Interview with Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, Author of Behind Silent Smiles

A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?

I think “inept” is a harsh term! All careers and jobs attract people with certain personality traits and preferences. Many writers do keep to themselves. I wonder sometimes if, in the case of fiction writers, authors prefer to live the the worlds they create rather than the real world. Sometimes I find myself thinking that, but time spent “in” my fictional worlds are really times I’m immersing myself into the story so I can make it better. Overall, I don’t think anyone is socially inept, whether they’re writers or anyone else. Everyone is simply trying to do his or her best navigating the stressful social world.

What makes this particular genre you are involved in so special?

I absolutely love realistic fiction. I get to tell stories of characters living with mental health challenges and portray them realistically. I enjoy showing very real struggles and equally realistic triumphs. When readers tell me how it helped them understand themselves or someone they care about, and when they tell me the characters were so real to them that they have stuck with them for a very long time, I’m so pleased. Realistic fiction deepens understanding of real people and inspire hope.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Research is absolutely essential. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s research that makes a book solid. Characters and their lives are hollow and unbelievable if the book isn’t informed. Research is the foundation, and then imagination builds on it to create a story that is at once fictitious and believable.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve loved writing since I was very young. By second grade, I was writing stories in my notebooks. When I shared one in front of my class and was ridiculed, I decided that I was done with that. However, all through school, college, and, later, graduate school, I loved writing papers and essays. For me, a fun Friday night was one spent working on a research paper. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I began to entertain the thought of becoming a writer, and it wasn’t until my 40s that I took the plunge and began. Takeaways from my experiences: 1.) Don’t let others’ opinions and reactions keep you from pursuing your passions, and 2.) It’s never too late to start following your dreams.

What inspires you to write?

I have a true passion for my subjects. All my writing follows mental health themes because I think it’s very important. When we can see what mental health struggles are really like (not fabricated or exaggerated like in many movies, books and TV shows), we begin to understand. Understanding creates empathy. Understanding also inspires and teaches the very real truth: people can triumph over any obstacle.

How often do you write?

I write every single day. I always have something to write, and I’m very grateful for that.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

Both. I have to know my direction to make the story solid. Everything must be intentional and fit together seamlessly, and without a general plot outline, that can’t happen. But if the outline is rigid, the story will sound rigid and mechanical. I stay within the general plot outline as I write, but often the characters take on lives of their own, and something will develop that I didn’t initially plan. That’s okay. If it works, I stick with it and adjust the plot accordingly.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

The hardest thing for me is silencing my inner critic. Sometimes as I write, I’ll be stopped by self-doubt and worry that what I’m writing isn’t good enough. The best way out of that is to keep writing anyway.

What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?

The easiest, and most wonderful, part of writing is experiencing the state of flow. Flow happens when you’re doing something that brings you joy and you become “lost” in it. The inner critic is quiet, concerns drop away, thoughts are completely focused on what your’e doing in the moment. When I enter a state of flow, writing sails. When that happens, writing is very easy. It’s almost like the characters are writing the story themselves.

Does a bad review affect your writing?

I’m relieved that I haven’t had many bad reviews, but we all do get them from time to time. Early in my career, bad reviews affected me quite a bit. I still wrote, but my confidence would dip for some time. I put more weight into one bad review than I did several good reviews. As I’ve progressed in my career, I look at them differently. A review represents one person’s opinion and isn’t a global proclamation of the worth of the writing. Also, I can often learn from the negative feedback, so I evaluate it carefully to see if it can improve my writing.

Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?

Be curious. Open your mind and heart to everything, for life contains ideas and inspirations. Follow your passions. When you face rejection, keep going. Setbacks aren’t permanent barriers. Write every day, even if it’s just a small amount and short time. Be humble.

What did you want to become when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a doctor. I loved all things related to medicine, and I’d read library books about health, anatomy, and similar topics.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

I do that frequently! While I modify situations to fit the story and the characters, I throw little tidbits into the story. Sometimes, they’re big things such as a hospitalization. Other times they’re little things like an interaction at the grocery store. I think that doing this adds depth and realism.

People believe that being a published author is glamorous, is that true?

For me, it’s not true. Being a published author takes hard work and unwavering dedication. I have the privilege of working with several different publishers for several different books. They’r all different but share one thing in common: an expectation that authors meet deadlines that may or may not be realistic. Like any other profession that someone loves and wants to succeed in, writing is work. It’s work that I love, so I don’t mind at all. Maybe it’s my own unique definition of glamorous.

Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?

I love to be outside walking, hiking, and just enjoying fresh air and beauty. I don’t travel much, but I do enjoy traveling to see my adult daughter who lives in another state and driving to watch my son play soccer.

Does it get frustrating if you are unable to recall an idea you had in your mind some time earlier?

Forgetting a good idea is definitely frustrating. I to write my thoughts down when they occur to minimize that. My phone has a stylus for writing, and I can save my notes directly into a program called Evernote, and I can organize my thoughts into folders so I can find them easily.

Although all books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but are they really all fictional and made up?

I can’t speak about other authors and their characters, but I do know mine. All of my characters, even the main character of Behind Silent Smiles which is inspired by a true story, are fictional. That said, I do pull in tidbits of real-life people to give depth and realism to my characters and their lives.

Have you received any awards for your literary works?

Two of my novels were named to Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014 and 2016. Another received Storytellers Campfire’s Marble Book Award for being a book that makes a significant difference in the world.

How big of a part does music play in creating your “zone”?

Whether I’m writing or researching, I enjoy having background music playing. It must be instrumental, as lyrics distract me. If it’s too mellow, I fall asleep, so I play something jazzy or otherwise upbeat. It keeps me focused and increases my concentration.

If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?

Behind Silent Smiles is set partially in communist-era Romania. That was fun to write! I did extensive research on Romania and the time period. I read numerous books, articles, and blogs, and I viewed videos. I studied pictures and images. I immersed myself in Romania as much as possible without actually going there.

Do you blog?

I do blog. I write posts on my website, Wellbeing & Words, approximately once weekly. I write about tips for mental health and wellbeing, and frequently I relate the topic to something similar in a novel or nonfiction book I’ve written. I think it’s a great way of connecting with people about mental health, wellbeing, and reading.

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