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Cobble Hill author is about to go ‘fourth’ and collect big prize

The Brooklyn Paper

Cobble Hill author Arthur Phillips is poised to join the most elite strata of novelists — those with money.

And all he had to do was write a fourth novel that can withstand the scrutiny of literary hotshots like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

Phillips is one of four writers — and the only Brooklyn resident — to reach the finals of a unique St. Francis College literary contest that will award $50,000 to the best fourth-time novelist.

Book world elites including Chabon, Lethem, as well as Heidi Julavitz and Ben Marcus, will judge Phillips’s “The Song Is You,” which was released in April. Set in Brooklyn, the book tells the story of a middle-aged man whose life turns upside down when he falls in love with a young singer in an Atlantic Avenue bar.

“It’s about associating music with memories of your life, and about it’s being addicted to your headphones and your music collection,” the writer and music-lover said.

Contest organizers told The Brooklyn Paper in March that they decided to honor fourth-time writers because the fourth book represents an important moment in an author’s career that is often overlooked by other contests. They also decided on the number as a way to limit the number of applicants, considering that there are far more first-time writers than fourth-time writers.

For Phillips, the fourth book — which coincided with his 40th birthday — served as a turning point.

“The fourth novel certainly represents a psychological change in a career,” he said. “With the fourth book, I feel like I’m treated as a writer who has been around for a while — and who, if he is going to keep sticking around, is going to have to do something else to keep getting people’s attention.”

Winning the prize might help keep him in the public eye, but it would definitely help “bankroll more writing,” said Phillips, who is working on his fifth novel, which, rumor has it, has a Shakespearean leitmotif.

But the Brooklyn writer is facing some pretty tough competition from California poet and novelist Jim Krusoe, whose satirical novel “Girl Factory” details a strange discovery in the basement of a frozen yogurt shop. Also on the short list are Aleksandar Hemon’s short story collection “Love and Obstacles,” which depicts the life of a young man in war-torn Sarajevo; and Nigerian-born writer Chris Abani’s “Song of the Night,” which tells the story of a 15-year-old searching for mines in Africa. Heavy stuff.

Win or lose, just making it to onto the list is cause to celebrate for Phillips because it means his book will be read by the panel of famed writers.

“Knowing you are being read by esteemed company is one of the most thrilling things that can happen to you as a writer — besides actually writing a book,” he said.

The winner of the prize will be announced at the Brooklyn Book Festival Gala on Sept. 12.

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