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. Screaming did ensue, but it was for a good reason.

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 the book and people's response 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.

Cottom's first book, "Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy," was published in 2017.

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

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