From 750 prize entries, the judges of the BookLife Prize in Fiction—an annual writing contest for unpublished or self-published novels launched earlier this year—have selected five finalists. As the judges work to determine the winner, PW chats with the finalists about their writing, their books, and self-publishing.
Kipp Wessel: “The Wilderness of Heartbreak”
Wessel, a finalist in the general fiction category for his novel, First, You Swallow the Moon, has been writing for as long as he can remember. He earned a fiction fellowship and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana, and has taught fiction writing there, as well as at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
First, You Swallow the Moon is the 51-year-old Minnesotan’s first novel, and one that he hopes will attract the attention of a traditional publishing house.
What are some themes and types of characters and situations that you tackle in First, You Swallow the Moon?
First, You Swallow the Moon is about a young man who loses a brother and experiences the unraveling of his first real love. In response to these compounded losses, he becomes obsessed with wild bears when he believes their ability to regulate their winter hearts may offer him a safe passage through the intense grief immobilizing him. If he can turn himself into a bear, maybe he can survive. It’s a modern novel about the wilderness of heartbreak.
It’s a somewhat eccentric idea—a human wishing to become a bear—yet it’s quite relatable to anyone who has been overcome by grief. Did any personal loss inspire you?
The novel evolved, as all my writing does, from my own life experience. When I was in my early 20s, I lost my oldest brother. And that loss, along with the spiral of a love relationship on its heels, turned my life upside down and pummeled my heart through an intense period of clinical depression. Through the worst of it, I was living in Montana, completing my M.F.A. The novel is set within that wilderness, literally and figuratively. It’s not autobiographical, but drawn from the emotions of my experience surviving intense grief. I know the unrelenting and extreme bouts of pain and mania my main character attempts to navigate past.
Writing the novel was my attempt to unearth the tragic, comic, and transforming experience of significant loss. It’s a novel about the counterpart to attachment: the sometimes impossible act of letting go. My goal was to transform a deeply personal, intensely painful life experience into a work of art that may resonate for others who have survived or are surviving similar relational losses. It’s pretty much a guarantee of human experience—we all leave or are left by the ones we love at some point. My goal was to try to focus a lens on the survivor’s reaction to that dynamic.
Your short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, but this is your first novel. What inspired you to self-publish it?
The decision to self-publish the novel was not an easy one. Doing so gave me full creative control of the end product, and I enjoyed the hands-on process. But the choice also limits the audience the novel may reach. So, it was a difficult decision to weigh. But I had spent nearly a decade writing and revising this novel. Toward the end of the process, I became inspired with an idea for my next novel. I wanted to dive into that—new work. So I published the novel in order to focus on the novel I’m in the throes of drafting. It was like sending the first child off to school so I could take care of the newborn.
Other than knocking the judges’ socks off, what was your greatest goal when entering the BookLife contest?
With the contest, my main goal was to obtain an unbiased read by a giant voice in the publishing industry and to find out how the work would fare against the work of other indie writers. An added bonus was discovering other great titles for my reading list. The timing was good: the novel had just been released about the time the contest opened.
Speaking of reading lists, who are some of the authors who most inspire you?
In no particular order: J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Tom McGuane, Rick Bass, Karen Russell, Jim Harrison, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Lorrie Moore, Nicole Krauss, Leonard Cohen, Paulette Alden, and Kent Nelson.
Are you shopping your novel around?
I’d welcome contact by any publisher who might want to give this novel a new home within their house. Get in touch! I’d love to see the novel find a wider audience than it has. And, to date, it’s only been released in a hardcover edition.
Jane Alvey Harris: Finding Courage in Her Fiction
Harris started writing her debut novel, Riven—a BookLife finalist in the YA category—a few years ago, when she was in her most vulnerable state. A newly single mother of three, with “zero marketable skills,” as she puts it, Harris turned to writing fiction as a way to cope with reality.
Now 44 years old, the Coppell, Tex., resident is a full-time writer and marketer of her own work. She’s presently working on Secret Keeper, the second book in her My Myth trilogy, which begins with Riven. In January, Harris will kick off her publicity tour for the book.
It sounds like Riven began as a deeply personal project for you. How did it evolve into a novel that you decided to self-publish on Amazon?
