Meet the Finalists for the 2021 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest
Four authors from as many categories were named finalists for the 2021 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest. Here, we get to know each of the authors and learn more about their work. The Grand Prize winner will be announced on May 23.
Mission First People Always: The Definitive Guide to Balancing People and Performance by Mike Patterson was named the finalist for the Business/Personal Finance category. Author Charlie Gilkey described the book as being "universally relevant without falling into the trap of being over-general" and noted that "new leaders will find it to be a great overview and primer; experienced leaders will find it a helpful refresher."
What are a few of the qualities that go into effective leadership? Can anyone become an effective leader?
Effective leaders always do two things: They get results and bring out the best in people. That's the balance between people and performance I write about in the book. When the two get out of balance, the leader's effectiveness is at risk. You can't have one without the other, yet I still encounter leaders who are so focused on "driving the numbers" with a command and control approach, that they cause people to disengage and eventually, depart the organization. This inevitably leads to poor results and an ongoing spiral of frustration for all concerned.
Bringing out the best in people involves giving them a voice (collaboration), using words in a way that builds them up (communication), making it safe for people to respectfully disagree and hold opposing views (healthy opposition), staying curious, and treating everyone with dignity and respect. One word that summarizes all of these people skills is "relationship." Leaders who honor people with their words and actions, almost always see the payoff in terms of their numbers, along with higher levels of engagement, retention, and commitment from their employees. My book is essentially a series of lessons on how to harness simple daily practices to do these things well.
I believe anyone can become an effective leader. And by the way, just about everyone leads at some point. Whether it's at work, school, home, or as a volunteer, you're responsible for getting things done with, through, and for others. If you're clear about what needs to be done (mission) and you can get others productively involved (people), you're leading.
Mission First People Always provides such an effective blend of relatable storytelling and actionable steps for readers to take. Can you talk about how you developed the exercises that are included throughout the book?
I have been a facilitator of learning in corporate and university settings for many years. During that time, I've noticed that there are a couple of ways to make an idea memorable and useful. One way is to tell a story that brings a concept to life and taps into people's emotions. The other is to give learners an opportunity to turn ideas into action through application-oriented activities. I simply leveraged my own experiences in the workplace to bring the two together. I also keep my primary mission in mind by asking: What would be most helpful to overworked and overscheduled leaders in the trenches, and how can I serve it up to them in a way they can easily grasp and apply? The answer guides my writing and teaching styles.
Do you feel that one positive impact of the pandemic has meant a greater focus on the psychological and emotional needs of employees? Are we poised to have a more compassionate work culture than ever before?
None of us enjoyed the pandemic; however, the pandemic may have changed many of us for the better. At least for now, it seems like we are taking fewer things for granted. The input of a colleague, the cup of coffee with a friend, the opportunity to move about freely are valuable components of our lives and work for which we now have renewed appreciation. I also hope people have a more steady grasp on what's most important--faith, family, and friends. I hope this causes us to see people through fresh eyes of compassion and that we don't soon forget what matters most.
Why does “mission” matter?
Mission matters on a number of levels. Most practically, the mission should guide our daily activities, how we use our resources, and what we measure. If people don't know why they're there, it's easy to get sidetracked by unimportant tasks, office politics, or a variety of other things that don't add value. Without a clear mission, there's a lot that can go wrong.
Imagine this scenario. You arrive at a golf course on a beautiful spring day. You have practiced at the driving range for weeks, purchased new clubs and tournament quality balls, and you're decked out in your finest golf outfit. But when you step into the tee box to begin your round, you have no idea where the green is. In other words, you don't know where to aim your shot. It would be the beginning of a very frustrating round of golf!
Unfortunately, some people feel like that when they show up for work. They want to contribute and add value, but they don't know where to focus their effort. They react to the day's events without driving any meaningful results. They're quickly frustrated and soon disengage.
On the other hand, when the mission is clear and people recognize why the mission matters, employees can see what they're working toward and are more inclined to fully engage in the effort. It makes them feel good about themselves knowing that they are part of something important--and that they're making a meaningful contribution. If they can connect the organization's mission to what personally matters to them, it's even better.
