LEAVING THE HALL LIGHT ON
Interview with Madeline Sharples
Author bio: During her 30-year professional career, Madeline Sharples worked as a technical writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business and wrote grant proposals in the nonprofit arena. She started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer in the last few years. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and re-released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things in 2012.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems appear online and in print magazines, recently in the Story Circle Network True Words series, the 2016 Porter Gulch Review, and the Yellow Chair Review’s 2016 ITWOW (In the Words of Womyn) anthology.
Madeline’s articles have appeared in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, Aging Bodies, and PsychAlive. She also posts at her blog, Choices and is currently writing a novel. In addition, she produced a CD of her son’s music called Paul Sharples at the Piano, as a fundraiser to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. It was released on the fifthteenth anniversary of his death in September 2014.
Madeline studied journalism in high school, wrote for the high school newspaper, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and received a B.A. degree in English from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Brief synopsis of your book: Leaving the Hall Light On is about living after loss: first and foremost that she chose to live and go on with life and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, writer. It is about the steps Sharples took in living with the loss of her son, including making use of diversions to help ease her grief and the milestones she met toward living a full life without him. She says, “to let ourselves grieve is to feel the depth of our love. For those whose children have died, that may take the rest of our lives, but we will discover the gifts of our loss in the process.”
Leaving the Hall Light On shares several aspects of her son's illness and how she and her husband, and their other son, Ben, survived Paul's suicide, as it:
· Describes the frustration, anger, and guilt of trying to care for an adult child with mental illness
· Gives mothers and fathers who have experienced a child's death ways to get out of the deep dark hole they are in
· Tells people the realities of mental illness
· Describes the steps Sharples took in living with this loss; the first and foremost that she chose to live and go on with life and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, writer
· Shows readers that grief is love in action. To let ourselves grieve is to feel the depth of our love for as long as it takes. For those of us whose children have died, that may take the rest of our lives, but we will discover the gifts of our loss in the process.
Book title: Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide
What moment or event sparked the inspiration for your memoir?
My son’s bipolar disorder that resulted in his suicide at age twenty-seven. I journaled about my experience of losing my son to suicide and wrote about it ad nauseum in a workshop I started attending shortly after his death. The encouragement I received from my instructor and other workshop attendees finally convinced me that I needed to get my story out to the public.
What would you say are three things that you found to be the most difficult part of writing a memoir.
1) Writing about the other characters in the book: my husband and surviving son and my deceased son’s girlfriend
2) Being respectful of my son’s memory
3) Writing our story about my son’s mental illness and the mental illness that ran rampant in my family in the most honest way I could
Were there any issues you dealt with in real life that you hesitated to discuss in your memoir?
My memoir is pretty raw. I told the whole story in vivid detail. That’s what I think is important about memoir. It shouldn’t be a glossed over account like so many celebrities write these days.
What if any lessons did you learn writing this book?
No matter how much advice and editing help I had throughout the process, I realized in the end that this was my book and I could accept or reject the help as I saw fit.
What is probably the most difficult thing you overcame as you grew up?
I was very chubby from the ages of four to twelve. Fortunately my baby fat disappeared naturally during my puberty.
Was there any warning signals that you or family learned to be alerted to?
I would say no. My father and brother ridiculed me and called me names, and my mother didn’t buy me clothes that looked good on me.
What main words of support would you offer to those dealing with emotional illness in their family?
Don’t tell people who are grieving how or how long to grieve. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. For some the grieving is never over.
Genre/Author/Reader and the process:
What genre and age group does your book fall into?
Memoir for teenage and up.
What was the most difficult part of sharing such an emotional experience and loss?
It was hard for me to even read what I wrote. When my second publisher asked me to review it one last time for typos, I did it kicking and screaming. It was one of the hardest assignments of my life.
However, I felt if my book helps just one family get through what my family has been through, it was worth it.
Could you recommend three places or links where people could go to look for help?
1) Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services—transforms lives by providing quality mental health and substance abuse services in communities where stigma or poverty limits access
4760 S. Sepulveda Boulevard Culver City, CA 90230
2) National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)—dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness
3803 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington VA 22203
3) The Compassionate Friends—for bereaved families and the people who care about them, following the death of a child
900 Jorie Boulevard P.O. Box 3696 Oak Brook, IL 60522-3696
Suicide Prevention and Stigma Prevention Blogs
Never Lose Hope: Keep Holding On, Love
Sources of Strength
Connecting Peers and Caring Adults
We All Want to Help
Time to Change
How many books have you written?
What would you tell others about acceptance instead of blame?
I felt a lot of guilt after my son died. I couldn’t help blaming myself for not doing something to prevent his suicide. But looking back – and I think people will see this in my book – I really did help him as much as he would let me. It just takes a lot of time to accept what is. Even now after over seventeen years, I still blame myself. I know for sure this and my grief will never go away.
Are there any precautions you must take in writing a memoir, such as sharing too much or sharing not enough?
Be careful about writing about other people beside yourself, especially if you’re going to use their real names. I changed names for some people I wrote about in my memoir and gave others drafts to look at and approve.
I am also an advocate of sharing a lot of the details. It certainly wouldn’t have been worthwhile to write my memoir with less. However, my niece remarked after reading my book that there was too much information for her – she probably was referring to the intimate material I wrote about my husband and me.
I had other issues as well since I chose to include quotes from others. It’s important to get permission to use them, and that takes a lot of time. And in one instance I had to pay to use a quote.
If you were to recommend anything to someone planning on writing a memoir, what would it be?
