The many judges of the BookLife Prize—bestselling authors, the editorial staff of Publishers Weekly and BookLife, and PW’s crack team of reviewers—whittled down this year’s 700-plus submissions to just seven titles: one from each of the contest’s genres. The grand-prize winner will be announced on December 18. We caught up with the seven authors who reached the 2017 BookLife Prize finals to talk about the writing life, self-publishing, and everything in between.
Rea Keech: Writing a Love Letter to Iran
Keech, the finalist from the General Fiction category for his first novel, A Hundred Veils, has long been writing for himself, but it wasn’t until he retired from his post as professor of English at Anne Arundel Community College that he fulfilled his dream of being a published author. At 74 years old, Keech, based Severna Park, Md., is now a full-time writer.
What is the premise of A Hundred Veils?
Assigned to teach English at the University of Tehran in the time of the shah, Marco naively assumes at first that U.S. aid is wanted and appreciated by the Iranians, but soon he comes to see that some consider him an instrument of the West’s arrogant assertion of control. He befriends pro- and anti-shah Iranians as he tries to understand the culture and fit in. This seems to be working. And then he falls in love.
The novel is set at a time when Iran was still under the control of the shah. Americans tend to see this as “the good days” before the Islamic revolution. And yet agents of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, were everywhere.
Sounds like you’re pretty familiar with the subject at hand. Is there an autobiographical element to this work?
I served in the Peace Corps in Iran from 1967 to 1969. Like Marco in the novel, I was assigned to teach English at the University of Tehran. To some extent, what happens to Marco in the novel happened to me. And the characters are based, at least loosely, on people I knew. But a story needs a structure with a logic of its own. I wanted it to take place in three parts or acts, in which Marco faces a problem, almost despairs of solving it, and finally comes upon a resolution. Life isn’t always that neatly organized. I had to rearrange incidents, and I condensed two years into one. Many good stories unrelated to the overall theme had to be left out.
Does A Hundred Veils send a political message about Iran to Western readers?
I wrote this as a tribute to the warmth, humor, and love of the Iranian people I came to know. I hope it can show Americans that the Iranian government is not the Iranian people. As far as religion goes, in my experience it didn’t come up any more than it does in everyday American society. I was never asked about my religion and never preached to about it. The story itself leaves that out because it didn’t exist. I hope any readers of the novel who consider Iranians our enemies will come away with a different understanding.
You self-published A Hundred Veils via Real Nice Books. How did you make the decision to go that route?
I sent a query for A Hundred Veils to the agent who handled [Mahbod] Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran, thinking it might appeal to a similar audience, but she wasn’t interested. I also queried Mage, a publisher of books about Iran, but got no response. After watching my brother, also a writer, receive over 100 rejections before his book was published, I decided I didn’t want to wait forever to see the novel in print and taught myself Photoshop to do the cover and InDesign to set the text. I liked being in control of the whole project from start to finish. Plus, I could move on to the next novel.
Ian Andrew: A Maelstrom of Action
Andrew, the finalist in the Mystery/Thriller category with the novel Face Value, is an ardent champion of self-publishing, releasing his work exclusively under his own imprint, Book Reality Experience. Face Value is the first book in Andrew’s Wright & Tran series. Based in the rural South West of Western Australia (yes, he has kangaroos in his backyard), Andrew is also the author of the novel A Time to Every Purpose and an anthology of poems, The Little Book of Silly Rhymes & Odd Verses.
What is the premise of Face Value?
Kara Wright and Tien Tran, former members of an elite intelligence gathering team active in Afghanistan, Iraq, and places still classified, now make their living through Wright & Tran, a private investigation service that tracks errant spouses, identifies dishonest employees, and, just occasionally, takes on more significant cases that allow them to use all their former skills. When siblings Zoe and Michael Sterling insist that their middle-aged parents have gone missing, Kara and Tien are at first skeptical and then quickly intrigued; the father, ex-intelligence analyst Chris Sterling, appears to be involved with an enigmatic Russian thug. Using less-than-orthodox methods and the services of ex-colleagues with highly specialized talents, Wright and Tran take on the case. But the truth they uncover is far from simple.
