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January 23, 2017
By Nicole Audrey Spector
The inaugural BookLife Prize in fiction was awarded to T.J. Slee, author of the sci-fi/fantasy thriller 'The Vanirim.'

How can we empathize with a character who has no ability to feel? It’s a question you may ask yourself while reading The Vanirim, T.J. Slee’s fantasy novel and the winner of the BookLife Prize in Fiction. Surely it’s the kind of question that Slee (who declines to give his real name or any identifying information, other than he’s living in Denmark) might have worried would one day be asked about him. 

The incognito author says he left his previous post in counterterrorism to save his emotional sentience. “I got out because I found myself becoming an emotional dead zone,” Slee says. “That person I was becoming, that is who I channel when I write about Tully McIntyre [The Vanirim’s central character], and I am still fighting to not be him.”

Cooking with Genre

Part of what makes McIntyre and his supporting cast so intriguing is the fantastical world around them. There are ancient Nordic gods, a post-apocalyptic-future setting, and concepts of mind reading and human reprogramming. But you’ve also got, at the core, a fast-paced crime thriller.

Slee says the first draft of The Vanirim wasn’t a sci-fi fantasy novel. It was a “crime noir serial murder story.”

“Last year when I decided to publish it, I dragged it out into the light and I realized it was a three-legged dog. I had the idea for the main character and the supporting story, but the rest was just an orthodox crime novel. It was missing something,” Slee says. 

“The Danes call it pift: that little something that makes your recipe different. I remembered a lesson from a ‘master chef’ in a writing class who challenged us to take something we wrote in one genre, and rewrite it in another. So I thought to myself, okay, what if you gave your crime noir story a sci-fi/fantasy angle?”

To rewrite one’s entire novel in a different genre sounds like a complicated, even overwhelming, task. But, for Slee, who maintains a master chef way of thinking, it was an experiment in trusting his instincts—and his tools. “I approach writing like I approach cooking: take a whole lot of ingredients you don’t always see in the same recipe, throw them together, and see what happens,” Slee says.

Clearly, the experiment worked, and Slee is continuing the Midgard Cycle. The sequel to The Vanirim is among his many writing projects for 2017. “I’m a bit of a workaholic, and Scandinavia is a place with long, dark winter nights ideal for writing,” he says.

Slee doesn’t reveal what it is, but he says he has a day job that pays the bills. Any proceeds from books he donates straight to charity. After winning the BookLife Prize in Fiction, he instructed BookLife and Publishers Weekly to donate the $5,000 writing stipend directly to Doctors Without Borders.

“I walk with a limp from all the shit I carry on my shoulder,” Slee says. “When I check out of here, I want to have balanced my account. The writing itself isn’t redemptive, but I hope the result will be one day.” 

Slee also says he’s “writing and publishing for love, not money.” But this doesn’t mean that he’s without the ambition to build his brand. Slee is nursing a bigger dream.

Giving Back

“I want to be a catalyst in making it easy for all authors to give a little back, no matter how big or small,” Slee says. “I’ve literally just had an idea for a concept I call #readerzero. The pitch is this: what fiction fan wouldn’t like to be the first person in the world to read a new J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Dan Brown book? The concept is simple: writers auction/raffle the opportunity to be #readerzero, the first person in the world to read the first edition of their upcoming novel, before it is even sent to reviewers. Winners sign an NDA and get two weeks to read the book before it is sent out as an ARC. Profits from the auction/raffle go to the charity of the writer’s choice.” Slee is building on the idea on a Facebook page and plans to test it out with the sequel to The Vanirim.

For now, Slee will continue to self-publish (he’s had a heck of a debut year, after all), but if the right agent or publisher were to come along, one who could “help build his readership meaningfully,” Slee would sign on. “I don’t expect my own fund-raising efforts alone will make the big difference,” he says. “But to find ways to collaborate with others, I’ll need to build a big mailing list!”

Nicole Audrey Spector is writer whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.