Emma Pierce PhD – Voice of the Witness

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

It is a novel based on fact. It is called Voice of the Witness and tells the story of 6 people, all suffering a mental illness. They come together and decide to meet regularly for the company; to share their lives; to exchange practical ideas of what does and does not help them cope with their illness/lives. None of them believes that recovery from their illness is possible. In spite of that, they all slowly but surely recover. By the time the book ends all are psychologically sound and four are completely free of medication. The last two are obviously going to be free in a very short time. The book is based on fact – facts gathered from 38 years of working in self-help groups – right at the coalface of mental health care.

Tell us something about yourself.

I am an Australian who left a Catholic convent boarding school at the age of 15 – very unworldly and ‘green around the gills’. I am now 66 years of age. I have five children and 9 grandchildren. I was ‘diagnosed’ with a mental illness in 1965. Until 1972 I did not believe that recovery was possible, but encountered a self and mutual help group that changed all that. By 1974 I was fully recovered; ceased all medication; took my five children and left a disastrous marriage to battle the storms of single parenting a daughter and four sons – eternally grateful that I recovered my sanity before leaving the situation that had contributed so much to my disintegration. Recovering in the same environment in which one broke down is difficult, but disperses a lot of potential phobias.

I have been writing for as long as I was old enough to hold a pencil. Indeed I wrote my way down and my up from mental illness. That gave me the foundation for my first book Ordinary Insanity – my autobiography of recovery. In 1984 I published the book myself and by that time, since I had qualified in the intervening years as a journalist, I knew how to get a mountain of free publicity. On too many TV interviews I was counteracted by psychiatrists who said I was an enigma; my experience was incidental and anecdotal; I did not understand the issues involved in mental health care – how could I? I did not have the academic credentials. In 1993 I decided to go out and get the academic credentials. I entered the field of theology simply because my experience told me that was where the healing answers lay. I now have a PhD in Theology (awarded by the Australian Catholic University in 2007). My dissertation I called A Practical Theology of Mental Health: a critical conversation between Theology, Psychology, Pastoral Care and the voice of the Witness.

What inspired you to write this book?

There is a mountain of misinformation disseminated about mental illness. While much of this misinformation is the product of a rigidly intellectual approach to understanding what it means to be human, the more philosophical sciences – like theology – speak a language that may carry more truth about the subject, but is beyond the reach of the ordinary lay person – what I call ‘academic ivory-tower’ stuff. I wanted to tell a story that brought theology into the realms of the ordinary where most people would not even recognise it as theology. I used facts gathered over 38 years to place in ordinary reference frames what my studies had given me in academic reference frames. The fit was perfect!

How did you choose the title?

From the ‘meat’ of my doctoral dissertation. Mental illness is the one human experience where the last voice heard – and heard only through the filter of the analyst’s interpretation – is given no credibility; not even the credibility due to the voice of experience.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

This is the 12th book I have written, and strangely enough the only one where I did not encounter any obstacles. The first publisher (Strategic Book Publishing) to whom I submitted accepted it. The other books are all self-published – at great expense! I’ve wondered if the PhD gave me the ‘in’.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I cannot remember a time when I did not know I was a writer. I approached a newspaper editor about 12 months after my marriage broke up. He read some of my writings, said he would love to employ me but could not. (I wanted the full educational procedure for the full qualification). He could only employ me as a cadet journalist and I was too old and required too large a wage to make that possible. I went away and thought about that, then approached him again saying he could engaged me as a freelance in financial terms, but still enter me on his books as a cadet so that I could fully embrace the educational procedure. That is how we did it. I finally qualified and was given an ‘A’ grading.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Definitely! Now that I am no longer in paid employment I rise at 4am and write until about 10am. Then I shower, dress, have breakfast, do the daily chores and at 2pm I have what my grandchildren call a ‘nanna nap’. I rise again at around 5pm, cook dinner and watch a little TV or read. At 10pm I write again until around midnight. I find at my age I need very little sleep, and indeed with the two ‘sleep breaks’ I get plenty.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

Most are based on a real person and I choose a name similar to the real person. For example ‘Mary’ might become ‘Miriam’. Sometime I pluck a name right out of the air – the first one that comes to mind.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

Yes! I learned that the characters you create are in a very real sense ‘characters’. You cannot make them do anything you want them to do. They take on a life of their own; they will not behave out of character. Sometimes that leaves you caught up in a sort of ‘mystery process’ where you do not know where your own book is taking you. You must simply follow the characters to their own conclusion. If you do not allow them to think their own thoughts and follow their own decisions, they become unreal, ‘cardboard characters’ with little to say about reality. Some of the ‘editing’ offered I rejected because some of the ‘alternate’ phraseology did not fit the character. I explained this to the Editor who then graciously agreed and left it alone.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Save up a hell of a lot more money for the purposes of marketing and promoting the book. After so many previous books I should have known better!

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

Theology of course. But I love a good murder mystery. Strangely my favourite author is Charles Dickens, who only ever wrote one murder mystery, then died before he finished it. I’ve never quite forgiven him for that! I love him because he began life as a court reporter who saw the incredible injustice and exploitation of children the English aristocracy simply refused to see. Dickens wrote his books in such a way that he did not challenge and threaten those exploiting children; he touched their consciences – and made a huge difference! Other authors I love are Grahame Green, Jane Austen and David Malouf.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

Yes. My next book is a sequel to the last one. There is a wealth of human wisdom and beauty displayed by those said to be mentally ill. If understood, it might make society look at itself and see – and perhaps heal – its own societal schizophrenia.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

The first thing you need is an ‘audience’. Write your book ‘to’ a target group – or even a single person. If you try to write a book for ‘everybody’ you will end up writing a book for nobody. Don’t make an issue of the beginning. Many potentially good books never get written because the author gets stuck with the ‘perfect’ beginning. Yes, the beginning has to be good; it has to ‘grab’ the reader in the first paragraph or so. But you are writing to say something worth saying – not to write a startling ‘first paragraph’. Start wherever you are comfortable; wherever the thoughts flow. You can always go back to the beginning. When it is finished, you’ll need a good synopsis to interest a publisher. It’s not a bad idea to ask a ‘book loving’ friend to read the book and write a review. That review can be the basis of a good synopsis.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The thoughtful person with an interest in human life formation. That might be the friends and/or relatives of a mentally ill person. It might be a mentally ill person. It should certainly be mental health professionals interested in genuine healing for the mentally ill. It might also be professionals interested in spirituality that is courageous enough to ask the existential questions that transcend institutionalised religions.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

I have a blog site (hate that word ‘blog’). As well as ‘blogs’ there are links to several academic papers I have written, including my doctorate. There is also a link (under “Books”) to an aStore (Amazon) where that book and a few others are listed. The URL address is: http://www.ordinarysanity.blogspot.com/