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April 25, 2023
By PW Staff

Four guest authors served as judges for the 2022 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest. Here, we get to know the guest judges, their work, and about the joys and challenges of writing nonfiction. Stay tuned for a Q&A with each of the Booklife Prize Nonfiction finalists and to hear what the judges had to say about the finalists' books.

Business/Personal Finance

Charlie Gilkey

Charlie Gilkey is a business leader and author of Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done as well as Team Habits: How Small Actions Lead to Extraordinary Results, to be published by Hachette Go on August 29.

Tell me about your company "Productive Flourishing" and how you came to develop it.

 Productive Flourishing is a website and community that helps people do better work and live better lives. It's intentionally broad, but our main focus is helping people finish more of the stuff that matters most.

 I started Productive Flourishing in 2007 in response to the gap I found in the existing conversations. The productivity conversations felt too granular, task-centric, and soulless; the personal development conversations felt too high-level, aspirational, and hand-wavy about how to do the work to develop. I and so many others were struggling in between these in the messy middle of projects, schedules, and responsibilities. Our work at Productive Flourishing centers this messy middle and helps people tie what matters to what's on their schedule and getting done.

 Why is following through and completing projects so challenging and what's the first step individuals can take toward reaching their full potential?

The more I got into this work, the more I had to grapple with the following mystery: why is it that we don't do the things we most want and yearn to do? It's easy to explain why we don't do what we don't want to do, but less simple to explain why we don't do what we do want to do. The simple answer is that following through and completing projects is so challenging because, unlike ideas, projects experience friction with the world. The bigger and more important the project, the more friction it's going to face. And, often, the biggest friction comes not from the external world, but from our internal world.

 The first step individuals can take toward reaching their full potential is to give themselves permission to prioritize what matters most to them. Too many of us are living our lives prioritizing other people's priorities, such that even when we do know what we want and what matters to us, we don't prioritize and projectize it. As long as what matters to you lives in "someday/later" land, you're not going to reach your full potential. For what it's worth, thinking about "reaching your full potential" may be a fool's errand that's creating overwhelm, burnout, and exasperation. We can thrive without reaching our full potential. Consider what shifts for you if you think about how far you are from thriving vs. reaching your full potential. Focus on the attainable and radical goal of thriving, not actualizing potential.

 Have you always been a writer? How did Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done come about? What surprised you most about the writing process?

I've always been a reader, but it wasn't until high school that I realized that I could be a writer. Part of that is because I grew up poor and Black in Arkansas in the '80s; I didn't see any writers who looked like me anywhere and I didn't have exposure to the amazing Black intellectuals that I now existed. The other part, though, was that writing fiction was what everybody talked about writers doing. I didn't have any great novel ideas, plays, etc. in me, so it didn't feel like I could be a writer. I had an amazing English teacher in high school that assigned a lot of essays and it was the first time someone asked me to share what I thought about a piece or an idea rather than telling them what someone else's story was about. That was my beginning as an essayist, and I later went on to study philosophy and am ABD (All But Dissertation) in Philosophy.

 Start Finishing is my second book but my first full-length, traditionally published book. I knew relatively early on that I'd be writing a book that fused productivity and personal development. I had amassed a body of work on Productive Flourishing and it was simply time to make it a more rigorous, structured, and coherent body of work in a book. The biggest surprise with Start Finishing was how difficult it was to explain simple concepts that I have been teaching live for a while. Chapter six was especially challenging because the content is spatial rather than linear; it's similar to writing about how to create a Lego design without having pictures of pieces or the model. I realized while doing it why there are so few books that try to do it. That one chapter took a third of my actual writing time to stick.

From your perspective, what are the ingredients that go into a successful business book?

 I have to preface my answer here by saying that I do not like business parables and some of the most successful business books are parables. Take that for what it's worth. That caveat aside, here are some ingredients that I think make successful business books:

  • The idea of the book is simple enough that it sticks with you but multiple reads deepen your understanding of the idea.
  • It's either universally relevant without falling into the trap of being over-general or fully owns its narrow audience or scope.
  • It nicely balances story, research, frameworks, utility, and action orientation.
  • The structure of the book is sound while the parts can still be read in whatever order best serves the reader. (This is harder to pull off than people think.)
  • The book has chapter summaries and key takeaways.

Your next book, Team Habits: How Small Actions Lead to Extraordinary Results will be released this summer. What can you share about that book?

 We know how powerful habits are for our personal development, but we're not talking enough about the habits we do as teams. It turns out that our teams don't rise to the level of their potential; they fall to the level of their habits.

