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November 28, 2022
By PW Staff
Get to know the five authors who were named finalists for this year's BookLife Prize in Fiction.

Congratulations to our five BookLife Prize finalists! The books were selected from a panel of five guest judges. Stay tuned for the announcement of the grand prize winner in the December 12 issue of BookLife. In the categories of General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Romance/Erotica, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror, and YA/Middle Grade, here are our finalists:


General Fiction

Boys in Exile by Richard Duggin

It’s always tempting to assume there are autobiographical elements in works of fiction. Did you draw from any aspects of your own childhood as you wrote Boys in Exile?

Boys in Exile came about because of my awareness of the rising tide of bullying, hazing, and social exclusion of unpopular teens by those higher up in the pecking order of social acceptance and power. I was appalled by the tragic manner in which bullying had advanced through social media, leading often to those bullied taking their own lives or seeking revenge with guns. I was drawn to think back on my on teen years and my constant lookout against being picked on by bigger boys with nothing better to do with their time than harass the weakest or smartest or disfigured among their peers.

Boys in Exile succeeds in entirely transporting readers back to the 1950s and perfectly captures the perspectives and experiences of pre-teen boys. How did you achieve such verisimilitude?  

As a pre-teen I both experienced and witnessed bullying at the hands of the “tough kids” at school. We were all aware that whole gangs of boys were prevalent in big cities, and engaged in “rumbles" with each other to protect their blocks-long “turfs” from being trespassed and their “chicks” from being harassed. Blackboard Jungle had just come to the movie theaters and The Amboy Dukes was being banned from hometown libraries. The story and characters in Boys In Exile are an amalgam of those I’ve known and those I’ve created. The main character, Elliott Street, has been “exiled” for eight weeks to a summer camp in the New Hampshire’s White Mountains by an overprotective mother who, having lost one son to war — Elliott’s brother Calvin — fears losing a second to the ravages of the polio virus shrouded in the summer heat of their suburban home. At camp, he is assigned a bunk in Timber Wolf cabin with nine other boys from different towns and cities in the Northeast They have all been promised they will “make new friends and learn life-long skills,” according to the camp’s brochure. What Elliott does learn is how to survive running the ancient gauntlet of bullying and hazing that fashions the man from the boy.

What can you share about your creative process?

I’ve been writing fiction from the time I was eight years old until the present—70 plus years of recording the lives of flawed people trying find their place in world and people to love. My journey toward learning my craft led me to pester my English teachers in high school, to an undergraduate degree in writing at New Hampshire, and a graduate MFA degree at Iowa. I taught creative writing at the University of Nebraska Omaha where I built a BFA degree in creative writing and an MFA degree program in Fiction, Poetry, and Playwriting. Through those years I honed my own craft from what I learned teaching it, and found magazine editors to buy my stories, and publishers to take on, so far, four of my books of fiction.

What are you writing now?  

I’m working on a new novel, again about young people in a small midwestern farm town whose lives are chafing against their legacy of taking over the family farm and cattle businesses that are passed down by grandparents and parents who have held the land in trust for each new generation since the1800s. The new generation of heirs-in-waiting, however, are choosing to join the military, or go to college distant from their roots, or into tech or financial businesses in order to escape the stifling responsibility of their rural heritage.


Death No Stranger by Regan Barry

As you set out to write a new novel, how much do you plot out beforehand? Do you always know the ending?

I'm not a big plotter, though sometimes I wish I was as I would probably write a lot faster. But I find that I produce my best writing and the stories come to me most vividly when I sit down with only a bare-bones idea of what will happen. For Death No Stranger I had a fairly firm idea of the ending because it's a stark reminder of a scene from the main detective, Shauna Holt's, life. In the sequel, When Blood Burns, I began the book without knowing how the murder would be solved or the murderer caught, so that was quite an exciting ride! Luckily the answers came to me as the story unfolded.

 How do you manage to keep readers guessing as a mystery unfolds?

I try to leave each chapter with a question still hanging in the air, whether it's a new fact to be slotted into place or a development in Shauna's relationship with her Detective Sergeant, Will Fiske. I also write from other major characters' points of view, so the reader only experiences their sometimes unreliable perspective on events. 

 The procedural aspects of Death No Stranger are so tightly crafted. How do you achieve such realism?

I know how important authenticity is to crime fiction readers, so I do lots of research into British police procedures. Information on many policies and requirements is readily available on the internet, and there are Facebook groups such as Cops and Writers where authors can pose questions to serving and retired police officers. Of course, serving in the police force is about more than following rules and procedures. I also listen to an excellent BBC Radio 4 program called It's a Fair Cop, where a former police sergeant tells hilarious and informative stories from his career and enlightens the audience about police culture. 

