2016 Pulitzer Prize winners in literature: The Thread interviews

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced this afternoon, honoring work in literature, journalism, music and photography. This year marked the 100th set of awards given out since the first ceremony was held in 1917.

For those looking to dive into the winning books, we've gathered The Thread interviews with four of this year's winners.

2016 Pulitzer Prize winners

Fiction: "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen
'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

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Whenever Viet Thanh Nguyen introduces his debut novel, he says it "begins with the fall — or the liberation — of Saigon, depending on your point of view."

April 30, 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the North Vietnamese forces taking control of Saigon, and Nguyen's novel spins off from the historical moment to devastating and darkly humorous effect.

In "The Sympathizer," an undercover spy follows a South Vietnamese general as he is evacuated to America. An irresistible, captivating narrator, the spy recounts the new life awaiting the refugees in Los Angeles.

Nguyen drew on his own family history to craft the tale — his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees when Nguyen was 4. The myth of the American dream weighed heavy on his childhood, and he skewers it in his novel.

History: "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America" by T. J. Stiles

'Custer's Trials' by T.J. Stiles
'Custer's Trials' by T.J. Stiles
Courtesy of Knopf

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Gen. George Armstrong Custer is a man best known for the way he died.

Custer's Last Stand, also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, ended in defeat for the U.S. Army when Custer and more than 200 of his men were killed in a battle against the combined forces of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes.

That battle has left Americans grappling with Custer's legacy for more than 100 years. In the aftermath, some memorialized Custer as a hero, saying he went down in a blaze of patriotism. But many others, including President Ulysses S. Grant, have called the entire battle an egotistical folly, saying Custer foolishly led the 7th Cavalry Regiment to their deaths.

T.J. Stiles' new book "Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America," starts far before that fateful day on the prairie. He digs through history for the man behind the mythic figure, and what he finds is a pile of contradictions.

Biography or Autobiography: "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" by William Finnegan

'Barbarian Days' by William Finnegan
'Barbarian Days' by William Finnegan
Courtesy of Penguin Press

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William Finnegan is best known for his bylines in The New Yorker, for covering armed conflicts in Sudan or Mozambique.

But his memoir is all about surfing.

Long before he became an award-winning reporter, Finnegan fell in love with the waves. His family moved from California to Hawaii when he was thirteen, and he took every opportunity to paddle out into the Pacific.

He wrote all about the waves and the racially tense world of his Honolulu public school in letters to his best friend back in California. A few years ago, that friend shipped Finnegan a box full of his detailed notes. They served as the foundation for the first chapter of his memoir.

The book, "Barbarian Days," follows Finnegan and his surf obsession around the world, through Fiji, Tonga and Southeast Asia. There are brushes with death — both on the water and off — and an enormous appreciation of the perfect wave.

General Nonfiction: "Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" by Joby Warrick

'Black Flags' by Joby Warrick
'Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS' by Joby Warrick
Courtesy of Doubleday

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In just a few short years, ISIS has gone from an unknown group of radicals to the dominant threat in the Middle East. Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick's new book looks at how that happened.

"Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS" traces the group's roots back to a Jordanian prison, where the now-deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was once held.

"He's the least likely person you can imagine as being the leader of an Islamic extremist organization," Warrick told MPR News' Kerri Miller. Al-Zarqawi never finished high school. He had no military experience. His past was filled with vices: street fights, hard-drinking, and tattoos.

But in prison, he became devout. So devout that Warrick recounts how al-Zarqawi later removed one of his tattoos with a razor blade and no anesthesia.

"He feels he's been touched by God in some way," Warrick said. "He's trying to imagine himself as this great Muslim warrior, in the tradition of the early warriors of 1,000 years ago. He sought very deliberately to follow their example and do what they did."

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