As part of the blog tour for her novel Leave of Absence, author Tanya J. Peterson agreed to answer a few questions about her work, and her motivations for writing about mental health and raising awareness. You can also read my review of Leave of Absence here.
I had a very specific motivation for writing this novel. I want to correct the negative, and incorrect, stereotypes that exist about people who experience mental illness. Fiction can be a powerful vehicle for conveying basic truths, and I hope to use it to increase understanding of what mental illness is truly like. With correct knowledge and increased understanding comes empathy.
I care about this subject deeply because I have experience with mental illness both professionally and personally. I’m a Nationally Certified Counselor, and I’ve worked with people in different capacities. I experience mental illness personally, too, as I have bipolar I disorder as well as various difficulties with anxiety. I’ve seen people deal with stigma, and I’ve dealt with it myself. I think that stigma exists not because people purposely want to judge others cruelly. Instead, people have been exposed to incorrect information through mainstream media. If people can receive accurate information through stories and fictitious characters, I believe they will see mental illness differently. Thus, I wrote Leave of Absence.
2. Do you feel that mental health and psychiatric issues have enough representation in modern literature, both fiction and non-fiction?
They definitely haven’t had enough of the right representation, that’s for sure. Mental illness has seen better treatment in non-fiction than in fiction. There are numerous fantastic informative texts, and there are moving memoirs that give the public a glimpse into the world of people experiencing mental illness. With fiction it’s a different story, though (pun intended!). So many movies, television shows, and novels seek only to entertain, and as such, they take full artistic license to weave tall tales that bring in big dollars. As a result, society has very inaccurate representations of mental illness, and these false depictions turn into the negative stereotypes that become stigma.
3. What do you feel are the best ways to draw attention to these issues and destigmatise mental health problems?
There are numerous approaches to this, and that’s a good thing. The more that can be done in diverse ways, the more effective the message will be. For me, the best way is through stories. Stories are about people. Stories have characters with whom people can connect. Decreasing stigma involves humanizing mental illness. What better way to do this than through stories?
4. How vital was your experience as a counsellor when writing about mental health issues and those who treat them?
I’m grateful for this experience because it has given me a depth of understanding not only of the facts of the illnesses but about the people behind them. I was able to create an accurate, realistic portrayal of the mental illnesses in Leave of Absence, what they’re like for the people who experience them, what helpers sound like, and even what behavioral health hospitals are like. It was very important for me to make this story accurate, and my background in counseling contributed to that.
5. Now for some questions about writing – which writers do you admire? Who inspires you?
I enjoy writers who give depth and meaning to their stories through their characters. I read for character and theme much more than I do for plot. Saul Bellow, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison do this well, and they are definitely inspiring to me. I’m certainly not claiming to be on their level!
6. What is your writing process like? Do you work to music, at home, on a computer? Do you share notes and drafts with anyone?
I’m a writer of the early-morning variety. I wake up around 5:00 each morning (give or take a little), make a cup of tea, and settle down in front of my computer. On beautiful summer mornings, I take my laptop out on my deck and enjoy the morning air. I typically prefer my writing space to be quiet, but if I do have music playing it’s something classical in the background. I research, brainstorm, add little notes to the various sections of my novel’s binder. I re-read what I’ve written, and I make changes. Then, with my sketch of the current chapter in mind, I settle into the actual writing.
I typically don’t share notes and drafts, but I will do so on occasion. I’ve had consultations to help improve my writing ability. And of course I have the work edited, and I make revisions. So yes, I do seek input, but I don’t belong to groups because I’m not much of a social writer.
7. How long did it take you to write Leave of Absence? It’s an emotional story so was it difficult to write at times?
Writing is the one activity I do where I can truly experience flow, that state of being in which one is completely mindful and in the moment. As such, the writing proceeds fairly quickly. I wrote Leave of Absence in approximately four months. I often lose myself in the writing and almost take on the experiences of the characters. This helps the flow, I think, and it does make it emotional which I think is a good thing. If I’m connected to my characters, hopefully I can write in a way that helps others connect, too.
8. Lastly, do you have any plans for another novel? Your first was a YA novel so would you revisit that readership again or stay with adult fiction?
I’m working on a new novel now, actually. Like Leave of Absence, it is adult contemporary fiction and of course is about mental illness. It’s drastically different from Leave of Absence, of course. I anticipate that all of my novels will be similar but different. They’ll all address mental health issues but will focus on different topics and will be written in different ways (for example, this new one uses first person point of view rather than close third person). I have no plans to return to YA. I simply don’t consider myself to be a strong YA author. I admire those who can do it, but I’m not one of them.
Lizzi, thank you so much for hosting me on These Little Words as part of my virtual book tour! I so appreciate both your review of Leave of Absence and this interview with you. It’s nice to have a chance to spread the word about a novel I care about! Your insights and your questions have been fantastic. Thanks, too, to all of your readers! I appreciate everyone taking the time to learn about Leave of Absence and about me, too!
Published by Inkwater Press in April 2013.
Many thanks to Tanya for taking the time to answer these questions, and to her publishers for asking me to participate in this blog tour.