Okra Picks Fall 19

 Current Southern Indie Bestseller List...

Southern Bestsellers 11/3/2019

For the week ending 11/3/219.

1. The Guardians
John Grisham, Doubleday, $29.95, 9780385544184
2. The Dutch House
Ann Patchett, Harper, $27.99, 9780062963673
3. The Water Dancer
Ta-Nehisi Coates, One World, $28, 9780399590597
4. Where the Crawdads Sing
Delia Owens, Putnam, $26, 9780735219090
5. Blue Moon
Lee Child, Delacorte Press, $28.99, 9780399593543
1. Talking to Strangers
Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown, $30, 9780316478526
2. Catch and Kill
Ronan Farrow, Little Brown, $30, 9780316486637
3. The Body
Bill Bryson, Doubleday, $30, 9780385539302
4. Blowout
Rachel Maddow, Crown, $30, 9780525575474
5. Me
Elton John, Holt, $30, 9781250147608

 A SIBA Okra Pick  | SIBA Book Award winners and finalists! |  Special to the Southern List

 From the Current Crop of Fresh Okra Picks...

The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons You can have everything you want if you sacrifice everything you believe.

Kihrin D'Mon is a wanted man.

Since he destroyed the Stone of Shackles and set demons free across Quur, he has been on the run from the wrath of an entire empire. His attempt to escape brings him into the path of Janel Theranon, a mysterious Joratese woman who claims to know Kihrin.

Janel's plea for help pits Kihrin against all manner of dangers: a secret rebellion, a dragon capable of destroying an entire city, and Kihrin's old enemy, the wizard Relos Var.

Janel believes that Relos Var possesses one of the most powerful artifacts in the world—the Cornerstone called the Name of All Things. And if Janel is right, then there may be nothing in the world that can stop Relos Var from getting what he wants.

And what he wants is Kihrin D'Mon.

Tor Books | 9781250175533 | October 29, 2019

 READ THIS! Great Reads from Southern Indies...


you don't need an algorithm to discover a great read!


 The Latest from Lady Banks' Commonplace Book...

Southern Book PrizeWhen her ladyship, the editor, sat down to write her letter for this week's newsletter, she began with "Another beloved Southern voice has fallen silent..."

And then she stopped.

"A voice lost" is the phrase her ladyship habitually uses when she has to write about the passing of a beloved author. She has used when remembering Kay Byers. She used it to talk about Harper Lee and Maya Angelou. She used it earlier this year when writing about Charles F. Price and Toni Morrison. So when her ladyship read, with deep sorrow, the news that Ernest J. Gaines had died she opened her laptop and almost automatically typed "Another beloved Southern voice has been lost..." and then something in her rebelled. It's not true, she sat there thinking. Gaines's voice is not lost. He is not silent. His books are right there, on your shelf, and they are still speaking to you. You only have to look at them to bring up the memory of stories they tell, the landscape and the images of people they describe so ruthlessly and so lovingly. Just the sight of them on the shelf evokes the force of what you felt reading them. Ernest J. Ganies will never be silent.

"Even before visiting False River, I knew this landscape held a holy place in Gaines’s heart, but after that morning in the cemetery, I understood that it also held a holy place in his fiction. I was standing on the land where the century-old Miss Jane Pittman had talked to oak trees, where the hardened schoolteacher from A Lesson Before Dying had decided that even a condemned man is worth saving" -- Wiley Cash, remembering Ernest J. Gaines.

Wiley Cash, the 2020 Conroy Legacy Award recipient and author of The Last Ballad,
once described a similar feeling when he wrote about his long friendship with Gaines, which began when he dug up a copy of Bloodline as a college student: "Two decades later, when I think about the book, an early passage from the story “The Sky Is Gray” still comes to mind." That serendipitous story set Cash on the lengthy path that would result in his breakout novel A Land More Kind Than Home -- a story that in large part exists because of what he learned from Gaines: "Write what's true, not what's pretty."

Ernest J. Gaines will never write another book, and we are the poorer for it. But he is still with us, in the voice of Jane Pittman, Tante Lou, Candy Marshall, Jefferson, Grant Wiggins. His voice is not silent and it is not lost.

A Lesson Before Dying A Gathering of Old MenThe Autobiography of Miss Jane PittmanCatherine CarmierOf Love and DustBloodlineThe Tragedy of Brady SimsIn My Father's House


 Featured 2019 Southern Book Prize Winner...


