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December 16, 2018
By Daniel Lefferts
We sit down and chat with the six finalists for this year's BookLife Prize.

This year, the judges of the BookLife Prize—bestselling authors, the editorial staffs of Publishers Weekly and BookLife, and PW reviewers—looked at more than 900 submissions before selecting just six titles (one from each of the contest’s categories) for the finals. The grand-prize winner will be announced on December 17. We caught up with the six authors who reached the 2018 BookLife Prize finals to talk about writing historical figures, trailer parks, supervillains, and a whole lot more.

Rozsa Gaston: Reviving a Royal

Gaston, this year’s finalist in the general fiction category for her novel Anne and Louis, lives in Bronxville, N.Y., which is ideal, given her fascination with European history. According to her, many compare the village to England’s Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. But as an author Gaston is less interested in the historical figures we remember than in those we forget—and those who deserve to have their stories retold.

This is the third book you’ve written about Anne of Brittany. What got you interested in the character?

About six years ago, I picked up Mildred Allen Butler’s 1967 book on Anne of Brittany (Twice Queen of France), largely because I was struck by the image of Anne as a young girl on the cover. I liked how sure of herself she looked. Her story was beyond belief. She came to power in 1488, at age 11, as ruler of Brittany, then became queen of France at age 14. This despite losing every one of her immediate family members by age 12. Where did she get the strength to go on? I searched for anything I could find on her. There was almost nothing out there. It occurred to me that there was a huge opportunity.

You must have done quite a bit of research to write this book. What’s a surprising fact you uncovered?

Anne hid a limp. She had specially made shoes built for her with a platform heel on one foot to help her walk. From the age of four, she was trained to conceal it, which she did magnificently.

What are your next steps as a writer?

Two more Anne of Brittany books are in the hopper. The first will be on the middle years of Anne’s marriage with Louis. The final book of the Anne of Brittany series will be on the last years of their marriage.

Kelly Jameson: Unearthing the Masters

Jameson lives in Sellersville, Penn., and works as a copywriter and editor for an advertising agency. Her town is near New Hope, the setting for her novel A Lady and Gentleman in Black, this year’s finalist in the mystery/thriller category. The book centers on an FBI agent with the bureau’s art-theft task force and touches on the life of the painter Rembrandt. It turns out artists, and their unusual lives, are a recurring inspiration for Jameson.

Why were you drawn to writing about the town of New Hope?

I love to write about artists and their lives and research them. I think it adds such texture and color to your story. In New Hope, there seems to be a geographic karma thing going on. There have been a lot of writers and artists in the area.

The novel gets into history in multiple ways. It features a nun who died in 1926 and it also looks into the life of Rembrandt. What was your research process like?

I read a lot. I scoured articles and books about Rembrandt. I don’t like to overwhelm readers with too many details. But I like to find things that maybe aren’t that well-known. You can get more of a human feel for what the person’s life was like. And I didn’t know certain things. Apparently, he was buried in this graveyard where they moved bodies and rented the spaces out. Nobody knows where this great artist is buried in that cemetery.

You’ve self-published 14 novels. Which are your favorites, and why?

Of all the books I’ve done, Dead On, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, and What Remained of Katrina are my favorites. What Remained of Katrina is set in New Orleans and goes back and forth between different narratives, kind of like A Lady and Gentleman in Black, but it delves into van Gogh’s life. Artists’ lives are fascinating.

Racheline Maltese and Erin McRae: Pair Writing a Pair-Skating Romance

Maltese and McRae, this year’s finalists in the romance/erotica category for their novel After the Gold, have coauthored several books together. Maltese works from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she’s a freelance writer, and McRae works from Fairfax, Va., where she’s a freelance writer and editor. (She was formerly a data analyst with the State Department.) In addition to writing projects, the authors share an obsession with ice skating—which led to this romance about pair skaters in love.

How did you decide to write about figure skaters?

R.M.: We were obsessing about the 2016 Olympics, and we weren’t working on a book we should have been working on. We said, “Well, we can keep having endless conversations about the Olympics, or we should just write a different book.” Then I had the brilliant marketing idea that if people preordered the book, we would film an embarrassing video of ourselves attempting to ice skate. Erin had never done it before, and I got kicked out of ice skating when I was six because I was too scared. But then we fell in love with the sport, and we’re both taking weekly lessons.

Did you ever post the video?

R.M.: We were trying to take the video. But my partner, who came with us to do that, fell and broke her ankle.

Other than practicing it yourselves, how did you learn about the world of ice skating for this book?

E.M.: We had the story we wanted to tell first, and then we knew what gaps had to be filled. We knew exactly what questions we needed answered: How long is a program? How many jumps are you allowed to do? How does this move work? And a lot of reading the International Skating Union rules.

Did you base your protagonists off any real-life skaters?

R.M.: This really started because we were obsessed with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and the sort of hilarious media drama of “are they or aren’t they together?” We write a lot of romances about people who are in the public eye. To do that, to be incredibly ambitious and successful, means you’re not always an easy person to deal with. How does that really work? My partner and I argue about who takes out the garbage. What do you do when you’re arguing about “you hurt your knee” or “you missed that triple axel”?