When I was done with the first draft, I shared it with my therapist and a couple of close friends who encouraged me to publish it. That’s when the real journey began. After googling how to publish, I quickly realized I had zero idea what I was doing. I immediately joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a brilliant move on my part. At my first meeting, which happened to be a peer critique, I realized how much my writing sucked. I hired a copy editor to help with commas, but that wasn’t nearly enough. There’s so much more to writing a book than being able to put together a pretty sentence. So I hired a consultant. Together with my critique partner and most patient friends, I worked my way through eight more drafts. It took me four years to learn to write well enough to tell this story.
Both the process behind the novel and the novel itself are intense. How would you describe Riven?
Riven is a hard-hitting, issue-driven, contemporary account of a 17-year-old girl whose reality and mental health fracture when her childhood abuser re-enters her life after 10 years. It’s a documentation of a survivor’s journey to make peace with her wounded ego and achieve self-acceptance.
It’s also a high-def psychological fantasy thriller with laugh-out-loud wit, loads of kick-ass adventure, and yummy romance. The ultimate purpose of Riven is to spread a message of self-acceptance and empowerment. Victims of any kind of trauma can do more than survive: they can thrive.
Did you channel any of your own life experiences when writing this book?
Absolutely! There are several autobiographical components to Riven. Emily, the protagonist, and I share a maiden name: Alvey. It means “Elf Warrior.” I’ve always been more than a little obsessed with it. Also, Emily’s siblings in the book are my children in real life: Jacob, Aidan, and Claire.
A few scenes in the book are taken directly from some of my therapy sessions, including hypnosis and EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing]. About the time I started working with a therapist, I began receiving stories from other people who were struggling. In fact, over the past few years I’ve had the distinct honor of being an outcry witness for over a dozen adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. More than 12 adult men and women entrusted their stories of abuse with me after decades of keeping them secret and suffering through the trauma of buried guilt and shame. Their stories, and the courage it took to share them, inspired me.
You self-published Riven after years of reworking it. Was self-publishing your first choice? Or did you query traditional publishers first?
I queried traditional houses, and I absolutely loathed it. Honestly, I think I suck at queries. My consultant/editor, Emma Dryden, is the bomb, and she encouraged me to dig deep and tell the real story. I asked the universe to send the perfect agent to champion my story, but the responses I received were from agents who wanted either straight fantasy or straight contemporary, and I wasn’t willing to ditch either. It’s difficult to educate strangers about something so personal and complex in a one-page cover letter. Ultimately, I did get an offer from a small publishing house, but it didn’t feel right, so I decided to do it myself.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of self-publishing?
One obstacle is not having access to the exposure I might have with a traditional publishing house. It’s also very true that a prejudice exists in the publishing community that if a manuscript were any good it would get picked up. Obviously, I don’t agree with that.
Though it’s been challenging, I’m grateful for the experience. I’ve become stronger from having to pick myself up after falling so often. I love that I’ve been able to have control over the formatting and cover design. Self-promotion stinks, but I don’t have any qualms about promoting Riven. It feels like the story was a gift that was given to me. I’m just the lucky girl who got to write it down.
Krys Batts: Writing the Complicated, Independent, and Relatable Romantic Heroine
Batts, a BookLife finalist in the romance category with her third novel, Not Flowers, but Love, has been writing creatively for over 30 years, beginning with poetry when she was a teenager, and then short stories. In her early 30s, she wrote and self-published her first novel, Walls Fall Down, on Amazon.
The 46-year-old Dallas author (also a full-time senior technical business analyst) was driven to write novels for one pointed reason: to fill a perceived void in the romance genre by crafting female protagonists who don’t need a man to be complete—but who can surely benefit from true love.
How would you describe Not Flowers, but Love?
The central plot of the story is the main character’s internal struggle to overcome past relationship disappointments that hamper her from opening up her heart again.
What inspired you to write it?
Not Flowers, but Love is a result of my feeling inspired to tell a story about how strong, successful women can inadvertently trip themselves up and miss opportunities to share their lives with wonderful men. It’s an angle that I’ve come across in other writings, but I haven’t before come upon a book or movie that treated the female character’s deep-seated inner turmoil in the manner that I’ve done. And, the more I thought about the book plot, I felt that the book could be special, compelling, relatable.
