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June 27, 2019
By Matia Burnett
Four winners of the Spark Prize discuss their writing.

Indie writers shared their finest work at “The Spark: A Literary Event for Writers and Poets,” held at BookCon on June 1. The event, sponsored by BookLife and IngramSpark, invited participants to share excerpts from their self-published books or manuscripts in progress. The one caveat: the authors had only 60 seconds to read, requiring them to pick passages with particular flare.  After the participants read, the audience voted, choosing the strongest pieces of writing. Awards were presented to two finalists and three awards were given for “Best Overall,” “Best Performance,” and “Best Excerpt.” The winner for “Best Overall” was Steve Peha, profiled here.

We checked in with the other four multitalented authors to learn more about their backgrounds, writing projects, and aspirations.

A Hero for a New Generation

Joa Macnalie recently made a major life change: a year ago, she left behind her condo in Soho, quit her job as a behavioral therapist, and moved to Florida. Her goal: to champion her first published picture book, The Hero in the Helmet: Colin Kaepernick.  Macnalie decided to write about Colin Kaepernick, the football quarterback who famously (and controversially) took a knee during a pre-game performance of the national anthem, to support his protest of police brutality and racism. “I felt an urgency and a call-to-action to do something meaningful that would protect Kaepernick’s legacy and uphold his place in history, as well as highlight the truth of the social issues that plague our society,” Macnalie says. She teamed up with illustrator Adua Hernandez, who lives in Venezuela and works at Melanin Origins, a black-owned publishing company dedicated to books about black historical figures.

Eight months after publishing The Hero in the Helmet, Macnalie followed it with a sequel called B is for Brotherhood. Macnalie hopes to find an agent and a publishing deal soon. Above all, she hopes to reach as many readers as she can. “It’s important for them to know, understand, and participate in this conversation," she says.

Of Writing and Representation

On her website, author Erica Buddington, winner for "Best Excerpt," describes herself as “a culture curator that designs culturally relevant curriculum, writes and performs work that reflects the diaspora, and [is] passionate about defying and decolonizing the status quo.” In addition to writing, Buddington has a background as a poet; she's a Brave New Voices slam champion and an HBO Def Poet, but “the biggest stage I’ve ever been on: the classroom.” Buddington is the founder and chief curriculum officer at Langston League, a consultant firm that specializes in teacher education and professional development, and she brings her penchant for performance and advocacy to her books. At the event, Buddington read from Boroughs Apart, a story about Evan and Ella, who fall in love despite coming from very different backgrounds. Buddington’s other works include a collection of short essays called Of Micah and Men, about misadventures in dating. When Buddington is not teaching, writing, or performing, she can be found among the stacks at Strand Bookstore.

Heart and Soul

The Soulful Adventure of Spencer, the Soft-hearted Seal is an illustrated chapter book for young readers. In the story, a seal pup tumbles down a hill and becomes lost. According to author Margaret Lepera, “at the core of the story is a hunter—a bully—who is after the seal pup’s beautiful white fur coat, and he is protected by a plucky young girl." The story advocates for mindfulness, which Lepera feels can be greatly benefical to readers: "[I hope] to help them navigate life’s terrain, and to be aware and grateful for good things that happen even when bad things do too.” Lepara currently lives in New Jersey, and has been a writer for more than 20 years, working in advertising and as a copywriter. But creatively, she’s a triple threat: “I’m also a professional actress, singer, and audiobook narrator.”

From Disney World Princess to Indie Author

Taylor Simonds, who lives in Central Florida, has “been devouring books” for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Collateral Damage, is a young adult novel “about a cynical girl with no powers who lives in a city protected by superheroes—like a Marvel movie as told from the perspective of an angry background extra.”  Only, this “extra” ends up taking a more central role when she discovers that one of the city’s superheroes has been murdered. The book will be published later this month from Parliament House, a boutique press that specializes in fantasy and sci-fi books. Simonds is actively promoting her book through social media, using the Twitter hashtag #25DaysofCrisis.

Before writing Collateral Damage, Simonds worked in marketing and as an editor, while also spending time as a theatre actor. She even had a side job as a singer for Disney World: “I actually thought my dream was to be a performer for Disney Cruise Line," Simonds says. It's through writing that Simonds has been able to synthesize her different creative and professional roles: "all of these different aspects of my life sort of combined together when I wrote Collateral Damage.” Since publishing her novel, her Disney dream has taken a back seat to a more writerly one. “I'm really glad that the universe took me in a different direction," she says.