The first annual BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest welcomed hundreds of submissions in the categories of Memoir/Autobiography, Self-Help/Relationships, Business/Personal Finance, and Inspirational/Spiritual. The four finalists, selected from among 20 semifinalists by a panel of guest judges, include a collection of ‘mini-memoirs’ about underrepresented women from history, an exploration of a medieval saint’s ancient wisdom, a philosophical guide to finance and personal fulfillment, and a cogent examination of parenting styles. The grand prize winner of the contest will be announced on May 18. PW spoke to each of the finalists to learn more about their books, their backgrounds, and their writing processes.
FIERCE: Essays by and About Dauntless Women edited by Karyn Kloumann
According to guest judge Anya Yurchyshyn, "The 13 essays in FIERCE are as bold and unique as the women that inspired them. The book is more than a celebration of a diverse group of activists, agitators, and iconoclasts whose lives and accomplishments have largely been ignored by history—it’s an examination of the systematic oppression that led to this erasure and continues to exclude women to this day." Karyn Kloumann, who conceived of the project and edited the essays, discussed the unique collaboration.
Tell me the story behind the FIERCE project.
FIERCE is a passion project with a 10-year incubation period. After working professionally at Condé Nast for many years, losing my job, and then founding and building up Nauset Press, I decided it was time to go for it. I envisioned a brilliant anthology by writers with heart and soul—but not at the expense of their sharp intelligence. It took an additional three years to develop, write, edit, illustrate, copyedit, proofread, design, and produce FIERCE. Essays and illustrations were revised and polished over and over again to perfectly calibrate the book as a cohesive whole.
How did you select the subjects and the contributors?
I contacted writers I admired who were not available for book-length projects but willing to write an essay, and posted in an enormous Facebook group called “Calls for Submissions (Poetry, Fiction, Art).” I was seeking a diversity of life experiences, by geography, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation; the connector was going to be each writer’s passion, curiosity, and outstanding writing about her subject.
FIERCE offers such a unique approach to memoir, serving more as a vital chorus of voices and communications than standalone pieces about women’s lives. Could you discuss how you decided to structure these life stories in the way you did?
The memoir component is critical to helping the reader to bridge and understand how and why the biographies of these overlooked women matter today. Additionally, asking each writer to choose a single word to describe their broad direction ensured that each essay would have its own unique arc and positioning within the whole, yet also subtly unites each distinctive narrative within the group. The thing I am most proud of is how each individual essay shines radiantly but also works harmoniously as part of the firmament that is FIERCE, investigating issues that affected women in the past that still resonate with and effect us today.
The critic's report for Your Living Legacy called the book "relatable and enduring," adding that it "stands apart from other guides aimed at conscientious parents, through its broad-ranging and comprehensive content." BookLife editor Matia Query described the book as "a winning blend of practical tools and thoughtful exploration of the indelible impact of parenting styles on adult lives." Chosak, a psychotherapist, shared her insights into the topic of parenting and psychological development.
Can you tell me a bit about your background as a psychotherapist, writer, and parent?
I was very shy as a child growing up, so I spent a lot of time listening. This helped me learn a lot about people, and I developed a curiosity about why people acted the way they did. I also spent a lot of time writing as a way of expressing feelings I wasn't comfortable sharing. Studying psychology was a natural path for me to follow.
I started a psychotherapy practice upon graduation. I learned so much from the clients I saw, it rekindled my desire to write. My education was very helpful in learning how to become a better parent. Being a single parent made me even more motivated to be the best I could be.
Your Living Legacy explores such a pertinent topic—how parenting styles shape and enduringly impact us—but I haven’t seen another book that so pointedly discusses this idea. How did you come to research and write it?
During my career, in addition to my therapy practice, I developed and directed a training program at a local university in Los Angeles. My discussion of parenting styles was the most popular topic of my workshops. One of my respected colleagues attended one of the workshops and suggested I write a book. In my research, I found only one main theory—it described four styles. In my work with clients, I found it inadequate to limit the range of interactions to those four and be as helpful to my clients as I wanted. The 20 styles I write about helped to explore a fuller range of the dynamics in parenting relationships. It provided my clients with greater understanding and gave them tools to improve their relationships
Is it inevitable that our own parenting styles will be influenced by how we ourselves were parented?
It is inevitable, because our parents are our first experience of our world. We are dependent on our parents/caregivers for our survival, and need to find ways to navigate those relationships to feel safe. We either do this by trying to be like them, or by being different from them, or some combination of both. In our early formative years, they are our primary teachers.
Many parents are taking on new roles as educators during the Covid-19 crisis, while working from home themselves. Do you have some advice for parents struggling through these unprecedented challenges?
It is a really challenging time, and whatever conflicts parents have previously had about work/life balance have increased exponentially. It's an opportunity to evaluate how well they have been living their priorities, and whether the stories they tell themselves about how they need to use their time are valid. It's also an opportunity to look at what assumptions they have about their work and their parenting and how those assumptions may be adding to their stress. One example--are there things you think you need to do for your children that they are capable of doing for themselves? Re-evaluating your beliefs can save parents time and stress while doing something beneficial for their children.
