Two-year-old Mormon publishing upstart Zarahemla Books was present in a big way Saturday night in Provo, when two of its authors won the top awards in Mormon fiction at the 2008 annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters (AML).
Todd Petersen's novel Rift took home the Marilyn Brown Award, given to the best book-length piece of unpublished fiction, and Coke Newell's On the Road to Heaven, released by Zarahemla Books in August, was awarded the AML 2007 Novel of the Year.
On the Road to Heaven is Newell's fifth book, but his first to be released by an LDS publisher. The "autobiographical novel," a thinly veiled story of Newell's transition from Colorado mountain hippie in the 1970s to Mormon missionary in cocaine-embattled Colombia three years later, has earned praise from LDS author and scholar Richard L. Bushman (Rough Stone Rolling) as "enthralling … I have never read such a gripping story of conversion and missionary labor" and by Terryl Givens (Viper on the Hearth, People of Paradox) as "an utterly original spiritual tale … think of it as St. Augustine for the Woodstock generation … a exuberant ride."
Newell worked as an LDS Church media spokesman for more than a decade (1993 – 2004), and his previous book, Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism, earned regional and national notice when it was picked up by New York publisher St. Martin's Press in 2000 for a significant cash advance. Highly regarded by readers and journalists for both its style and content, it is still in print eight years later, phenomenal longevity in New York publishing and even more surprising given its unusual (for New York) topic.
Rift, scheduled to be released this August, is Petersen's second book with Zarahemla. The Southern Utah University English professor's previous book, Long After Dark, was one of Zarahemla's first three titles published, and on Saturday night Petersen praised Zarahemla Books as "the best thing to happen to Mormon letters in decades."
In remarks presented Saturday night at BYU, the Association for Mormon Letters praised On the Road to Heaven's iconic style and story as a "beautiful, valuable addition to Mormon literature." The book is also a finalist in three categories, including Novel of the Year, for a Whitney Award, to be announced March 22 in Salt Lake City. Newell teaches communication at Salt Lake Community College.