[Note: Charlie Gilkey is a returning judge. Portions of this interview were originally published by BookLife in 2022]



Tara Teng

Tara Teng is the author of Your Body Is a Revolution. In a starred review, PW said, "In this inspiring debut, Teng, a former Miss Canada, recounts her quest to reconnect with her body and aims to help readers do the same...Teng skillfully mines her experiences as a former pageant queen, a biracial woman, and a Christian to dissect the complicated ways body shame appears in society, and avoids simplified takeaways. Teng’s passion will motivate readers on the path to bodily acceptance."

What was the inspiration behind Your Body Is a Revolution? What can you share about your writing and research process?

 My past work to end human trafficking and gender-based violence, both in North America and abroad, gave me a unique opportunity to see the impact of these power dynamics and how our bodies hold onto trauma on both a personal and systemic level. I’ve watched the way we have historically categorized, criticized, criminalized, and oppressed one another based on our bodies. Our bodies are the great equalizer – we all have one, and at the same time, every injustice begins with the body. Racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia – everything is built on body-based oppression.

To find where these body-oppressive ideologies originated from, I dove deep into research that analyzed the origins of Western culture, colonization, Christianity, and other tools of White Supremacy. My book dismantles the ways that the institutions of our society were built upon, and often perpetuate body-based oppression. To change the narrative, I share relatable stories from my own life and my work with coaching clients while offering tangible, somatic practices that we can use to identify, process, and heal our own traumas so that we can welcome back the pieces of ourselves that we have repressed, hidden or pushed away in shame.

How do media and cultural messaging impact our perceptions of ourselves and our bodies?

Our bodies are highly intelligent and operate on always maintaining a sense of safety. As such, the media and cultural messages we experience impact us on a deep level, causing us to question our sense of belonging or adapt ourselves to be accepted by the status quo of the group. It’s not uncommon for me to work with a client as they untangle themselves from the impact of someone else’s expectations, bullying, abuse, or even cultural ideas of racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.

 For many of my clients, their bodies have adapted to religious ideals by developing physical conditions such as vaginismus, hypervigilance, anxiety, and even panic attacks that prevent them from having positive sexual experiences, even many years later in life.

How does Your Body Is a Revolution help guide readers toward reclaiming and forming a healthier relationship with their bodies?

The first step of all relationships is meeting one another with curiosity, and our relationships with our bodies are no different. When we can utilize curiosity, we can begin to uncover all the ways that we may be disconnected, holding onto trauma, or simply not listening to our bodies. Through storytelling, research, and gentle coaching, I hope my book will inspire readers to turn inward with curiosity and listen to what the voice of wisdom in their bodies wants to share.

How do you define ‘embodiment’? How has your work as an embodiment coach informed the book?

Embodiment is the practice and state of being that exists when we are able to be present in our bodies, own our own voice, and live out our truest, most authentic selves. While it may seem simple to practice presence in our bodies since all of us are unable to live apart from our physical bodies, many of us disassociate from our bodies or find it easier to live in our heads the majority of the time.

This is often because our memories are stored in our bodies and trigger responses in our nervous systems. If we have experienced trauma, we leave our bodies for very good, logical reasons. Embodiment is the practice of healing trauma and body-based oppression so that we can re-establish safety and call back the parts of ourselves that were unable to exist when we were in survival mode.

What do you ultimately hope readers take away from reading Your Body Is a Revolution?

I hope readers will be inspired to rethink their own relationships with their bodies and be motivated to tear down all the pillars of body-based oppression that still exist in our world. I hope that we will each see our bodies, each other, and the Earth in a new light that liberates us to re-embody the fullness of our humanity. This is the revolution.


Brooke Schedneck

Brooke Schedneck is an assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and the author of Living Theravada: Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhist Tradition. A PW review described the book as "richly nuanced without sacrificing clarity, making for an entry that's useful for Buddhism students and scholars."

What can you share about your personal and professional background? How have your lived experiences helped to shape your interest in Buddhism?

When I entered college, I was always drawn to religious studies courses and wanted to take as many as I could. Eventually, topics related to Asian religions and Buddhism fascinated me because I wanted to learn topics that I had never encountered before—that was the point of college for me! I am not affiliated with any religion but am extremely interested in the ways that people make meaning for themselves. Living in Thailand for many years, I gained a respect for the Buddhist religion. The ideas and practices I learned and observed have definitely shaped part of who I am. However, as is evident in Living Theravada, I have a critical distance that allows me to write from an academic perspective. This perspective is also uniquely shaped by my own understanding of the tradition and the ways I have found success in teaching these materials to undergraduate students.

What surprised you most as you were writing Living Theravada: Demystifying the People, Places, and Practices of a Buddhist Tradition?

As I was writing the book, I was not surprised but reminded of my love for this material. Reading about the creativity of local Buddhist tales, and how these have produced sites of worship today made me want to convey the fun and aliveness of the sacred in mainland Southeast Asia. Even just in these four countries, there is a large amount of diversity in temple architecture, community gatherings, rituals and practices, and beliefs. If you only learn about the doctrines of Buddhism, there is a lot missing.

