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November 27, 2023
By PW Staff
Congratulations to our fiction finalists for 2023!

Five guest authors each selected a favorite book from among 25 semifinalists in the categories of General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Romance/Erotica, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror, and YA/Middle Grade. Here, we meet the five BookLife Prize finalists. Stay tuned for an article on the judges and for the announcement of the winner on December 9 (and, if you haven't yet, have a look at the books that made the quarterfinal round of the contest). Congratulations to our amazing finalists!

General Fiction

In the Garden of Sorrows by Karen Jewell

Author Jayne Anne Phillips selected In the Garden of Sorrows, saying the following:  “In the Garden of Sorrows locates Edward and Isobel Fuller in a post-WWI past that seems ceaselessly present to the reader, with its deeply felt grief at the loss of their soldier son and the toll sadness has taken on their marriage. The inspired detail, of farm work and weather, revival meetings, and community relationships that span generations, are gravid and quietly lovely, yet this novel also churns with passion and risk.”

What can you share about your journey as an author?

It is a tremendous amount of work. And it gives me great joy – because if it didn’t, why would I do it?

As a writer, what enabled you to step into the historical setting and circumstances?

Research of all kinds: photographs, newspaper articles and periodicals from the time, railroad schedules and fares, old cookbooks, folk tales and legends, and histories. The 1923 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue is a wonderful thing. 

When you began writing In the Garden of Sorrows, which elements of the story emerged first? (plot, characters, sense of place, etc.)

The only thing I knew when I began writing the novel was that a cotton farmer agreed to let a Pentecostal group hold a revival on his land. That’s a bit of plot and a bit of sense of place. The characters then started to emerge on the first page.

You have such a polished, naturally poetic writing style. And yet, In the Garden of Sorrows is your first novel. How do you think you achieve such a distinctive voice?

I’ve been reading, studying, and writing fiction since I was a young child – I just hadn’t written a novel. I love a good story, and I wanted to tell this one as well as I could. The first draft was not poetic; the novel went through many revisions. 

Do you see yourself writing more fiction?

Yes. I have written another novel – a thriller – that hasn’t yet been published. And I’m in the midst of returning to some of the characters in In the Garden of Sorrows.



Deep Fake Double Down by Debbie Burke

Guest judge and author Ritu Metzger praised Deep Fake Double Down, saying, “I was captivated by the intriguing opening scene of this thriller and immediately drawn into the unique setting. Tawny Lindholm is a compassionate and spirited heroine, and the supporting characters are well-drawn and engaging. The storyline is propulsive and keeps the reader’s attention with well-timed plot twists. I really enjoyed reading it!”

How do you maintain suspense and tension in your writing, especially when, as the writer, you know the outcome and resolution?

I confess I don't always know the outcome in advance! To maintain suspense and tension, at the end of each scene, I ask, "What is the worst thing that can happen next?" Each "worst thing" moves the story forward, sometimes in surprising directions that result in twists and turns I didn't expect. 

 Can you share some insights into your process of shaping and developing characters? 

Each character has old wounds and secrets they want to keep hidden. They act in ways they believe will protect them, even if those actions lead to destructive complications. They may be unaware their actions and reactions connect back to their wounds and secrets. When/if they realize what drives them, their arc is completed. 

 How often do current events, true crime, and other attention-grabbing headlines inspire your work? 

Frequently! For the past few years, I've been watching the evolution of AI and deep fakes. Funny fake videos like Queen Elizabeth dancing seem harmless. But I worry about serious, unintended consequences where deep fake videos create events that never happened, yet are perceived as real. Deep Fake Double Down shows how an innocent woman is convicted in the court of public opinion based on false evidence created with deep fake software.


Lie With Me by Gwen Hernandez

Author Dylan Newton had this to say about Hernandez’s novel: “This page-turning romantic suspense has grit, substance, and a sizzling second-chance romance woven throughout. Hernandez's writing grabs you in the very first chapter and doesn't let go until the end. Lie With Me is a fantastic thrill-ride of a romance!

What can you share about your path to becoming an author?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and around middle school, I started writing for fun, but never considered it a realistic career. Instead, I became a programmer analyst, and later a manufacturing engineer, while the desire to write kept tapping me on the shoulder. It wasn’t until I quit working 12-hour days that I made a serious effort to become an author.

My fourth manuscript was a Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist, and garnered some interest from New York, but then I was offered the opportunity to write Scrivener For Dummies for Wiley. When I returned to fiction, I decided the control and flexibility of self-publishing was a better fit for me. I hired an editor, proofreader, and cover artist and published Blind Fury in 2014.

Looking back, I’m grateful that I spent my early years trying to break into traditional publishing because it taught me about the industry, brought me amazing writer friends, and forced me to hone my craft. I’m definitely a better writer for it.

Lie With Me weaves together tense thriller/suspense elements with romance. How did you strike a balance between the two?

For me, the romance is always the primary end goal. The suspense elements—which I also love—serve to keep the romantic leads together physically long enough to overcome whatever emotional wounds or misconceptions are holding them apart. I don’t analyze the balance in a precise way, but there’s definitely a “vibe” or mood I’m going for that often requires me to layer in more suspense until it feels right.

