My life in a nutshell

My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel is the story of one man's struggles with debilitating anxiety. Brian Cunningham has isolated himself to such a degree that his human contact is barely more than an hour a day. While lonely, he feels powerless to change his life. Unexpectedly, his safe little world is invaded by one Abigail Harris, a seven-year-old girl who, for the last five years, has bounced from foster home to foster home. She has come to live with an aunt and uncle she has never known. Unsure if she can trust her new environment, she turns to Brian. Neither one quite knows how to live in the world. Can they possibly help each other?


About the author

Tanya J. Peterson holds a Bachelor of Science in secondary education, Master of Science in counseling, and is a Nationally Certified Counselor. She has been a teacher and a counselor in various settings, including a traditional high school and an alternative school for homeless and runaway adolescents, and she has volunteered her services in both schools and communities. Peterson is an active volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and she is a regular columnist for the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog on

She draws on her education, experience, and personal background with bipolar 1 disorder and anxiety to write stories about the psychological aspect of the human condition, specifically mental illness and the impact it has on human beings. Her goal is to change the way the world thinks about mental illness and the people who live with it. 

Peterson believes that fiction is a powerful vehicle for teaching fact. Further, she knows that people empathize with characters in novels, and commonly they transfer their empathy to real-life human beings. To that end, she has published Leave of Absence, My Life in a Nutshell, and the YA novel Losing Elizabeth.  Additionally, she has published Challenge!, a short story about a person who finds the confidence to overcome criticism and achieve a goal, and a book review of Linley and Joseph’s Positive Therapy: A Meta-Theory for Positive Psychological Practice that appeared in Counseling Today, the national publication of the American Counseling Association.

Peterson has also been interviewed on numerous radio shows, given presentations on mental illness and book readings nationwide, spoken on mental illness at the 2013 national conference of the Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society, Inc., and has been quoted in various articles about mental health and mental illness.




Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Mental Health Novelist, Writer, & Speaker









Welcome to the blog Tanya. Now, if you're sitting comfortably, let's get started.

Can you tell us what prompted you to first start writing? What was the first thing you wrote?

I loved to write since I was little (like four-ish, although of course at first it was not much more than slapping letters on a magnetic board to try to form words). I also love humanity, and I want to improve social justice, help people thrive through their difficulties, and other such things. I originally wanted to become a doctor, but I changed my mind and became first a teacher then a counselor – various helping professions. Through various ups and downs and challenges, I never lost my passion for writing. I’m happy that I finally gathered the nerve to combine both passions and now write novels that address various issues around mental illness.

The first thing I wrote was a story in second grade about animals in the forest celebrating Christmas. One person scoffed at it, and that was enough to make me toss it aside and never share my writing with the world again (aside from papers in school) until I was a grown-up. A bit silly, and a sad result of anxiety. My first novel was a story about a high school girl trapped in an abusive relationship, but that was more of a learning experience and isn’t something I take pride in. So, the first real novel I wrote was Leave of Absence, and the second one is My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel.

Can you summarise your latest work in just a few words?

A grown man, crippled by anxiety, and a young girl live lives of lonely isolation; their connection might help them both.

A burning question I have: why is it so much easier to write an entire novel than it is to summarize it? J

What was the inspiration for this book?

I write to increase both the understanding of various forms of mental illness and empathy for those who live with it. Tens of millions of people worldwide live with various anxiety disorders. It’s so common, so disruptive, and so misunderstood. I wanted to help shed some light on what it’s like for people to live with anxiety.

 Did you do any research for the book?

I did, because I love research! Yeah, I’ve always been a little strange. Seriously, while of course I want my stories to be entertaining – they’re novels, not textbooks – I also want them to be accurate. If they’re inaccurate, they’ll just perpetuate stereotypes and stigma. That’s exactly what I want to help erase. So I do a great deal of research for each novel. It does help that I’m credentialed as a nationally (US) certified counselor. It also helps that I live with mental illness, including anxiety disorders. But I still research by reading many different sources, pouring through professional material, talking to people, etc. This way, my characters and their stories are realistic and believable (I hope).

What does a typical writing day involve for you?

My ideal writing day would involve rising very early to begin to write and then writing uninterrupted until bedtime. Alas, with a husband and two kids, that doesn’t happen. I love my family, so I suppose that’s okay. What a typical writing day actually involves is digging into the various tasks of novel writing: research, brainstorming, sketching out segments and chapters, character development, and the writing itself. This takes place from beginning to end. I also am a columnist for a website called (I am a co-author of the Anxiety-Schmanxiety blog), so I have to pepper that into some of my days. I also spend time online on Facebook and Twitter hanging out and getting to know people. I’d love to claim that this has a linear progression, but my mind tends to be rather scattered, and I jump around from one task to the next and back again.

How do you decide on the names for your characters?

This might seem as strange as some of my other answers. As my characters come to life, very early in the process (because for me, writing and reading are all about the characters), I spend time with them in my mind, and they create themselves with me. I always get a feeling of what their names should start with. Always. Then I peruse “name” websites, reading lists of names that start with the given letter, and the name will jump out at me when I get to the right one. So, in My Life in a Nutshell, the B became Brian, the A became Abigail, and so forth. See? Strange.

Which writers have influenced your own writing?