The book follows two parallel investigations: one with Kara and Tien using their methods and one with the police, using more conventional means. In the end, they converge in a maelstrom of action.
Do you have a background in intelligence?
I grew up in the coastal town of Larne, Northern Ireland, and left to join the Royal Air Force at age 18. I was originally trained as an aircraft technician before being commissioned as an intelligence officer. I served for a total of two decades and within Intelligence I specialized in antisubmarine warfare and later was a qualified targets officer. My last tour was as an instructor at the Defence Intelligence and Security School, now part of the Joint Intelligence Training Group within the Defence College of Intelligence. The Wright & Tran series aims to blend real intel techniques with a generous helping of fiction in a way that blurs the lines and enhances the action and adventure. I am fortunate that I maintain contacts within the intelligence world so I can keep up to date with the latest equipment and ideas.
You self-publish all your books seemingly without hesitation. Why are you such a fan of being an indie author?
I have written extensively about my choice to independently publish my novels, the professionalism of the independent author scene, and subsequently why I made the move into establishing an independent publishing assistance service for other authors. I am passionate about the freedom and flexibility the new publish-on-demand technologies bring to the world of writers, but am equally appalled at the lack of an agreed set of (and, yes, I understand they would have to be self-imposed) regulatory standards across the discipline. If indie authors are finally to lose the mantle of somehow being less than traditional authors, an attitude still sadly widespread in some more “snobbish” areas of the business, then we must ensure the products we are releasing are comparable to those coming from the Big Five.
Yes, we will still struggle with marketing and distribution models, but our books need to be as professional a product as they can be. That’s why I am a partner member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and was very honored to be asked on to Ingram Spark’s advisory panel for indie authors. We should embrace the potential lessening of the power of the traditional publishing gatekeepers, yet we must figure out a way of ensuring this democratization of publishing does not diminish the reader’s experience.
Kate Jonuska: An Odd Duck in the Indie World
Jonuska, the finalist in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category with her debut novel, Transference, has the goal of being a hybrid writer, but has come to love the self-publishing short story market, which she finds more appealing than traditional literary journals. Based in Boulder, Colo., Jonuska makes her living as a freelance writer.
Transference is a unique novel. Can you describe it?
Transference tells the story of a disgraced psychiatrist with a telepathic patient in distress. She’s in distress because her telepathy is overwhelming, especially since she’s married to a senator and works in politics, around all those politicians, poor woman. It’s an odd-couple story about secrets, true honesty, superficiality, and redemption—with a little bit of current day politics thrown in for extra drama.
BookLife Prize judge Tim Pratt loved how you developed a terrible character. How did you decide on a “terrible” protagonist?
Dr. Verbenk is indeed a terrible, terrible man, though he’s often terribly funny. It was his voice that created the storyline, and it came to me fully formed. I just listened to what he had to say and followed the story. Even the telepathy, the main plot point of the novel, arose because he was a man with lots of secrets and a dirty mind. What better way to torture him than by confronting him with someone who could read it?
Your book is the contender in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category—a pretty broad mashup. Which of the three genres do you think your book most belongs to?
Good question, because I don’t think that category actually suits me very well. Instead, it’s the only category in which the novel fit at all. I’m of the opinion that sci-fi and fantasy are no longer great, umbrella descriptors. I like the term speculative fiction, meaning any story that doesn’t follow the rules of reality, and I would put Transference in speculative fiction. I’ve also classified it as literary fiction, literary humor, and magical realism, depending on the context.