Jamie, the main character, couldn’t be further from the damsel-in-distress stereotype. Why is this type of heroine important to you?
I specifically began writing novels because, after reading what seemed like one million books over the course of my life, I felt that the female protagonists were too often left wanting for such admirable qualities as acute intellect, fierce independence, and a clear recognition of their personal self-worth.
This pattern among female characters seemed particularly characteristic in romance novels. So I eventually decided to create the strong, nuanced women characters that I yearned to encounter.
Not Flowers, but Love was self-published via Amazon in 2015. What prompted you to enter it in this year’s BookLife contest?
One of the greatest challenges before self-published authors is gaining a readership that trusts you to deliver an enjoyable journey when they pick up your books. With this in mind, I entered the BookLife Prize in Fiction contest because I hoped to obtain positive, critical reviews that new potential readers could reference when deciding whether to purchase my novels. As an avid reader myself, I am sometimes persuaded to try out new authors when an objective reader, whether or not I know the person, endorses the writer’s work.
What’s your approach to the business side of self-publishing? What kind of promotional tools do you use?
I have found that advertising directly on Amazon produces the best results. I have experimented with advertising in a variety of ways over the past few years, including using Facebook, Twitter, and popular websites such as Goodreads.
As you noted, another reader’s endorsement of a book can go a long way. Who are some writers that inspire or influence you?
My list of favorite authors is quite extensive, and I honestly love them all equally. Just a few of the writers who I’m sure have influenced my own style in some way: Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum.
What are you reading right now?
Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani.
T.J. Slee: Espionage, Psychopaths, and Bad Karma
Slee, a finalist in not one but two of the BookLife contest categories (in the mystery/thriller category with the novel Cloister, and the sci-fi/fantasy/horror sector with The Vanirim), declines to give his real name. He also declines to name his city of origin, share his age, or show his face. Slee is a man of mystery, but there’s a good reason for that, he says: he was formerly a security intelligence officer working in counterterrorism.
You mentioned off the bat that we can’t discuss many personal details, but can you tell us where you’re writing from and whether you have a job outside of writing?
I’m currently based in Copenhagen. Yes, I have a day job, which pays the bills so that I can donate all the money I earn from my writing to Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. Yep, every cent. Why would I do that? Let’s just say I have a lot of bad karma from my time as an intelligence officer that I am trying to compensate for. A lot of very bad karma.
Tell us about Cloister and The Vanirim.
Cloister is an espionage thriller laced with dark humor, featuring a very unorthodox heroine. Sister Charlie Jones is not your typical Mercy Sister nun, but she’s doing her best. Thirty years old, shaved head, pierced and tattooed, she’s a year into her novitiate after quitting the Australian security service to find some inner peace. Then she gets a call from the archbishop: there’s been a terrorist threat against the papal visit, police have overrun his office, the Vatican protocol team is threatening to call the whole tour off, and he’s just been told Jones is a decorated former counterterrorist officer who maybe can step in and help him regain control. In no time, Charlie Jones finds herself drawn into a web of Vatican intrigue.
Vanirim is a crime noir story set in a postapocalyptic universe. Five years after the Pacification, the war in which the old Norse demigods, the Vanir, returned to reclaim the Earth, 19-year-old Tully McIntyre stumbles upon the impossible: a dead Vanir. Nuclear weapons couldn’t kill them, but he finds one lying gutted inside a human house. For investigator Stella Valiente, McIntyre is the only suspect—except it can’t be him. McIntyre has been “sanctioned,” a process by which the Vanir punish criminals by stripping them of all emotion. He can’t love, feel passion or sorrow, he can’t hate, and most of all, he can’t kill. Can he?
Are any of these characters inspired by real people?
Charlie [from Cloister] is loosely based on a real character I worked with in the security service. She was lazy, annoyingly self-absorbed, hopelessly disorganized, and unreliable; everyone loved her. Being who she was, she could move in circles no one else in the agency could. Tragically, she was fired when they found drugs in her desk at work—but, if you ask me, the jury is still out as to whether they were hers or not.
