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January 27, 2020
By Matia Madrona Query
John Bragg, winner of the 2019 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest, discusses writing his novel 'Exit 8'

This year, the judges of the BookLife Prize—successful 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, was ultimately selected as the grand prize winner. Exit 8 centers on a Vermont farmer in 1963 who faces the loss of his family’s land and legacy as a result of the expansion of the highway system.

PW reviewer’s critic’s report for Exit 8 praised the novel, saying that “emotion permeates this quiet, yet deeply impactful, work of fiction.” And 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.”

Though Exit 8 certainly establishes Bragg’s credentials as a writer, he has always been hesitant to embrace the title. “When I 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,” he says. “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.”

Bragg, who lives in Maine and has worked as a carpenter and in outdoors industries, is an avid mountain climber. Such a highly physical, tactile, perilous hobby might seem to be the polar opposite of the cerebral art of writing. Bragg nevertheless sees some overlap between his two passions. “I can see that there is some similarity in the willingness to devote energy and time to something without any certainty of success or surety that it will matter,” he says. “You plan out a route on a mountain knowing that you could get halfway up and it won’t go.”

Writing, meanwhile, promises nothing beyond arduous effort and, perhaps, catharsis, Bragg says. “You spend years on a project with no assurance that anyone will ever read it—and, even if they do, will they get what you were trying to say? For me, it’s the work, the effort, not the finished thing, that matters.”

That said, one aspect of self-publishing that Bragg particularly appreciates is the freedom to make choices about what the book will look like. “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,” he notes.

Bragg’s process is a bit piecemeal. He writes in fragments and rarely starts at the beginning. “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 sidetrack and went back to creating the pieces,” he says. “Maybe it’s my work as a carpenter, where you build a porch, a deck, a house one piece at a time.”

Exit 8 is a decidedly quiet novel, both in terms of its focus and its tone. The quality of stillness that Bragg achieves was by design, he says, but he sometimes wonders how he managed to capture it: “At some point, I decided I wanted to tell the story with as few words as possible—can’t remember exactly when or why. The voice, the language, the characters, the story, and the pervasive sense of quiet all evolved naturally after that. Sometimes, when I read from Exit 8, I wonder who wrote it and where that sense of stillness and quiet came from, because my life is anything but.”

Though Bragg doesn’t always know the beginning or ending of his novels when he starts writing, he tends to locate the settings for his stories quickly. Both of his books initially came to him via single images. For his mystery novel, The Broom of God, “it was a gaucho on a horse high above a vast Patagonian lake.” For Exit 8, Bragg saw “a farmer, an older man, standing in a hayfield looking south down the Connecticut River Valley.”

Bragg says he believes that the time he spends outdoors allows him to be particularly attuned to his surroundings: “Place is very important to me, but it’s more than a place. It’s place in the sense of everything around me. 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.”

With two books written and his BookLife Prize win, Bragg is in a prime position to draw the attention of agents and publishers, but he’s not champing at the bit: “I would be thrilled to have a publisher who believed in me, who believed in my desire to build a career as a writer of novels. It’s difficult to gain widespread distribution when one publishes independently, but at least some folks have read Exit 8 and been touched by it. Do I wish more have read it and will read it? Of course, but if I had insisted on finding a mainstream publisher, the manuscript for Exit 8 would still be in the proverbial drawer.”

Bragg is currently working on a third book, which, as with his other novels, begins with an image. “I saw a man returning for the funeral of his great-aunt to the small, dark New England village where he spent his youth,” he says. He’s still finding his way with that story, but, like a climber reaching blindly to take hold of the rock face above, Bragg doesn’t mind that the path forward is uncertain; it’s the work to get there that counts.