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November 11, 2021
By Drucilla Shultz
The judges will determine the finalists for the prize, to be announced on November 16.

For this year’s BookLife Prize in Fiction, meet our judges: Lance Olsen, Valerie Wilson Wesley, Fiona West, John Hornor Jacobs, and Melissa Marr. We spoke to them about their work, their genres, and what they’re looking for in a finalist. 

General Fiction: Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen is author of more than 30 books of and about innovative writing, including the novel Skin Elegies (Dzanc, 2021). He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

 There are many sub-categories in the general fiction section, such as historical and literary. What are some universal strengths you’re looking for as a reader and judge?

I find myself resistant to the notion of universals, the assumption behind it that all readers read the same way and for the same reasons. My sense is one of the great joys of that strange act is just the opposite—that each of us turns those black squiggles tumbling down a page from upper left to lower right into magic in his or her own key. Or, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger once wrote: “Tell me how you read and I'll tell you who you are.” 

For me, it’s all about fiction that loves language profoundly, wakes us up in the midst of our dreaming, and creates a deep sense of empathy with a paper person that allows me to understand and share the perceptions of other human beings more fully.

With so many fiction titles being published in both the traditional and self-publishing arenas, what do you think a writer can do to make their book stand out?  

So much contemporary publishing strikes me as an odd approximation of playing the lottery. Some books that should be celebrated slip into oblivion overnight, while others that are quite run-of-the-mill become the flavor of the week. Of course, this has ever been the case. Moby-Dick was virtually forgotten by the time Melville died. Most of Faulkner’s work was out of print when he won the Nobel Prize. I might therefore suggest that one write the book one would want to read, care about every aspect of it as deeply as one possibly can, relish the process of producing. After that, it’s crapshoot. Which is to say the important question to ask oneself is this: Why am I writing? Hopefully the answer resides in a city very distant from fame and/or money.

 How do you approach a new project?

It’s different every time, but if there is any through line, it probably has to do with an excessive amount of curiosity about an idea, place, or person; extensive research (I’m a research junky); developing an aesthetic and existential problem I want to think about for several years; and discovering myself in a space of unknowing and unlearning that urges me out of bed every morning.

My latest novel, Skin Elegies, for instance, uses the metaphor of mind-upload technologies to explore questions about the relationship of the cellular brain to personhood, memory, and where the human might end and something else begin. In a dystopian future, this American couple flees their increasingly authoritarian country by transferring to a quantum computer housed in North Africa. The novel’s structure mimics a constellation of firing neurons—a sparking collage of many tiny narraticules flickering through the brain of one of the refugees as it is digitized. Those narraticules comprise nine larger stories: the Fukushima disaster; the day the Internet was turned on; the final hours of the Battle of Berlin; John Lennon’s murder; an assisted suicide in Switzerland; the Columbine massacre; a woman killed by a domestic abuser; a Syrian boy making his way to Berlin; and the Challenger disaster.

What book has helped you through the pandemic?

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. You know that feeling you get when you’ve read a lot and start to feel a little jaded, like there’s just nothing exciting out there anymore…and then you open a new novel and everything explodes? That’s what happened. Tokarczuk calls Flights a constellation novel, one built from many narrative fragments that don’t move from beginning to end in a smooth arc, refuse to reinvent previous narrative strategies. I taught it for the first time this fall in both my undergrad and grad courses to thank it and show it how much I cared.


Mystery/Thriller: Valerie Wilson Wesley

Valerie Wilson Wesley writes mysteries, novels, and children’s books. Her mystery series include the Tamara Hayle and Odessa Jones mysteries. A Fatal Glow, the latest novel in the Odessa Jones series, will be published in March 2022.

 You write in a variety of genres, including children’s, romance, and mystery. Do you have a favorite readership to write for?

I love writing mysteries yet no matter what the genre or readership, I always fall in love with what I’m working on. Writing for children is delightful because I revisit the magical way kids—and I—often view the world. In my paranormal books, I needed to create lives lived beyond the boundaries of reality that still made sense to readers, which was difficult and fun. Each of my standalone novels have presented a different and interesting challenge but rewarding. No matter what the genre, or readership, it always comes down to one thing for me--believable, interesting characters.      