Honestly, my novel is more unique in the self-pub world because it’s not strictly genre but has literary elements. That uniqueness presents some significant obstacles for me because there are few writers who’ve been there, done that to look up to and very few tried-and-true marketing strategies for reaching more literary readers, who still prefer print and brick-and-mortar stores. [I’m] a bit of an odd duck in indie publishing. I knew that was a challenge going in, though, so I embrace it. Plus, there’s no reason why literary writers should be trapped in the traditional publishing rubric (less control, longer waits to hit shelves, less profit) when indie publishing offers such fantastic opportunities right now.
Why did you self-publish Transference?
I decided on self-publishing for Transference on purpose, without contacting a single agent or publisher. The story just screamed out that self-pub was the way to go because of its length, tone, and the timeliness of the story. The telepath, Janet, and her political work bring in some very now issues, mainly refugee aid, which is her pet issue and becomes entwined deeply into the story. I wanted to get that story out now, to talk about these issues now, rather than wait two years for it to appear on a shelf in the traditional model. That said, I am looking for an agent.
Margaret Locke: Modern Romance with a Historical Twist
Locke, the finalist from the Romance/Erotica category, often daydreams of what it would be like to be in ancient Rome, or medieval Germany, or America during the Civil War. She’s also curious to know what would it be like to be a person from that time and wake up in today’s world. This breed of imaginative inquisitiveness helped fuel the writing of A Scandalous Matter, which she dubs “a reverse time travel” romance.
You had me at “reverse time travel,” but what is the premise of A Scandalous Matter?
Amara Mattersley, sister to the Duke of Claremont, has lived under the shadow of scandal for seven years, having been discovered in flagrante delicto with a married man when she was only 20. She’d thought there was little recourse for her—until she learns the truth about her mysterious sister-in-law, Eliza James Mattersley. Eliza had traveled 200 years through time from America to Regency England, seeking love with Amara’s brother.
Eliza’s descriptions of the modern world, particularly the freedoms women of the 21st century enjoy, leads Amara to abandon her own society for modern-day Charlottesville, Va., in search of the education and independence she’s always craved. Problem is, for the time-traveling magic to work, Amara has to come forward for love. She has no interest in that, however, given her previous experiences—but then she meets Matthew Goodson.
Together, Amara and Matthew must decide if past and present can blend together into a mutual future, or if they’ll let old wounds and new complications sabotage any chance at a 21st-century happily-ever-after.
If Amara and Matthew had online dating profiles, what would they post?
Amara Mattersley: “This seems uncouth, yet a suitor for an afternoon of pleasure, no more, might be amenable.” As she’s not good with technology, she’d likely have a few typos in that sentence, and would have to rely on a friend to take a photo.
Matthew Goodson: “I haven’t got time for stuff like this, so my sister, Taylor, made this profile for me. She sneaked in this photo, too. Aren’t I hot?” (Taylor would include several shots for emphasis.)
Have you been shopping your work around to agents? Or are you committed to self-publishing?
I did query my first book to agents in 2015. I had nibbles, partial and full requests, but no takers. (This was before I hired my amazing editor, Tessa Shapcott, to edit the story; I’m positive I would have fared much better in querying had I taken that crucial step first.) I did, however, receive a small press offer—at which point I needed to make a decision.
I’d been interested in self-publishing, but wanted affirmation my work was decent enough to merit putting out there. The small press offer gave me that, but I soon realized self-publishing felt like the better fit. Not only did I want full control over my stories but I also wanted to maintain flexibility in my schedule and be beholden to nobody else’s deadlines but my own. (I might have control issues.) Plus, to be honest, if I failed, if my book bombed, I could slink off into the corner and nobody would have to know. I wouldn’t disappoint anyone but myself. I’m quite happy with how things are working out and plan to continue on the independent path—but I never rule anything out, either.
Who in your life do you think is most proud of you and your writing?
This is a tie between my husband and my mom. My husband was the one who without hesitation encouraged me to pursue this dream, even though it meant it might be some time before I was contributing financially to the family, and has steadfastly stood behind me when I’ve angsted about money or my abilities or what have you. He reads all of my books (yes, really) and has the confidence in me that I sometimes lack.
