Interview with Author Emma Pivato by Melissa Brooks
Emma Pivato is a retired academic and psychologist. She is the author of the Claire Burke Mysteries. I interviewed her to find out more about her writing, her inspiration, and what she is currently working on.
1. Have you always been interested in writing?
I did not write stories as a child. While an undergraduate I wrote some poetry and published it in our university paper. I continued to compose poetry during my first year of professional work but during that period of my life I was still on my own and writing out my thoughts seemed to take the place of having someone around I could talk to whenever I wanted.
Throughout my career, I published various academic and advocacy articles and a book of life writing about families coping with a child with disabilities. However, it was only in my late sixties that I began writing fiction and composed the six books that currently comprise the Claire Burke series. I have spent the last two years writing a memoir. It is now complete, and I am currently working on book 7 in my mystery series. Almost all of my academic and creative writing relates to developmental disability in one way or another.
2. What inspired you to start writing mysteries?
For all of my adult life I have enjoyed reading mystery stories. I far prefer cozy mysteries to any other type because I do not want to read about blood and gore nor get involved too deeply in other people’s hurts and losses. I have my own to cope with and that is enough for me. What I like and what I have endeavored to recreate in my books is interesting, believable characters who are not just comic book creatures but have some depth. I also like solving s good puzzle when I read or creating one when I write. Puzzles of any kind have always intrigued me. And, as with most of the situations in my life over the past 40 years, I search out venues where I can include, and render visible and worthy of respect, people with disabilities, especially those who are most profoundly affected like my daughter.
3. What is your writing process like? How does writing a story start for you?
My story lines often start in the shower for some reason, or else in bed at night just before I fall asleep. The setting usually comes first and relates to something I know. In the story I am currently writing, for example, the murder takes place in a gym, and I am very familiar with that type of setting as regular gym attendance is an important part of my lifestyle. My characters are derived from people I have known in my personal and professional life as a psychologist but with traits mixed in from book characters I have known and from my knowledge of personality theory.
I find it difficult to write much in my home environment as there is always something going on that can or must distract me from the writing process. Several times a year I run away for a week at a time to a Super 8 motel in a neighboring town where I can work in peace.
4. Do you get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Not as well as I would like. I would not say that focus and self-discipline are two of
my most sterling qualities exactly! I scratch down stuff on bits of paper at odd moments and then one morning I wake up and realize I have too many bits and need to sit down at my computer to capture them in some coherent, integrated form. Then I usually get going again and can carry on from there.
5. What led you to having characters with disabilities as a focus in your stories?
When I found out that my younger daughter had been born with multiple and severe disabilities, both my personal and professional lives took a complete U-turn. I switched my academic focus from giftedness to disability and in my personal life I found myself gravitating towards others who shared the journey of raising a disabled child rather than towards fellow academics. I retrained as an assessment psychologist and largely focused my subsequent professional work on children and adults with disabilities. I solicited and edited a collection of stories from Alberta parents coping with children with disabilities and my first book, Different Hopes, Different Dreams: Stories About the Impact of a Mentally Handicapped Child on Family Life, was published in 1984 with a second, enlarged edition in 1990
Through both my advocacy and professional work I have come to know many different people with significant levels of disability and it was only natural for me to write about them for two reasons. 1. The general advice to aspiring writers is to write about what you know. 2. I have seen through the years that, despite all our advocacy work and consciousness raising, people with disabilities, especially those with severe and profound levels of disability, are still largely invisible to the general public. I wanted to do my bit to help change that.
6. How did your career as a psychologist contribute to your writing?
As I have said, because of my career choice I had the opportunity to work with many different individuals with various types of disability. I also worked with emotionally disturbed children and adults and intellectually normal children who came from dysfunctional family backgrounds. In my later career years, I switched my focus to community psychology and developed a special interest in personality disorders. All of this varied experience has provided me with a rich body of material to draw on as a writer.
7. How did the character of Claire Burke develop as you wrote her?
I needed to draw on my own experience of being confronted with a daughter with profound disabilities and the coping methods I developed but Claire certainly has qualities that I would like to have but do not: she is very daring and single minded, for example. But some of her other qualities I do possess: being persistent but impatient for things to happen and being impulsive and second-guessing herself. I think to develop any character the writer has to draw from qualities he or she has observed in others as well as from life experience so no written character exactly replicates a particular person.
8. Are you working on anything right now?
For the past two years, I have been working on a memoir, and I recently finished it. The working title is Alexis and Me: A Journey Through the World of Profound Disability. Over the past year, I have been slowly working on a 7th Claire Burke novel and have a good start on it. The murder takes place in a gym where Claire has belatedly decided to start shaping up.