Meet the Judges of the 2023 BookLife Prize
Five successful authors served as guest judges for the 2023 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest. Each author selected a finalist from five respective genre categories: General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Romance/Erotica, Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror, and YA/Middle Grade. Here, our guest judges share their wisdom and experience, along with what makes them fall in love with a book.
General FictionJayne Anne Phillips
Author Jayne Anne Phillips, whose books include Night Watch, Lark and Termite, and Machine Dreams, served as the judge for the General Fiction category. She selected In the Garden of Sorrows by Karen Jewell as the finalist.
Can you share how you capture the events and eras you write about?
As a former poet, I start with language. The sounds and beats of words in a scene already in motion deliver characters whose voices are alive, but all else is a mystery. Though I've written a war trilogy, impressing my own archetypes – a brother/sister or mother/daughter bond that defies separation – my other books, for instance, concern a cast of children isolated in a forested wilderness camp, or a new mother whose infant’s first year is superimposed against her own mother’s terminal illness. Or a Depression-era widow and children caught up in one of the first celebritized serial killer crime sprees.
The research involved is always a companion inquiry: a mirror created of newspaper and diary accounts; scholarly books on social and political realities; finding the music, images, blind spots, and delusions, of a particular time; standing in the rooms or walking the ground my characters might have known.
As you reflect on your own books (and books by other authors that have influenced you), what are some unifying characteristics they share?
I’m attracted to writers who seem to cross boundaries between one state of being and another, and “come back” to bear witness. Katharine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider comes to mind, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or James Agee’s A Death In The Family. If time is a bellowing freight train, eclipsing what it pierces, time is also the presence of all things, in all times. The specificity and music of fiction admits us into worlds we've never seen, yet renders those worlds immediately present, sensual and sensory, connecting to associations, memories, suppositions and fantasies of which the reader may not be consciously aware.
How have you evolved as a writer since your earliest work was published?
I actually see my work as a continuum in which one work leads to the other, but not always in obvious ways. I don’t make it a practice to go back and read my work after the book is released and the launch is accomplished – the readings and conversations that first introduce the book to readers. Writers need to move forward, perhaps because reading one’s own work is a little otherworldly and unsettling.
What are you working on now and what are your future aspirations as an author?
I'm collecting and composing a book of memoir and essays on writers and writing, cultural inquiry, and how one's origins affect perception. I'm also thinking about the tight, short novel I've always wanted to write, and writing a screenplay of Quiet Dell – which I think is so timely concerning women and violence – with friends in film.
Ritu MetzgerRitu Metzger, author of Murder by Degrees, served as the judge for the Mystery/Thriller category of the prize. Metzger selected Deep Fake Double Down by Debbie Burke as the finalist.
When did you first begin writing fiction? Can you share some early influences on your writing?
Murder by Degrees is the first work of fiction that I have written, but I have been an avid reader of mystery and crime fiction for as long as I can remember. I love the gripping, character-driven novels of PD James, Ruth Rendell, and Val McDermid. I am particularly drawn to series with an independent, unconventional heroine as the protagonist, like Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry and Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc. And I am intrigued by novels where the setting is so evocative it is like a character itself: Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander mysteries, and Jane Harper’s The Dry.
What were the initial seeds of inspiration for Murder by Degrees?
I was inspired by my time living in Philadelphia as a medical student. I would often explore the city, wandering through the narrow cobblestone lanes. My first apartment was just a block from Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s oldest public hospital. I remember taking a tour of the historic surgical amphitheater and discovering places like the Mutter Museum and the medical library at the College of Physicians. It was only years later that I learned of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. I knew the college would provide the perfect setting for the novel, and that the main character Dr. Lydia Weston could be a fictional composite of these trailblazing women doctors.
The setting of 19th-century Philadelphia emerges so vividly in the book. How do you capture such historical verisimilitude, including the book’s focus on the practice of medicine at that time?
I had to create two worlds, one of 19th century medicine, and the other of 1875 Philadelphia. I did extensive research: looking at old maps and drawings, reading historical texts, and visiting places like the Fairmount Water Works and Pennsylvania Hospital. For the medical aspect, I read old medical journals and textbooks, memoirs of Civil War-era surgeons. Drexel University’s Special Collections and Legacy Center archives provided wonderful context. I needed to fully envision the setting before I devised the story or developed characters, which was as much for me as for the reader.
What are you working on now?
I am working on the second novel featuring Dr. Lydia Weston. It takes place in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition, the World’s Fair that was held in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. The story centers on a surgical demonstration gone awry, as a patient undergoes anesthesia. Lydia’s friend, a brilliant woman surgeon, is accused of murder. I am enjoying being back in the immersive world of 19th century medicine, as I write the next installment in the series.
Dylan NewtonDylan Newton, whose books include Change of Plans and How Sweet It Is, judged the Romance/Erotica category. She selected Lie With Me by Gwen Hernandez as the finalist.
From your perspective, what ingredients allow a romantic story to truly shine?
A romance novel grabs me when the characters are so well-written, so multifaceted, that I forget they are fiction and find myself rooting for them from the very beginning. Combine these compelling characters with some chemistry and a well-paced plot, and you have the ingredients for an outstanding romance.
Among romance tropes, what is the one that you find most irresistible?
