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January 28, 2019
By Daniel Lefferts
For inspiration, BookLife Prize–winner Michael F. Stewart looks to his daughters.

Michael F. Stewart, the winner of the 2018 BookLife Prize for his YA novel Ray vs. the Meaning of Life, is drawn to narratives that move between platforms. “I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of tech and story,” he says.

Stewart’s past projects include a storytelling app called NARR8R, which allowed users to create multimedia “ad hoc social networks” rooted in specific locations or periods of time. He also worked with Scholastic Canada on a story-based social media platform called Bully for You that aimed to teach kids about cyberbullying. And he’s been commissioned to write the second volume of Weirdwood Manor, an interactive multimedia app whose first volume was a runner-up for Apple’s app of the year in Canada, where Stewart lives, in 2015.

By comparison, Ray vs. the Meaning of Life, which is just a plain old book, may seem like a low-tech effort. But, in fact, the novel was inspired in part by social media.

The story, which BookLife Prize judge Rebecca Sky called “darkly hilarious,” centers on a young man named Ray, who, in order to inherit his grandmother’s million-dollar trailer park, must figure out the meaning of life. On social media, of course, attempts to articulate the meaning of life abound.

“We’re all on Facebook, and we all get these inspirational quotes and memes and that kind of thing,” Stewart says. “Generally speaking, I ignore them. But I started to look at them a bit more. I realized: You know what? A lot of them are pretty useful. There’s a lot of wisdom in what are sometimes eye-rolling quotes. What was missing was context.”

Stewart found this to be true of books by gurus, as well, such as those by Robin Sharma, a Canadian self-help author. “I noticed how people really took to inspiration wrapped in the envelope of story,” Stewart says. But, in the case of gurus, the life advice always took precedence over the story. “I thought they could probably do a better job on that front,” he says.

Stewart also took inspiration from his four daughters, two of whom are in their teens. “At the time they were asking questions like, ‘How do I figure out what I want do with my life?’ ” he says. “For me, novel writing has really become me helping answer questions from my kids.”

Stewart’s daughters are also his first readers—and critics: “If it doesn’t pass their test, it’s not going to pass anyone else’s.”

Ray vs. the Meaning of Life, which stars a cast of oddball characters, including a motivational speaker in the mold of Sharma, seems to have met their criteria. Stewart’s elder two daughters say it’s their favorite of his books—the one that most resonates with them. “They’ve asked the same questions Ray has, and they’re working on the same journey,” Stewart says.

"You want an editor who’s smarter than you are."
For now, Ray exists only as a traditional novel, but Stewart is cooking up ideas about how to bring it to other platforms. He thinks the guru character, Dalen Anders, deserves a spin-off. “I have toyed with bringing him to life: giving him a blog, a Facebook—having him become a motivational speaker in his own right,” Stewart says. He’s even started writing a book titled Be Your Own Pond, which would be “written” by Anders.

But Stewart also acknowledges that books in their purest form have their advantages. “The easiest and least expensive way into storytelling in general is through writing books,” he says. “It can cost nothing, effectively, to get your stories out there, aside from your time.”

Still, Stewart attributes the success of Ray in part to the fact that he worked with an editor, Catherine Adams. He advises all indie authors to do the same. “You want an editor who’s smarter than you are,” he says. Adams, he adds, “is part of this award, too.”

Winning the BookLife Prize has given Stewart a sense of validation. “It really helps to have confidence in writing,” he says.

Ray, Stewart notes, represents something of a departure for him—a kind of book that he began working toward with a previous YA novel, 2017’s Counting Wolves. He calls these titles “happy-cry books.” “I’m looking to elicit a reaction at the end where you’re so proud of the hero it makes you tear up,” he says. “I’m challenging myself to take that a step further in my next book.”

Winning the BookLife Prize, Stewart adds, has encouraged him “to go deeper, and push harder.”

Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York.