Amazon taps Cary author for ‘breakthrough’ project

akenney@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2013 

Cheryl Walniuk, pen name Rysa Walker, beat out about 10,000 other contestants in an Amazon contest.

ANDREW KENNEY — akenney@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Amazon wants to be more than an online store – it wants to create and publish some of the content it sells. So the multi-billion dollar corporation has put its might each year into a search for a great undiscovered novelist, screening some 10,000 manuscripts for a new star who will draw attention to the company’s expanding creative efforts.

This year, they found a Cary resident. The grand prize winner of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award lives on a cul-de-sac in a typical suburban neighborhood. At 50, Cheryl Walniuk, pen name Rysa Walker, is a first-time novelist, a teacher and a mother of three.

She already has secured a $50,000 advance and a contract with Amazon’s new publishing arm. That’s reward enough, says Walniuk, for a woman who grew up with her books and her cattle on a Florida ranch. But there’s that other alluring possibility, too – that maybe “ Timebound” will be the next young-adult novel to sneak into briefcases and backpacks.

Publishers Weekly was not the first reviewer to draw a connection between Kate, the time-traveling heroine of “Timebound,” and the now-omnipresent character Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.”

“I’m beginning to think a little bit more about it,” Walniuk said. “People are interviewing me, and of course, there’s my sister. She’s saying it’s going to be the next ‘Hunger Games,’ and there’s going to be a movie ... and she’s been right so far, so I’m starting to get a little nervous.”

The attention’s pouring on quickly now, but “Timebound” was a decade’s work. Walniuk is a night owl, but she writes at midday, between the kids’ school hours and her own work at the U.S. Agency for International Development and, later, as an online lecturer at the University of Maryland.

“Timebound” is a century-hopping story, following Kate as she tries to restore the reality she knew by traveling to the Chicago “World’s Fair” of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition.

The novel’s a far cry from Walniuk’s last manuscript – a grad-school dissertation on women’s suffrage – but the author drew on the same research expertise as she blended timelines. It also echoes the countless quick-reading books that shaped her own childhood reading, from Steven King to the romance of Barbara Cartland and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour.

The project sprang from a simple love of the act of writing, but the possibility of publication sank in as Walniuk neared completion last year. So she began to pitch the book.

Like so many unread pages, it landed with a thud before hit-hungry agents.

“As soon as they heard I’d (previously) written something academic, the doors slammed. I think they were expecting regression analysis or something,” the author recalled.

Spurned, she turned to self-publishing. It’s a dead-end for many aspiring authors, but Walniuk managed to place her novel in front of some of the voracious reading communities that have formed around sites like Goodreads and Amazon.

There was the British blogger who spread the word to his legions of friends, and the group of New Zealand teenagers who fell for the book.

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