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December 3, 2021
By PW Staff

Five novels from as many genres were selected from 25 semifinalists for the 2021 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest. Here, we introduce the five finalists and share what the guest judges said about their books. The grand prize winner will be announced in the Book World section of The Washington Post on December 16, followed by an announcement on the BookLife and PW websites. An article featuring the winner will be published in a December 20 issue of PW.

General Fiction 

The New Manifesto by Sam Ernst

What the judge said:  “Each entry could easily have been the winner, in the sense that each showed real talent and flair, but The New Manifesto struck me as unique, uniquely challenging, and delightfully inventive. A metafictional risk-taking engine, Ernst's novel asks us to rethink what narrative is and what it can do, revitalizes form, turns the act of writing into a mode of ongoing skepticism, exploration, and discovery—something it always is at heart. Smart, ingenious, crisp, and funny, yet dusted with a patina of melancholy in the face of time’s relentless passing.” - Lance Olsen

Can you share with me a bit about the origins of The New Manifesto?

For the past 20 years, I’ve been a songwriter collecting lyric ideas on scraps of paper. I began The New Manifesto in similar fashion, without even being aware I was writing a novel. It was just an outlet for longer-form writing. Every time I struggled, I imagined an outside narrator making fun of my flailings. After five years of writing in snippets, all I had was 3,000 words. It had been fun to write, but it clearly wasn't a novel. So I decided to start over with a traditional narrative. However, maintaining a single story got boring. So I began three more, all using different forms to help keep them straight in my mind. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look back and fashion the story of my labors into an orderly whole. You might even think there was some intention or hidden logic at work. I (hopefully) create that impression for the reader, but in actuality, it unfurled in fits and starts over the course of 15 years and thousands of lunchbreaks.

You’ve written a book that is, in many respects, a book about a book that also examines the notion of authorship. How much of your own identity would you say is tied to being a writer? Are you prone to imposter syndrome?

From my songwriting to my day job (grant writing), to my formal education (I wrote a thesis on indie rock criticism), writing has been an almost daily practice in my adult life. Funny thing is, I’m not sure that I would say it’s integral to my identity. First and foremost, I feel like I’m someone who’s curious and eager to learn new things. That’s led me down many pathways. Lots of them just happen to have been writing-related so far.

 As for impostor syndrome, I’ve always felt that life is about putting up various fronts. I’ve never really been worried about trying something new because I’ve convinced myself that nobody fully knows what they’re doing—even the people at the top of the game. Now that I’ve said that out loud, I’m realizing it’s more likely I'm just powered by delusions of adequacy.

From your perspective, what is the role of literature in the moment we’re living in?

Literature holds the tantalizing promise of uniting us in shared narratives—an especially nice thought in today’s fractious times. Of course, these days, literature has a lot of competition. Cultural forms, like much of society, have undergone a great narrowing in the information age—they find their niches and speak to increasingly smaller communities. So really, I hold no great hope that literature is going to take the modern world by storm. Or even that it necessarily has a specific “role” to play (at least in terms of uniting us all). So long as it keeps doing what it has always done—forging a connection one reader at a time—a meaningful exchange of ideas will ensue. And those sorts of conversations are always worth having, no matter the size of the audience.

Mystery/Thriller

Fate of the Unwilling by Amy Lee Goulden

What the judge said: “A great story grabs you from the first page and won’t let you go until you’ve read the last line. Amy Lee’s Fate of the Unwilling is such a tale. The descriptions are vivid, and it moves at a lively pace. All that, plus a nod to Jane Austen, kept this reader interested and curious. This was a fun and enjoyable read.” - Valerie Wilson Wesley

A previous BookLife Review of Fate of the Unwilling further praised the book, saying that “indeed, it's the merger of plot and personality that gives this mystery its special flavor. Lee springs one surprise after another, leading readers to believe they have a handle on who Daphne is, only to deftly pull the rug from under them. The richly drawn characters—good and bad—all get what they deserve in the end, as the slyly surprising thriller comes to an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion."

*At the time of this article's publication, Amy Lee Goulden was not available for the q&a.

Romance/Erotica

Farview by Kim Fielding

What the judge said: “A rich, lightly-fantastic tale of the causes we choose to fight for, the battles that come to us unbidden, and what it means to impart dignity in life and death. Though it's not heavy-handed, Fielding gives us a resounding treatise on justice, contentment, and what we all deserve."

- Fiona West

Farview succeeds in creating a world that feels entirely distinctive and timeless. Can you talk about the creative origins of this fantasy world?