 What can you share about the subsequent books in the Holt and Fiske series?

Book two in the series, When Blood Burns, is already out and deals with the murder of a young woman at an archaeological dig on a Cambridgeshire fen. Holt and Fiske discover links to the fatal crash of a Spitfire during World War Two, leading them to delve into local history, prominent families, and ties with the US. What particularly appealed about writing When Blood Burns was researching the historical background of the novel, so for book three, Mask of Fear, I'm going to double down on that aspect of writing. The inspiration for book three is a medieval manor house called Baddesley Clinton, an absolutely fascinating place with priest holes, ancient fireplaces, secret passageways, the whole shebang. I have a strong premonition that a body will be discovered hidden there somewhere.



Wild at Heart by Stacy Gold

The Washington State setting is almost a character in and of itself! Are you familiar with the area?

Yes, I am. I lived in Seattle for 15 years, and during that time I hiked, ski-toured, or backpacked at least 80% of the trail miles in the book. I've spent my adult life living, working, and playing in the outdoors, so I can't resist making Mother Nature a character in all my books. Incorporating my love of the outdoors and adventure sports like skiing, mountain biking, backpacking, and whitewater rafting and kayaking lets me put my characters in stunning settings and unique situations that test their mettle and show who they truly are. 

What ingredients go into a satisfying and successful romance?

A satisfying and successful romance should give readers all the feels by the end...They should laugh, cry, hope, dream, feel satisfied, be surprised, learn something new, and maybe even get a little turned on while reading. A truly great romance also has to have thoughtful, nuanced writing, a unique story you can't stop thinking about with unexpected twists and turns, and deep, layered characters you can't help rooting for who drive the narrative forward. 

As you’re creating your characters, how much of their personalities and attributes do you establish before writing? 

Since my stories are inherently character driven, I spend hours filling out detailed spreadsheets with more than sixty questions about each of my main characters, and shorter versions for secondary characters. These include everything from physical characteristics, family history, and educational background to more internal attributes like their biggest regrets, dreams, and fears, how they express worry/anger/joy, nervous tics, and more. Still, sometimes my characters surprise me and I learn something new about them while writing the story. Wild at Heart has a twist toward the end with one of the secondary characters that was not in my plans at all when I started writing, but the character demanded it. 

What’s your next project?

Finishing my three-book Wild Love series that started with Wild at Heart. Right now I'm editing the second book, Drive Me Wild. The series centers around three women who are best friends, and each is the main character in her own book. Book two is an opposites attract story about a sharp businesswoman raised in Texas who is firmly focused on being financially independent... Followed by someday finding the perfect husband she's always dreamed about and having the perfect life. I grew up in the South, so I'm really enjoying writing this always polished, always in control, and always underestimated southern woman with a spine of steel. Especially when she meets a sweet, introverted woodworker who ticks none of the boxes on her checklist (but ticks a whole lot of others!) and makes her question what she really wants in life. It's slated for release in the first half of 2023. Then I'll be writing book three, a second chance at love story titled Wild About You, for release in 2024.



The Island Mother by Jon Cohn

What can you share about your background as a writer?

I like to think of myself more as a storyteller than a writer. My journey began in high school when I started writing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns for my friends. From there my love of storytelling evolved in film school to focus more on crafting screenplays for class projects and short film competitions. It only took a couple of years working in the film industry for me to get burnt out on the LA lifestyle, so I moved back to my hometown of San Diego to start a new career in a very different kind of storytelling. I’ve been a professional designer in the board game industry for nearly a decade, specializing in creating narratively-driven horror games. Even while working in the games industry, I never stopped writing. I spent nearly four years pouring all of my free time into an urban fantasy novel that will probably never see the light of day, but it was a fantastic educational experience in long-form writing. After that, I scaled back a bit and wrote some short stories, two of which ended up winning contests. It really gave me the confidence boost I needed to sit down again and start working on The Island Mother.

The island setting is so central to the storyline. Can you talk about establishing such a vivid sense of place and how it ties into the horror aspects of the novel?

The Hawaiian islands hold a special place in my heart, as both a tourist and a student of cultural folklore. In 2021 I was lucky enough to have my honeymoon at a Hawaiian resort that has more than a few passing similarities to the one in The Island Mother. When I got home, I really wanted to challenge myself by juxtaposing horror and beauty in a way that I hoped would appropriately serve a story. One of the major themes of The Island Mother revolves around the many forms that toxic relationships can take, and how quickly an idyllic situation can turn into a nightmare. Much like the luxury resort where the story is set, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by beauty, and miss the red flags hiding just under the surface until it’s too late. 