The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table by Rick Bragg

 2019 Southern Book Prize Winner: Nonfiction

From the beloved, best-selling author of All Over but the Shoutin', a delectable, rollicking food memoir, cookbook, and loving tribute to a region, a vanishing history, a family, and, especially, to his mother. Including seventy-four mouthwatering Bragg family recipes for classic southern dishes passed down through generations.

Margaret Bragg does not own a single cookbook. She measures in "dabs" and "smidgens" and "tads" and "you know, hon, just some." She cannot be pinned down on how long to bake corn bread ("about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the mysteries of your oven"). Her notion of farm-to-table is a flatbed truck. But she can tell you the secrets to perfect mashed potatoes, corn pudding, redeye gravy, pinto beans and hambone, stewed cabbage, short ribs, chicken and dressing, biscuits and butter rolls. Many of her recipes, recorded here for the first time, pre-date the Civil War, handed down skillet by skillet, from one generation of Braggs to the next. In The Best Cook in the World, Rick Bragg finally preserves his heritage by telling the stories that framed his mother's cooking and education, from childhood into old age. Because good food always has a good story, and a recipe, writes Bragg, is a story like anything else.

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table by Rick Bragg (Knopf)


 Southern Books | Authors | Literary News...

Constance LombardoConstance Lombardo’s debut picture book, Everybody Says Meow, publishes on November 5. She is the author/illustrator of the middle grade Mr. Puffball books, and lives in Asheville.

Bobbie: In your house, does everybody say “meow”?

Constance: Some say ‘meow’. Others say ‘woof,’ ‘tweet,’ ‘guinea pig noise,’ and ‘Mom, what’s for dinner’?

Bobbie: How was working on this picture book different from your middle grade novels?

Constance: I love MG novels, but picture books hold an extra special place in my heart. It’s like writing poetry, in a way, because every word counts. And every page has to make a splash, visually and textually, and lead naturally into the next, which must be both surprising and inevitable. Also, the thought of parents and librarians reading Everybody Says Meow to young children and (hopefully) making them laugh… that makes me SO happy!

Bobbie: Your Mr. Puffball illustrations are black and white, while EVERYBODY SAYS MEOW is full color. What was that like? Did you obsess over getting just the right colors for your illustrations?

Everybody Says Meow Mr. Puffball Escape from Culinary Island

Constance: Black and white is definitely my comfort zone. Working with color, (in traditional media – pen and watercolor) was a thrilling challenge, especially finding the right colors and keeping it consistent.

For example, I conceived Myrtle (the MC, whose name is never mentioned in this book of few words,) as pink. I tried every possible pink, until my wise Art Director said, ‘Maybe she should just be a gentle grey.’ I got out my Payne’s Grey, added water, and… Bingo!

"The image of a bossy kitten trying to get everybody to say meow popped into my head. As I developed it, the idea of everybody’s right to their own voice became clear."

Bobbie: Reviewers have said that MEOW is a book that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness. Did you have that theme in mind when you started writing? Or were you mostly thinking about cats (and ducks, and frogs)?

Constance: This book began with our quiet kitten Gandalf. When I fed him and our talkative older cat, Myrtle, she would MEOW like wild, while he simply stared. (adorable!) To encourage him to talk, I started saying, “See? Everybody says meow!”

The image of a bossy kitten trying to get everybody to say meow popped into my head. As I developed it, the idea of everybody’s right to their own voice became clear. So it evolved organically from my kitten inspiration and my personal beliefs.  

Bobbie: What illustrators and authors inspire you?

Constance: So many! Some contemporary author/illustrators who inspire me include Sergio Ruzzier, Lauren Child, David Ezra Stein, and Jillian Tamaki (especially This One Summer.) Also, Emil Ferris, whose My Favorite Thing is Monsters proves beyond a doubt that illustration is Art. (w a capital A.)

This One Summer My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Bobbie: When you got your BFA in Illustration from Syracuse University, did you think you’d end up illustrating children’s books?

Constance: I imagined doing illustrations for album covers. (Remember those?) I never thought about kids books until my kid was born (now 16.) I rediscovered my love of Arnold Lobel, Beatrix Potter, and William Steig. The rest is history. Or will be in a few decades.

Bobbie: What’s next for you?

Constance: My news is I’m learning how to use Procreate on the iPad. Digital art is more fun than I imagined. Thankfully, my teen helps me, when he’s in the mood to talk to me (infrequently.)

Bobbie: Finally, I have to ask: are you ever going to write a dog book?

