The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel published between January 1st and December 31st of the award year. Bloom’s own Sonya Chung was among the judges this year, and as she read many, many novels during the process, she was thrilled to note how many exciting debuts this year were written by Bloomers. Here are five Bloomer debut novels to track down and look out for this year.
Perhaps best known as the inspiration for the librarian action figure (always shown holding a stack of banned books), Nancy Pearl was born in Detroit in 1945. She earned her Master’s in Library Science at the University of Michigan. Her husband was a college professor in Oklahoma, where they raised two daughters, and where Pearl earned a second Master’s, in History (she was fascinated by the coursework and eventually took enough classes to qualify for a degree).
Pearl was recruited to run the Seattle public library system in 1993 and lived away from her family until her husband could retire, four years later. During that time, Pearl revitalized the Seattle library system with projects including “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” while also teaching library sciences courses at the University of Washington. She advocated the power of reading on a monthly TV show, Book Lust, which led to bestselling nonfiction companion books. She was named Library Journal‘s 2011 Librarian of the Year and given a lifetime achievement award, though she became a subject of controversy the year after by announcing a partnership with Amazon to republish out of print books.
Described by New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt as “Sparkling as Prosecco, as jubilantly quirky and inventive a love story as you could ever want, and a jigsaw puzzle you never want to finish,” Pearl’s first novel, George and Lizzie, about a marriage at a crossroads, came out in September from Touchstone (Simon & Schuster). When a shameful secret from Lizzie’s past resurfaces, she needs to face her fears in order to accept the true nature of the relationship she and George have built over a decade together.
BG Firmani is a marketing manager by day, and worked for years as freelance writer and editor at night. She later began teaching collegiate creative writing courses, as well as translating Italian and Latin literature. Firmani came from a family of Italian immigrants who were the inspiration for her infrequent blog, Forte e Gentile. She came of age in New York City in the 1980s and now is married and living in the East Village.
Firmani continued to freelance through the 2008 economic recession, then committed to her marketing job and personal writing projects. She has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, as well as Yaddo. Firmani was the 2012 Fellow in Fiction at the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Time’s a Thief was published by Doubleday (Penguin Random House) in May and deals with New York City in the 1980s, class relations between Italian Americans, and romance. It was an Amazon Best Book of May pick. Francesca “Chess” Varani is an ultra-bright, sassy, but vulnerable Barnard freshwoman from a blue-collar background who strikes up a volatile and somewhat toxic friendship with drama-queen classmate Kendra Marr-Löwenstein. She then falls into the bewitching orbit of Kendra’s Salingeresque, high-toned family. Library Journal says, “[Time’s A Thief] is immediately absorbing…. A compelling story of youthful infatuation, love, and disillusionment.”
Born in 1957, Susan Rivers began her writing career as a successful playwright. She won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award, and the New York Drama League Award, as well as the NEA Writers in Residence Award in San Francisco. In 1995, she moved to North Carolina, earning her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.
Immersing herself in Southern literature, Rivers mastered the craft and style, winning the Regional Artist Grant from the Arts and Sciences Council over multiple years. She moved to a small town in South Carolina in 2009 and teaches English at a university upstate.
Rivers’s The Second Mrs. Hockaday was published by Algonquin in January and tells the story—based on fact—of Placidia Hockaday, whose husband, Major Griffith Hockaday, returns home from the Civil War to find his wife on trial for the murder of her second child, a baby born during the two years the Major was away. It is written in an epistolary, “found letter” style, and was an Indie Next pick. Kirkus Reviews writes, “[The Second Mrs. Hockaday is] a compulsively readable work that takes on the legacy of slavery in the United States, the struggles specific to women, and the possibilities for empathy and forgiveness.”
Deno Trakas is the Laina and Winston Hoyt Professor of English, and director of the writing center at Wofford College in South Carolina—the school his Greek father attended. His mother was a local girl whose house was visible from the campus before it was torn down for new construction. He has written a memoir about being the child of Greek immigrants in South Carolina. Trakas earned his Master’s at Tulsa, then his PhD at USC.
A slow writer, Trakas only pens one to two pages per day, and only during the summer. He focuses solely on teaching during the school year. He is the five-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Prize, and has also won the South Carolina Academy of Arts Fellowship in Fiction.
Trakas’s Messenger from Mystery was published by Story River Books (USC Press) in February. The novel focuses on English graduate student Jason “Jay” Nichols, a third-generation Greek American. One of his students and his eventual lover, Azadeh “Azi” Ghotbzadeh, is related to the foreign minister of Iran and deeply involved in the hostage crisis. When Azi is put in mortal peril, Jay finds himself in the unlikely and uncomfortable role of rescuer. Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall, writes, “In Messenger from Mystery, Deno Trakas seamlessly fuses the personal to the political, and the result is a story that probes the possibility of individual goodness surviving despite two countries’ discord.
Phillip Lewis is a lawyer in Charlotte, South Carolina, born and raised in West Jefferson, North Carolina. He received his law degree from Campbell University. His father was a literary man with a postgraduate degree and a self-published novel. He discouraged Lewis from writing, going so far as to be dismissive of his son’s first draft. Lewis’s parents divorced after his mother was badly injured and bedridden in a horseback riding accident. Lewis’s father is a depressive alcoholic, and Lewis often felt his novel was a race to finish before his father died.
Lewis never studied writing and still practices law. His father is still living.
The Barrowfields was published by Crown/Hogarth (Penguin Random House) in March and traces an estranged son, Henry Aster, returning home to confront his failed novelist father in Appalachia. The book also immortalizes Lewis’s beloved dog, who died of an unknown illness. Shelf Awareness raves, “The Barrowfields is a stunning debut novel rich in character and place, steeped in literature and music, and fraught with family drama.”
Mollie Weisenfeld is an Editorial Assistant at Hachette Books and an editor at Curiosity Quills Press. Her poetry has been published in Folio, Lilith, and Guildscript, and her children’s story is forthcoming from Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. Visit her Facebook @MollieWeisenfeldAuthor for updates on her mocha addiction, worldwide quest for the perfect writing café, and attempts to write everything except the next Great American Novel. Also Twitter @TheMollieJean and tumblr @ChrisMiracle.