And my mom. My dear mom. I write this with tears in my eyes because cancer took her in August. She was always my most vocal supporter, providing me the verbal affirmation I needed to keep going, cheering me on, praising me to friends and family.
I’m so grateful for all she gave me. And I can still hear her voice in my head, assuring me: “you’re doing a good job.”
Jennifer Lau: Writing as Therapy
Lau, the finalist in the Memoir/Autobiography category, is presently in Cambodia, visiting family and delivering refurbished laptops to students at the Savong Foundation, where she serves as a board member and donor. This is her first time back to the country she escaped as a child more than 40 years ago—a harrowing experience that is described in brilliant, brutal detail in her first book, Beautiful Hero.
Can you give us a brief description of the premise of your memoir?
I am a survivor of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during, after, and as a partial result of the Vietnam War. It is the story of my family who survived the killing fields and landmines of Cambodia with only half a canteen of water and a baby bottle, of a mother who sacrificed some fundamental part of herself to save her children, of children who both survived and suffered from that sacrifice, of a father ill-equipped to protect his children from this atrocity but whose belief in goodness helped to keep hope alive in his children. It is a story of survival and small triumphs.
There tends to be two kinds of memoirists: those who find writing therapeutic and those who do not. Which type are you?
I’m definitely in the therapeutic realm. Prior to embarking on writing Beautiful Hero, I had endless nightmares. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that the more I wrote, the less intrusive my nightmares had become. I’d never once sought counseling for my PTSD, but, with the completion of the book, I feel as though I’d gone through one hell of an emotional and psychiatric roller-coaster ride. And, once that ride came to a full stop, I had begun to heal. It was cathartic and liberating.
How might your memoir help change people’s perspectives or bring awareness to humanitarian issues?
Beautiful Hero touches on the bottomless depths of human depravity and the universal call to action by those who stand and challenge such evil deeds with resilience, kindness, and sacrifice.
Although this series of events took place in a little country more than 40 years ago, similar events continue to occur all over the world. On a simpler level, we all take what we have for granted: the homes we live in, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the jobs we have. I hope that when people read this story, they will truly appreciate what they do have.
Who do you think would be most grateful for this book? Who would hug you closest and say thank you to?
This book would not have happened without my mother. Beautiful Hero is an acknowledgment of her sacrifice and my acceptance of her atonement for being hard on her children, especially on me, her third child out of seven children. Our survival wouldn’t have been possible without her. How she did it is questionable, but understandable.
Jenna Rose Robbins: Obsession Transcends Genre
Diehard fans are considered extremely lucky if they get to meet their idols, but Robbins, the finalist from the Young Adult category, got to go on tour with hers. In Faithful and Devoted: Confessions of a Music Addict, Robbins describes her wild journey with Depeche Mode during their infamously debauched 1993 tour, when she was just 19 years old.
Faithful and Devoted is a must-read for Depeche Mode fans, but what about people who don’t know the band or don’t like their music?
I intended it to be a story that any music fan, not just Depeche Mode “devotees” (as we refer to ourselves), could relate to. And I think I’ve succeeded on that point, as I’ve had fans of bands as diverse as the Grateful Dead and Justin Bieber tell me that they identified with my character. Obsession transcends all genres.
I also didn’t market it as a Depeche Mode book. People have said I should have put the band name in the title, but I didn’t want to put off non–Depeche Mode fans. It’s about me, and the music; that said, the title is from the tour they were on. They had an album called Songs of Faith and Devotion. The cover was designed by a huge Depeche Mode fan to look like the album cover. So, even though the band name isn’t in the title, any fan would instantly make the connection.
One of the aspects that BookLife judge Vic James loved about your book is that it’s a YA memoir, which she called an all-too-rare subgenre. What are your thoughts on this niche?
