Saturday, June 8, 2013

Q&A with author Tanya J. Peterson

Today I welcome author Tanya J. Peterson to my blog for a Q and A. Last week I reviewed Tanya’s book Leave of Absence. I found it unusual in subject matter and extremely informative. Leave of Absence deals with mental disorders and imbalances, some temporary and some long-term. I did a bit of research and the statistics are scary.

Mental disorders are common in the United States and internationally. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older or about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 who suffer from a serious mental illness. In addition, mental disorders are the
Author Tanya J. Peterson
leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for ages 15-44. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Nearly half (45 percent) of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders. In my research, I also noticed a large variety of other disorders, ranging from schizophrenia, to PTSD, to panic attacks.

  1. You are a counselor with an education and background in this kind of work. You deal with facts – so what made you turn to fiction to create a story about mental disorders?
I strongly believe that fiction can be a power vehicle for conveying human truths.  There is a plethora of excellent non-fiction books written about the different mental illnesses, and that’s very necessary.  Non-fiction does a great job of teaching very important factual information.  For my purposes, though, it has two drawbacks that I wanted to avoid:  non-fiction books target a very specific audience, and they tend to focus on the conditions/disorders rather than on the human beings behind them.  In using fiction, I hope to attract a broader range of readers in order to spread the message further.  Also, with fiction, there are characters, people with whom readers can connect.  So, in the case of Leave of Absence, not only will readers see what schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, and loss really are, but they will see what it’s like for the people who experience these mental illnesses.  I suppose I should confess there is one other reason I opted for fiction.  Fiction is incredibly fun to write!  Even though this is a very serious subject, it was an enjoyable process. 

  1. In my view, the ‘collateral damage’ is often forgotten i.e. the effects on family and friends who find it easier to walk away because they can’t cope with a loved one’s disability. How do you feel a fiction story can help them?

Sometimes, friends and family walk away not because they don’t care but because they are overwhelmed or don’t fully understand the implications of their loved one’s illness.  Reading the facts about a mental illness (or a physical one, for that matter) is essential and gives people a fundamental understanding of that illness.  Being able to recite the symptoms of or the helpful medications for a disorder unfortunately doesn’t help prepare someone for the day-to-day interactions with a loved one experiencing a mental illness.  In Leave of Absence, Penelope has schizophrenia.  Her fiancé, William, knows that this involves such things as hallucinations and delusions.  However, knowing this doesn’t automatically make things easy for him.  He has watched their lives change.  While they used to have an active social life, they have become isolated for various reasons associated with Penelope’s illness.  Penelope’s demeanour has changed, and she is different toward William than she used to be.  William struggles with this, yet he still loves her deeply because he sees the Penelope behind the illness.

Your observation of “collateral damage” suffered by friends and family of someone experiencing mental illness is very astute.  The lifestyle and relationship changes to which William has to adjust are very common.  In reading about the experiences of fictional characters (as long as the experiences are realistic and accurate), people can experience a sense of connection.  Their hardships can be normalized, giving a feeling that they’re not alone.  In seeing that the difficulties are common, they can feel a sense of relief that what they are feeling and experiencing is normal rather than a sign that they’re doing something wrong.
One more thought about fiction’s power.  Even if a reader doesn’t experience exactly what the characters of a story do (because mental illness is very individualized; schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t look the same for everybody who experiences it), he/she can use a novel as a tool for discussion.  A story and its characters can be vehicles for expression and a way to open up communication.  (A caregiver can say, “Penelope hears Eleanor Roosevelt, and she’s really mean to her.  What are hallucinations like for you?”)    

  1. How did you come up with the two different characters in Oliver and Penelope?
That’s the fun part of fiction!  Oliver and Penelope are completely figments of my imagination, and developing them was a delight.  Before I began writing, I knew the theme I wanted to convey (that there are real human beings behind a mental illness, and they’re not fearful people) as well as the mission (to counteract negative stereotypes and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by increasing understanding of it as well as empathy for those who experience it).  I also knew that in this novel I wanted to portray schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder as these are illnesses we hear a great deal about but have little true understanding for.  There are many negative, and incorrect, stereotypes associated with each of these.  With that in mind, I knew that I had to start not with a storyline but with people/characters.
 I have a personal quirk:  I love stories that have male characters with whom I can bond.  Therefore, I wanted Leave of Absence to have such a character, and Oliver was “born.”  I imagined him thoroughly, and it felt right that he be the one with PTSD (well, maybe not “right,” because that’s kind of mean, but you get my drift).   His story developed further in my mind, and of course I knew that the poor guy would also be suffering from depression and complicated mourning (complicated mourning isn’t a classifiable mental illness, but it is something that causes pain and difficulty).  I then turned to schizophrenia and imagined who would experience it.  After some visualization and brainstorming, Penelope was “born,” too.  I spent time with her as well.  I wanted to know these two well before I started to write their story.  By the time I was ready to write, I knew them so well that the story almost wrote itself!

