"No one can be lonely who has a book for company." ~ Nelle Reagan

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

You Have to Meet This Author!!! An Interview With Tanya J. Peterson, Author of "Leave of Absence"

I really loved this book!!  Yesterday I posted my review of Leave of Absence; a rare novel that addresses the stigma of mental illness while creating an empathic environment with the reader.  You will not view mental illness the same after reading this touching tale.

Tanya J. Peterson posted a guest post on this blog May 6 and today she is participating in an author  interview with me on My Bookshelf.  I am thrilled  and honoured to share with you today this interview:

1.  What drew you to the field of mental health as a career choice?

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to help others.  This sounds incredibly silly, but even when I was very young, I’d notice when people were hurting, and I always wanted to do something about it.  (I still remember a Sesame Street episode during which a human character was upset, and I pretended for the longest time after that that I lived there and we were friends and I was helping him.  Well okay then -- now that I think about it, I suppose that explains a bit about why I went into both mental health and writing/story creation, doesn’t it?)  Anyway, I initially went into teaching, but well before I was even a month into my career, I knew I wanted to become a counselor because what I liked best about teaching was discussing various things with the students and helping them help themselves deal with difficulties.  

2.  You have created a compelling and touching story with the three main characters in Leave of Absence.  Would you say they are classic examples of the illnesses they are depicted with?  (symptoms, onset, diagnosis and treatment)

One of my goals for writing Leave of Absence was to combat stereotypes and to help create true understanding. Accordingly, I put a great deal of research into the mental illnesses I depicted in the book:  schizophrenia (Penelope), depression (Penelope and Oliver), post-traumatic stress disorder (Oliver), and complicated mourning (well, that’s a difficulty that many people experience after a loss, but it’s technically not a mental illness).  So what they experience is indeed very realistic.  The symptoms each of them experiences are absolutely part of their illnesses.  The onset is typical, too.  Oliver experienced the very traumatic loss of this wife and son, so of course his difficulties began at that moment in his life.  I won’t elaborate about Penelope here because you gave me the opportunity to discuss the onset of her schizophrenia in the next question.  One thing that is very important to keep in mind is that the experience of a given mental illness is very individualized.  There are definitely criteria that define schizophrenia, PTSD, etc., but each individual experiences the various symptoms in a way that is unique to him/her.  Because there are so many individual differences, diagnosis a mental illness can be tricky.  This leads nicely into the next point.

Diagnosis of mental illness is often difficult because doing so is not yet an exact science.  Diagnosis in the “real world” is typically based on the observation of doctors and therapists, reports from the person him/herself, reports from family members, and often even paper-and-pencil tests (these are specific psychiatric and behavioral assessments).  This was much too tedious to include in a novel!  Kind of like how books don’t show step by step what a character is doing every minute of every day, I didn’t want to show every single detail of the diagnostic process.  When readers first meet Penelope, she has already been diagnosed.  Oliver’s diagnosis of PTSD and major depressive disorder come from information that was gathered when he was admitted after his suicide attempt failed as well as from his demeanor and behavior at Airhaven Behavioral Health Center.  

The treatment Oliver and Penelope receive is quite typical of what one receives in a behavioral health center.  They each receive medication because medication is used frequently with schizophrenia, depression (and other illnesses), as there are things going on in the brain that medication can help.  In behavioral health centers like Airhaven in Leave of Absence, there is often a strong emphasis on group treatment supplemented by daily sessions with a psychiatrist or psychologist.  I was able to make Airhaven quite realistic because I have spent time in such a place myself as a patient.  It was nice to have something tangible to draw on for this aspect of the novel.  (I will say, though, that Airhaven itself is fictitious.)

You mentioned that I have three main characters.  I’ve mentioned Oliver and Penelope but not William.  Just like Oliver’s and Penelope’s experiences, William’s experience is also very accurate.  As Penelope’s fiancé, he’s an integral part of her life.  And he loves her.  He is experiencing his own turmoil from multiple sides.  He is struggling to convince Penelope that he loves her and that she should stay with him.  And he’s struggling against the stigma and negative stereotypes of outsiders.  With William, I wanted to show that stigma hurts everyone, and I also wanted to show the dedication of someone motivated by love.  

3.  Upon reading Penelope's history, I was surprised that the onset of schizophrenia was so sudden.  I'd heard that it could have hereditary factors and/or environmental factors.  Is this true? Can it come "out of the blue" without external contributing factors?