I didn’t write my book with a genre in mind. My sole goal was to write about a period in my life that had a major impact on me, and that period just happened to be when I was 19. I feel any good story, no matter what the age of the protagonist, is worth telling—and reading. I never really thought of my book as a YA book. I wrote it for music fans. And they’ve been the most effusive about liking the book.
This all stemmed from a Facebook takeover, for which you were selected to run the Depeche Mode fan page for a day. How did that lead to your self-publishing a book? And will you stay the indie course?
They choose one fan every day, and I was the first fan chosen. Everyone calls me “Day One.” The DM fan base is an incredible community. I’m in a lot of Facebook groups for the band, and people often share the book there. I even have fans find me on Facebook and FaceTime me to talk about their experiences with the band.
I published independently due to the timing of the band going on tour right when I published it. I was also the first fan out of 365 chosen to do their Facebook takeover, so I rushed the e-book out so I could mention it in my posts. I doubt I would have had that flexibility had I gone the traditional route, and I also like that I’ve had complete creative control over the project, which is something I might be hesitant to give up with future projects.
Denise Deegan: Girl Power in a Boy’s World
Deegan, the BookLife finalist from the Middle Grade category with The Accidental Pirate, writes across genres, with her fiction often focused on “ordinary people who become extraordinary in crisis.” The Dublin-based author now writes full-time, but has in the past been a nurse, a china restorer, and a pharmaceutical sales rep, to name but a few roles. Her self-published YA novel Through the Barricades won the SCBWI Spark Award in 2017.
Tell us about The Accidental Pirate. What’s the premise? What themes does it tackle?
Hungry and orphaned, Jess dresses as a boy to secure work on a ship docked in her port town. Once the Constance is out of sight of land, however, the Jolly Roger is raised. Jess must escape before the pirates discover her to be a girl and toss her overboard as unlucky. As days pass and dangers escalate, Jess is forced to call upon a gift she fears in order to save a boy she thought she hated—a pirate boy.
The Accidental Pirate is the story of a girl hero in a man’s world. It is the story of finding friendship and family in the most unlikely of places. And it is the story of buccaneers and buckles and a cook with no tongue.
What message do you want children to take away from the book?
Writing The Accidental Pirate, empowerment (especially the empowerment of girls) was particularly important to me. Jess is a girl trapped in a man’s world. I want girls who read it to feel their own power, their own ability. And I want boys who read it to know that girls are equally brave, adventurous, and resourceful, sometimes even more so.
I also hope that this story will encourage children to use and treasure their gifts. Jess has a gift that she fears and yet chooses to use to save an unlikely friend. This gift is magical, as all gifts are. I would also like this story to make children feel that no one is entirely bad or good but a mix of both (as the pirates are) and that family can be found in the strangest of places.
Can you describe your publishing experience?
My first four novels were contemporary family dramas, published in the 2000s by Penguin and Gill and Macmillan. I then wrote a contemporary YA trilogy, the Butterfly Novels, published by Hachette. When the rights to my adult books reverted to me, I decided to try the world of self-publishing. I renamed myself Aimee Alexander (my children’s names combined), edited and modernized the books, gave them new covers, and sent them out into the world. They proved so popular that I was approached by Amazon imprint Lake Union Publishing, who wished to republish my novel The Accidental Life of Greg Millar. This became the book’s third incarnation.
Such was its success that I was approached by a movie producer and am currently working on a screenplay. I have also published the Butterfly Novels in markets where I retain rights. More recently, I wrote and published Through the Barricades, a historical crossover novel. Then, and this may sound strange, one of the characters from the Butterfly Novels, Rachel, wrote a story through me, a fairy tale retelling called The Prince and the Pea. It was too long for a picture book and too short for middle grade. It was however, “just right” for Amazon Publishing, who have recently published it as a Kindle single.
What publishing path would you prefer for The Accidental Pirate?
I believe that children’s publishing is still very traditional, so I will definitely try that route first. I will continue to self-publish my adult fiction, because I love the freedom that indie publishing offers.