Constance: Now that I have an old sweetheart of a beagle, signs point to yes (to quote the Magic 8 Ball.) The bigger question is: any editors out there looking for a book about an old, stubborn, but kind-hearted beagle with a nose for solving mysteries?

Constance Lombardo is an author, illustrator, and cat expert who can say meow in several languages. She is the creator of a middle grade series, Mr. Puffball, about a clever group of Hollywood cats. Stick Dog creator Tom Watson called Mr. Puffball “freaky, furry, and first-rate fun!” When she isn’t drawing or writing, Constance likes to visit the many waterfalls in Western North Carolina or rummage through Asheville’s local indie bookstores. Plus, she likes carrot cake. Visit her at www.constancelombardo.com.

Announcing the 2020 Southern Book Prize Finalists

Southern Book PrizeSouthern independent booksellers have selected the finalists for the 2020 Southern Book Prize, representing bookseller favorites from 2019 that are Southern in nature—either about the South, or by a Southern writer. Nominations were submitted by bookstore members of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and culled from books that have received strong reviews from Southern booksellers. The sixteen finalists which received the highest number of nominations are a collection of the most beloved “hand sells” in fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature of the year.

The finalists are now placed on the 2020 Southern Book Prize ballot. Winners in each category will be chosen by popular vote from readers who support Southern independent bookstores. Participating bookstores will distribute ballots to their customers, which can be returned to be entered into a raffle to win a complete set of the finalist titles. An online ballot will also be available at www.southernbookprize.com.

Voting opens the week of the Love Your Bookstore Challenge, November 8-17, building on the momentum of the grassroots campaign to encourage book buying at local bookstores and giving store customers chances to win more prizes. Voting will run from November 8 through February 1, 2020.

2020 is the second year the Southern Book Prize has been opened up to a popular vote. SIBA launched the public ballot for the 2019 prize, shifting the voting period to build momentum and excitement during the holiday season.

“The response from our member stores and the general public was overwhelming,” said SIBA Executive Director Wanda Jewell. “Everyone got involved – booksellers, readers, authors – in the end nearly 3500 ballots were submitted from all over the South. It was a wonderful affirmation of how important and beloved our member bookstores are to their communities.”

Southern Book Prize winners will be announced on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

2020 Southern Book Prize Finalists

The Dutch House The Magnetic GirlNever Have I EverThe Nickel BoysNothing to See HereThis Tender Land


Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Ecco)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Harper)
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler (Hub City Press)
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (Atria Books)

The Furious HoursI Miss You When You BlinkLate MigrationsSouthern Lady CodeTell Me a Story


Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy by Cassandra King (William Morrow)
Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis (Doubleday)
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions)
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott (Atria Books)
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (Knopf)

The Gilded WolvesHum and SwishI Will BE FierceThe King of KindergartenRayne & Delilah's Midnite Matinee


Hum and Swish by Matt Myers (Neal Porter Books)
Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee by Jeff Zentner (Crown Books for Young Readers)
I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong (Roaring Brook Press)
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (Wednesday Books)
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes (Nancy Paulsen Books)


For more information contact:
Wanda Jewell, Executive Director
Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Kevin WilsonThe year that I left for college, a bookstore opened in my hometown of Winchester, TN. The two owners were my best friend’s mom, Debbie Petrochko, and my elementary school librarian, Suzy Smith. It was called Expressions, A Bookstore/Art Gallery. It was a tiny space, but the books were carefully chosen, and the women were dedicated to providing a space in our small town for literature, so we didn’t have to drive to Nashville for a book. That summer when I stopped by the store, Mrs. Smith, who had heard that I wanted to be a writer, told me about the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I knew nothing about. By the time I graduated from college, I was on staff at the conference, where I met my wife, where I would get a job at the university teaching fiction. That bookstore closed a few years after that summer.

"What I mean is that bookstores have changed my life, have made me love books even more because of the community that these places provide. And when they close, that absence changes a town, the loss of all those transformational moments."

When I was a freshman at Vanderbilt University, I discovered Davis-Kidd Booksellers. I saw a notice in the paper that a debut author, Frederick Reiken, would be reading, and I decided to go, had never gone to a bookstore reading. By the time I’d graduated, I’d gone to more than a dozen readings, spent so much money on books that I read more closely than the books I had to read for my classes. I bought Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, Victor LaValle’s Slapboxing with Jesus. I saw my professor Cecilia Tichi, read from her mystery novel while Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub accompanied her. Davis-Kidd moved to a new location, a much larger space, and I read there when my first book of stories came out. That bookstore closed a year later.