This was one of the wonderful times when a lot of disparate pieces coalesced to form a world that felt very real to me. When one of my kids was very young, her favorite movie was Pirates of Penzance—the version with Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. Later she fell in love with Sweeney Todd. What both of these have in common, aside from British Victorian settings and great music, are worlds that are a few degrees off from our reality. I was also influenced by my own personal love of magical realism, in which fantastic or magical elements are treated like ordinary, unexceptional parts of everyday life. A dragon in your stables or an imp in the garden? Of course! And finally, I’ve recently been reading books by authors such as K.J. Charles and Harper Fox, who do a beautiful job of placing fantasy romances into historical and modern British settings. What I ended up with were places that aren’t really Victorian London or Cornwall, but are close enough to those real places to ground us a little before we take off into a story where curses are real and your grandfather might be a wizard.

The romance between the central characters is tender, complex, and utterly endearing. And yet, the story’s setting and your worldbuilding are equally compelling. Can you share a bit about balancing the romantic storyline with the other elements?

I think one of the keys to a successful romance—or really, most stories in general—is that the characters experience personal and emotional growth. Of course, there are a lot of catalysts that can make that growth happen. In this particular book, the setting itself is what spurs Oliver to develop. When he moves from the big city to his ancestral cottage by the sea and finds a community very different from what he was used to, his worldview and view of himself begin to change. In addition, the magical elements of the story provide the conflict that connects him to Felix but also threatens to drive them apart. Because all of these elements are so intertwined, it felt quite natural to build the world and the romance at the same time.

Your writing has the tone of classic literature. Were you looking to any particular literary sources for inspiration?

That tone felt perfect for this story, given the setting. I think it would have been jarring, for example, to have the characters speak like modern Americans. I’m not exactly sure of my precise literary inspirations, to be honest, but I’m fairly certain that gothic works such as Frankenstein, Carmilla, and even "The Raven" played some part. More modern authors such as Neil Gaiman, Isabel Allende, and Stephen King have also impacted my writing. Although none of these works are romances per se, they often blend romantic elements with the fantastic or otherworldly. I’ve also been influenced by folktales and fairy tales from a number of cultures and traditions. On the whole, I wanted this book to celebrate the power of storytelling and how we can often find vital truths inside of fiction.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror

Pike’s Passage by John Spearman

What the judge said: “In John Spearman's Pike's Passage, we are introduced to a universe inhabited by massive, sprawling interstellar civilizations—civilizations at war. The book is grounded by solid worldbuilding and presents a Heinlein-ian adventure with real stakes and relatable characters. What it offered me that I had never seen before in any sci-fi novel or space opera was the granular detail of astronautical organization and business. In addition to interstellar battles and intrigue, I found myself fascinated by profit-sharing and - believe it or not! - insurance policies and business models of companies that travel the galaxy in souped-up, heavily armed spaceships.”

- John Horner

What can you share about your creative process?

For me, the creative process begins with the sort of stories I have always enjoyed reading. I am not trying to create literature, but merely a good story that is enjoyable for the reader. Those stories feature a likable hero or heroine, though not a perfect one.  The character strives to be their best self but possesses the normal human characteristics of self-doubt and uncertainty.  Ideally, a reader will be able to hope for the character's success and agonize over the character's setbacks.

The next step is creating a universe full of challenges the hero must face. In the case of the two Pike books (so far), some of the challenges are military in nature but other challenges to the hero's success arise off the field of battle (politics and romance, in particular).  One advantage I think I have is my background as a Latin teacher. From reading the works of the classical period, one can see that human nature is unchanged despite the passage of time. The same motivations and fears drive us as they did the Romans of 2000 years ago. My characters should reflect human nature.

After imagining my main characters and the milieu, it becomes a question of creating conflict. This is, surprisingly, one of the easier aspects.  History provides us with all sorts of examples of human conflict for all sorts of reasons.

Through all of this, I strive to make the story believable. Not necessarily in terms of technology (admittedly not my strength) but in terms of how governments and people react to situations and opportunities. I hope my stories are not predictable but I do want them to be plausible.  

Guest judge John Horner noted how Pike's Passage is able to make even potentially mundane detailslike insurance policiesfascinating. What sort of research did you conduct in order to make the aspects of your story feel so real and engaging?

