Readers immersed in Douglas S. Reed’s Child of Gilead, the winner of the 2020 BookLife Fiction Prize, may be surprised to learn that the book initially began as a detective story. “What remained from the setting of that story was a corner store that I used to go to in my old Brooklyn neighborhood,” Reed says. “It sold candy, magazines, comic books, newspapers, anything and everything. It was a family-owned and -operated business.” Reed’s would-be detective story found its own path—and became an exceptional work of literary fiction along the way: Child of Gilead is a haunting, richly philosophical novel about a mother, a child, and a stranger who returns to his changing urban community after years away.
This year’s BookLife Prize Fiction Contest received more than 700 submissions across the categories of general fiction, mystery/thriller, YA/middle grade, romance/erotica, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror. Child of Gilead was selected as the general fiction finalist by guest judge Orna Ross, an author and the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, before ultimately being named the winner of the grand prize by PW. Ross says the book “fulfills 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. Fairy tales, 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 traveled’ it so vividly describes.”
With its numerous voices and textual threads, Child of Gilead takes an unusual narrative approach. Reed believes that the relationship between Hannah, who is an artist and teacher, and her son, “the Boy,” forms the story’s core. This bedrock allows for the book’s more mosaiclike pieces to work effectively without causing the novel to lose focus. “The key was having a very simple, yet strong, main idea: a young mother and child are visited by an old family friend whose arrival brings with it the potential to uncover dark family secrets always intended to stay hidden,” Reed says. “With that idea at its center, I added layer after layer to that foundation. All the while, I’d ask myself, ‘How does this connect to that original premise?’ Plot, characters’ desires and needs, themes—they all had to have a direct link to that central idea.”
Reed didn’t always see himself as a novelist. “I started off writing screenplays,” he says. “Coming out of college, it was my dream to one day produce independent feature films.” After working in L.A. in the film industry and as a script analyst in New York, Reed decided to pursue a love for working with young people through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. He now works as a primary school educator in Bermuda.
Despite his busy professional life, Reed never let writing be pushed too far to the side—and he has continued to push himself outside of his creative comfort zone. In writing his first novel, Garden’s Corner (1997), Reed first stepped away from screenwriting to create a self-contained narrative driven by a distinctive voice. “I focused on trying to create language that was clever, funny, and addictive as a way to capture the imaginative spirit of a ‘near-crippled’ Brooklyn teen who travels south in search of his best friend who vanished without a trace after a violent episode involving the two youths,” he says. Reactions to the book let him know that novelistic writing was well within his grasp. “People who have read Garden’s Corner say the hero, Little Speedy Copeland, is a wholly original character, one with a strong voice that is uniquely his own. The positive reception to this character gave me the confidence that I was on the right track with my writing,” Reed says.
Seeds from Reed’s professional life take root in his fiction. As a teacher, Reed encourages his students to write—and, in the process, encourages himself. “I try to get them to have fun developing their own voices,” he says. “I tell them, ‘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.” As a teacher, Reed has had the opportunity to observe the relationships between young mothers and their sons—and many of these observations helped inspire the characters of Hannah and the Boy. But Reed also pulled from more formative material. “Like Hannah, my mother was an artist who was very loving and attentive, yet who had this quiet intensity about her,” he says. “Like the Boy, I would watch her from afar as she worked on her art. As for the character of the Boy, I believe I brought a lot of myself. I was small, and a relatively quiet kid. I loved to read, something credited to a father who had a great in-house library that I never grew tired of.”
Among Reed’s earliest literary influences were coming-of-age novels like Catcher in the Rye and poets like Robert Frost. Reed acknowledges the poetic nature of his lines; many of them demand to be read slowly, others to be read aloud. “I love the rhythm of poetry when it’s spoken. When I was writing, I spent a lot of time reading and rereading the manuscript to see if it had a poetic rhythm to it, and I would sometimes make my edits based on that rhythm when I read it aloud,” he says.
On the opening page, the Boy reflects on the advice given to him by his mother, who urges him to “take the road less traveled,” an allusion to the Robert Frost poem. This is both a symbolic plea and a literal one: there are some streets to avoid at all costs. Those streets, Hannah tells the Boy, are home to “The Madness.” Among the book’s thematic threads is the tension between a parent’s desire to protect their child and recognition of the need to give that child freedom. “I was fortunate enough to grow up when parents allowed their children to explore. When parents didn’t shy away from warning us about the dangers that lurk outside. That’s where a parent as a teacher of wisdom comes in, as such teachings best equip a child with the strength to find his or her place in the world,” Reed says. “I hate to walk past or drive by an empty playground—a recurring image in Child of Gilead.”
It’s one of many recurring images that will linger with readers from Reed’s quietly captivating novel. Reed is taking his BookLife Prize win in stride. He’s open to signing with an agent and pursuing a traditional publishing deal—though there’s surely more than one path to finding readers. “Independent publishing has its challenges,” Reed says. “But, I must admit, it has been so liberating, and so fulfilling.”