This year, the judges of the BookLife Prize—bestselling authors, the editorial staffs of Publishers Weekly and BookLife, and PW reviewers—looked at 730 submissions before selecting just five titles (one from each of the contest’s categories) for the finals. The grand prize winner will be announced on December 16. We caught up with the six authors who reached the 2019 BookLife Prize finals to talk about their inspirations, crafting unconventional characters, reaching readers, extraterrestrials, loveable rogues, and more.
JOHN BRAGG: WRITING "ONE PIECE AT A TIME"
In John Bragg’s Exit 8, the finalist for the General Fiction category, a solitary man witnesses the loss of his family farm as it is encroached upon by urban sprawl. Author and guest judge Adam Pelzman called Exit 8 "a poignant and beautifully written novel, a heart-wrenching story of one man's voiceless yet dignified battle against the advances of modern society.”
Can you share a little about your background?
My background? I never know how to answer that question. I grew up in suburban USA, went to college, then discovered climbing. The years that followed have been devoted to climbing, working in the climbing and outdoor industries, family, and learning how to write.
How about your development as an author. Have you always written? Who or what inspires you?
I’ve always read, but have not always written, and when I read, or hear, writers talking about how, even as children, they’ve wanted to write, how they knew they would be writers, I wonder how I came to write. I don’t think of myself as a writer with a capital W. I like the work. I have always found great pleasure in making things, and writing, for me, is making something. I designed and typeset both of my novels, and producing the actual, physical object of the book has been almost as rewarding as creating the text itself.
What is your writing process like?
I work in bits and pieces starting from an idea, an image, a few words, a bit of conversation, and write what comes from that. It could be a paragraph or two, or several pages. I save all these things in the hope that eventually they will assemble themselves into a story. I’ve never been able to start at the beginning and write forward to the end. I don’t plot things out, and the few times I’ve tried to outline the book ahead of time, I ended up off on a side-track and went back to creating the pieces. Maybe it’s my work as a carpenter where you build a porch, a deck, a house one piece at a time. When it’s finally time to produce a manuscript with a beginning, a middle, and an end, I storyboard on a large corkboard to get the overall picture of what I’ve got, and to work on fitting all those bits and pieces into a cohesive story.
Your protagonist’s pain as he faces losing his family farm is so palpable to readers. Have you ever felt such a powerful connection to a particular location?
Place is very important to me, but it’s more than a place. It’s place in the sense of everything around me. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and how I look at and see what’s there is, I think, a large part of who I am. In the same way, what my characters see, and how they see it, what they notice and what they don’t, is a big part of who they are.
As you begin working on a new project, would you say that you tend to discover your characters first? The storyline? Something else?
Both of the novels I’ve written started with an imagined image. In the case of The Broom of God, it was a gaucho on a horse high above a vast Patagonian lake. For Exit 8, it was a farmer, an older man, standing in a hayfield looking south down the Connecticut River Valley. From there, from that image, the story unfolds. Well, at least it has twice.
I’m working on a project that, in a similar manner, has started from an image—a man returning for the funeral of his great-aunt to the small, dark New England village where he spent his youth. At the start, I don’t know who this person is or what will happen. It’s only a moment, but what I have is the feeling that it’s a moment that begins something. I have to write to find out what that something is—with this project, after some sixty thousand words, I still don’t know where it’s going.
Are you looking to publish Exit 8 traditionally?
I have submitted to agents in the past with no success. I find writing a query letter to be an experience somewhat similar to going to the dentist. I’m not good at it. I’m not opposed to working with a mainstream publisher, but am not actively pursuing that option.
B.C. CHASE: ALIEN LIFE AND THE LIMITS OF HUMAN AWARENESS
B.C. Chase, the finalist for the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror category, writes books that explore the space where human knowledge ends and possibilities begin. In Pluto’s Ghost, a science fiction novel as filled with humor as it is high tension, readers meet Jim, a 75-year-old who has been selected by aliens to join a crew voyaging to Pluto. Guest judge Tim Pratt praised Pluto’s Ghost, calling it “a compulsively readable, twisty first-contact tale… full of physical, mechanical, and moral disasters.”
Your protagonist Jim is just about the least likely person you’d expect to become an intergalactic hero, but he rises to the occasion. Did you base him on anyone you know?
As far as characters go, truth is always stranger than fiction. I therefore have someone in mind as a starting point for any character I create. Jim was loosely based on my grandfather—particularly his sense of humor.
If you had to come up with a succinct way to describe your books, what do you think it would be?
Mind-blowing science meets edge-of-your-seat thrills.
Are there any particular themes or motifs that appear again and again in your work, even if you don’t mean them to?