This is a hard choice because I love so many of the tropes. But if I had to pick one, I think my favorite romance trope is opposites attract. It's mesmerizing to read a story about two total opposites finding each other and falling in love. (Also, my husband and I are the embodiment of opposites attract, so that might account for my bias in this trope!)
Can you talk about the interplay between romance and humor in your books?
I've been blessed in my life to be related to and surrounded by a bunch of funny, smart-mouthed women and men who are gifted with the ability to shoehorn love and laughter into even the darkest of times. For my family, humor is intertwined with our love for each other, and there is something cathartic and healing about jokes and good-hearted banter. Life can feel very heavy sometimes, so my goal in writing romantic comedy is to infuse an effervescent combination of love and laughter between the pages of my books, giving my readers the chance to set aside their worries, even for a few moments, and smile.
What are you working on now?
Having just finished my three-book romantic comedy series featuring each of the Matthews brothers, I found myself continuously wondering about one of the female secondary characters in the series. This character happens to be in the same situation in life as my oldest daughter, which is to say, she is attending medical school. Hearing, first-hand, my daughter's med school stories (some of which are hilarious, while some are the stuff of nightmares) got me thinking about the sometimes bizarre and barbaric ways we are training our future physicians, and this shifted my muse into overdrive. I'm currently working on a rom-com proposal featuring this 'STEM-inist' female main character, who is deep in the throes of her med school journey when she finds love.
Matthew LyonsMatthew Lyons (A Black and Endless Sky) judged the Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror category. He picked Downpour by Christopher Hawkins as the finalist.
From your perspective, why do we love scary stories?
At the end of the day, fear of the dark is really just the fear of the unknown, and there's something, some terribly inquisitive human thing inside all of us, that desperately craves to know, no matter the risk. Whether terrors are supernatural or painfully human, scary stories let us peel back the curtain and get as close as we want to them without ever being truly at risk.
Can you talk about creating your characters against the backdrop of bizarre and unsettling circumstances?
To me, good characters are the engine of the story itself. You can create the most interesting fictional world possible, but without the characters inside to experience it, sustain it, come into conflict with, and move through it, that world's just a painted backdrop on an old-school Hollywood film set. Taking the time to root any story in well-defined and carefully thought-out humanity, in understandable emotions and reactions and relationships and needs and wants and insecurities, makes the bizarre and unsettling so much easier for readers to accept.
As an author of horror and thriller novels, what truly scares you/keeps you up at night?
What really scares me and keeps me up at night is what people are truly capable of when left to their own devices. I honestly believe that if we really wanted, we could be living in something resembling utopia, rather than this ruined future we've all inherited, where we're all just trying our best to make it through to tomorrow. The problem is that greed, brutality, entitlement, hatred, inhumanity, cruelty, and apathy are all so much easier than actually giving a shit and trying to make things better.
What are you working on now, and what are your sources of inspiration as you begin a new book or story?
Currently, I'm putting the finishing touches on my third novel, A Mask of Flies, due out next August from Tor Nightfire! It's a bit of a crime/horror mashup about a career bank robber who runs afoul of something monstrous and terrifying in southern Colorado while hiding out after her last job went sideways. As for inspiration, I love good stories that are told really, really well, no matter the medium – novels, TV, video games, movies, podcasts, short fiction – anything's fair game. Setting can also be a massive inspiration for me; A Mask of Flies is set in one of my favorite places in all the world, Colorado's San Luis Valley.
Linda KaoLinda Kao (A Crooked Mark) selected The Beauty of a Spiral by Elizabeth Maddaleni as the finalist for the YA/Middle Grade category.
In your experience as a reader and writer, what makes a YA or middle grade novel especially memorable?
Stories become memorable to me when I can connect with the characters from the very first pages. I love feeling their struggles and hopes as they embark on whatever adventure awaits, especially in middle grade and YA. These heroes (and villains!) are discovering so much about their world and themselves. There’s a vulnerability to their experiences that can really draw me in, and this is the feeling I try to capture in my own writing.
How do you go about authentically capturing the voices and worldviews of young characters?
I read a lot! I think part of being a YA writer is reading YA books, which is such fun. There are so many brilliant authors out there creating fantastic characters. I also have two teenagers, which is incredibly helpful. I can always ask them, “Would you ever say [insert cool phrase from 1990s here]?” They’ll look at each other, and when they finish laughing, they’ll offer some far better options.
A Crooked Mark combines psychological horror and the supernatural with universal coming-of-age themes. Can you talk about balancing these elements?
I think of the coming-of-age themes as main character Matt’s emotional arc, and the supernatural and psychological horror as the external forces that encourage him to grow and change. The interplay of these elements drives the story: Matt is offered a terrifying opportunity that disrupts his world, and it forces him to make a difficult choice. His decision causes more problems, and the cycle continues. This propels the story forward, building the action while still maintaining a focus on Matt’s personal growth.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on another contemporary YA with a speculative twist. It features seventeen-year-old Calla, whose star-shaped birthmark paints a target on her back. She needs to uncover why someone is murdering the girls born with the symbol of the stars and stop the killing before it’s too late. I’m also writing a middle grade ghost story with a lost treasure and a trio of friends determined to find it, which is turning out to be a lot of fun!