That’s a terrific question, and one I’m very happy to have the opportunity to explain a bit.  Schizophrenia doesn’t just come out of the blue.  It didn’t for Penelope, either.  I didn’t want to bog the story down with too much back story, so I chose not to elaborate on the history of the development of Penelope’s schizophrenia.  Instead, I allude to it only briefly on a couple of occasions.  When William (Penelope’s fiancé) first meets Oliver, he gives a brief background and explains that this is actually the second time Penelope has been in the behavioral health center.  Later, when William is wistfully looking at a photo of Penelope and him, he muses a bit about the gradual onset of her symptoms two years prior.  Usually, people experience a gradual onset of symptoms during what is known as the prodromal phase of schizophrenia.  Penelope was in her late 20s when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and this is pretty typical.  There’s a wide range of age of onset, though, and most people are diagnosed somewhere between their late teens and mid-thirties.  It is possible, though, for someone to begin to experience symptoms earlier or later than this average range.  To date, researchers haven’t pinpointed what causes schizophrenia, although they do think that there can be hereditary factors (but this isn’t always the case).  

4.  You did an incredible job of illustrating the stigma attached with mental illness.  What do you hope this novel will do to address this?

Thank you, Shirley!  That statement means a great deal to me because this is one of the things I was hoping to accomplish with Leave of Absence.  I really hope that this novel will stimulate a lot of discussion and give people something to use in their discussions.  I recently was told that Leave of Absence helped someone better understand a friend who is struggling with mental illness.  Again, this is part of what I’m hoping for!  If people can come to understand each other in new ways, to appreciate the struggles someone with mental illness can face, then I think this increased understanding will help reduce stigma.  

5.  Going back to question 3, I'd like to know what lays in store for Penelope.  Do you foresee a sequel?

I’ve given that a great deal of thought.  I’m really attached to Oliver, Penelope, and William, and it’s really tempting to continue their story.  However, I think it will be more powerful if I end it right where I did.  I don’t want to inadvertently diminish their impact.  Therefore, I think Leave of Absence will stand alone.  (That said, I just read recently that John Grisham is planning a sequel to his first novel.  Who knows?  Maybe years and years down the road I’ll revisit these characters!)

6.  Are you writing another book at the moment?

I am indeed in the early stages of a new novel!  I’ve begun brainstorming and researching, and I have created the backstory of the major characters in order to learn more about them.  I haven’t begun the actual writing yet, though, for a couple of reasons.  One, as I mentioned above, I’m still attached to Oliver, Penelope, and William.  I want to transition into a bond with my new characters before I start writing so I can fully do them justice.  Also, I want to make sure I devote my attention to Leave of Absence to give it a chance.  I won’t be able to share the characters’ stories and spread a message if I let it flop!  It’s a really difficult task, so that’s why I’m sincere when I tell you how much I appreciate you, Shirley!  It’s been great having a guest post on your site and doing this interview with you!  And I’m also grateful that you reviewed Leave of Absence!  I need readers like you in order to get off the ground.  So thank you.  

7.  I like that this novel wasn't all tied up in a neat little bow with a tidy ending, leaving it open ended as far as the future of the characters is concerned.  Why did you choose to write it this way?

I definitely did this for a reason!  I absolutely didn’t want a “ride off into the sunset” ending for this book.  That would destroy everything I had set up in the entire book.  I wanted a realistic ending.  In real life, the things these characters deal with (schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, deep grief) don’t just magically disappear, so I didn’t want a miraculous recovery in Leave of Absence.  However, in reality, people are strong and they can improve and thrive again despite continued difficulties.  This, too, is very realistic.  I wanted to leave people with a sense of hope without the canned ending that would have been unsatisfactory.  Life is uncertain.  We know we’ll have trials and difficulties, and we know we’ll have triumphs; however, we never know exactly where life is going to take us.  The same holds true for Oliver, Penelope, and William.  

8.  What is your favourite genre to read?

I don’t have a favorite genre, per se, but I do have a type of story I prefer.  I love character driven stories!  If I can emotionally connect with a character/characters, I don’t care so much about the plot, storyline, or setting.  

9. Who is your favourite author and why?

That’s a tough question!  There are numerous authors I like.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of my favorites (in random order):  Maya Angelou, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Juliann Garey, Pricille Sibley, and Karin Slaughter.  These are all drastically different writers, but in my humble opinion they all share the ability to write meaningful, character-driven stories that inspire me to be a better person.  

