This year’s BookLife Prize in Fiction welcomed more than 700 submissions across five categories. From among those entrants, each read and rated by a professional PW reviewer, 59 were named quarterfinalists. The 25 semifinalists were picked from those 59, and five finalists were chosen by a panel of guest authors who served as judges. These five books not only represent a striking range of styles and stories, but they demonstrate how the world of indie publishing is itself one of great variety and literary integrity. Here, we get to know our finalists in the running for the BookLife Grand Prize, which will be announced online and in the December 21 issue of Publishers Weekly. An exclusive early announcement will also appear on December 18 in the Washington Post Book Club newsletter.
Child of Gilead by Douglas S. Reed
When a wandering stranger enters the life of a mother and child living in a changing urban neighborhood, truths of the past come to light.
What the judge said:
“This is a book that manages to both fulfill the expectations of its genre while offering an original approach to story. Through a variety of voices, each compelling and reverent, the story unfolds as a morality tale that deftly handles multiple settings, styles, and points of view. Fairytales, biblical scenes and psalms, the stories of a loving mother, and the lonely journey of a mysterious old man, all coalesce to create a tale that itself takes the 'road less travelled' it so vividly describes.”— Orna Ross
Your prose features such an established, distinctive voice. Can you talk about how your writing has evolved throughout your career?
I look to write intensely personal stories fueled by my own life experiences. And in doing so, a distinctive voice seems to naturally emerge. Although I teach the little ones (8-9 year olds), I enjoy teaching them writing, and I try to apply the same principle even with such a young age group. I try to get them to have fun developing their own voices. I tell them to “write with some flava,” and that I want to read something of theirs that is uniquely them, written in a way where I know that no one else could have written it but them.
Tell me about the origins of Child of Gilead.
Believe it or not, Child of Gilead started off as a detective story. That version didn’t seem to have as deep of a connection to my own life experiences that I need in order to write stories. But what remained from the setting of that detective story was a corner store that I used to go to in my old Brooklyn neighborhood. It sold candy, magazines, comic books, newspapers, anything and everything. It was a family-owned and operated business but seemed a little out of place as the neighborhood was beginning to change. I began to imagine a story of a family trying to maintain and keep that corner store amid the madness.
This coincided with me beginning a second career in primary education. As I worked on the novel, my experiences as a teacher and dealing with young children from the inner city informed much of the observations and emotions that both characters, Hannah and the Boy, express in the story.
Can you talk about the use of stories, parables, and storytelling in the text?
In using stories, parables, and storytelling in Child of Gilead, my main goal was to try and get the reader to always ponder and ask, “What is the profound truth that is trying to be conveyed here?” And I like parables in particular because they are sparse and simply told, and yet they can be constructed in a way that sometimes is confounding to the reader.
Could you share some thoughts on striking a balance between storyline and the more philosophical and poetic elements of the book?
It was a very delicate balance. Almost like a dance. I wanted to raise questions centering around religion and philosophy but also maintain the story’s core of being a mystery surrounding the Old Man’s return to visit Hannah and the Boy. But in dealing with the philosophical elements in particular, I didn’t want it to be presented in a heavy-handed way. In order to do that, I attempted to “disguise” the book’s philosophical insights. I also found that the use of dreams in certain parts of the book enabled me to balance all of these components together at once.
Peacemaker by E.M. Hamill
In Peacemaker, the second book in the Dalí Tamareia Missions space opera series, the titular protagonist is tasked with a new diplomacy mission.
What the judge said: “Peacemaker is a delight: a twisty adventure featuring a shapeshifting "third gender" protagonist named Dalí, who must navigate a universe of drugs, sex, violence, politics, mercenaries, and alien intrigues. This is a sequel, but you don't need the first book to follow the action; you might want to read it to spend more time with Dalí, though.” — Tim Pratt
Your worldbuilding is exceptional. Can you share a bit about your creative process?
Thank you! I have a distractingly vivid imagination, which is both a blessing and a curse at times! I am a total seat-of-the-pants plotter, so the first draft is really just the pictures in my head coming out in written form. I’ll start with a basic idea of where my characters are starting out and where I want them to be by the end of the story. If there’s a particular scene I’m obsessed with getting out, I write that first and build bridges afterward to get there.