David Reiss: Antagonist as Protagonist

Reiss, this year’s finalist in the science fiction/fantasy/horror category for his novel Fid’s Crusade, lives in Silicon Valley, where he works as a software engineer. Fid’s Crusade is the first book in a projected trilogy. The story fits into the superhero category but not neatly—Reiss is much more interested in villains.

You’ve published two books now, both in this series. When did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing for most of my life, but the vast majority of my projects were unfinished until I picked up a new piece of software, Scrivener, which helped me to organize larger projects, and organize my thoughts better.

Why in this book and the one that follows it, Behind Distant Stars, did you opt to focus on a supervillain rather than a superhero?

I read John Gardner’s Grendel when I was young. That’s a deep dive into the mind of the beast from Beowulf. Ever since then I’ve wondered what the antagonist was thinking throughout a story whenever I saw what the hero was doing. In superhero stories, the villains are more proactive. The heroes all react. The villain’s robbing a bank, so the heroes run to save the day. But the villain’s the guy that has to start things rolling. I was trying to approach the genre from what initiates conflict.

You’ve struggled to complete projects in the past. How did you start, and ultimately finish, this one?

I often say it took me 46 years to write my first book and six months to write the second. The truth is, once I started it, the first book, too, took me about six months to write. But it went through several iterations. When I first started it, it was a short story. I went to a local writer’s group. This is not a group I normally work with. The people there were very condescending about the idea of genre fiction. I got this attitude of “oh, we’re real authors, we don’t write science fiction—we don’t write superheroes.” So, I tried to do a capital-L-literature story about a supervillain—just to be cantankerous. It was a nonlinear, stream-of-consciousness deep dive into the mind of the villain. It was chewy and, I think, reasonably well-done. But it wasn’t fun. So, I tore it apart and rewrote it. And I tore it apart again and rewrote it. And I tore it apart until at some point I realized, “I have a full novel here.”

Michael F. Stewart: Big Questions in a Strange Place

Stewart, this year’s finalist in the young adult/middle grade category for his novel Ray vs. the Meaning of Life, lives with his family in Ottawa, Canada. His novel, the latest of more than a dozen, is about a young protagonist on a philosophical mission in a trailer park—an odd setup that only portends more oddness.

One of the more distinctive things about this book is its setting, a trailer park. What prompted you to choose that location?

The distinctive thing is the trailer park setting? Not the cryogenically frozen grandma with her brain stuck in an eight-foot-tall Barbie? Or the marauding grizzly bear? Or the struggling motivational coach to celebrities and billionaires? I’m kidding. The setting is really important. And there’s a good reason for it. I’ve been there. Not Sunnydays in particular, but a place like it, situated in a veritable swamp, with all that mud and so many mosquitoes. The people who lived there were part of a shadow population, good people staying for work. It was a weird, slightly alien place, where weird stuff happened and a very unlikely place to be thinking about the meaning of life, which is why it’s the best place for this story.

You’ve advocated for interactive storytelling platforms for young readers. Is there an interactive platform for this book in the works?

I like interactivity because it engages the reader and pulls them into the narrative. It can be very immersive and extend story into places it sometimes isn’t seen. I’m not sure this project would be better with interactive features. Facing a grizzly in virtual reality? Maybe you could play against Ray in one of his video games and talk to an AI version of him as he takes down dragon spawn?

Oanh Ngo Usadi: Learning New Memories

As you can tell from the title of her first book, Of Monkey Bridges and Banh Mi Sandwiches, Usadi, this year’s finalist in the memoir/autobiography category, finds much meaning in food. Recently she published an essay in the Washington Post about the significance of Thanksgiving turkey to her family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the 1980s. Their experiences are at the center of her memoir, which BookLife Prize judge Julie Powell calls “the sort of book we need right now.”

How long did you work on this book? What prompted you to begin writing it?

The memoir took about four years from first ink on paper to publication. I came to writing somewhat by accident. When my father passed away eight years ago, I decided to write a short essay about his life. Around the anniversary of his death, about five years ago, I sent the story to different newspapers. To my tremendous surprise, the Wall Street Journal accepted it. The editor, who was very kind, thought there was more to the story and suggested that perhaps I should think about writing a memoir. While it was incredibly gratifying to have that validation, I couldn’t imagine writing a whole book. It took me so long just to write the essay. But in the end, I decided to take the plunge.

What were the most challenging aspects of writing the book?

I left Vietnam when I was only 11, so my direct knowledge of Vietnamese history was limited. Since my family’s history is very much linked with that of Vietnam itself, I had to learn more about the events during that time period. Weaving the different threads into a coherent interesting narrative was a challenge. I also struggled writing about my parents when they had only recently passed away. My father had died a few years before I started the book, and my mother passed away when I was near the end of writing. It was difficult to have the detachment needed to write about the past when I still had such raw feelings about the present.

Now that you’ve written your first book, how will you continue your writing career?

Since the book’s publication in April, I have continued to write essays and op-eds. At the moment I’m working on narrating the audiobook version of the memoir, which is a whole project unto itself. I also have several writing ideas that I’m at the early stages of pursuing. I hope to explore the craft of fiction writing.

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