Butterfly Awakens by Meg Nocero was named the finalist for the Inspirational/Spirituality category of the prize. Author Eric Minton wrote the following about the book:
"From cancer to Oprah to the complicated feelings accompanying all of us whenever we lose something or someone who gives our lives gravity, Meg Nocero’s Butterfly Awakens reminds us that grief can be its own kind of faith. In Nocero’s capable hands, our grief might not always make sense, or initially seem helpful, but much like a gift we never wanted but now find we need, our grief might one day finally become saving, transformative, resurrecting, even, if we’ll let it. But the letting it, to Nocero’s point, is the hard part."
What can you share with readers about your personal and professional background?
My Italian-American parents, a cardiologist and family life minister, were role models for my two sisters and me. They taught us to love family, create strong friendships, have a solid work ethic, rely on solid faith, appreciate artistic expression, and focus on education. These building blocks would then, in turn, open doors for a good life of purpose and service. But what they could not do was protect me from the bullying I experienced as early as second grade in elementary school. And this led to bouts of depression where writing in my journal became a tool to express my pain and meet it with creativity as I attempted to make sense of a world where I felt like I did not fit in. My mother was also my safe place, constantly reassuring me that I was special and loved and that this would pass.
And with the creation of my own stories of survival and with her cheering me on, I did not give up and found that I had a gift for languages. I started learning Latin and moving on to master Spanish, Italian, and French, and felt empowered. In college, I lived in Rome, Italy, and embraced different cultures and people as I traveled the world. Professionally, I spent nearly 20 years with the Department of Justice/I.N.S., which transitioned to the Department of Homeland Security/I.C.E. as a Federal Immigration Prosecutor.
Can you talk about the experience of writing Butterfly Awakens?
After my mother died from breast cancer in 2011, I navigated the depression and anxiety brought on by grief, returning to writing in my journal as a healing tool again. I started simply. I would wake in the morning and read from a book that resonated with me. When a quote or a passage spoke to me, I grabbed my journal and channeled at least three pages of longhand about what I felt my mother would want to communicate to me about it. One day led to the next, and this routine led me to complete my guide called The Magical Guide to Bliss: Daily Keys to Unlock Your Dreams, Spirit & Inner Bliss.
I followed my guide, intending to figure out how to walk through the darkness of a world without my mother so I could wake up to life again. In addition to allowing me to feel connected to my mom, it helped me muster the courage to make a career change after 20 years as a federal prosecutor to return to the creative realm. The writing was the first step towards what helped me trust my transformation; it was my cocoon, a safe place to strengthen my budding wings so that I could imagine my metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly. Then, I wrote Sparkle & Shine: 108 M.A.N.T.R.A.s to Brighten your Day and Lighten Your Way, a book of affirmations to continue the process. Butterfly Awakens is the memoir in my inspirational Butterflies & Bliss Trilogy. This book shows what wonderful things happened when I awoke to possibility and started to believe in myself and the beauty of my dreams as I transformed through grief. In addition to my books, today, I am a TEDx inspirational speaker, a certified happiness coach, and I host a YouTube/podcast called Manifesting with Meg: Conversations with Extraordinary People and an I.G. Live called Amazing Authors.
What do you wish someone had told you before you began your journey of grief after losing your mother?
Everyone's journey with grief is different. It is essential to start there and not judge yourself or compare yourself to others as you go through the process. While the journey is not going to be easy, you will gain wisdom that will make you stronger and more resilient.
I have heard it said, "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." The inability to go to my mother for guidance and unconditional love was definitely painful. And I spent many months in tears, thinking I would never be happy again, trying to make sense of this profound loss. And even though I knew she would not want me to suffer, I had no idea how to move on. So, when I realized I could not heal on my own, I decided to reach out to others for help to learn how to navigate the grieving process. When I got the support I needed, I started to walk through the suffering rather than unpack there. As a result, there was a great relief in the release of not having to figure it all out on my own. This collaboration allowed me to begin to heal; I was ultimately able to honor and build on my mother's legacy while choosing to align my passion and purpose so that I don't have any regrets at the end of my days. And, paying attention, I am confident and grateful that, as my personal angel, my mother has never left my side.
