BookMark talks to Tanya Peterson (Leave of Absence) Part 1

Without much waffle, here is Tanya, answering some of my burning questions!

BM: What were your thoughts when you began writing Leave of Absence?

TP: As Oliver, Penelope, and William had been living in my imagination from the moment I conceptualized the story, my thoughts were with them.  I had bonded with them as though they were real people, and I wanted their story to be heard for their sakes.  I felt like I were living with them in their world, and I became fully mindful with them so the world could connect with them as deeply as I had.  (Yes, I did play actively with imaginary friends when I was a kid, and apparently I haven’t kicked the habit!)

BM: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

TP: I really want to increase awareness and understanding of the realities of mental illness, and in doing that, increase compassion and empathy for those experiencing mental illness.  There are so many negative stereotypes of mental illness perpetuated by mainstream media, and these create misunderstandings.  That’s tragic because these misunderstandings can lead to rejection and isolation.  I’m hoping that Leave of Absence will help people have a true understanding not only of schizophrenia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder but of the people behind these illnesses.

Regarding how well I feel that I’ve accomplished my goal, I think time will tell.  If my book is read and enjoyed, then the themes will be heard.  I’ve had many professional reviews that speak positively of the way I address the topic, and I even had a reader identify himself as a retired psychology teacher who wished he had had Leave of Absence when he was teaching because he thought it would be a great way to show students the realities of mental illness beyond the textbook.  I’m pleased with these comments!  That said, though, I tend to be pretty hard on myself, and I never think that what I do is good enough.  Therefore, I’m actually pretty nervous.  No book/author is liked by everyone, of course, but I do hope that people enjoy Leave of Absence and that it has a positive impact.

BM: Favourite authors/books that inspired you?

TP: I’ve always loved stories that are deep and address important themes (such as justice, human understanding, ethical issues, etc.).  I also love character-driven stories.  I suppose that goes along with my preference for books with deep themes, for all of my examples involve people and their experience with themselves and the world.  I read much more for character and them than I do for genre and plot.  If a book tells a worthy story and is character-driven, I don’t mind whatever genre it’s in or what the exact storyline and plot are.

I’m hesitant to say authors who inspire me because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m comparing myself to them or elevating myself to their level!  I’ll make this disclaimer:  I’m not comparing myself to these authors, nor am I elevating myself to their level!  That said, some of my favourite authors are Saul Bellow, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison.  I also enjoy some of Jodi Picoult’s works.   These authors do a fantastic job of connecting us to their characters and showing us the depths of the human experience.  

BM: Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?

TP: Ethically, I can’t disclose specific information.  I can give a general background, though, of what went into the creation of my characters.  I definitely did extensive research into schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, and complicated mourning.  I have a Master’s degree in counselling, so I suppose my research started with my education.  I’m one of those people who keeps textbooks, so I went to my bookshelf to study the intricacies of these disorders.  I supplemented that with online research.  This formed the factual foundation – since I’m setting out to eradicate the stereotypes, I’d better know the facts!

One of my important themes is that there’s a human side to these illnesses.  For this, the facts weren’t enough.  I’ve worked with people who experience all of the issues in Leave of Absence, and I always really listened to people to understand what it’s like for them (each illness is very individualized; schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t look the same in everyone who experiences it).  Also, I’ve been in a behavioural health hospital as a patient.  I exchanged stories with fellow patients.  I was able to use all of this to make Penelope and Oliver very realistic, but it’s important for everyone to know that while the depiction of their issues is realistic, Penelope and Oliver are definitely fictional.  I didn’t use any one person’s struggles in Leave of Absence.

BM: What are your thoughts on the life of caregivers, the unsung heroes?

TP: Human connection is so important to well-being!!  One of the worst things that can happen to someone experiencing mental illness is to be shunned.  Dealing with mental illness can be frustrating and scary and overwhelming, and to have a supportive caregiver can make a world of difference.  I applaud caregivers!  A caregiver, in my own humble definition, is anyone who supports someone else.  A caregiver can be a friend or family member who “simply” understands and sends the message, “It’s okay to be you.  I’m here to listen and spend time with you because I like you no matter what you’re going through.”  I have Bipolar I disorder.  It’s not fun, and it’s not fun for the people around me, either.  Despite the difficulties, I have some wonderful people in my life who are understanding.  I’ve also had people judge me negatively, shun me, and end friendships.  These experiences make caregivers all the more important.

In Leave of Absence, William is Penelope’s caregiver.  He loves her for who she is, and he’s able to look beyond her schizophrenia to see her whole person.  People are more than their mental illness.  Praise and thanks to all of those caregivers out there who can see that and stick by someone even when it’s hard!


Stay tuned for Part 2! I do think she is a brilliant writer and the research that went into her book shows. I’m not paid to say that… Gah! Student life, I wish I were… but I’m not. I just really like the way this woman has focus.