The dichotomy of morality and science that is sometimes encountered as humankind digs deeper and deeper into the secrets of the world’s underpinnings (particularly in the area of biological research).
Do you believe that extraterrestrials are already in our midst?
I have two thoughts on the subject of alien life. One is that our understanding of life on our own planet is, despite all our advances, abysmally limited. When Jacques Cousteau first began exploring the ocean depths on a mission of understanding, the discoveries he brought back to earthlings were truly paradigm-shifting. His book Octopus and Squid: The Soft Intelligence told a story of active intellects full of personality and a penchant for strategic thinking. The largest obstacle to our understanding of octopuses is that we have no way to communicate with them. If we could, I truly wonder if we wouldn’t find them to be even more cognizant than we think. This is the thesis on which my current project, a novel about an octopus that communicates with divers on the sea floor, is based. My second thought on alien life is that extraterrestrials (meaning intelligences not native to earth) are indubitably in the universe but that they are so different from us and so much smarter than us that we fail to recognize them, even when they are right here in our midst. A careful and open-minded study of religion and spiritual phenomenon has left me with this conclusion. I deal with this topic in my Paradeisia trilogy.
Are you looking to publish your book traditionally?
I am open to the idea.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a book about an octopus that reaches out to communicate with divers on the sea floor.
CARRIE RUBIN: WRITING THE OUTSIDER HEROINE
In Carrie Rubin’s suspense novel Fatal Rounds, a recent medical school graduate with schizoid personality disorder discovers that she is being stalked by a stranger. In Rubin’s critic’s report, the reviewer called the book “a splendidly peculiar mystery,” and of Rubin’s heroine, said: “[she] will hold readers in her grip—even when she sometimes has slips of judgment—and she won't let go until she has finished wringing the truth out of every question.” Author Rachel Howzell Hall, who selected the book as the Mystery/Thriller finalist, noted that the story “starts out as a 'whodunnit' and ends as a 'whydunnit’” and called it “a brisk, page-turning read.”
Your protagonist Liza is complex, even coming across as unreliable. How did you tap into her psychological state as you were writing?
As an introvert, I understand the need for solitary downtime and the tendency to keep our inner circle small. With Liza, who has schizoid personality disorder, it’s almost like introversion on steroids. She doesn’t have the desire to form close relationships, and she doesn’t let societal norms confine her, but she also understands that life often requires otherwise. So over time she’s learned to play the game, even if she doesn’t always play it like others might. That’s where her unreliability comes in. Between my research of the personality disorder and my own understanding of introversion, that’s what I tapped into to get inside her head.
How would you describe your books? Do you see it as a benefit that your writing doesn’t neatly fit into a box?
I tend to describe them as genre-bending medical thrillers or medical thrillers with a twist, because although they’re in the thriller genre and have medical settings, most include an additional element, such as a social theme (Eating Bull) or a supernatural aspect (The Bone Curse). With Fatal Rounds, that added element is a psychological bent. Hopefully this gives them a unique spin, but there’s always a risk to crossing genres—you don’t want to disappoint fans of a particular genre—so I try to keep them firmly anchored in the medical thriller realm.
Tell me more about your research on schizoid personality disorder and schizophrenia.
Part of it stemmed from my med school days, particularly the schizophrenia aspects since I saw that more commonly in my psychiatric rotations than schizoid personality disorder. The rest stems from downloading journal articles and reviewing the conditions in the DSM-5 while I was writing the novel. But although I tried to be accurate with the disorders, not everyone fits into nice little textbook boxes. We all have individual personalities. So some differences seem only natural.
What is your writing process like?
I’m an outliner, so I like to have my scenes and characters planned out before I start writing. It’s just easier for me to write the first draft that way. That being said, I’m never boxed in. New ideas crop up while I write, and some characters morph into someone else entirely, but for me it’s easier to deal with those changes during the first draft phase than later on.
You landed an agent in part as a result of your BookLife Prize critic’s report, as BookLife covered in an earlier article. Any bites so far from publishers?
Not yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If not, I’ve already got a cover designed for Fatal Rounds and a professional edit, so I’ll indie publish again if need be. And thanks to the BookLife Prize, I now have a review blurb too!
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing the third draft of the second book in my Benjamin Oris series, where a man of science gets caught up in otherworldly situations. It’ll be ready for beta readers and final revisions soon.
LAUREN SMITH: LOVE AND THE SINGLE ROGUE
In Lauren Smith’s regency romance Never Kiss a Scot (an addition to the League of Rogues series) heroine Joanna Lennox reluctantly falls in love with exactly the man she’s been warned about—and he’ll do anything to steal her away and marry her. Romance author Rebekah Weatherspoon called the book “a fun, sexy historical ride that sucks you in from page one. Joanna is an immensely likable and refreshing heroine and Brock is a hero worthy of her love. You can't go wrong with a sexy man in a dark library and marriage on the run.”