How has your experience as an educator informed your writing?

Although I write for both academic and popular audiences, I hope that all of my writing can make for good discussions in the classroom. My teaching informs almost everything I write, especially this most recent book. I structured the book based on my course design, curriculum, readings, and lecture presentations. When writing, I consider the assumptions and interests of undergraduates, who have no background in Buddhism. For example, when students hear that there are female monks in Theravada Buddhism, they immediately want to know more. Because of this, and because I think it’s a fascinating topic, I knew I had to include a chapter on female roles in Buddhism. Through teaching in Thailand for many semester and summer courses, I developed materials and experiences related to gender, and have further developed these for Living Theravada.

What are some common misperceptions of Buddhism and what are your suggestions for readers interested in embracing Buddhist traditions?

In my opinion, the most common misperception of Buddhism is that Buddhism is one, unified set of doctrines that all Buddhists follow. My book is an intervention to this misconception. In my Buddhism class, almost all my students admit they believed that Buddhism had one sect and way of practice and are surprised that there are different sects and kinds of Buddhism. Thirdly, students think that the Dalai Lama is the head of all Buddhism. This derives from too close of a comparison, where the Dalai Lama is seen to be akin to the Pope in Catholicism. At the same time, Buddhism is also seen as a unique philosophy, somehow above the category of religion. The main way to overcome these misperceptions is to treat Buddhism as a religion and tradition within its own terms. Buddhism is a religion, with all the beauty and challenges of other major world religions.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am working on two projects. The first is related to Living Theravada in that it also focuses on lived religion. I am the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Lived Buddhism, which consists of 33 chapters from a variety of scholars. All contributors focus their chapter on a case study of lived Buddhism throughout the world. Secondly, I am researching and writing my third academic monograph, which centers on the performance of monasticism in contemporary Thailand. I will be taking a sabbatical next year, spent in Thailand, conducting research on the public ways monasticism is embodied by contemporary monks and the ways the monastic body is surveilled by lay Thai Buddhists. I plan to track and analyze perceptions of monastic actions, which inspire faith, and those which do not inspire faith in the Buddhist teachings.


Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick is the author of I've Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton (University of Texas Press), which will be published in paperback by Spiegel & Grau on August 1. In a starred review, PW said, "poet Melnick delivers a riveting blend of cultural criticism and memoir in this paean to Dolly Parton." 

What does Dolly Parton mean to you? How has your understanding of Dolly as a cultural and feminist icon evolved?

 Dolly Parton has been a solace and a guide for me since I was teenager. I always appreciated her artistry and her style, but in writing my book, I watched and read so many interviews and articles about her music, her biography, and her cultural impact that I developed a better understanding of who she is and what moves and inspires her.

 I used to get very frustrated with Dolly not speaking out on certain issues—and I still sometimes do—but I also understand that she speaks when the time is right for her; she doesn’t owe the public anything past her music, and she doesn’t even owe us that! It’s her gift to us. And, if you listen to her extensive catalog of songs, and follow her philanthropic efforts, she’s doing a lot of progressive, feminist work there.


Die-hard Dolly Parton fans may be the natural audience for I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive. For those less familiar with her life and music, what do you hope they take away from the reading experience?

 It has been enormously rewarding to me that readers are diving into Dolly’s catalog, discovering songs and albums for the first time. She is truly one of the most important songwriters to come from the United States. I also hope readers take away a more complex understanding of Dolly as a person. She’s easy to pigeonhole because her personality and looks are so outsized, but she is a deeply multifaceted person and a very savvy businesswoman to boot.

Dolly Parton serves as a touchstone throughout your book, but you explore so much more. How did the work initially take shape and what decisions did you make along the way?

Because my background is in poetry, I originally thought the book would be more meandering and impressionistic, and I do take on a wide range of subjects relevant to both my life and Dolly’s—love, friendship, rape culture, creativity, resilience—but the more I wrote the more I realized I needed to keep a firm hand on the arc of Dolly’s story and my own. The hardest decisions I made were to cut two chapters that were in the first draft that just didn’t fit in with the rest of the book. That was painful but necessary, as the revision process usually is.

Your book is so unique! Where did you look for guidance as you were writing?

Thank you! It was so much fun to write. I leaned on a lot of friends and family throughout the process, whether for emotional support or to fill in gaps in my knowledge and memory. The University of Texas Press has a series called “Music Matters,” with each book diving into the musical and cultural relevance of an individual artist, and those books served as a guide to the practical aspects of how a book like this could be done. And, as ever, I looked to poetry. I feel like my training in poetry, and my love of the form, gave me the knowledge and confidence to cast as wide a net as I did with the passions of the book and know that it would all weave together beautifully with enough work, and enough patience.