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April 16, 2021
By PW Staff
Get to know the guest authors who selected the contest's finalists.

Four accomplished authors are serving as guest judges for the 2020 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest. Each author selected what they felt to be the strongest title from among five semifinalists within four given categories: Memoir/Autobiography,  Self-Help/Relationships, Business/Personal Finance, and Inspirational/Spirituality. The four selected books are now finalists for the grand prize, which will be announced in PW on May 24. Here, PW speaks to the guest judges about the books they chose as finalists, their own writing, and persevering over the last year.

Memoir/Autobiography

Gina Frangello is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novels A Life in Men and Every Kind of Wanting. Her memoir, Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism, and Treason released earlier this month. In a starred review, PW called the book “searing,” and praised how Frangello “charts the spectacular highs and devastating lows of her midlife with extraordinary candor.”

Frangello selected Generation Zero by Sabreet Kang Rajeev as the finalist for the memoir category. Frangello wrote that the book is "epic yet accessible...timely and timeless," adding that "the once 'voiceless' Rajeev's incredibly intimate voice is a gift."

What was the experience like writing about such a tumultuous period in your life?

 It wasn’t easy, although I guess if writing is too easy then maybe the writer isn’t taking enough risks or putting enough on the line. Often I felt—and still feel—like I’m not entirely comfortable with having divulged so much of myself that isn’t necessarily flattering. But also I have a background as a fiction writer, and as both a reader and writer I tend to be drawn to characters who aren’t unilaterally sympathetic in traditional ways, so one of the hardest aspects of a memoir was the realization that...yeah, now that “character” is me. And when I applied my views about writing fiction to trying to write the character of myself, I knew that I had to be willing to show some of the uglier or weaker parts of myself. If my life had stayed on course and status quo, I would never have written this particular book.

Blow Your House Down is written in such a unique style, with many textures and narrative threads. Can you talk about your storytelling approach?

I wanted the form of each part to reflect content, and strangely to me, varying the styles in which various threads are told felt far more organic than trying to make each part of the confluence of events conform to the same form. My life felt at times cacophonous, disjointed, segmented, and a battle between the analytical mind and the impulsive heart, with all the ups and downs that both entail. I got a lot of leeway from my editor at Counterpoint in terms of form and of including a lot of outside source material and cultural criticism when looking at the complex role of women—as caretakers, as lovers, as mothers, as spouses, as medical patients, as inhabiting many identities at one time and juggling them all precariously—and where the convergences fall. I wanted the book to have a lens beyond myself, which in a way forced me to make the parts about me even more intimate, because I also wanted a narrative, not an academic book of feminist theory.

Was the book always a work of memoir, or did you first explore writing through a fictional lens?

My fiction has had many of the same central obsessions as my lived life, which I suppose is hardly surprising. But no, this particular story I never tried to write as fiction. I wrote much of it in secret initially, and then later began to turn it into something that could be shared, because there is a massive difference between diary and creative nonfiction. Even when the reader feels like they’re reading something very naked and raw, of course that’s material that’s been revised, worked on with an editor, curated so that decades can fit into one book when even a single day, if unedited, would be as long as a phone book. There is also always a difference between language and lived experience—no whole person can ever be pinned down onto a page, and I went in with an awareness of that—that we all became “characters” of a sort the moment I attempted to capture us in written words. This was fascinating but also paradoxical to me because I believe strongly that everyone is far too complex to depict their totality in x number of scenes or chapters, and yet the job of the writer is to allow complexity while also putting boundaries on what is relevant in that moment, to that story. In that way my background as a fiction writer, where characters are only expanded in so far as you can manage within the confines of a novel’s arc, helped me recognize certain limitations of language and narrative that I had to accept.

Women are often denied a degree of emotional and psychological complexity—even in an era when their voices are increasingly being heard. Do you feel that Blow Your House Down breaks through some of the messaging about who and what women are “supposed” to be?