Guest judge Erin Lowry valued Kian's candid approach to the topic of business and personal finance, as well as his nuanced blending of strategies for self-fulfillment and success. The book's critic's report similarly praised the book by saying "readers who like their advice books to be intellectually fortifying will value this unconventional guide to succeeding in an uncertain world." Kian, a management consultment and founder of an organization for youth leadership, spoke about the impetus behind his work.
Can you discuss what inspired you to write What Is Water?
Ever since childhood I’ve always been interested in understanding how some people are able to thrive through challenging times in life, and I’ve tried to practice these hard-fought lessons through the inevitable highs and lows of my own life. When I founded the Young Leaders Forum, I noticed how helpful these lessons were also to others, who would share their own thoughts and experiences as well. Eventually I felt that it could be helpful to make this content accessible to anyone who is going through tough times.
It strikes me that What Is Water? offers a very philosophical and holistic perspective on personal finance. Can you talk about your unique approach to the topic and your rich source material?
The approach draws on everything from ancient Stoic philosophy to The Sound of Music, in order to help the reader grow stronger through uncertain times—be it as an entrepreneur, investor, business leader, or in any other context. These ways of thinking not only contribute to building the life you want in the future, but hopefully also help make today even more worthwhile. In addition to the broad range of sources, all the content and exercises have been filtered through the lens of what you can control, and are therefore simple, pragmatic, and easily transferable to teams, families, and communities.
What are some of the factors that influence an individual’s handling of financial and personal wellness matters, and how can readers begin to confront their own emotional and psychological obstacles?
You can start by taking the time to become more aware of yourself, your context and those around you. This can help you take better decisions over time, not only for life's biggest questions, but also for its mundane, daily difficulties. It’s not always easy to find the right time to think about the right questions, which is why the book is full of exercises that you can practice any moment of the day.
What Is Water? could not be more relevant than in this current moment of uncertainty. What do you hope young readers will ultimately take away from the reading experience?
I hope that they will see the book as a good friend, a guide that helps them sense that you have more choice, in any given moment, in any situation, no matter how uncertain the times.
Finding Hildegard: Healing Through Medieval Wisdom by Gregg Koskela
Guest judge Melanie Shankle praised Gregg Koskela’s Finding Hildegard, saying “most of us have felt disillusionment with the church and will find Koskela's honesty refreshing and inspiring as it leads us to dig deeper into our own faith and relationship with God.”
Who was Hildegard of Bingen?
Hildegard was a truly astounding and gifted woman, who lived from 1098-1179. Her songs have become the best-selling medieval compositions of all time. She was an abbess, a healer, a teacher. More of her letters survive than any other woman from the medieval period—she corresponded with kings and emperors and popes, while hundreds wrote asking her advice. In the history of the Roman Catholic Church, only four women have been given the title of “Doctor," designated the highest authority to teach theology, and Hildegard is one of them. Yet with all of that, I had missed her completely until a couple of years ago.
Where did your interest in Hildegard originate, and what drew you to write about her?
After ending decades of serving as a pastor, and watching my church and denomination go through a painful split, I started searching for ancient prayers to guide my own prayers. Looking back, so many of the people and ideas that had been my foundation shattered. It’s easy to see now that I was looking for something stable, something that had stood the test of time. A google search pulled up one of Hildegard’s prayers, and it just captured me. I started devouring her writings and learning about her life. A huge step in my own healing journey was visiting Bingen, Germany on my own personal spiritual pilgrimage. I joined the nuns of St. Hildegard Abbey for their daily prayers, and began to write what became this book on that trip.
Your book offers such a level of warmth and intimacy, though its subject is an individual from distant history. How did you achieve this?
I’m really glad that’s how it came across! Honestly, what brought the intimacy for me was reading her work and watching some of her words leap off the page and touch my soul. Her words connected with the whispers of God’s Spirit as I have known them. It felt like, despite the title, she was the one who found me. My original plan was to write simple devotional thoughts, some of my reflections on her prayers that had been meaningful to me. But the very first time I wrote, swaying back and forth on a train through Germany, I was pulled much deeper to reflect on my own pain and struggle of the last several years. As it became real and personal to me, the writing became more intimate.
At times of pain and disillusionment, how might readers discover solace and inspiration from the past?
Such a great question, as we’re all facing a pandemic unknown in our lifetime. But so many from the past have been through painful things. We’re not alone or unique in our struggle. I write about this moment when I was walking down the hill from St. Hildegard Abbey, gazing across the Rhine River at Bingen. And it was like I could see thousands of years of history and horror that played out in that very valley, including how American bombs destroyed it in World War II. But all I could see now, everywhere I looked, were infinite shades of life-giving green growth. Pain and disillusionment are part of the human condition, but I believe (along with Hildegard) that the eternal work of our Creator God is bringing new, green life. Our destruction and pain doesn’t get the final word.
Are you looking to traditionally publish Finding Hildegard?
Not necessarily, although I wouldn’t be opposed to it. I’ve enjoyed the process and the options available to self-publish, although the marketing part is very difficult! I’ve been working for years on a book called Finding Papa, my journey to discover more about my grandpa’s life. Unlike Finding Hildegard, it’s not overtly spiritual; it’s me trying to wrestle with important values I believe make us healthier people, like vulnerability and honesty. Now that I’ve proven to myself I can bring a book to completion (a decades long desire!), I would love to find an agent or publisher for Finding Papa.