Having the protagonists running for their lives and facing down villains together also provides opportunities to reveal their true nature. When someone has literally risked their life for you, it’s far easier to trust them, and ultimately fall in love. The biggest challenge can be creating moments of downtime that allow them to stop running and explore their growing intimacy.

As you are writing, do your characters ever surprise you by taking a different path than you expected?

Oh, constantly. As someone who doesn’t plot beyond an initial premise, my writing style is more like improv. I set the parameters based on what type of scene I’m working toward (e.g., midpoint reveal or dark moment), but I don’t know exactly how the action will progress until I’m in the thick of it, having the characters react. The mystery of it is challenging and fun. It motivates me to keep writing.

What can readers expect from the next book in the Night Herons series?

I love the found family aspect of the series, so readers will definitely see some familiar faces and characters who were previously off the page. Also, the overarching villain will be back with a new plan to stop the Night Herons from exposing the crimes of the rich and powerful. There will be lots of secrets and fake identities, but given my messy process, I’m not ready to commit to any details beyond that. As always, I’m shooting for a fast-paced romantic adventure.



Downpour by Christopher Hawkins

Guest judge Matthew Lyons had glowing words for Downpour. “The novel is a tense, atmospheric read from page one and I was quite pleased to find out that it really doesn't let up at all," Lyon said. "Filled with deftly drawn, wrenchingly human characters (especially Scott, whose history is believably markedly painful), the supernatural threats showcased here do a great job of accentuating the characters' internality."

What can you share about your journey as an author?

It’s been a long road. I spent a lot of time chasing after a traditional publishing deal, working with agents, and in one case, turning down a contract that didn’t sufficiently protect my rights. It was a lot of frustration, but it also gave me time to keep working to develop my craft. Now, as an indie author, I finally have the freedom and (hopefully) the skills to tell the kinds of stories that I’ve always wanted to tell.

Setting plays a significant role in Downpour. Can you talk about establishing a sense of place in the novel?

I wanted the house to be as much a character as any of the others in the book, so getting the layout and history of the place right was important. But really, it’s the relationships that the members of the family have with the place that, I think, make the setting come alive.

From your perspective, what goes into crafting a truly unforgettable scary story?

I think the key is to have characters that the reader can connect with. You’re never going to come up with a concept that scares everybody, but if you can frighten your characters, and readers can identify with those characters, then the readers will be frightened on their behalf.

Can you speak about the importance of meaningful character development in horror? How do the characters uplift and enhance the plot elements?

Characters are everything, really. It doesn’t matter how original your concept is, or how intricate your plotting is; if you don’t have believable characters inhabiting and driving that experience, you won’t have an effective story. That’s true of all fiction, but it’s especially true of horror, because you can’t be afraid for a character unless you care about them.

It seems a little counterintuitive, but readers often reach for scary stories during times of stress and anxiety. Why do you think that is? What can scary stories teach us?

I don’t think it’s counterintuitive at all. Scary stories teach us how to deal with scary things. At the same time, they’re manageable. You can put them aside when they get to be too much. Having that kind of control over something frightening when other aspects of your life seem out of control can be a very powerful thing.


YA/Middle Grade

The Beauty of a Spiral by Elizabeth Maddaleni

Author Linda Kao said this about The Beauty of a Spiral: “Maddaleni addresses the difficult topic of a teenager fighting cancer in this authentic and heartwarming story. I found myself cheering for sixteen-year-old Madz from the first pages, and her growth as she navigates the challenges of both her illness and staying true to herself makes this story shine. I also appreciated the cast of characters, each with their own struggles and victories, that filled out this carefully developed world. Maddaleni strikes just the right balance with her subject knowledge and an emotional, well-paced plot."  

In The Beauty of a Spiral, you write with great authority about the joys, pressures, and physical challenges of figure skating. Do you have experience as a skater yourself? 

Yes, I was a figure skater, but at the recreational level, not at an elite level like Madz. I skated for a few years in my youth and for many years as an adult. My daughters took figure skating lessons for years, so I was also a figure skating mom who observed and experienced much of the goings on at the rinks.

Your protagonist Madz’s voice is so immediately engaging. What can you share about your process of developing her character?

 I started by thrusting Madz into the world beyond the rink, a world that contrasts the sheltered world she's lived in for years. Here, she'd have to fight for her life while dealing with other people's "spirals," a solid path for growth as a person and a skater. As the story evolved, I'd tweak aspects of her character and journey to enrich and fortify her development.

Not only is Madz beautifully realized, but the novel is filled with distinctive characters (like Gracie) who hold their own. How do side characters help to shape your protagonist’s growth throughout the book?

 The side characters force Madz to open her eyes to common psychosocial issues. This helps her develop as a character, brings out the best in her (especially as she interacts with Gracie), and helps her discover more about herself, her skating, and her community.

From your perspective, what makes a YA novel truly shine? 

A shiny package, of course! This includes engaging, relatable characters; an emotional plot with complementary subplots, whose themes cover topics this age group might deal with; dialogue that's natural and easy to follow, and tight, clean lines that evoke imagery by way of strong subjects, strong verbs (I love a good made-up verb in YA), and literary devices galore.