In later drafts, I do a lot of research on different topics. It’s important not to regurgitate the facts whole, but to use information to embellish and create an atmosphere. I’d already done a lot of research on space travel and genetics for the first story. For this book I researched heroin addiction, organized crime, and the United Nations, which is the basis for the Remoliad, a kind of galactic UN-type organization. My alien races seem to take inspiration from things my kids watched growing up—Gor might be inspired by Sully from Monsters, Inc. and the Shontavians possibly resemble an unholy union between Stitch in his most destructive form and Captain Gantu.
How would you describe your protagonist?
They’re a total badass, kind of a genderfluid James Bond. Dalí Tamareia is a person who is rebuilding themselves after a devastating loss. In Dalí, they were still mired in dysfunctional grief, self-medicating, and didn’t care whether they lived or died. But something happens which forces them to take notice of terrible things going on outside their own head. They are given a chance to make a difference as a covert operative in a clandestine galactic organization called the Penumbra, which tackles things like drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and organized crime from the inside. Dalí essentially avoids processing their own demons by taking on false identities to infiltrate illegal operations.
In Peacemaker, they are called upon to resume their own identity and their old life as a diplomat for a mission—without the unhealthy coping mechanisms they keep falling back on. I enjoyed seeing the character grow in this book.
We could all use an escape right now. But the best science fiction and fantasy so often reflects relatable human experience. As you write, do you draw from real world challenges and events, or do you set out to create purely new realities?
Space opera is probably the most relatable science fiction subgenre because it does tend to mirror the human struggle. I wrote the first draft of Dalí in 2014. I wanted to write a character who could kick ass, take names, think their way out of situations, and who was completely comfortable in their own skin expressing either gender. I wrote it because I don’t remember seeing myself reflected in the sci-fi or fantasy books I devoured growing up, and as a shy, awkward, genderqueer bookworm, I really could have used one. Situations in that first book do echo some of the trials of the LGBTQ community, but rather than being vilified for who we love and how we express our gender, human beings are more afraid that the increase in genderless mutations like Dalí spells death for the human race.
Which tends to come first: characters or story? Or are the two inseparable?
In Dalí’s case, they introduced themselves to me in a single paragraph. The story came later, but the two have evolved into being inseparable as the character has taken on their own life. Dalí completely derailed the story I wanted to tell in my original plans for the second book, which resulted in Peacemaker.
The Jade Tiger (The Penelope Harris Mystery series, Book 1)
In 1928 New York, a former opera singer and Shanghai nightclub owner sets out to track down a murderer.
What the judge said:
“The Jade Tiger is an engrossing and polished historical mystery that wins high marks for authentic settings, a multi-layered plot, and vibrant characters enhanced by clever dialogue and differentiating voices. Set in 1928, descriptions and vernacular phrasing reminds the reader of time and place but never gets trite.” — Mary Amato
Tell me about the origins of The Jade Tiger.
It's a cliché to say the idea came from a dream, but it did. I was very ill and had a series of vivid dreams that were so real they felt like memories. I dreamed there was an English house party in the early twenties with a young woman who sang “Habanera” from Bizet's Carmen during the interwar years. When I woke up, I remembered everything about the dream, the young woman, and the house. I wrote it down and went to listen to “Habanera” again. I found the live version from Jessye Norman's album Roots: My Life, My Song and was floored. I knew there was a story in it. I began to work and never gave up.
How did you go about creating the book's historical setting and capturing the language of the time?
From a writer's perspective, my family had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to hear all the best stories. I grew up in and around all of these places, the stories and history permeating my imagination. My grandfather showed me a speakeasy entrance when I was a kid and told me stories about bootleggers. The Hell's Kitchen speakeasy in The Jade Tiger came from this memory. Also, I had a relative who was a bootlegger. He smuggled rum from the Bahamas using trucks from the Chrysler dealership he managed. He lost his sight to bad alcohol, then his liberty. (Prohibition agents caught on to the truck scheme.) I studied the era for my degree in history, but my grasp of the time period comes from those conversations, and this sense I had as a child that the history they shared was something special. It's a real pleasure to revisit this history after all these years and share it with readers.
Can you talk about some of your influences as a writer? Does opera play a role in your life?
My mother is a retired librarian. She taught me to love books, and as a result, I love reading all types of mysteries. Opera plays a significant role in my life. My father got his first long-playing opera record from the Shell gas station where he worked in South Texas. He was nine. He would sit on his chair in between the gas pumps in Pearsall, Texas and listen to Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Tales of Hoffman, and La Traviata at top volume while he filled gas tanks and washed windshields. By the time I came around, he really saw no reason to change the habit. When I looked for a heroine, it seemed perfectly natural that she was an opera singer who dabbled in singing jazz and is a wicked-good shot. You can blame my parents for all of that.