It Takes a Village to Write a Book: Even though writing is a lonely business, a village of resources helped and nurtured me from the time I started writing my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On. I started with journaling, at first sporadically and later, after reading and doing the exercises in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (Putnam’s Sons, 1992), I wrote my morning pages, not missing a day of keeping my fingers moving across the pages of my journal.
After amassing about three years worth of journal entries I began to think about turning them into a book. But, I was not a creative writer. My writing experience consisted of writing, editing, and training engineers on reports and proposals in the aerospace industry. So I went back to school to learn.
I took fiction, essay, and memoir writing classes through UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. The people from my first fiction class formed a writing group, meeting monthly, sharing and gently critiquing each other’s writing.
A member of that group spoke lovingly about Jack Grapes of the Los Angeles Poet’s and Writer’s Collective, who taught classes in the living room of his family home. Three months after Paul died I enrolled in Jack’s level one method writing class, and for five years I worked my way up the level ladder, ending with a poetry editing class. Many of the poems I wrote in the Grapes class are also in my memoir.
When I finally amassed enough material, I had no idea how to put it together. Luckily my son Ben introduced me to a former literary agent who reviewed my work, gave me writing prompts, and suggested I structure my book based on the sequence of poems in my poetry manuscript. Though the book went through several changes later on, her suggestions formed my book’s organization. Because I based my book on my list of poems I was adamant that my poems appear in the book, and fortunately my publisher agreed and even asked me to add more.
Once I had a draft manuscript – edited by a woman referred to me by one of my memoir-writing instructors – I started querying. Again through an introduction from Ben, a CEO of a small press critiqued and advised me on my query letter and book proposal – I used How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). And once I found my dream publisher, I spent months revising my book. I relied on techniques I learned while working on proposals and a group of readers, editors, and reviewers who worked with me until my book was published.
My village generously helped me write my book.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned, either in the self-publishing or traditional publisher, route?
Be perseverant. Don’t give up. I sent out 68 query letters before I found my publisher – a small press. Also be confident in your writing. You are the last red pen. You have the last say about its content. You’ll know when you’re finished and ready to market it. Good luck.
What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most?
I like the organizing and the actual writing. Revision and marketing are much harder to do and take more time.
What are your thoughts about the decline of the printed novel?
It makes me sad. I love reading real books – either hardback or paperback. And I regularly buy books at our local independent bookstore, Pages. Even though I have an eBook version of my memoir for sale for $2.99, I still would rather go to book signings and sell printed copies of my book. That said, I do buy eBooks as well. Especially when I’m asked to review books for virtual blog tours of my fellow authors.
Do you have any ideas for your book and Hollywood? Actors, directors, music.
Jane Fonda as the main character (me), and my son Ben, who is an actor, playing himself. My deceased son Paul was a very talented jazz composer and pianist. I would want his music as the theme song with sprinkles of John Lennon, Miles Davis, and J.S. Bach throughout the film.
Which book to movie conversion is your favorite?
Gone with the Wind
What do you hope readers will come away with, after reading your story?
I think these few testimonials will answer this question:
“Anyone who wants to learn how to live with children or adults with bipolar disorder, must read this book.”
“I could imagine that this book might be helpful for those dealing with bipolar disease or suicide in the family, but for those of us fortunate enough not to have yet experienced those problems, it also provides a very real look into how good but human people deal with the cruelty of fate.”
“I am still struggling with the passing of my son, Justin, 34 weeks ago and this book offered me hope that my grief can soften and my life can continue on.”
“As the mother of a suicide I can relate to so many of her comments. I hope her book will become a source for others who are attempting to cope with bipolar disorder and what suicide does to the family left behind….”
“I highly recommend this to anyone who is ready to explore their deepest feelings.”
“The book is incredibly moving and has much to teach anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. Or suffering any kind of loss—what she learns along the way can be applied to so much that people go through.”
What lesson do you think we can all learn about love?
Love doesn’t die when a loved one dies. My memories and writing them down have helped keep my son and my love for him alive.
If you had one do over in life, what would it be?
That I had given Paul a big hug the last night I saw him alive. Maybe that would have produced the serotonin he needed to bounce out of his depression and not kill himself.
What and who first inspired you to write?
I’ve been a writer of some sort since grade school (inspired by my seventh grade teacher), although I only began concentrating on creative writing in the mid 1990s. I wrote for my high school newspaper, studied journalism in college, and worked for years and years as a writer and editor on reports, brochures, and proposals, and most recently websites in the aerospace industry. I also have written many funded grant proposals. But creative writing is my love – especially poetry. That began almost spontaneously during a writing workshop at Esalen in Big Sur, CA, in the late 1990s, and I’ve been writing poetry ever since.
Current book or project you’re working on:
I’m working on a historical novel. An editor is currently reviewing it. I’m hoping to get some good constructive advice on how to proceed with it or else be told I should shelve it and start something else.
And recently I put together a poetry manuscript and a chapbook to submit to contests.
I always have articles to write for my own blog and the Naturally Savvy website where I’m the Over 60 editor.
Drink – red zinfandel wine
Food – avocado
Vacation – African safari
TV show – Downton Abbey
Movie – The Red Shoes
Animal – None
Sport – Tennis
Song – Unchained Melody
Comedy – Veep
Struggle – erasing the stigma of mental illness and helping to prevent suicide
How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/madeline.t.sharples; https://www.facebook.com/Madeline.Sharples/
Where can readers find your book?
Pages a bookstore (Manhattan Beach)