Four writers are a step closer to fame today with the announcement that they are finalists in the inaugural Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Patterned on Parisian literary cafés, the grand prize, to be awarded on Jan. 6, will confer not only bragging rights and $1,000 prize but also a free glass of wine every night for a year at the Chapel Hill restaurant.

More than 60 authors whose stories are set in the American South submitted hard-copy published works for judging. Some are from major publishers but several were produced independently. Most but not all of the contenders either live or have roots in the places their characters call home.

Here is a list of the four finalists and their books:

  • Leaving Tuscaloosa by Walter Bennett of Chapel Hill (Fuze Publishing) was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. A former trial lawyer, Bennett wrote The Lawyer’s Myth: Reviving Ideals in the Legal Profession (Harvard University Press, 2002).
  • Code of the Forest by Jon Buchan of Charlotte (Joggling Board Press). Buchan is a First Amendment attorney and former newspaper political reporter raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
  • A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash of Wilmington (William Morrow). Cash grew up in the western North Carolina mountains. His second novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, was published in January.
  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley of Gainesville, Fla. (Ecco). Born in Charlotte, Riley sets her story in both rural, red clay North Carolina and north central Florida.

Shannon Ravenel, editor and founder of Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books, was impressed by the both the quality of writing and the number of entries.

“Some of them were dreadful, but a few really took my breath away,” says Ravenel. “We thought we’d get maybe 10 or 12 entries the first year. We never imagined that so many would enter and be qualified.”


The Crook’s Corner Book Prize also attracted the attention of John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Crook’s Chef Bill Smith is a member of the SFA board.

“The linkages between good writing and good food and drink are clear and persistent,” says Edge, who was at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Monday to promote The Larder: Food Studies Methods From the American South (University of Georgia Press). “I can’t imagine a better means of celebrating their entwining than this innovative award. The only fault I find is with the beverage that will be tendered to the winner. Bourbon seems a better choice.”

While it might appear that judges favored writers from the Carolinas, Ravenel says a complicated scoring system was deployed ensure fairness. “We had a great group of primary readers who truly are remarkably skillful. It is important to us that this prize be viewed as an important award, so we all took the task very seriously.”

Thirty-seven prominent readers, including authors and university professors, assisted members of the members of the Crooks Corner Book Prize Foundation board to trim the original stack to a 12-book short list.

In addition to Ravenel, members of the foundation, a nonprofit established to ensure the longevity of the annual competition, include: author Moreton Neal, whose ex-husband Bill Neal was the first chef at Crook’s Corner; Mimi Fountain, founding publicist at Algonquin Books; publicist Katharine Walton, founding literary editor of Garden & Gun magazine; artist and art historian Laura Frankstone; Harriet Martin, an avid reader and wife of UNC-TV North Carolina Bookwatch host D.G. Martin; Elizabeth Woodman, editor at the nonprofit Eno Publishers; and former New York book publicist Cindy Hamel Sellers.

The board chair is Anna Hayes, a Raleigh attorney and award-winning historian who lives part-time in Paris. Ravenel says that Hayes got the idea while visiting a favorite Paris café, where she noticed a photo of Hillsborough’s Allan Gurganus, whose first novel was the best-selling Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

“She thought, ‘If if they do this is Paris and recognize a writer from Orange County, we ought to do this is Chapel Hill,’” Ravenel says. “We all agreed.”

Books by the four finalists have been referred to author Jill McCorkle for final judging. She is a professor of creative writing at N.C. State University and a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her most recent book is The New York Times bestseller Life After Life.

“She’s reading them now and has not given us any hints,” says Ravenel, who published many first-time writers through Algonquin Press. “I expect she’ll be reading all four of them more than once. That’s what happens in the business of publishing. You never publish anything before the acquiring editor reads it at least twice. You always find things you missed.”

Details will be announced soon for the second annual Crook’s Corner Book Prize, which will begin accepting entries on Jan. 6.

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer in Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.