Nothing to See HereWhat I mean is that bookstores have changed my life, have made me love books even more because of the community that these places provide. And when they close, that absence changes a town, the loss of all those transformational moments.

I now live in a town without an independent bookstore, and I miss the ability to simply stop by after work, to attend a reading whenever I want to. I know how integral independent bookstores are to the local community, but I now realize how important these bookstores are even for customers who don’t live there. Whenever we go to a new city, we always take the kids to the local bookstore to stock up, to see the unique qualities of that store and how it feels so connected to the city itself. On weekends in Chattanooga, an hour away, we have lunch at Good Dog and then walk to Star Line Books. When we’re in Nashville, we go to Parnassus, take in how the store has changed since we were last there. It’s always so amazing when we walk into a store for the first time, to see that it’s thriving, filled with people. And I always hope that the town will keep it that way, so that when we come back, we can feel that same thrill, even if it isn’t entirely ours, of having a place to come to when we need something to read.

Kevin Wilson is the author of the novels The Family Fang, a New York Times bestseller adapted into an acclaimed film starring Nicole Kidman, and Perfect Little World, as well as the story collections Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. His third novel Nothing to See Here has just been published by Ecco. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife and two sons.


(reprinted with permission via Advance Reading Copy)


Jon:  Mark, tell me about your book.

Mark:   My book is titled Watershed. This is my first book and my debut. It’s set in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the building of a federal hydroelectric dam and the arrival of electricity in rural Tennessee.

Years ago I was working in advertising and one of our clients was an electric cooperative and I didn't know what one was. I was a copywriter and they tasked me with writing a brochure. 

As I did a little research, I was stunned to realize that electricity arrives around 1900 in the United States. Edison has DC and all that, and then they're building it out. But my book is set in 1937. In the 30s the countryside still didn't have electricity. Because it was just a market-driven system. Right?

Jon:  Sure.

Mark:  If you were in the electrical company in the city, you could string a mile of copper and have a hundred customers. 

Jon:    Just like internet when it first came out.

WatershedMark: Very much so. And that's an issue, right? Our jobs are so dependent on the internet. And similarly, it was like that then, everything started to become dependent on electricity. And it just blew my mind that it's not something we collectively know. I'd never heard of it. 

What happened was, as you might expect, young people were drawn off the farms to the bright lights, big city. Go live a more comfortable, electrified life.

Anyway, I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to set a story in that space, sort of dramatize it a bit. So that said, my story is more about these people. And I have a story of Nathan, who's this engineer who's working on the dam and he's running from a scandal in his past and Claire, who's a housewife who's getting her first taste of what a career might be. And it's these two people as they meet in a small town just as electricity arrives. And there's some people who resist and some people who are enthusiastic and young people and old people, and just how it all plays out.


Jon:  How some people resist, what would be their reasoning?

Mark:  I think there are always people that resist. I was stunned with healthcare stuff when people are like, "Don't tell me that I need good healthcare." 

But there were people that were like, "Don't come in and tell me." Well, one example I think of now is a pure manual laborer. Electrification means there might be machines to take his place.

Jon:  Yes, of course.

Mark:  If you're a guy who has a job shoveling grain all day, someone's going to come up with a machine that'll do that, a conveyor or something. So mechanization's part of it.
And there's people who just don't trust it. They felt like this is the government. Because it wasn't just a free market thing, it was the government, it was part of Roosevelt's rural electrification act. It had a faint socialist sort of tang to it. There were people that resisted and said things like "I'll shoot you if you come on my land trying to string up your electric lines." Or they were told they had to sell the right of way. I'm sure there was some eminent domain issues too, as part of building hydro-electric dams and flooding valleys. There were people who had to be relocated. Some of those people didn't want to go. There was a lot of resistance.

Jon:   All these dams were hydroelectric.

Mark:  Yeah, they built, I don't know the exact number, but a lot.

Jon:    A lot in Tennessee because there was the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Mark:   Exactly, which is just in Tennessee. The REA was nationwide, the Rural Electrification Act and TVA came out of that. It was more of a, I guess, a state level. I'm not quite sure.  But I think there are at least 17 in Tennessee. 

Jon:   It's the only one that I've heard of. So it must be because there's a lot of them.