Describe your writing process. Do you plot out and outline your work, or tend to jump right in?
I start with a big idea that excites me, then I use free-writing and dialogue exercises to get a feel for the characters. Sometimes I just write dialogue of two characters talking back and forth. Names are also key—it takes me a long time to find the character's name. If the name doesn't fit, I find myself writing about a different person than I intended. Before I write, the last step is a short synopsis to fully capture the big idea with a general idea of the plot points. I don't want to be too structured, so I allow room for the characters to move around and add to the story, but I try not to "pants" too much. The sad truth is I never have enough time to write. I need to get the best from the time I have. And a general idea of why I am writing and where I am going is the best solution.
What's next for your characters?
More murder and more opera, of course! Murder at the Met (the Penelope Harris Mystery book 2) is back from the editor and formatted for galleys as I type this. In the second book, Penelope and Thom's night of romance at the opera is interrupted by a failed manufacturing tycoon's sudden death. Thom just can't seem to talk Penelope out of reaching out to a fellow soprano in need. While he wraps up an investigation into a suicide on the Gold Coast of Long Island, Penelope pulls back the cover on a diabolical crime and finds herself facing the wrong end of her own gun. I am looking forward to sharing Penelope's new mystery with fans of The Jade Tiger!
Scaled (Book One of the Deep Skin series) by J.T. Ashmore
In Scaled, written by co-authors Jeanne Emmons and Tricia Currans-Sheehan under a pen name, a group of teenagers are afflicted with a mysterious skin condition after being exposed to meteor fragments that fall over the Midwest.
What the judge said:
“Scaled features a page turning plot, and a unique premise that mirrors our current pandemic in a way that both entertains and challenges us to do better. But the true heart and magic of this story are the dimensional, messy, yet relatable characters." — Rebecca Sky
Tell me a bit about your backgrounds.
Tricia grew up on a farm in Northwest Iowa with 10 brothers and sisters. Jeanne grew up in Southeast Texas in a family of educators. We each eventually earned PhDs and ended up teaching at a small Catholic college in Iowa with offices across the hall from each other. Tricia is a published writer of literary fiction, and Jeanne is a published poet. We have been in the same writing group for many years and have worked together on The Briar Cliff Review, a literary/art magazine. The idea to collaborate on a young adult sci-fi novel began in the lobby of a hotel at an AWP conference.
In a number of ways, Scaled seems to echo the experiences many of us are going through during the pandemic. Do you see the book in that context?
As the pandemic unfolded, we were astonished at how much life imitated art. We began the book years ago, long before anyone had heard of Covid-19. In fact, we’ve written two sequels, one of which, Outside In, is already published. The real-life pandemic was serendipitous, but we are glad that we had finished the trilogy before it hit and didn’t feel pressured to replicate the realities of this tragic disease.
The voices of your young characters are so genuine and distinctive. How did you capture such authenticity?
This is what we wrestled with most in the writing of our book. Through many revisions over several years, we continued to try to deepen and complicate our characters and their interactions. We wanted each character to have a distinctive voice without being a stereotype. We were both bookworms in school, so Hilde’s character is closest to our personal experience. Yet we struggled most with her voice. We wanted her vocabulary to be high-level without being pretentious, and her character to be both confident and insecure. We knew Zack would swear a lot and talk tough, but we envisioned him as hiding a wounded underside. Silas, with his style and flair, was the most enjoyable character to invent. Jeanne’s Southern Baptist upbringing came into play with both his language and his background. We consulted a wonderful LGBTQ sensitivity reader to help us deepen and develop Silas’s character, who moves past his angst to become the wisest of the three.
The circumstances in the book are extraordinary, but the novel explores issues of prejudice, fear, and alienation with such effectiveness. Talk about these real world anchors and how you balanced realism with the more fantastical elements?
The germ of our book was the idea of an extraterrestrial virus that caused a rash of scales to appear on adolescents and pregnant women. But our book, like our characters, is a hybrid between sci-fi and realism. We wanted our characters’ responses to their scales and their interactions with each other to be authentic and to flow from who they are. Characters in science fiction or fantasy still have to act like real people. Otherwise, the reader can’t identify with them. As for prejudice, fear, and alienation, these are rampant in our world. Discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion saturate our culture, and the oppression of scaled people in our novel mirrors this real-world injustice.