  1. I believe you have been on ‘both sides’ of the couch, and have experienced some of the anguish of stress. Can you tell us how this helped you in creating your characters?
I have indeed been on both sides.  I have an advanced degree in counselling, and I’m a Nationally Certified Counselor (in the US).  I’ve worked and volunteered my services as a counsellor.  This background has helped me understand the facts about mental illness with accuracy (although I didn’t rely only on this but rather conducted research before and during the writing process as well).  It has also helped me see the people behind the illness and understand their very human emotions.
The professional background was very helpful, but so was my personal experience.  I actually have been a patient in a behavioural health centre much like Airhaven in Leave of Absence.  It was there that I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder and various anxiety difficulties.  The hospitalization came in the aftermath of a motor vehicle accident in which I sustained a closed head injury (and having two separate concussions in the months that followed this accident didn’t help matters).  There were other stressful events happening at the same time.  None of this caused bipolar I disorder, of course, but they all made it difficult to continue to deny and ignore.  Dealing with this has given me a deeper perspective than I would have otherwise.  Oliver and Penelope, and their experiences, are entirely fictitious, but my own life experiences (both professionally and personally) have (hopefully) helped me give them depth and dimension. 
  1. What has been the response of readers to Leave of Absence?
I’ve been absolutely thrilled by people’s reaction to Leave of Absence.  I’ve had readers report that they have a deeper understanding of mental illness, that they see people with mental illness in a new light.  I also read a review by someone who said that he used to be a psychology teacher and that he wishes he would have had Leave of Absence to use in his classroom for illustration and discussion of mental illness.    Reactions like these are exactly what I am hoping for with Leave of Absence!
Additionally, I recently learned that Leave of Absence was selected as a finalist in the “faction” (fiction based on fact) category of the (US) National IndieExcellence Awards contest.  For me the best part about this is the category, because this really is fiction based on fact, and I hope that this will lend credibility to my work.
I’m also really pleased that many people seem to really connect with Oliver and Penelope.  I love it when people tell me that when the book ended they weren’t ready to be done with the characters (William, too).   I’m so happy about this for the sake of Oliver, Penelope, and William.
  1. Where do you hope to take this new venture – are there more books in sight?
I feel so strongly about increasing understanding and reducing stigma, so I hope this new venture gains momentum and keeps going.  I’ve been giving presentations and talks about mental illness, and using Leave of Absence as a tool.  I’ve even been invited to speak about mental illness at the national conference (US) of the Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society,Inc.  I’m extremely excited (and nervous) about that.  So I hope to be able to continue to speak about mental illness.
I do love writing, too, and I’ll always believe that fiction is a great tool for creating understanding and empathy.  I hope to be able to continue writing novels.  As a matter of fact, I am working on a new one right now.  I’m still in the very early stages, and I’m developing the characters at the moment.  It’s a bit difficult because I still feel connected to Oliver, Penelope, and William, but as I brainstorm and imagine, I’m already bonding with the new group.  This one will of course be very different from Leave of Absence, but it will address the same overall theme.  It will be fun!
  1. Is there anything you’d like readers of my blog and the book to remember/take away with them?
First and foremost, I want you and your readers to know how deeply I appreciate all of you.  Fiona, thank you for hosting me on your blog, and readers, thank you for reading Fiona’s review of Leave of Absence as well as our interview.  I believe strongly in my mission (for the sake of others rather than myself), and I really hope to be able to spread my message.  It’s not easy to start up, though.  For a variety of reasons (the primary one is that I wanted to retain control over what I could and could not do with
Leave of Absence
Leave of Absence [I’ve been told I’m stubborn]), I decided against the traditional publishing route despite potential opportunities.  Whether I published traditionally, independently, or a hybrid of the two (which I did), I’m starting out unknown and I need to work to make readers aware of Leave of Absence.  I couldn’t do that without you, and I am truly grateful for your time and attention.  Thank you.  Fiona, your blog is incredibly well-done, and it’s an honour to be part of it.
You’ve asked terrific questions that have helped me convey my message, so I don’t want to be too repetitive.  To close, I will simply say this:  seek always to understand, for behind someone’s difficulties is a human being.

Here's wishing you a wonderful journey and great success with your fantastic book Tanya. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight with us today.

by Fiona Ingram

1 comment:

jay d said...