I hope it does, because what you say is definitely true about women’s roles, and yes, without question even now. I also hope, though, that readers see Blow Your House Down as raising questions rather than imposing answers. Not being what society may expect of you doesn’t always translate into the alternative being better. Sometimes it does, but in my case, breaking out of certain roles I’d felt corralled into also entailed my becoming, for a time, a liar in my own home and unknowable to most of those closest to me because I was keeping a secret. And I don’t think living a double life in fearful and even cruel dishonesty is any more feminist or liberating than being a martyr to cultural expectations. I think sometimes in a world that is at the core still highly patriarchal and sometimes full stop misogynistic, sometimes there are few “right” ways to be a woman, but I do know that keeping crucial secrets from people you love is not a way I would recommend. I also don’t advocate remaining static and trapped in unhappiness, so how to lead a life that is emotionally authentic without harming others is part of the complexity, one of the many questions to which I still don’t have a perfect answer.

 Do you have any advice for writers about how to make their autobiographical works stand apart?

For me this is largely about finding the connections between your own life and the larger cultural and intergenerational story. What that may be is different depending on what story you’re trying to tell and who you are, but the recognition that no matter who you are or what has happened to you, it’s never new and you are always part of a larger cultural conversation, is essential. That’s the way in, I think, the “why does this matter” to the reader. Also, don’t be too concerned with what the reader thinks of you. You are allowed to hold some things back. You are not under any imperative to flay your skin open or abdicate any notion of privacy or boundaries. But as any novelist can tell you, if you set out to make your protagonist universally beloved, you will sacrifice the complexity of any story.

 

Self-Help/Relationships

Celeste Headlee is a journalist, public speaker, and author. Her books include Do Nothing and We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, which PW called an "unassuming but powerful debut." Headlee's selection for the Self-Help/Relationships category is I Hear Some People Just Have Sex: An Infertility Memoir with an Ambiguous Ending by Sandra Vasher. Headlee described the book as being "filled with important information and valuable guidance, but also with humor and support and kindness."

In Do Nothing, you write about the importance of breaking away from “busyness” and the peace and power to be found in disconnecting. How did you first discover this for yourself?

By necessity. I've been a high-achieving person all my life and I simply reached the point where I couldn't sustain my habits. Productivity can become a toxic addiction, and then it's just a matter of time before you have to stop. This book began as research into my own lifestyle and what was causing my obsessive need to work all the time.

 From your perspective, where does this notion that, to be worthy, we must constantly be doing ‘something,' come from? How is it harming us?

 This was the most surprising part of my research: finding that the compulsion to work all the time began hundreds of years ago, around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Even more surprising was learning that humans lived very differently before the 19th century, and that the belief that hard work is what makes us worthwhile, and the shame we feel when we are idle, is relatively recent. Before the Industrial Age, most people worked half the year or less. Since then, though, a combination of messages from religious leaders, pressure from corporate interests, and influence from political figures has created a culture in which hard work and long hours are valued above almost everything else. 

The proof that it's harming us is in the declining life expectancy in the U.S., where people are more likely to give up vacation time than any other nation. Worldwide, burnout has become so common and so damaging that it was recognized by the WHO as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.

It's simply not healthy to work all the time, or think about working all the time. Our bodies and brains need rest, true rest, free of email and texts and chat clients.

 Needless to say, a lot has changed in the last year. In what ways have the lessons in Do Nothing and We Need to Talk resonated with readers under lockdown?

 I have heard from a lot of people who became extremely anxious and stressed when they were forced to suddenly work from home. They felt guilty if they were not actively doing something, and yet having their work intrude so much into their personal lives was overwhelming. Many have said that the book made them feel much less shame about not doing anything productive. Some even said that they began to see idleness as a virtue, something to strive for every day. I have also been told that the book has helped people create healthy boundaries, choosing a time of day when they stop looking at email and simply live their lives.

In your view, what are some of the ingredients that go into a truly successful work of self-help?