Mark:   It's the most extensive system by far, I think. And it made electricity. But because of some laws on the books,the government couldn't get in and compete with independent, private electrical companies. So what they did was sign people up in cooperatives so they were member owners of these things. And then they could purchase wholesale electricity from the government that they've installed themselves. My parents have a place in Northern Arkansas that gets their electricity from them. They are still hundreds of them around the country. And I didn't know about that. I'd never heard of such a thing. I thought this is fascinating.

Jon:   How did you first hear about it to think, "Hey, this is really fascinating. I think I'm going to write a book about this."

Mark:  Well, I was writing that brochure. I was researching the brochure, and that's when I stumbled across this. I'm fascinated by these things that we collectively don't know. Big things that we somehow missed. I'm sure there's an infinite number of them, big things that created major changes in the flow of our society that we just don't talk about or think about.

Jon:   We just accept.

Mark:   Yes, it just really held my interest. I wasn't sure if it pulled other people's interest, but I think it's fascinating.

Jon:   Well it used to be, on a little aside, that hundreds of years ago, everything was pretty clear on how it worked. You know, either it was gears or other things, and if something broke you could open it up and say, "Oh this ..." 

Mark:   Right.

Jon:    If all the things that we take for granted, if they just broke there'd be a very small minority of people who would know what to do.

Mark:  Right. 

Jon:   We'd say "Help!"

Mark:   Right. We definitely see that. I've seen some dystopian novels that touch on that.

Jon:   Many.

Mark:  I think David Mitchell had one where we're like "If the oil had run out we would lose so much." All these people that have their photos in the Cloud and stuff like that, that all goes away. And not just everyone can engineer a car or build a computer... We'd go back to hoes and hand tools. Right.

Jon:   Exactly.

Mark:  Very quickly.

Jon:   Very quickly. Helium. It's going away.

Mark:   Right. Yeah.

Jon:   What do we have anymore? No more balloons at parties.

Mark:   What are children's birthday parties going to be like? "I remember when we had balloons that just floated in the sky."

Jon:    We could use hydrogen, I guess. It's just a little more volatile. "Get away."

Mark:   That'd make the kids parties exciting. The Hindenburg theme.

Jon:    How were you fortunate enough to be published by Hub City?

Mark:  We were looking for publishers and my agent suggested them. I'm a southerner, I'm from Arkansas. They have a really good reputation.

Jon:   So your agent sent them the manuscript?

Mark:  Yeah. And it seemed like just it was a great fit. In fact, I remember when she told me about them that two and a half weeks or so, it was sort of stressful because I was pretty excited about them. I remember Googling them and my wife, I talked to her and said "This seems like such a great fit." I think it says on their Twitter page, they're all about finding new extraordinary voices in the South. It was something that I thought, I want to be part of that. It sounds like just that sort of exciting thing.

Jon:  Well, and then, not only do they accept your book and want to publish it, they only publish one hard back a season.

Mark:  Yeah.

Jon:   And it's your book.

Mark:   Yes! That was very exciting. What writer hasn't dreamt about seeing their book in a hardback?

Jon:   Exactly.  And Betsy had already said to you that they wanted to publish you.

Mark:   Yes.

Jon:   And you're going to be their hardback for the season. And then she says, "Oh, by the way ..."

Mark:   Yeah. Which is just like ... I mean it's like having a booster rocket put on your plane or something. Because I, yeah, it was pretty of a real one, two punch of like, I'm pretty excited about this and oh this-

Jon:    We have this guy.

Mark:  This world-class author's going to throw his name behind this.

Jon:    Right.

Mark:   And I think that's incredible. That was very exciting. I mean I'm a big fan of his work and then to have him get behind it just feels like, it felt like winning the lottery or something, you know?

Jon:   Yeah.

Mark:   Because particularly, whereas a debut, no one knows who I am, and being at a small independent press, that's where that money can really make a difference. That's where his name and in this case the Cold Mountain Fund contributed something towards the tour and that's making a real difference. I fully expected that I would have to self-fund my tour as in me driving to book shops around my state. That's what I had in my head.

Jon:    Which is a what a lot of authors do.

Mark:  Which is what is done. Right? I'm still doing that, but it kind of extends it. I can fly. I've flown here, I can fly to places! (laughing).

Jon:   Where are you going to have your launch? Is there a local bookstore?

Mark:   A local bookstore is going to host it. Actually, it's a combination of my favorite local bar and local bookshop. And they're going to come sell books at  the Whitewater Tavern in Little Rock. I will go to Asheville eventually, but I don't know.

Jon:   So maybe you'll be at Malaprop's in Asheville.