What do you ultimately hope readers take away from reading Butterfly Awakens?
First, I want readers to get inspired to wake up to the beauty of their lives. Second, I hope they are ready to ask for what they most desire, never give up when going through dark times, and get intentional about becoming more of who they are called to be. And lastly, I wish that each person gets excited about telling a better story for their future as they start to believe in themselves and the real possibility that it is never too late for dreams to come true.
Author Laura Davis’s The Burning Light of Two Stars was chosen as the finalist for Memoir/Autobiography. Davis has written six traditionally published books, including the bestselling self-help book The Courage to Heal: for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (co-authored with Ellen Bass) and I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation. In addition to writing, Davis has been a teacher for more than 20 years.
Author Erin Khar selected the book, saying that “Laura Davis has beautifully captured the complexity and nuance of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. At once universal and personal, Davis renders the interwoven stories and timelines of her relationship with her mother into a compelling narrative—one that stands out for its clarity and compassion.”
How did you know it was the right time to write a memoir focused on your relationship with your mother? What was the most challenging part of writing The Burning Light of Two Stars?
My first published piece about my mother appeared in a mother-daughter anthology curated by Tillie Olsen, back when I was 24. Forty-one years later, I published my seventh book and my first memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars: the gritty, honest, and ultimately inspiring story of my knotted relationship with my mother, seen through the lens of her final years when I became her caregiver. My memoir asks and answers the questions, “Can you caretake a parent who betrayed you in the past?” And “Is it possible to love with a heart that’s been broken?”
I knew the time was right for this book because millions of people are struggling with fractured family relationships. My story provides hope and a pathway through the shoals of estrangement to a place of resolution—even if that resolution can’t happen directly with the other person.
My mother was clearly an ongoing obsession for me, a pivotal relationship, and the source of my deepest spiritual lessons. Over the course of half a century, my perception of her shifted from seeing her as my nemesis (with me as victim) to accepting her as the complex, challenging, loving human being she was. In struggling to birth this memoir, I had to discover “the story under the story,” the deeper more nuanced truth beneath the habitual stories I’d been telling for years. Honestly depicting my own failures and vulnerabilities was the hardest part of bringing this story to life. The second hardest part was learning the storytelling skills to keep readers hungrily turning pages, something I’d never had to learn writing self-help books.
Can you talk about the role that writing can play in terms of healing from past trauma?
Telling the truth about our lives, committing it to the page, and having it witnessed by at least one safe, compassionate listener—a trusted friend, sibling, therapist, or members of a writing group—is transformative. When trauma stays locked in our bodies, it continues to limit, stunt, and undermine our lives. But when the stories we’ve been carrying are written and shared, the grip of shame and isolation is loosened, and we learn we’re not alone. That’s why I love teaching in community. Safe writing groups inspire deep healing.
To successfully wrestle the diverse parts of our lives into a compelling narrative, we must do more than just document a series of events. We must draw meaning from those events while seeking answers to the deeper underlying questions we haven’t yet resolved. The journey of memoir is a one of insight, discovery, and resolution.
Throughout your career, you’ve written a great deal about estrangement, healing, and reconciliation. What have you learned in the process?
I’ve learned that being right is the loneliest place in the world. But I also know that the path of reconciliation isn’t the right choice for everyone.
I’ve identified four types of reconciliation: deep mutual healing (the rarest and most coveted form), “agreeing to disagree,” having one person in the relationship shift their perspective regardless of what the other person does, and finding peace within when a direct relationship with the other person is impossible. I’ve also learned through direct experience that things can change in ways we never dreamed possible. If you’d told me when I was twenty-nine that I’d choose to care for my mother at the end of her life, I would have told you that you were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened.