I think a good self-help book doesn't over promise. It won't say, "Here are the 10 things you can do to become successful," as there is no absolute list that can work for everyone all the time. I think a useful book has a balance of fact-based research, real-world experience, and good storytelling. A great book is also inclusive and compassionate and encourages mistakes that ultimately lead to learning and growth.

 How have you been doing during the pandemic, and what are you working on?

The pandemic has been very difficult financially, so I've had to intentionally focus on managing my own stress and being kind to myself. At the same time, I've been very productive, despite working (on average) only about five hours a day. I wrote another book and started a nonprofit and created two online training courses, but I also spent a lot of time in my garden and my kitchen and in the woods walking my dog. Overall, when people ask me how I'm doing, I often say, "I'm pandemic okay." Doing okay right now doesn't mean the same thing that it did in 2019.

 

Business/Personal Finance

Kiirsten May is the coauthor of The Proximity Paradox: How to Create Distance from Business as Usual and Do Something Truly Innovative. PW called the book “an invigorating debut business guide” that offers “a much-needed perspective on how to escape inside-the-box thinking.” May wrote the book with Alex Varricchio, with whom she co-owns the advertising agency UpHouse.  May's selection for the Business/Personal Finance category is Rough Diamonds: Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations by Wilfried R. Vanhonacker. May praised the book, saying that "there isn't a better time to turn education on its head, and this book spotlights the areas we need to overturn first."

Tell me a bit about your background and about UpHouse. How did you and Alex Varricchio come to establish the agency?

Alex and I met working at another advertising agency. We found we were able to do great work together: he has a bold entrepreneurial spirit and loves to start new initiatives, and I have the determination to nurture those initiatives through to completion. We both love marketing and working collaboratively with others, and that's why we decided to start our own marketing agency. We've seen more organizations bringing their marketing in-house and staffing up their marketing departments, so we designed UpHouse to support in-house marketing teams. We offer brand and marketing strategies, and then we support in-house marketers in executing those strategies.

What was the inspiration behind The Proximity Paradox and what was the experience like writing with a coauthor?

We knew we wanted to write a book to establish our position as thought leaders on creativity in the marketing space (a book is the ultimate business card). We also knew that we wouldn't have any spare writing time once we got busy with UpHouse client work! So we wrote about 80% of the content in the first two months of starting the business. Once we landed on our topic, we developed a detailed content outline and gathered research, and then we drafted interview-style questions for each chapter to create consistency and ensure we explained each concept thoroughly. From there, we divvied up the chapters and started writing. Once we had the base, I edited all the content to give it a consistent voice.

Writing with a coauthor is a great experience. You can hold each other accountable to achieving milestones and bounce ideas back and forth when you get stuck. We plan to do it again!

In the book, you suggest that having close proximity to an idea or project can sometimes inhibit one’s ability to be truly innovative. Can you talk more about this notion and how it became the book’s focus?

During our years working in advertising agencies, we often heard people say that in-house marketers are less creative than advertising agency folks. We know this is not true, but it is the symptom of a system in place in business. Many organizations believe that getting experts to lead creative projects will yield better results, but in our experience, we often saw the opposite happen. So why are outsiders better at coming up with creative ideas and innovative practices? We believe it's because their distance from a challenge allows them to see solutions that those close to it cannot. Proximity creates blinders that keep you looking in the same direction for different solutions. It simply doesn't work.

We know many leaders talk about the need to drive creativity and innovation throughout their organization, and we believed we could offer some practical advice on unlocking it in marketing departments. That's what led us to write The Proximity Paradox.

How might someone effectively “step back” from a creative or business problem to gain greater perspective on it?

If you're an expert in an area, there is no way to step back truly. You can't unknow what you already know. But, you can invite outsiders (people who know nothing about your space) to help you brainstorm a solution to a challenge. And you can also become an outsider for someone else. When you brainstorm a challenge for someone else, you'll gather some new ideas to bring back to your business. Tap your LinkedIn network to find outsiders or to offer your outside perspective to others.

In your opinion, what are a few of the ingredients that go into a successful book on business or personal finance?