Mark:   Yeah, but I launch three weeks from today.

Jon:  Congratulations.

Mark:  Thanks very much.

Jon:   Very impressive.

Mark:   This whole experience has been just extraordinary and truly ... It's been so gratifying.

Jon (laughing):       Now we just have to sell the book.

Mark:  I know. I was telling my wife the other day, I said, "If the book never comes out just this past seven months has been just incredible." You know, right now he's going to actually sell them. People have to actually want to read it.

Jon:   And the whole Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund is big, so congratulations.

Mark:   Thanks, I feel super lucky to have stumbled into it. And to be in the right place at the right time. And yeah, very grateful.

Mark Barr has been awarded fellowships from Blue Mountain Center, I-Park Artists' Enclave, Jentel Arts, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Millay Colony, and Yaddo. He holds an M.F.A from Texas State University. He lives with his wife and sons in Arkansas, where he develops software and bakes bread.


Jon Mayes writes the Advance Reading Copy Blog. He lives in Asheville, NC with his wife, Linda-Marie Barrett, Assistant Executive Director of SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Mayes has been a Publishers Representative and bookstore owner and manager. He was born in the small village of Kintbury in England, is a vegetarian and a secular humanist.

Derik CavignanoHave you ever devoured a book so quickly that you finished it in one or two sittings, your heart racing as the words flew off the page? Knowing you should stop to eat dinner or take a bio break, but never finding an appropriate lull in the story?

As a thriller fan, that’s exactly the type of book I love to read, and, as an author, that’s exactly the type of book I try to write. But how does an author mold a story into a page-turner? What’s the secret ingredient that makes a book impossible to put down?

The answer is tension. All great thrillers are steeped in it. Tension is the glue that keeps readers engaged. It’s the subliminal collision of character and events arranged in a way that triggers an emotional response in the reader, creating a sense of anxiety that can only be remedied by turning the page.

The Art of DyingFor me, the first step in creating tension is by introducing a flawed but likable protagonist whom the reader can relate to, someone whose hopes and fears remind us of ourselves or someone we know. Once that emotional connection is established, anything that threatens the life of the protagonist creates tension. It’s the author’s way of exploiting the reader’s empathy to his own advantage, using it as a lever to coax the reader into plowing through the chapters.

"For a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way."

But in order for a thriller to be unputdownable, the tension must be more nuanced than simply shoving the protagonist into harm’s way. A taut thriller takes a layered approach to tension, ratcheting up the intensity as the story progresses, continually raising the stakes in a way that magnifies the consequences of failure. Personally, I like to set the stage with an ominous event that slowly builds into a more dangerous situation, preferring to keep certain elements of the danger shrouded in mystery—a technique that results in the reader’s imagination running wild about potential dangers lurking beyond the page.

Another technique involves using a character’s own flaws against him, causing him to stumble into an even stickier situation where he’s confronted with a moral dilemma and, consequently, has even more to lose. Another layer of tension involves introducing a character’s worst fear and subsequently giving her no choice but to face it, allowing readers to see if she rises to the occasion or runs from the room with her tail between her legs. On some level, I think everyone wonders that about themselves, and experiencing that test vicariously through a character increases the reader’s empathy for the protagonist.

While the layering of these techniques raises the reader’s anxiety level, the addition of a ticking clock never fails to shift the story into the highest possible gear. Suddenly, the protagonist must complete his or her mission by a specified time or something even more terrible will happen. Not only will readers be on the edge of their seats, but they’ll also be glued to the page because time is running out for the characters they’ve grown to love.

Derik Cavignano is an award-winning author who writes character-driven stories in a variety of genres, including horror, sci-fi, and crime. In his latest novel, THE ART OF DYING, the bizarre death of a mob foot soldier sparks an escalating war between Boston’s Irish and Italian mafia, but one detective’s relentless search for the truth uncovers evidence of a serial killer obsessed with the art of human suffering.

Parapalooza! Paragraphs Worth Spreading

Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

Do you know your Southern lit?

The Southern Indie Lit Crossword Puzzle Book

We dare you to use a pen on these crossword puzzles, each inspired by one of the winning titles of the SIBA Book Award, honoring ten years of the very best in Southern literature as chosen by the people who would know...Southern Independent Booksellers!

A great gift for your book club, for puzzle-lovers, and anyone who loves Southern literature. $9.95 paperback. Available at Southern Indie Bookstores. Need some hints or looking for answers? Pssst.