Q&A: Bess Maher on the 2018 Colorado Book Awards Finalists

Featured books nominated for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards; finalist authors will be presenting their work at public readings throughout April and May. Courtesy Colorado Book Awards.

Featured books nominated for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards; finalist authors will be presenting their work at public readings throughout April and May. Courtesy Colorado Book Awards

Lit lovers, rejoice! The finalists for the 27th Annual Colorado Book Awards have been announced, which means we can look forward to two months of free readings of great local literature.

The awards, put on by Colorado Humanities’ Center for the Book, aim to honor some of the best writers in our state while introducing readers to their works. Each year, finalists chosen in categories ranging from poetry to science fiction get to present their books in a series of readings at Denver’s BookBar leading up to the winner’s ceremony on June 2.

Ahead of the first reading session (Mysteries, Thrillers and Sci-Fi on April 6 from 7-9 p.m.), we sat down with program coordinator Bess Maher, who told us about how the awards work, the sizable crop of Colorado lit this year and why you should attend the readings.

Give us some background on the awards. How are they put on?
“Since Colorado Humanities merged with the Center for the Book 14 years ago, it has served as the home of this long-standing program serving Colorado readers and writers. The center is a national program, but different states can choose to opt in or out; Colorado happens to have one of the most robust in the U.S. The number of categories for the awards depends on the number of submissions—each year we have at least 10, and this year we have 14.”

How many finalists are there? Out of how many entries?
“This year, we had 170 entries, which we narrowed down to 42 finalists—three each from every category.”

What kind of authors are represented?
“Any book with a ‘primary contributor’ from Colorado is eligible (this includes authors, co-authors, illustrators or even photographers). Most books come from Denver and the rest of the Front Range, but we have submissions from the Western Slope, southern Colorado and all over rural areas, as well.

“Submissions run from self-published authors to award-winners. We’ve previously had Newberry Medal award winners, and have an NEA Literature Fellow this year—Camille Dungy, who also happens to be our first finalist in two categories: poetry and creative non-fiction. We also have several first-time authors this year, including Sara Jade Alan with “Messy, Beautiful Life” and long-haul trucker Finn Murphy.”

What are the reading events like?
“They’re all open to the public and free, in the really cozy BookBar. We try to group all of the categories into genre nights (i.e., Anthologies and Creative Non-Fiction) for people with similar interests. At each night—aside from the Children’s Literature reading, which is more like a storytime session—we’ll have complimentary drink specials available as finalists take questions and read from their books, which are also available for sale. There’s a big community atmosphere, and its a great way to get introduced to local, award-winning authors.”

(The full reading schedule can be found here.)

How did the selection process work? When are winners chosen?
“We choose three volunteer selectors for each category. We try to focus on Colorado residents, though they can be librarians, booksellers, writers or sometimes even enthusiastic readers. They get mailed all of the books, read them over eight weeks and then come together to pick three group finalists. Then, we have another set of volunteer judges choose the winners in each category, who will be announced at the Sie FilmCenter on June 2. The event will be open to the public and feature food and pop-up bookstore; tickets are available on our website.”

How does this year’s crop compare to last year’s?
“The competition was fierce this year across multiple categories; the finalists have every reason to be proud. Though we don’t specify a theme, one seems to emerge each year just based on what Coloradans are interested in. Last year, we had a lot of literature dealing with veterans, and this year we’re seeing some serious threads—human trafficking and post-traumatic stress disorder in the Mysteries and cancer in the Young Adult novels. There’s also a few on issues of Colorado interest this year, like the eclipse and wildfires.”

What’s your favorite thing(s) about the awards?
“I love that at the readings, people will typically come for one author or genre, but will stick around and become part of deeper, broader conversations about issues in the books presented. I also love that we’re honoring Colorado authors and helping them get into the hands of more readers through publicity. Part of our mission is to encourage the love of reading among all Coloradans, so we hope that through book awards we introduce people who love reading to authors from Colorado.”

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