activist. The book, “The Comet’s Tale: A Novel about Sojourner
Truth,” was a critical but not a commercial success.
When her second novel, “Lost & Found,” was published in
2007, it made The New York Times best-seller list. Her success
has allowed Sheehan to write full time, after many years of
balancing writing with counseling center jobs and then with a
part-time private psychotherapy practice.
But she hasn’t left psychology behind entirely.
In “Lost & Found” and its sequel, Sheehan draws directly on
her psychology training. The main character is a psychologist
named Rocky who leaves her job at a college counseling center
and moves to small-town Maine after her husband’s death.
Another character is a teen girl who battles anorexia. “Almost
everything I learned about that I learned from the patients
sitting in front of me,” Sheehan says.
Insights into human behaviors
In his laboratory at the University
Oatley, PhD, has
found that reading
fiction can be
more than just a
— it may actually
affect readers’ personalities,
increasing their empathy and
social skills. In one 2006 study, for
example, he and colleagues found that people who read more
fiction are better able than non-readers to accurately guess
another person’s emotional state from a photo, and are also
better able to grasp what’s going on in a 15-second video clip of
a social interaction.
Such findings make sense, Oatley says, since fiction is really
about “selves in the social world.” Just as reading non-fiction
books on genetics or astronomy teaches a person about those
subjects, reading fiction gives readers insights into why people
act the way they do, by delving into characters’ emotions and
motivations in all sorts of situations.
Oatley’s interest in fiction is more than academic. In
addition to his scholarly work, he’s published three novels.
The first, “The Case of Emily V.,” imagines what would have
happened if Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes had both
worked on a case in which a young woman’s psychoanalysis
and a real-life murder intersect. The novel won the 1994
Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first novel. A second
novel, “A Natural History,” is set in the mid-19th century and
follows a physician trying to solve the mystery of cholera. His
most recent novel, “Therefore Choose,” published in 2010, is
about a love triangle among three friends in Germany and
England on the eve of World War II.
Until his retirement a few years ago, Oatley mainly worked
on his novels during summer breaks. “I’ve found that the bits
of my mind that were involved in teaching turned out to be the
same ones involved in writing, so I just got into a muddle. I’ve
only been able to do these things in lumps.”
Now officially retired, he continues to work on both his re-
search and his novel writing. He also runs an online magazine on
the psychology of fiction called OnFiction. His favorite metaphor,
he says, is to think of novels as a kind of “flight simulator.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, if you’re flying a real
plane, nothing extraordinary happens. So if you’re learning to
fly, you’ll probably spend some time in a flight simulator [to
practice and learn about situations that haven’t happened to
you in the real world]. Fiction is the mind’s flight simulator.”
Making time for her passion
Maryka Biaggio, PhD, works on her novels every Monday
through Friday morning — and some weekends, too. She
devotes the rest of her workweek to her consulting business,
helping shepherd psychology doctoral and internship programs
through the accreditation process.
Her disciplined schedule has paid off. Last year, Biaggio
published her first novel, “Parlor Games,” a work of historical
fiction based on the real life of a turn-of-the-century con artist
and extortionist named May Dugas.
Success came after more than a
decade. “It turned
out that writing a
novel was much
harder than I
thought it would
be,” she says.
is the fourth one
I’ve written. It
took three for me
Biaggio spent nearly three
decades as a clinical psychology
professor and academic
administrator at the University of
Idaho, Indiana State University and Pacific
University in Oregon. She left academia in 2004 to start her
consulting business. The move also gave her time to focus on
writing — a passion since her undergraduate literature studies.
Her novels draw on her psychological training, she says,
particularly because she works in historical fiction and bases her
characters on real people.
“‘Parlor Games’ is told in the first person,” she says. “So I
had to work to get under the skin of this person. It’s really the
ultimate in empathy.”