Writing fiction, especially women's fiction, can be all about getting into the heads of characters. It's hard to think of a better profession for knowing what goes on inside peoples' minds than being a psychologist.
Elena Mikalsen writes novels about love, but she's also a pediatric psychologist. Her most recent novel, The House by the Cypress Trees, is a whirlwind romance wrapped in a love letter to Italy.
One might argue that romance blooms as much in the mind as in the body, so Elena's professional background puts her in an elevated position to craft her characters. As a writer, this makes me jealous, and I had questions.
Jennifer Klepper: What you do as a pediatric psychologist?
Elena Mikalsen: I work at a Children’s Hospital and I am a Medical School Professor. I diagnose and treat severe mental illness in children and teens, for example, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or Trichotillomania. I consult with physicians in multiple specialties to help them treat psychological disorders that can manifest as medical, for example: fainting or vocal cord dysfunction or nonepileptic seizures. Finally, I help kids with chronic medical illness, such as cancer or lupus.
JK: While you provide consultations with other authors who write characters with mental health challenges, your own books (to date) do not focus on these topics. Should we expect to see you bring your professional life experiences into future novels?
EM: I don’t write about mental illness directly, but one or more of my characters always do struggle with some form of mental illness or psychological challenges. Most people in the real world do, so it’s hard to create characters without a psychological challenge. My first book, Wrapped in the Stars, actually focused on the topic of traumatic grief, which is a form of PTSD. My main character struggled with traumatic grief brought on by the death of her sister and then the death of her patient and one of the patients she treated suffered so much from traumatic grief she stopped eating (this was an actual case from my practice). My second book that’s coming out this September, The House by the Cypress Trees, touches on grief of losing a parent and on the topic of coping with being adopted and searching for a family. My next book, All the Silent Voices, which is coming out in December of this year, will focus heavily on the aftermath of sexual assault and on PTSD.
JK: What do your co-workers and patients think of your alter ego life as a novelist?
EM: I have recently had quite a few teen girls come to see me for the first time specifically stating that they chose me as their doctor because they read I was a published author and they love to write stories. So, I’ve been able to use their creativity in therapy and it’s been great. Of course, I don’t write fiction for children, so I have to caution their parents not let them read my books. They are adult books strictly.I don’t advertise being an author at my job at all. My two lives are very separate. I hold an administrative and teaching role at my job and I am extremely busy, and, honestly, it never comes up. I hardly ever have time to chat at work about any aspect of my personal life.
JK: Your writing is infused with travel. Do you get to travel for work, or is writing the true outlet for your wanderlust?
EM: Travel for my job is usually very boring and is only to cities I have already been too. My wanderlust is always for exciting places. So, I travel with my family extensively. We go somewhere exciting at least twice a year. We just returned from Ireland and we are off to Central America in December.
JK: What super powers do you have as a writer as a result of your professional training as a pediatric psychologist?
EM: I can create characters in minutes and I can understand villains really well. I know what motivates people and I know how people react in different situations depending on who they are. Psychologists don’t need to rely on Myers-Briggs or archetypes or anything like that.
JK: If you could do a Freaky Friday swap with someone for a week to try out a different job, what (or who) would that be?
EM: I am currently obsessed with learning about architecture for my current novel and my second novel featured an architect, so I am definitely choosing an architect for this one. My desk is covered in books on architecture. Although, I would also love to spend a day in a law office or in a detective’s office, because I have a new love for writing thrillers.
You can learn more about Elena and her books here.