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December 12, 2019
By PW Staff
The grand prize for the 2019 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest is awarded to the novel Exit 8 by John Bragg.

Congratulations, John Bragg!

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 finalist from the general fiction category, Exit 8 centers on a Vermont farmer who faces down the loss of his family's land and legacy as a result of the expansion of the highway system.

Bragg’s Critic’s Report praised the novel, saying that “emotion permeates this quiet, yet deeply impactful work or fiction.” Author and BookLife Prize 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."

BookLife Editor Matia Madrona Query praised all of this year's finalists, saying that “the five authors whose books were ultimately selected are a vital testament to the quality of the literature being created by indie writers.” Below is an interview Publishers Weekly conducted with Bragg earlier this month. Also take a look at interviews with all five of the BookLife Prize finalists and profiles of the contest's guest judges. For more information about the BookLife Prize, check out all the finalists, semifinalists, quarterfinalists, and public entries.

Stay tuned for a January profile piece on John Bragg and Exit 8 to run in PW, and thank you to all of the BookLife Prize entrants this year!


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.