Tell me about the League of Rogues series.
The League of Rogues was born one summer evening while I was walking through the portal to Magdalene College in Cambridge, England. I had recently learned about the four-hundred-year-old carvings on the doors that helped inebriated young lords and gentleman find their proper dormitories at night. I couldn’t help but picture a group of young men coming back to the dormitories and what trouble they might have been up to. In that single moment, the League was born. They came to me fully formed, a group of powerful English lords during the Regency era, who were driven by notorious reputations, but who also each have a story to tell of friendship, undying loyalty, love, and loss.
Never Kiss a Scot has about as much humor as it does sizzling romance. Can you talk about finding the balance between these two elements?
For the longest time, I didn’t think I was any good at writing humor, but working with an editor who is a man with a sense of humor has changed my writing for the better. My editor reminded me that men have a different mindset and a different type of humor. While crafting humorous scenarios such as the men betting upon a heroine’s next attempt to escape, or when a heroine uses her natural wit to talk circles around a hero, balance becomes crucial. Humor should occur in natural moments (not usually in times of danger), but it can occur in the midst of passion. At the end of the day, a writer should strive to ask themselves, does the humor feel natural? Does it feel forced? Not all characters are funny, just as not all characters are brooding and intense. Listen to your story, listen to your characters, let them guide you to what feels natural.
Your books feature tough-minded, intelligent heroines who fall in love. How do you find them their perfect matches?
I’ve seen a lot of discussions lately about toxic masculinity and how it’s wrong for women to expect powerful men to rescue them. I set out to address what I call “positive masculinity” as much as possible when I write. All of my heroes are masculine. Masculinity isn’t toxic as long as the heroes understand several key things about women: 1. Heroines do not need protection because they are helpless. 2. Women are just as intelligent as men. 3. Women are equal partners in life and marriage (despite the fact that in reality, this was rare for the time period, I strive to craft believable relationships). 4. Women are allowed to be vulnerable, to be feminine, and still be considered strong characters. Every hero I create becomes a perfect match for my heroines because they recognize and accept the above concepts. Each pairing of a hero and heroine should be a balance when it comes to personality traits, passion, and intellectual pursuits.
Do you spend much time researching the historical eras your books are set in?
I definitely research. The Regency era is the most comfortable time period for me because of the many resources available about fashion, politics, architecture, science and music. One of the most rewarding things I find during research are the kernels of inspiration for current or future stories. Almost all of my historical romances include a tiny nugget of fascinating history. My recent release, Seducing an Heiress on a Train, featured a true account of the cursed diamond from India called the Koh-i-noor that was given to Queen Victoria. It was a real delight to work this into the story while the hero and heroine are hiding out in a library during a crowded ball.
What do you think is so timelessly appealing about a great love story?
I’ve heard it said that there are few things stronger in the universe than love. A parent’s love for a child, a person’s love for their significant other, a soldier’s love for their country, a human’s love for an animal. Every great story in the history of our lives on this planet has included some type of love story (romance or otherwise). People are moved by love stories, from the early passionate spark to the burning fire of a deeper long-lasting love. Love is the one emotion all humans have in common. We seek it out whether it’s a love for our family, our friends, our neighbors, or lovers. I believe that’s why love stories will always be timeless and will always have a strong readership. What could possibly be better than a story about love?
Are you seeking a traditional publisher? What are you working on now?
I am currently juggling four book projects: a paranormal romance involving a vampire who falls in love with a fox shifter; a historical romance that begins in England and moves to New Orleans in the late Regency period, for Kristen Proby’s new publishing house Lady Boss Press; and two books for Penelope Ward and Vi Keeland’s Cocky Club series. When not working on those, I have a fun historical romance series about feminist heroines working in the sphere of men and I will have my agent shop this proposal to the big five publishers.
MELANIE HOOYENGA: MEAN GIRL, REDEEMED
In young adult author Melanie Hooyenga's The Edge Rules, a teen bully falls in love, learns to snowboard, and decides to leave behind her mean girl persona. Author Amanda Hocking called the book, which is the third title in the Rules series, “a thoroughly enjoyable, fast read [featuring a] fully layered teenager who has made of a lot of mistakes but genuinely wants to be better."
How would you describe the Rules Series to readers?