Before I became a writer, and before I became a Latin teacher, I spent 25 years in the corporate world, as a sales and marketing executive. That background, coupled with my strong desire to create a plausible environment, leads to such things as insurance policies and business models. In the case of Pike's Passage, the hero has a "souped-up, heavily armed spaceship" (in this case a freighter). Why would anyone hire him, given that he probably charges a premium compared to normal shipping methods?  What is his market niche?  In this case, political and territorial instability created a situation where police-type powers (usually exercised by a government) would be lacking.  That creates an opportunity for someone with a "souped-up, heavily armed spaceship" to charge a premium price since he offers security that is otherwise unobtainable.

As far as insurance... the insurance business started thousands of years ago. Part of human nature is the desire to minimize risk and protect against it. The insurance business is, in many ways, a form of gambling (the customer is betting that something bad will happen while the insurance company is betting that it won't happen right away; in the meantime, only the customer is wagering any money while the insurance company is investing that money in the hope that the premiums charged will exceed the amount they must someday pay when catastrophe strikes). Again, maintaining plausibility, an owner-operator of a freight business would absolutely want the main asset of the business insured against loss or damage. In the case of the ship in Pike's Passage (the Alice May), she is unique and irreplaceable. The insurance company does not want to turn away business but does want to limit its liability. The owner is realistic enough to know the ship is irreplaceable but also wants to be able to walk away with something in the event of a catastrophe.

What can sci-fi teach us about our own world?

One of the appealing aspects of writing science fiction is the "blank canvas."  In creating a future existence, the author can envision anything from the perfection of human existence to the most awful dystopian environment. In my case, I wanted to show a future where certain problems would be solved—problems we as humans would have to be complete idiots not to fix, given the opportunity. The two issues that I consciously tried to eliminate were pollution and prejudice. Other problems, relating to basic human nature, still plague humanity in that future—greed, hunger for power or dominance, procrastination, and selfishness, just to mention a few that come to mind readily.

Technological advances may give us the opportunity to fix some of the self-inflicted problems of the world, like pollution, access to affordable energy, and clean water supplies. The progress I have seen in my lifetime in overcoming prejudice gives me hope that we will continue to move forward. Countering that is selfish human nature plus our willingness to ignore the lessons of our past. Technology is wonderful but will never be as important as knowing the difference between right and wrong.

YA/Middle Grade

The Eye of Odin by Steven Petersen

What the judge said: The Eye of Odin is a polished, well-paced modern take on Norse myth that manages to create both emotional resonance and turn-the-page pacing. Rather than merely recreate old stories, Petersen uses mythology as a springboard to launch readers into the life of a teen lacrosse player with a special ancestry that's about to complicate her life. Thyra is a believable young adult, caught between ancient forces and modern greed...Perhaps most teens aren't trying to use dwarven-forged weapons or running from henchmen, but the challenge of navigating other people's baggage will be familiar to many teen (and adult!) readers.”

- Melissa Marr

How did you achieve this successful balance between the “everyday” problems of a contemporary teenager with the more fantastical circumstances? 

We live in a world of "magic" as it is. The problems of life have always existed, just the situation around us changes. A teenager discovering they had magic a thousand years ago might go through the same doubts and fears that Thyra does in the current age. I wanted the characters in my story to be human first, god second. That being said, a god that ruled a thousand years ago would be amazed by cell phones, cars, planes, the internet. To them, it would seem like a new form of magic that they would be forced to manage. Kind of a—"Oops, I can't throw this car through the air because there's three kids with their iPhone out!"—kind of a situation. I felt that the fantastical and every day were just as entwined now as they were centuries ago, so finding the balance was a fun exercise. 

The Eye of Odin features familiar mythological figures. How did you manage to make them feel so fresh and vivid?

This was the fun part for me. I did research online looking at the pantheon of Norse gods and what they were known for. Then I tried to imagine what kind of magic these gods might have and consider what the root of it could be. The one I found most fun to write was Hela. She was the goddess of death, which made me think, "why?" Instead of being a killer, what if she was a healer that got a little too prideful and started trying to defy death by keeping people alive who should have died. From there, motivations grew. I wanted the gods in my story to be complex and full of regret, anger, fear. I wanted them to be tired of living these long lives, watching the world change around them and their own power diminish in the face of what man was capable of. I wanted them to be constantly looking over their shoulders rather than living in gilded halls.

What ingredients go into writing a successful YA novel?

I'm still figuring this out, so if anyone has a good outline, send it my way.

I have several teenage nieces and nephews and I wrote this with them in mind. I tried to think of what they would feel or think if they were experiencing what was happening in my story. This story honestly flowed and I didn't spend time second-guessing myself. I had fun, which I hope is felt on each page.

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