I gravitate to business books that have practical advice or models to achieve an outcome. I like to gather more philosophical concepts from live events and practical concepts from books. I like to listen to business books on Audible when I'm driving, and then I'll download the accompanying PDFs so I can reference the book's concepts again later.

 

Inspirational/Spiritual

Ashlee Eiland serves as Formation & Preaching Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. She is the author of Human(Kind): How Reclaiming Human Worth and Embracing Radical Kindness Will Bring Us Back Together. In a starred review, PW called the book a “revealing and enthralling debut . . . [that] expounds on themes such as sacrifice, honor, respect, acceptance, gratitude, rejection, commitment, and loss.” 

Eiland's pick for the Inspirational/Spiritual category of the prize is How Are You Feeling, Momma? (You Don't Need to Say "Fine") by Shelby Spear and Lisa Leshaw. Eiland wrote the following in her statement about the book: 

"Thank you, Shelby and Lisa, for creating a work that stitches us closer together in a time of such unraveling. Thank you for sparking heartfelt vulnerability with your questions and sharing your lives, pointing me back to God’s goodness and truth in the process.”

 I can’t imagine a more timely and important book than Human(Kind). How did the project come about?

I was sitting in a cafe when my literary agent asked me what I wanted to write about. The answer came surprisingly quickly: “kindness.” My answer was a reflection of my weariness. At that point, it was 2018 and we were two years into that current presidential administration. More than peoples’ politics, I was worn down by how we were treating one another. It seemed like it was becoming so easy to witness - over social media or via news outlets - dehumanization and everyday contention that tore at the fabric of what I believe is our sacred dignity. I thought, “Maybe it’s time to redefine and recapture kindness as a vital part of our way forward.”

Please talk a bit about “Radical Kindness.” What does it mean and why does it matter?

"Radical Kindnessis more than just the display of everyday niceties like opening the door for someone or letting someone in front of you in traffic. It’s the commitment to tenderhearted-ness that the apostle Paul talks about in Ephesians 4, a posture that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and open to receiving God’s kindness toward us despite the many ways we turn from and reject God. It then recognizes that kindness and offers it others in the way of truth-telling, mercy, and forgiveness. “Radical Kindness” isn’t just about singular driveby acts in which we might offer little investment or feel prematurely justified. It’s committed to transformation in the context of relationship over the long haul and and is catalyzed by love.

This matters because in a world where much can harden our hearts to receiving and understanding others, we have to come back to what’s always been true from the beginning: and I believe one of those truths is that every single human being was made in the imago Dei - the image of God - and possesses inherent worthiness. Radical Kindness calls us back to the truth of this part of God’s character and to be accountable to the sacred nature of that worthiness in each other. Radical Kindness flies in the face of quick clapbacks and demeaning quips in the comments sections on social media and calls us to something deeper, more proximate and vulnerable, more meaningful and holy. It calls us back to God and one another.

This is such a challenging time for so many. Could you share a little of your own experience over the last year? How have you reached out to readers and community members in crisis during the pandemic?

It’s been so hard navigating so many different losses at once, while also disciplining myself to gratitude, worship and rest. As a fulltime mom, pastor, wife, daughter and friend, I grieved the loss of routine, personal space, dreams, a typical book launch and tour, vacations, family members to COVID-19 - I could go on. But I also had to acknowledge what I did still have in the wake of all that was being shifted or taken away. This last year has been a holy and hard refinement. I’m more perpetually tired than I’ve ever been - but I’m more grateful, too. I’m sinking into these paradoxes with as much grace as possible and attempt to do the same for those around me.

During the pandemic, social media has been clutch. I was wanting to spend less time on social media when the pandemic hit, but with good boundaries in place, I get to enjoy and connect with readers and both a local and global community in ways I probably never would have before last year.

What do you feel are some of the qualities that go into a great work of spirituality?

Authenticity, honesty, and storytelling are important, in my opinion. I always appreciate when an author writes with a sense of humility and lets the reader into his or her own journey in a way that creates an invitational, expansive pathway for application.

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