The character at the center of Vanirim is not based on any real person, but I have to admit that McIntyre is a metaphor for the sort of person that intelligence work turns some people into if they aren’t careful. McIntyre is the person I might have become if I didn’t leave when I did.
You self-published five books this year, including The Vanirim and Cloister. What prompted you to go indie?
Last year the refugee crisis in Europe provoked me to look for ways I could raise some money to help, and I realized I had all these novels lying around, so I published them this year. I had no idea if anyone would buy/read my work, so in January I set a modest fund-raising target, and I hit it by June, which was fantastic! Now I’ve doubled it. It’s not much in the big picture, but every little bit helps these days.
Being able to reap all the royalties of your books must be particularly rewarding, given your charitable efforts. Would you ever sign with a traditional publisher?
I’d be more than happy to pull the books from Amazon, rebrand, and relaunch, bringing current and future titles under new management. I would continue to send my royalties to charity, but that’s just a personal choice. The help of a publisher to reach a wider audience would be a win-win, and I hope my results in the BookLife competition so far might give an agent or publisher the confidence to take a chance!
Jennifer Kaplan: Exploring History
Kaplan, a finalist in BookLife’s middle grade category for the novel Crushing the Red Flowers, has a specific goal for her unpublished work: having perceived a need for more educational and diverse fiction about the Holocaust, she wants to see it placed in school libraries. The 43-year-old New Jersey author, mother, and founder of the Public Arts Council is compelled not only to explore the events of the Holocaust and their effects, but also the factors that led up to them.
Crushing the Red Flowers is set in prewar Germany. Why did you choose that period?
Few children’s books cover prewar 1938, even fewer have German main characters, and none use alternating points of view to explore Kristallnacht from divergent perspectives. Nineteen thirty-eight is a curious year because it was the turning point. It offers a unique vantage point to explore the past, present and glimpse the future, but, unfortunately, I’ve often found this critical year overlooked by educators. Most books focus on the ‘40s. Mine starts in summer and stops in December 1938. We all know what happens after that, but the characters don’t.
Your novel has two protagonists—one Jewish, one not—whom you alternate between every other chapter. Why did you choose this style?
I wanted to show how each boy experienced the same events from his own perspective. The German Jewish boy’s life starts out with piano lessons and other normal activities, but by end of book his life is far from normalized. The German boy has his own problems, including an uncle who is in jail for his anti-Hitler stance, and being forced to join Jungvolk, and struggle with an awful leader.
Did any of your family’s history help inspire you to write this book?
Yes, I’ve done a lot of research for this book, but my first stop was conducting interviews with family members: two German Jews and two German Christians. They’ve been very supportive.
I also get so many questions. From the Jewish perspective, I hear, “Why didn’t your family just leave?” I’ve also felt vilified for being German. If you look at some of the older Hollywood movies, all the bad guys are German.
The real question is, how could this happen to the beautiful, civilized country of Germany? My book tries to show the suffering and poverty and decline of politics that made it ripe for an extremist like Hitler to rise to power, though I wonder how many people saw it coming. There is little discussion as to why it unfolded, and my book looks to show how complicated this was.
I also have three young children. The two that are in fifth and seventh grade are old enough to read it and have had exposure to the Holocaust as we are raising them Jewish and they attend Hebrew school.
Who are some of your greatest inspirations in terms of children’s and middle grade literature?
For children’s literature, I’m influenced by and try to learn from Lynne Rae Perkins’s descriptive prose, Christopher Paul Curtis’s likable and complex characters, and Rebecca Stead’s beautifully subtle way she weaves a story together. And, of course, I remain inspired by three writers who helped to first spark my interest in literature: Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Margaret Atwood.
This is your first novel, and you have not published it yet. Not to be rude, but what are you waiting for?
I have published a few short stories, and, with Crushing the Red Flowers, I am open to all options. At this point I am looking at traditional publishers and independent and small publishers that have a strong focus on historical Holocaust fiction. That said, I’m very open to self-publishing. I don’t know what it will be. Given that my main goal is to get the book into libraries, a great way to do that is to rack up awards so as to give the book more credibility.
Nicole Audrey Spector is a Los Angeles writer whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.