What’s some advice you can offer to aspiring writers who are working on memoirs?
Write the first draft just for you; don’t think about audience until you’re deep into rewrites. Compose your book in scenes and make them vivid. Always look for the heat, the tension. Every single scene needs to earn its place in your book. “Just because it happened” is not justification to include it. Ask yourself, “Why am I including this story? What progress or setback does it demonstrate for the protagonist? How does it move the story along? Does it make the reader hungry to turn the page?
Stigma: Breaking the Asian American Silence on Mental Health by Tanaya Kollipara is the finalist for the Self-Help/Relationships category of the prize. Author Allison Raskin had this to say about the book: "Stigma starts an important and needed conversation about the mental health needs of the AAPI community. By combining research with real and intimate first-hand accounts, Kollipara accomplishes her goal of destigmatizing mental health struggles and highlighting the importance of seeking help—despite cultural pressure not to do so. This much-needed resource will hopefully help create a bridge between the AAPI community and the far too often white and western-centric mental health field."
Tell me about the origins of Stigma. When did you first begin thinking about writing the book?
Growing up, I’ve always wanted to publish a book— it was something that had been a dream of mine, one I thought I wouldn’t become reality until much, much later in my life. But it was really at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, back in March 2020, when I began to seriously think about writing the book. At that point in time, I saw that so many of my loved ones were struggling with their mental health—the symptoms were exacerbated by the uncertainness and isolation of the pandemic. Add to that, a dear friend of mine had passed away from suicide— and yet my cultural community was pretending as if it was just like this. They didn’t want to talk about how my friend had struggled with their mental health, they didn’t want to do anything about it. That’s when I started really thinking to myself, What can I do? So, in essence, this book became my way to do something; it was my way to educate others through the power of storytelling. Ultimately, this book is how I can try to fight the stigma, encourage people to use mental health resources, and help the AAPI community feel seen by sharing these stories and professional insights.
For readers who may not know a lot about the topic, what can you share about Asian communities and perspectives on mental health?
In many Asian American/Pacific Islander communities, mental health is still seen as a private matter, something that must be hidden in fear of bringing shame to the family. It is heavily stigmatized because there is a misunderstanding that mental health conditions are always an indicator of either some personal defect or familial shortcoming—which makes individuals and families hesitant to seek help. And, in a nation where minority groups are expected to be ‘perfect’ in every manner, there is only an added pressure to not seek help and pretend that everything is alright. This has led to a mental health crisis in the cultural community. In fact, suicide is now the leading cause of death among AAPI young adults—which just goes to show how dire the circumstances are and how pertinent it is for us to work towards helping the AAPI community to overcome the stigma.
What was the experience like hearing the stories from the many individuals you speak to throughout the book?
It was a truly humbling experience. Knowing that these individuals— some friends, some complete strangers (who later became friends)— were trusting me with the most intimate details of their lives (and trusting me to share their story in a way that does it justice) is a truly special feeling and experience I will never be able to properly put into words. Each person I spoke to was so brave in sharing their story; they were willing to bare some of the most uncertain times of their lives, in hopes that those who read my book may find themselves in it and seek help far sooner.
What did you find most challenging about the project? What surprised you the most?
What I found most challenging about the project was deciding how to meld the stories with technical knowledge/expert advice. I wanted the book to work three-fold: help people understand and relate to AAPI experiences with mental health, correct the misinformation rampant in the community, and provide tools and guidance on how to deal with mental health struggles. But sometimes it was a struggle to do all of that without sounding wordy or getting confusing—after all, I still wanted this book to be very approachable! Something anyone at any reading level could pick up. Though it took many drafts and rewrites, I hope I was able to achieve that!
As for what I was surprised about… I was surprised (as many likely are) by how little I knew about the realities, truths, and impact of mental health and mental illness in the AAPI community. Despite growing up constantly surrounded by the world of mental health, each and every conversation I had revealed to me something new. It just goes to show how we never truly know everything about anything; there is always something more to learn—and, thus, we must always be open to listening so that we can better understand what people with mental illness need.