Where do you start when you’re plotting a new mystery?

I begin with understanding all my characters, even the minor ones, and letting them lead me into the plot. In my mystery series, my knowledge of the protagonist —Tamara Hayle or Odessa Jones--deepens with each book as I find out more about her life. The next step is coming up with the murderer and why and how the crime was committed. Occasionally, the killer will change mid-book, always an unpleasant surprise because it means doing some serious revisions.

What do you think makes a great mystery/thriller?

A good book grabs me from the beginning and won’t let me go until I read the last page. It has to offer complex characters and an intriguing, unique plot. I love to come away from a book knowing more about life and people—and evil and good—then I did when I began reading. A great book stays with me forever, and I can return to it years later and still find it as thrilling as the first time I read it.

What book has helped you through the pandemic?

There were a number of books that kept me sane and connected, including books and announcements from fellow members of Crime Writers of Color (CW0C), such as Tracy Clark, Kellye Garrett and V.M. Burns. I always enjoy reading Louise Penny, and re-read books by Barbara Neely, who passed away last March, for the sheer pleasure of reading them again. I finally read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which was very painful to read yet beautifully written. 


Romance: Fiona West

Fiona West’s debut novel, The Ex-Princess, was the first indie book to be named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Romance Books (2019). She lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

The romance genre is hugely successful in both the traditionally published and self-publishing spheres. Why do you think it’s managed to claim that crown?

Romance novels are and always have been delightfully subversive. Romance exalts agency, consent, and sexual satisfaction for everyone in a way no other genre does, and that's something many readers are hungry for. We look around at the state of the world and want hope—hope that things can change and that our feelings and opinions matter. Marginalized groups like women of color and queer individuals have been able to see themselves center stage in a story that has not just love, but a happy ending, too. Who wouldn’t take pleasure in that? Romance is the genre of equal-opportunity joy.

 You write both contemporary and fantasy romance. What drew you to those types of stories?

Fantasy is my first love. Thanks to my librarian grandmother, I grew up on fairy tales where the princess saved herself, and I understood the assignment. Fantasy allows me to push the boundaries of reality and let my imagination truly run wild without the constraints of history or physics. Yet contemporary romance acts as a sort of dialogue between me and society about the issues that plague us. When I started writing Just Getting Started, I knew almost nothing about opioids. But I knew my character Chase was in recovery, so I dug into it and ended up becoming a fierce advocate for changing the discussion around this health crisis. So both have value to me personally.

What do you think a great romance has to have?

A happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending, high stakes, and a diverse cast. I studied dramatic writing briefly years ago, and that idea of characters who aren’t too alike in their personalities or desires stuck with me. The best novels have that cinematic sense of compelling, all-consuming worldbuilding and characterization that makes us desperate to find out what happens. That magic happens when the author lets us deeply into their hopes and fears, and we find we’re not so different after all.

 What book has helped you through the pandemic?

Reading was difficult for me at the beginning, so I’ve found myself going back to some of my favorite reads: Heated Rivalry by Rachel Reid and Marriage of Inconvenience by Penny Reid (unrelated, ironically). But lately, I’m finding SFF shorts are working for me--I just finished Creation by Bjørn Larssen, Heart of the Dragon by Jamie Sullivan, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells, and they all had me laughing. It feels good to have something innocent to laugh about...and strangely enough, incompetent gods, adoptive dragons, and murderbots all fit the bill.


Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror: John Hornor Jacobs 


John Hornor Jacobs is the author of A Lush and Seething HellHe’s been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson, the Bram Stoker and the World Fantasy Awards.

How did you get your start writing, and how has your style and voice evolved?

I began writing when I was young, in college, and pursued it until life got in the way – wife, house, job, kids. Later, when I was established in my career, I turned back to it and in 2008 joined in National Novel Writing Month. It was there I wrote the first half of my debut novel, Southern Gods. I went on to workshop it, polish it, rewrite it, while continuing to write new novels. I managed to get an agent and since then I’ve been steadily publishing.

