Happy Birthday JT!!!!
Author Interview with Paula Hennessy
Author Interview with Paula Hennessy
1. Tell us the story behind the story. How did HARPER LEE & PEPPERMINT CANDY come to be?
I have been an RN for 30 years and have worked in many different areas of nursing throughout my career. There have been many patients whose stories have touched me over the years and have become part of the fabric of who I am and what I believe. When working with people who are in the middle of one of the most difficult times in their lives, I was greatly influenced by their bravery and/or fearfulness with which they faced these challenges. Years ago, people believed their doctors to be omnipotent. Whatever they said, or did, must be okay because they were doctors. I remember coaching patients to ask those difficult questions they peppered the nursing staff with every day only to watch them turn mute when the physician walked in. It was so frustrating to stand by and do nothing but watch as some of these people made catastrophic decisions on the basis of one person’s opinion. Very rarely, did you see someone brave enough to second guess their diagnosis, let alone ask for a second opinion. Often, the staff would resort to unprofessional behaviors to get our patients to question the people whom they viewed as untouchable. I once knew a nurse who would try to get her patients to view their physicians as humans and therefore fallible, just like the rest of us, by telling them she had gone to high school with him/her and “they used to pick their nose and listen to the Bee Gees.” She went to high school with a lot of doctors. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t. This attitude has certainly waned over the years but still persists, especially in a certain subset of the patient population. I think people are more informed now but still need that last little nudge to confirm what they already know; that what they want is the only decision to be made. I learned a lot during those years but the last 2 years of my career, working on an adolescent psychiatric unit, made the most profound impression on me. Those kids brought out every emotion I had (and some I didn’t know exited) and made me stay at the top of my game every day if I was going to survive, career wise I mean. Since the day they were born, most of these kids were destined to live behind the eight ball, either by circumstance or by genetic predisposition. To watch and listen and cheer them on as they clawed their way out or (much worse) deal with them when they had already given up, demanded from the staff talents and skills we didn’t even know we possessed. I was coming up on my second year (of course, right when I had hit my groove) that the hospital instituted a mandatory flu shot policy. I am unable to receive the flu shot because both of my parents died of Lou Gehrig’s disease which is, as my internist likes to say and I loathe hearing, unprecedented. If I have a motor neuron disease lurking somewhere in my genetic makeup that is being successfully suppressed by my own immune system, the flu shot could potentially wake it up. It is a chance I am not willing to take. The choice was made for me: I had to retire. Unfortunately, my retirement happened to coincide with an idea that had been knocking around in my head that if we could get these kids to read literature, books that would introduce them to characters that faced and overcame adversities much like those they were facing, the benefits could be enormous. Being an avid reader myself, I understand the power of a good story and wanted to share this with the kids. And what a better way than a book club? So the melding of the 2 stories, a grandmother facing the end of her life and her granddaughter trying to find a way to begin hers, found their way together in something I had hoped to accomplish before I left; introducing the therapeutic benefits of reading. Reading could fill those gaps in therapy so easily, without a lot of fanfare (i.e. money), and promote socialization as well, which is so important for these kids. When I came home that last day, devastated because I had to leave the kids and staff I had grown so close to, my husband said “So now are you going to write that book you’ve been taking about?” So, I did.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of writing HARPER LEE & PEPPERMINT CANDY?
Getting over the idea that since I wasn’t a writer, I couldn’t possibly write a book. I finally got over this hurdle one day, quite by accident. While watching a tennis match on television, the thought struck me that just because you can’t play tennis like Serena Williams, does that mean you shouldn’t play? Also, I bought the book On Writing by Stephen King, who stresses that anyone, no matter your age, background, or circumstances can write a book if you have a story to tell.
3. What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?
There are a couple of messages I was trying to convey in Harper Lee. Always, always ask questions from those professionals treating you and your family. Don’t be afraid to do what you think is right for you, no matter what others say or conventional wisdom dictates. Reading for this next generation is of vital importance in the instant gratification world in which they reside. Reading is interactive; it requires you to think more creatively, use our brains to process words and meanings and expands our world even if we are unable or unwilling to leave our own surroundings. Finally, I believe that dying well is just as important as living well, and with proper planning (unless it is an unexpected occurrence) it can be a profoundly meaningful experience for both the person who is dying and those around them.
4. Describe your background.
I attended and graduated from Miami University in 1983. I have lived my entire life in Cincinnati, Ohio and have been married to my husband, Tim, for 27 years and we have 3 children: Max, 22, a senior in college and will be attending medical school next year after a year of research. Olivia, 20, a junior in college and majoring in interior design/architecture. And Meredith, 17, a senior in high school who is a model for agencies in New York and Los Angeles and will be living in Europe this summer and moving to LA in the fall. Yes, that last apple fell incredibly far from the tree.
5. Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits?
I can only write during the day when no one is home. I get distracted even if someone is walking around downstairs because, basically, I am a stenographer for the characters residing inside my head. I can’t have television or even music on when I am writing. I never outline and my characters constantly surprise me with what they will say or do next. In fact, the ending of Harper Lee and Peppermint Candy was far from what I had envisioned. And, oh yes, from some reason I have to have a scented candle burning.
6. What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
Anything and everything. My son once estimated, without explaining the math, that I’ve probably read over 3,000 books in my lifetime. Currently I am reading the second Josh Bazell (love his characters).
7. Which authors inspire you?
Harper Lee, Stephen King, Wally Lamb, Sylvia Plath, Alice Sebold, Laura Hillenbrand, Mary Karr, Amy Tan, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Elie Wiesel and countless numbers of others.
8. What have you learned from this experience?
What I’ve always told my kids both on the unit and at home: nothing is as good or as bad as it seems.
9. What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t let fear of your inadequacies (real or imagined) stand in your way of doing something you’ve always wanted to do. It doesn’t have to be great to be an accomplishment; just finished. And read; a lot.
10. What are you working on now?
I am working on the “sequel” to Harper Lee and Peppermint Candy”. I put sequel is parenthesis because it takes place 6 years after the original and only the main characters from my first book make an appearance. I also have a new character who takes up the mantle being the vehicle on which I use to throw out my ideas on social issues that affect kids today.