What was it like writing the story together?
Unlike most collaborators, we didn’t divide the chapters and write separately. We sat side by side, with one at the keyboard and the other close by at a desk. We talked out each sentence, struggled over word choices and punctuation, and came to consensus. Sometimes we disagreed, but we never argued. We felt we were joined at the brain at times, coming up with the same word or sentence simultaneously. We read the book aloud and washed it through our writing group several times, always trying to make our characters richer and more distinct. During the Covid pandemic, we worked on Zoom, sharing the screen. Our collaboration has enriched us as writers and friends.
Happily Ever His by Delancey Stewart
In Happily Ever His, Tess knows that her starlet sister is pretending to be dating Ryan McDonnell in order to distract the press from her divorce. But what she doesn’t expect is that, when she meets McDonnell, sparks fly.
What the judge said:
“What's better than one romance trope? Two! This instantly engaging romcom pasted a smile on my face from the first chapter. This author has penned medicine for our current uncertain times in this tale of a fake relationship leading to sweet and steamy love...with the wrong sister! Loved it!” — Alexandria House
Where do you find the most inspiration?
Honestly, everywhere. Since I write a lot of comedy, I find a lot of inspiration at home, because my husband and kids are completely insane and sometimes I think: "No one would ever believe this." A lot of my heroes just parrot things my husband has actually said. (Like when I told him I thought that if there were ghosts it was because people had died and left something unfinished, and he said, "Oh, yeah. You mean like a jigsaw puzzle?” That was in my last release!)
But in terms of setups and situations, the world offers plenty of them. My mind will take the smallest thing, like a woman wearing something crazy that looks hard to walk in, and suddenly I've got a heroine who has a penchant for insane clothing or a girl who is prototyping a new kind of footwear or... and then I figure out who would be the least likely hero for her and run with it.
Happily Ever His is great fun but also has heart and dimension. Can you talk about finding the sweet spot between pure entertainment and depth of character?
Thank you! That's really what I'm trying to achieve. I come from a literary fiction background. I studied the classics in school, my mom was an English teacher, and I was a strict literary fiction snob for the first 30 years of my reading life. But I also loved watching romcom movies and getting swept away in the fantasies that the romance genre celebrates. I think my background as a reader really gave me a fantastic foundation for combining those two loves—richly drawn characters that readers will care about and fun, light-hearted situations that will make them laugh and swoon. When a reader puts down a Delancey Stewart book, it is my sincere hope that they will feel like they've just spent time with some good friends. And if they think about the characters when the book is through, then I've done a good job! I think creating great characters is really about writing people I'd like to meet myself, people who I'd love to sit down and have a cocktail with.
The dialogue exchanges read so effortlessly. Do you have any dialogue tips for writers?
I think dialogue is an incredible tool in our kit, and I try to wield it thoughtfully. Dialogue can offer so much depth and insight into characters, can give you a great idea how they think, and what's important to them. And I definitely don't mean by having them talk about how they think and what's important to them. If you study people actually speaking to each other, what doesn't get said is almost as important as what people do say. We talk to cover as much as to reveal, and when two people are falling in love, or navigating complex situations, that's more true than ever. I love studying how people actually communicate and trying to be true to that. And I usually read exchanges out loud. If they don't sound like something people would really say aloud, I change them.
What are the ingredients that go into a successful romance novel?
There's no list, no magic bullet—and while I could run down a list of major plot points or beats that a romance usually hits (the meet cute! the key event, the first plot point!), I don't think that's what you're asking.
There are two main things I've learned to focus on as I write. One: I do my best to stay true to my own voice. I have a very specific way of framing the world and that's what makes a Delancey Stewart book different from any other book you'll read, so I work hard to ensure that my prose and my stories are authentic to me. That incorporates a lot of things, including my themes, which almost always include found family and acceptance. Two: I give readers a world to escape inside. I don't write fantasy, so I'm not inventing new realms, but I build a world that I know my readers want to visit, a place they'll want to go back to and think about when they're in their own lives. A good romance novel should sweep readers away, let them imagine themselves in the place, in the arms of the hero or heroine, and give them a mental break from the stresses of their "real" lives for a bit.