I’ve been thinking hard about this one. I think the best answer I can give is that I can’t specifically list some over others. I love to read, and I’ve read many things. There are some things I read that I deeply admire, either for their character development, their theme, their storyline, etc. And there are other things I read that I find irritating (but I know that that is just one reader’s opinion), also for the same reasons. In reading, I absorb what I want to do and what I do not want to do. Basically, every author I’ve read has affected my in one way or another.

What are you working on next? Do you have a WIP?

I do have a WIP! I’m happily working away on a third novel. Of course it exists in the world of psychology, mental illness, and understanding, empathy, and connection. This one, still untitled, follows a family as they grapple with a new diagnosis. (I won’t reveal too much!)

What has been the best part of the writing process…and the worst?

Oh, without a doubt, the best part is playing with my characters and keeping them with me always. My stories are very character-driven, and I love being so close to them throughout the process.

The worst? I’d have to say that the worst part is not being able to write when I want to. I swear I’m addicted. There are so many times when that’s all I want to do, and I hate it when I can’t. Addictions aren’t exactly healthy, so I try to be okay with those times when I can’t write. (It’s easier because I have my characters in my head and in my heart no matter what I’m doing.)

Tell us about your travels.

Sadly, I’m not the most well-traveled person on this planet. I’ve been to Mexico, but it was only to a resort so I didn’t get to fully experience Mexico. My husband and I have been on two Caribbean cruises that were very enjoyable. My son and I travelled to Boston and Philadelphia last summer (my daughter was in a small village outside of Paris at the time, so her travel is more exotic) to experience a bit of American history. Very fun, but I got stress- and anxiety-induced hives after making the scary drive from Boston to Philly through New York City at night. We’ve been to Disney World several times. While the Disney trips were amazing, I will forever feel guilty because I ruined Goofy and all things magical/fantastical for my son when I said to my daughter, with him in earshot, that the people in the costumes must be really hot. He was crushed to learn that they were costumes. I’m an idiot.

Tell us about your childhood.

I am lucky in that I had a good childhood. It certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary or exotic or anything, but it was nice. I had a loving family – two parents and a younger brother. I had a guinea pig for a while! We did a lot of camping. I think that’s what inspired me to camp with my kids. When I was a kid, though, we used a camper. My kids and I use a tent. My brother and I got along pretty well for siblings. I think he learned not to mess with me when he was three and I used my jump rope to tie him to my doll stroller and act as a horse for my dolls. If he just would have done it right, he wouldn’t have tumbled down the steps. It was clearly his fault. And years later, he didn’t mind those steps when we jumped from the top to the bean bag at the bottom – until the bean bag burst and caused a snowstorm in the basement. That is my childhood in a nutshell.

Most writers have some quirks – what are yours?

I think a more appropriate question is what aren’t my quirks! I really do have a lot of them. J I can be really scattered and have almost every symptom of ADHD; however, it’s not quite ADHD because those symptoms are part of the mania of bipolar disorder, which I have. That alone has an entire set of quirks, and those have been pretty pesky in my life. I can also hyper-focus on things, such as my writing. I think that’s one reason I love writing. I can get lost in it, and while I’m writing (fiction way more so than my non-fiction articles), I can develop a flow and all my other racing thoughts quiet. It’s a very peaceful experience.

Do you plot your novels or allow them to develop as you write?

Definitely both! I always have a sense of purpose and theme and character from the very beginning. I also sketch out the general progression of the characters’ story. I don’t want the story to feel like it’s meandering from beginning to end. But I also don’t want it to feel forced into a box. So I give my characters breathing room and their story the space to round out and develop as I go. I use binders for my writing, and I have various sections (characters, research, settings, and many more), and I constantly take notes and integrate them into the story as I go.

Have you taken any creative writing courses and would you recommend them?

Creative writing courses don’t work for me. I’ve taken a few in workshop settings, but I haven’t liked any of them. It’s not the fault of the course, as there were always participants who raved over the courses. It’s merely a personal preference. To me, they stifle and inhibit my ability to write because they make me think too much about the mechanics of the process. When that happens, my writing feels stiff, canned. Truly, though, that’s just me. I’d say people should learn in ways that work for them. I have lots of learning and growth ahead of me, but not in creative writing courses.

What book(s) are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading several things right now: My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I also have an extensive TBR list, as we all probably do!  


If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take three books with you, what would they be and why?

Man! That’s not a fair question. Who can choose only three?? I think that perhaps I’d take The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, The Promise of Stardust by Pricille Sibley, and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. But of course I’m already second-guessing this list.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Follow your passions! People will say write what you know. Others will say write what’s selling right now. Others still will say that both of those pieces of advice are bad. For me, I find that writing what you love, what you are deeply passionate about, will make your writing rich and full of feeling. And readers will feel it too.

Thank you so much for the interview! I love a chance to share a little about myself and maybe even start a connection (through Facebook, Twitter, or my website). I certainly hope I didn’t scare anyone away!


You're very welcome and thanks for a fascinating interview


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JB Johnston | Reply 21.06.2014 13.21

Thanks so much for taking part today. fab interview x

Julie Ryan 21.06.2014 13.30

thanks JB - glad you liked the interview. Sounds an awesome book

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Latest comments

27.05 | 22:25

Another amazing review, dying to get my hands on this one xxx

27.05 | 20:42

probably the best new author I know....x x x x x x x

27.05 | 14:17

Great review, can't wait to read over the holiday

27.05 | 13:49

Wonderful review. Really looking forward to reading this.

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