The Rules series follows three friends as they navigate life and love while playing extreme sports. The first book, The Slope Rules, is about Cally as she moves to a new school and figures out how to be her own person without her friends back home—including standing up to the mean girl and head Snow Bunny, Brianna—while doing amazing tricks and flips on skis. The Trail Rules, book two, follows Cally’s friend Mike (Mikayla) as she learns to stop doing what everyone else thinks is best for her and follow her own trail—while learning to mountain bike with a new group of friends.
The Edge Rules is Brianna’s story. She’s the mean girl from the first two books and by the time readers get to book three, they most definitely do not like her. She’s an entitled, spoiled, bully who has to come to terms with all the bad things she’s done in the past, and completely recreate herself and her life in the process. She falls for a boy who would never meet her parents’ standards, and he convinces her to try snowboarding—something she’s always ridiculed in the past—and he teaches her that you can be a good person and still have people respect you.
The best reviews I’ve received are from readers who said they went into The Edge Rules determined to hate Brianna, but that I made them love her by the end. (Yes, I read all my reviews!)
Is your heroine Brianna based on anyone you know?
Brianna is 100% a figment of my imagination. I’d already laid the groundwork for her character in the first two books, and the main thing I had to remember while writing was to let her say all the rude, nasty things that popped into my head. Every other character I’d written to that point would think the bad thing, but never ever say it. Brianna doesn’t have a filter, so it was fun letting her say whatever was on her mind. Of course, she usually paid for that afterwards.
Brianna is greatly flawed, but evolves a great deal throughout the novel. What would you say is her most significant transformation?
I think Brianna’s most significant transformation is realizing that you can’t control what other people think of you or how they behave toward you, you can only control your own actions. She learned from her parents early on that being in control was of utmost importance, but when her father leaves them at the end of the first chapter, she starts to realize that maybe appearances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Changing how she treats other people doesn’t come easy, and at first it’s simply exhaustion that weakens her resolve to be mean. But as she gets to know the kids from community service and lets them see the real her, she discovers that pretending isn’t nearly as rewarding as being your true self.
Do you carefully plot out your books? Do the characters ever end up taking you in directions you didn’t anticipate?
I am a plotter through and through. I can’t start writing a book until I know how it’s going to end, but that’s not to say I stick completely to my outline. When I’m first brainstorming a book idea, my notes are messy and chaotic and make no sense to anyone but me. Then I take those notes and arrange them into a timeline—I literally draw a line with the three-act structure and find a home for every plot nugget. That helps me see the gaps in the story. After that I write my outline, which has anywhere from one to five sentences for each chapter.
Even with all this plotting, I always leave wiggle room for my characters to do their thing. Every character I’ve written has taken me in surprising directions, but I use my outline to keep them on track. The only time I had to completely change the second half of my outline was with The Trail Rules when—SPOILER ALERT—Mike decided she no longer liked her boyfriend and liked a different boy. The new boy was only supposed to be a distraction but he ended up being one of my favorite love interests.
Can you talk about your decision to self-publish the series?
When I first started writing novels in 2007, I swore up and down that I would never self-publish. I spent years studying the publishing industry, following agents’ blogs (and then later their Twitter accounts), and building a network of writing friends. My third novel had several full requests, but ultimately the agents passed because they weren’t sure how to market my contemporary time travel novel. (Since then magical realism has become more well known—I think my timing was just off.) My background is in graphic design and I’d started designing book covers for writers who were self-publishing, so after a year-and-a-half querying agents, I asked myself if I wanted my book to waste away in my computer, or did I want to try this self-publishing thing?
I published Flicker at the end of 2012, which locked me into self-publishing the rest of the series because agents don’t want a book that’s part of a series—they want something new. When I started writing The Slope Rules, I decided I would try the traditional publishing route again. I came close with a couple agents—two passed because they already had something similar on their list—but at the beginning of 2017, I decided to publish The Slope Rules myself. Which meant the rest of the books in the series would also be self-published.
I’ve never regretted my decision to go this route, and when I look at the big picture, I’d love to be a hybrid author, publishing both on my own and with a bigger house. I’ve thrown my hat into the querying ring once again with my latest novel and two agents are reading now, so we’ll see what the future holds for me.
Are you in touch with your readers? Any fun stories to share?
My favorite part of being a writer is telling stories and seeing people’s reactions. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and seriously love it when people reach out after finishing one of my books.
My favorite story happened at the launch party for The Edge Rules. A teacher friend told me one of her students would be coming and that she was a “huge fan.” When we finally got to talk, she showed me her T-shirt, which said “BRILLIANT” and had the definition of the word. Then she said she wore it “because that’s what your books are. They’re brilliant.” Needless to say, I hugged her, took selfies with her, and sent her home with a free book. The lesson of this story: gush over writers and we will give you free things.