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The Thrill of Winning

By Dawn Ius

Jennifer Hillier could barely make her way to the stage through her tears, and when she reached for her award, her hands trembled—and still, Hillier delivered an emotional speech that not only reaffirmed that she’s both talented and humble, but left no doubt as to what winning the 2019 ITW Best Hardcover Award means to her.

“It’s so special,” she says. “I attended my first ThrillerFest in 2009, I’ve been a member of ITW since I sold my first book in 2010, and I remember my Debut Author’s breakfast in 2011 like it was yesterday.

“Every phase of my career so far can be tied to a specific memory of ThrillerFest, and to win for Best Hardcover Novel—my first nomination ever, and my first win—is the highest high.”

A “high” she never dreamed of experiencing. So sure she wouldn’t win, Hillier nevertheless spent the entire ThrillerFest weekend in a state of extended anxiety. “I remember saying to a friend that it was a strange feeling to be so anxious over an award that someone else was going to win! I saw my friend Alan Orloff right before the banquet, and he was so chill, because he was so certain he wouldn’t win…”

(Semi) spoiler alert: Orloff also took home a trophy that night, winning top honors in the Best E-Book Original Novel category. He admits that he was only able to remain calm because he really didn’t think he would win.

“I mean, there are a lot of awesome books being written every year and to have mine singled out—incredible,” he says.

The award sits—aptly—on a bookshelf in his home, perhaps somewhat less conspicuous than Hillier, who admits hers resides in her front entryway so it’s the last thing she sees when she leaves the house, and the first thing she sees when she comes home. “That’s probably extremely obnoxious but I swear it matches the décor perfectly.”

C. J. Tudor, who won this year’s Best First Novel category for her multi award-nominated debut, The Chalk Man, says she keeps her award on a shelf high enough up so that it’s protected from her six-year-old and her dog—it’s a treasure certainly worth protecting.

“It’s such a massive honor to be given this award by the ITW,” she says. “So many wonderful authors were nominated. To even make the shortlist was incredible. To win was just bonkers. I honestly can’t tell you how much it means. It took me a long time to get published, there was a lot of rejection. To be recognized like this makes it all worthwhile.”

Persistence is key in this industry, she adds, advising aspiring authors to “hang in there.”

“You have to be in it for the love, not the reward. But also, know when to let go,” she says. “Your first book might not be the one. Write another. And another. With each book, you’re learning. Remember the three ‘p’s’: Patience, perseverance, and pints of coffee (or wine)!”

Tudor has just turned in her third book, The Other People, and is working on a fourth. No rest for the prolific, it would seem.

Fellow debut author and ITW award winner for Best Young Adult novel, Teri Bailey Black, has similar advice for aspiring scribes.

“Looking back, I was rejected until I was ready,” she says. “I spent years writing practice novels, working with critique partners, reading books about plotting, and attending writing conferences before I landed an agent. Most of us start querying before we’re ready, so of course we’re rejected—as we should be. Work hard and learn the ropes. Success comes when preparation meets opportunity.”

Girl at the Grave was the result of that hard work, but even with all that preparation, Bailey Black could not have been more surprised when her name was announced at the ThrillerFest banquet last month.

“Going to the event, I played down the importance so I wouldn’t be a stress mess,” she says. “When I heard my name called, an enormous flood of emotions hit me. Mostly, gratitude, and an awareness that most hardworking writers will never hear their name called. For a horrifying second I thought I was going to burst into tears, but I got a grip and managed to give a tear-free speech.”

The award now hangs out beside a framed picture of Bailey Black, her husband, and their four children—and when not gazing at it in awe, the author is hard at work on revisions to her second murder mystery, which will be set in Old Hollywood.

For Jane Harper, winner of this year’s ITW award for Best Paperback Original, the celebration came a bit delayed as she was unable to attend the awards, but the significance of the recognition isn’t lost on her.

“It’s such an honor to see The Lost Man win an ITW award, and I’m so grateful to everyone who supported it,” she says. “I absolutely loved writing this book, so for it to be recognized in this way is wonderful.”

The award is still “winging its way” to her, but when it arrives, the UK author has the perfect place for it—on her bookshelf, among some of her favorite novels. In the meantime, Harper is writing her fourth novel, which will be another mystery in a distinctly Australian setting.

With ThrillerFest now almost a month in the past, for these winners the most clear path forward is to keep doing what got them an award in the first place—writing well.

“The road is long,” says Hillier. “There isn’t a writer I know whose journey hasn’t been filled with ups and downs, and twists and turns—some of your lowest lows will be followed by your highest highs, and vice versa. There are also long periods of absolutely nothing happening. The only thing we can control is our writing, so always be working on your craft.”


The ITW award for Best Short Story was given to Helen Smith for “Nana”—published in KILLER WOMEN: CRIME CLUB ANTHOLOGY #2. Unfortunately, Smith was unavailable for comment.

Dawn Ius
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