Scary stories are especially gratifying to readers. What do you think makes them so alluring?

I believe horror presents opportunities to tell deeply personal and true stories. The world is full of real things for us to fear, and the majority of them are things that are almost completely out of our control. When we put ourselves into the shoes of a character who finds themselves up against vampires, ghosts, or sea monsters, it's like they’re going up against the physical manifestations of the things that haunt us in real life. When they’re (hopefully) triumphant at the end, we celebrate with them, feeling their relief at persevering against all odds. There's something empowering about watching someone go to hell and back, and find their strength along the way. By the end of the story we haven’t just experienced fear, we’ve faced it head-on and survived.

What are you working on now?

Imagine if Celebrity Big Brother took place in a haunted version of H.H. Holmes Murder Castle, but the show was run by the evil organization from the movie Cabin in the Woods. That’s the elevator pitch for Slashtag, which takes a more satirical approach to many of the tropes we’ve come to expect in the horror genre. While it’s a more straightforward horror story than The Island Mother, it also brings a healthy dose of comedy to the mix that I'm really excited to share. In many ways, it’s a love letter to some of my favorite horror authors like Shirley Jackson, Grady Hendrix, and Stephen Graham Jones. Slashtag will be released mid-2023.

YA/Middle Grade

Sleeping Around by Morgan Vega

 You write so convincingly about a young person’s experience with the foster care system. Do you have personal experience with foster care?

Since publishing Sleeping Around, I've been fostering for the first time with my partner! Many people say how they've always known they wanted to be a parent, but I've always known I wanted to be a foster parent. The research that went into this book didn't start as research for this book—it started as research to learn about the foster care system, what challenges foster youth face, and how I could be the best foster parent possible.

On the cover of Sleeping Around—which I digitally drew and designed!—my main character Coralee (Corey) holds a violin case and a trash bag. Many kids are dropped off at foster homes with few belongings stuffed in a trash bag, and much of the time they're missing the essentials like a toothbrush and soap. I can now attest to that from experience as a first-time guardian. However, through this book, I was also able to donate to HumanKind, a local non-profit human services organization. My pre-order and first-month sales went to their Cases for Kids program, which provides foster youth with a book bag or duffle bag full of new items. I hope to continue supporting foster children—through donating, fostering, and educating others on the flaws of the foster system.

One of the most endearing aspects of Sleeping Around is Coralee’s relationship with music and her instrument, Violin. I can’t help but wonder if you are also a musician or have especially strong ties to music?

Yes, music is an integral part of my life! My mom is a retired music school teacher, so music filled my childhood. I played the flute in band, played the piccolo in marching band, and sang in choir in middle and high school. I even performed in my high school's musical theater productions. However, I started out taking violin lessons in elementary school, which inspired my main character Corey. 

Sleeping Around begins with Corey leaving her current foster home for freshman year at Borns College. She's ready to move into Harmony Hall, the dorm dedicated to music majors. (Which, if you've read the book's description, you'll know goes terribly wrong.) Corey's determination to become a professional violinist shows that, despite the hardships that she has faced all too young, she's remained passionate and independent. She's a tad cynical but doesn't define herself as a victim. Instead, she's an artist with a colorful, complex soul. 

Like Corey, I’ve always turned to music during hard times, not only as an outlet but as an act of self-care. When kids started bullying me in elementary school, I turned to singing and songwriting to process my experiences and emotions, and I never stopped. I'm constantly using the Voice Memos app on my phone to record lyrics and melodies. Sometimes I record them and upload them on SoundCloud. Pre-pandemic, my sisters and I would perform together at local breweries. Maybe one day I'll get the band back together!

What do you hope readers take away from Sleeping Around?

Sleeping Around is about finding where you belong, learning to be vulnerable, and not demanding perfection from yourself before you'll accept love. I’ve struggled with all of those things, and I think most people have too. We all make mistakes. We all fail at times. We all have faults we're working to improve. But I hope my readers know they don't have to be perfect to be loved.

What do you plan to write next?

I'm working on three young adult books at the moment! However, I hope to publish a companion novel to Sleeping Around next year—following Corey's best friend from college, Emma Anderson. Without giving anything important away, in Sleeping Around, Emma struggles with moving past her sheltered youth and deciding her own beliefs and values. Many of us deal with figuring out who we are outside of our families and communities when we go to college. I hope to explore these themes more in this next book. So be sure to follow my website for updates!