10. Your previous novel is "Losing Elizabeth," a young adult novel about an abusive relationship. Can you share more about this novel and where the reader might be able to purchase a copy?

Sure!  Like I did with Leave of Absence, I wrote Losing Elizabeth to tell an important message.  When I worked with high school students, I was shocked and saddened by the number of adolescents who became caught in controlling, emotionally abusive relationships.  I worked with both males and females who became stuck in such relationships, but I happened to make the main character of Losing Elizabeth female.  I wrote it as a way to show adolescents what abuse looks like, that it doesn’t always have to be physical.  It’s never too early for young adolescents to learn about the dangers of abusive relationships, so I made the story very straight-forward and appropriate even for middle grade students despite the fact that the main characters are in high school.  I will admit that while I love the message of Losing Elizabeth and I’m glad I wrote it, I don’t consider my writing strengths to be YA fiction.  I think that Leave of Absence is much better than Losing Elizabeth.  If anyone is ever interested in checking into it, it’s available online at amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), barnesandnoble.com (paperback), and powells.com (paperback).

11.  Do you have a message you wish to share for the reader who might identify with the characters and/or situations in Leave of Absence and may be seeking more information and/or wish to know how to offer support to those who affected either as a patient or as a loved one/friend?

Learn, listen, and look!!  

Learn all you can about what you are experiencing or what someone in your life is experiencing.  I do hate sounding cliché, but knowledge really is power.  The more you know, the more control you have.  There are many great, reputable online resources available.  A few of them are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org), PsychCentral (psychcentral.com), HealthyPlace (healthyplace.com), the Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com), BringChange2Mind (bringchange2mind.org), and TimeToChange (time-to-change.org/uk).

Listen (and talk).  Share with others what you are experiencing.  If someone you know is experiencing mental illness, ask them how they are.  Listen to what people are telling you.  By talking and listening, we come to understand each other.  And when we understand, the grip of stigma is loosened.

Look at the whole person.  People are more than their illness (this goes for both physical and mental illnesses)!  See the whole person, not the label and the stereotype.

12.  What is your favourite saying/quote and why?

I love Mahatma Gandhi’s directive to “be the change you want to see in the world.”  I’ve always loved that saying because it resonates with me.  When I see something troubling, I want to do my part, even if it’s small, to change it.  I love the idea of being one of the many, many people who take action to make the world a better place for everyone.  

13.  What is your favourite pastime?

I love spending time outdoors!  I enjoy kayaking, hiking, biking, tent camping, and snowshoeing.  (Okay, that’s more than one, but they all fall into the same category.)  I enjoy doing these things with my family as well as on my own.  

14.  On a fun note, what is your favourite snack food?

Just one?  I would think that by now you would have learned that I can never pick just one thing or provide a simple answer to anything!    How about a short list:  popcorn, chocolate chip cookies, miscellaneous chocolate items.  

I know I said this above, but I really meant it so I want to say it again briefly.  Shirley, thank you so much for inviting me to your blog this week.  I’ve really enjoyed interacting with you and also with your readers!


Thank you Tanya!  Reading your moving novel and getting to share your perspectives has been fun!  I love working with such an enthusiastic author!!

Written with extraordinary perception into the thought processes of those grappling with mental illness, Leave of Absence is perfect for readers seeking an empathic depiction of grief, loss, and schizophrenia, as well as anyone who has ever experienced human suffering and healing. (from the publisher)
photo from Shelfari

Tanya J Peterson uses her life experience as a teacher, Nationally Certified Counselor, and client to write novels about mental health, mental illness, human suffering and triumph.  Her latest novel, Leave of Absence, delves deeply into the world of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, grief, and loss.  She also blogs about mental health on her website. www.tanyajpeterson.com



  1. It's obvious that Ms. Peterson has lots of empathy for others. I hope that her book is able to help people to understand the struggles those with mental illness have.

    1. Thank you for saying this, Ann! I, too, hope that Leave of Absence will help people understand. I appreciate your reading my interview with Shirley. She asked terrific questions!

  2. Hi again, Shirley! I like your statement at the end of the interview. I, too, think that this has been fun! You've been wonderful to work with. Not only are you kind and fun, but you ask great questions and you're so encouraging. I've loved this. Thanks!!

  3. Well this sounds like a fascinating book. I so enjoyed this interview and loved hearing from the author. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Jess! I sincerely appreciate your reading the interview.

  4. What a fabulous interview! It's interesting and upbeat.


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