb; author Clare Mackintosh; author and actor Ben Miller; actor Hugh Quarshie; writer Bali Rai; and broadcaster Anneka Rice.

Short Story Winner: Anna Dempsey

Also announced tonight in London, the American-born writer Anna Dempsey, a teacher in southeast London, has won the £3,500 prize for her short story (US$4,558). Her work is titled The Dedicated Dancers of The Greater Oaks Retirement Community.

Two runners-up in the short-story competition, Iain Rowan of Sunderland and Kerry Hood of Devon, received £1,000 (US$1,301) and £500 (US$651), respectively.

The entrance gate at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The Costa Book of the Year award has been given to journalist and author Jack Fairweather for ‘The Volunteer’ about Auschwitz infiltrator Witold Pilecki one day after the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Image – iStockphoto: Lesslie K


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Costa Book Awards is here, and more on publishing awards in general is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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