Woody Holton made a phone call from Gate 5 at LaGuardia Airport and was transformed from "annoying guy on a cell phone" to "annoying guy on a cell phone and National Book Award finalist" -- one of the country's highest literary prizes.
While waiting for an Oct. 8 flight to Buffalo, N.Y., where he was scheduled to discuss his new book, "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution," Holton returned a message from the National Book Foundation. He thought the organization was a charity that donated books to children and was shocked to learn he was a finalist for the prestigious award.
"It's like winning the lottery," says Holton, an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond. "I think about all the jobs I applied for in the past that I thought I deserved, and you find out 'They gave it to him?!' Now people can say that about me."
In his book, Holton looks at the run-up to the Constitutional Convention. Rural farmers were agitating for tax relief, but the Framers were worried about drawing investment to the new country. Holton argues the Framers' true aim was to crack down on farmers and debtors, a process that ultimately curtailed states' rights and made the nation less democratic.
Caught in the fight were the beleaguered state governments. For those with a psychoanalytic bent, it's difficult to overlook that the book's author is the son of Linwood Holton, a former Virginia governor, and Gov. Tim Kaine's brother-in-law.
Holton argues that the freedoms we cherish most aren't in the Framers' original constitution, but rather in the Bill of Rights, provisions that were added to appease those unruly Americans.
"My highest aspiration for the book would be that it intensify people's eagerness to protect the Bill of Rights and specifically to protect the notion of what the Constitution has become," he says "which is an underdog's constitution."
Winners for the National Book Award will be announced Nov. 14. The well-known and roundly despised contrarian Christopher Hitchens, with his book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," is among the nominees.
"Hitchens is the only one of the rivals that I'm not concerned about," Holton says, "because I'm confident that God will smite him down" and improve the odds.