 In the beginning, my work was definitely more pulpy – though I flatter myself to say that I did have even then a distinctive voice and style. As I’ve grown, I’ve tried to elevate my style to something more than my previous works. I’ve tried to tackle themes and subject with more weight and relevance and do so in a more literary style.

 The SF/F/H genres are incredibly popular in both the traditionally published and self-publishing areas. What makes these categories so enduring among readers?

On the one hand, science fiction, fantasy and horror offer escape to new worlds and exciting situations and that sort of entertainment is needed more than ever now that our current national situation (I’m American) is so full of strife. On the other hand, science fiction and horror (and fantasy too, now that I think about it) have always been political and offer ways for writers and reader to pose interesting questions about our current social and political climate. To spark dialogue, to challenge entrenched thought. We use story to find our place in the world, to define our sense of self. We use story to change our world.

 Though SF/F/H can be wildly different, those categories historically have been used to tackle heavy themes (bigotry, colonialism, consumerism). Why do you think these genres lend themselves so easily to this type of deeper exploration?

All of these genres postulate hypotheticals – what if a drug extended life 200 years? What if a South American country was subjugated by a Lovecraftian like god but it was really in the guise of a colonizing country? What if the different races in a secondary world fantasy explored the stratifications and class structures in our society and how that affects economy? What ifs are powerful. What ifs are the beginnings of the greatest kinds of thoughts. The greatest sorts of discussions.

What book has helped you through the pandemic?

No one book as helped me through the pandemic. But books have. Books are always a safe haven.

YA/Middle Grade: Melissa Marr

 Melissa Marr writes award-winning books for all adults, teens, and children. Her books have been translated into 28 languages and been NYT, USAT, PW, & international bestsellers. 

What do you think is the biggest misconception about writing for children?

That it’s easier! No one is as blunt as a child. I treasure that aspect of writing for younger readers.

The YA category doesn’t seem to be losing its popularity anytime soon and middle grade is rapidly becoming a juggernaut in its own right. Why do you think children’s books have remained as perennial as they have?

In YA, I think we’ve seen more adult readers in search of “happier endings” or compulsively readable storytelling. I believe credit is due first to Harry Potter and then to Twilight. Both had the appeal of cross-generational reading, and that created more space in the marketplace. Percy Jackson edged that forward even more, as did the Divergent series and Hunger Games.  These franchises taught readers that cross-gen reading is cool—and not only with your kids but just because you like the books. 

As a consequence, I think we already see some books that are “YA for adults” rather than YA for teens, and I have very mixed feelings there. We want to reach readers, and publishing houses also want that, so indie and trad writers are enticed to write to adult readers for practical reasons within the kidlit market, but I think it can take away market space for the books for actual young readers.

You’ve published many bestselling series traditionally, but you’ve recently started releasing books yourself. Why the change?

I’m an experimenter by nature. I started with a YA book (Wicked Lovely) that became a series. I added adult, middle grade, and picture books. I’ve co-authored a series (The Blackwell Pages with Kelley Armstrong). I edited anthologies. I like to avoid being Just One Thing. 

Right now, I have an adaptation of my first book coming out as a playable game (via the Chapters Interactive Story game app). I was pleased that they let me give revision notes on the game script. New? Different? I’m interested. 

Most recently I have been writing for D.C. Comics, and in June 2022, I’ll have a book of my wild horse photography (out via Penguin).  Those and my indie series all came about during 2020 when I was unable to travel and therefore restless.

 What book has helped you through the pandemic?

This is like the “favorite child” question. There’s not ever one I like best.  During the pandemic, I devoured both indie & trad, multiple genres, and varying age range. Some top picks: Annie Bellet’s adult The Twenty-Sided Sorceress series (9 or 10 books); a Southern mystery series (19 or so books) called Miss Fortune by Jana DeLeon; the first 6 of Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys middle-grade series; Brigit Kemmerer’s YA fairy tale fantasy A Curse So Dark & Lonely; Kelley Armstrong’s indie time travel romance books, starting with A Stitch in Time.