The challenges and joys of writing with Parkinson’s

Interviews

Author: Pippa Prendergast-CoatesPublished: 3 September 2020

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We hear from acclaimed Ireland-based author and academic, Kathleen Reardon, about her “frightening” Parkinson’s diagnosis, the challenges of being a writer with the condition – and how she has adapted to keep doing what she loves


Tell us a little bit about your books – what are you currently working on?

I’ve published 10 nonfiction and two fiction books with another in the works. The nonfiction books were largely written while I was a professor and are on communication, negotiation and politics at work. The crime mysteries are set in academia. ‘Shadow Campus’ takes place at a university in Los Angeles, US, ‘Damned If She Does’ at a conference in New York City, US, and the third book in the trilogy will take place in West Cork, Ireland.

How does Parkinson’s impact your writing?

I’ve had Parkinson’s for over 15 years and it has a significant impact on my writing and editing.  Before Parkinson’s, I could read, research, teach and write for hours each day while raising my children and being social.

One of the earliest signs of the condition for me was reduced concentration. So, my first novel was published in 2013 and the second one seven years later. Fatigue, stiffness and dizziness result from writing for more than an hour at a time. For years my tremor was not highly noticeable, but now it affects word processing.

I can’t complain really. As long as I don’t overdo it, writing also has therapeutic benefits. It keeps me sharper than I’d be otherwise. And knowing that people enjoy reading the novels brings joy, as does my painting 

Author and academic, Kathleen Reardon. (Image credit: Chris O’Dell)

When were you diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after nearly three years of trying to learn what was wrong. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 and underwent intense radiation in a clinical trial. So, initially, around the age of 49, I thought changes in cognition, fatigue and balance could be indicators of a recurrence. When that didn’t appear to be the case, my doctor believed it was Parkinson’s.

I saw several leading Parkinson’s specialists but wasn’t accurately diagnosed until I met one who recognised the non-motor symptoms: facial masking, cognitive challenges, digestive issues, sleep problems and more. I’ve always been grateful to him for finally nailing it down.

How did your diagnosis impact your perspective personally and professionally?

I remember taking a battery of cognition tests and realising that my brain was not what it had been. That was upsetting. This was right after the diagnosis. It was frightening, even though I was used to medical challenges from cancer.

My professional life depended on my ability to think and write. I tried to keep teaching, but it didn’t work. Being responsive to 75 graduate students in a classroom, for example, was something I did with ease and joy prior to Parkinson’s, but it became exhausting. So, I continued to write and became a featured blogger for ‘Huffington Post’ and also wrote for ‘Big Think’, ‘The Conversation’, and ‘Thrive Global’.

I was able to learn to focus on doing whatever was necessary to stay as well as possible. My children were only seven, nine and eleven at that point, so keeping life normal for them and for my husband was my highest priority. Second, was continuing to write, research and publish.

What’s the biggest challenge about being a writer with Parkinson’s?

There are several. Editing is major as it requires a great deal of concentration. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting the word out about a new book. Travel is difficult, so presentations, library talks, conferences and book clubs far from home are not in the cards anymore. Concerns about Covid-19 only made that worse and ‘Damned If She Does’ was published just as the virus was taking off in Ireland.

Kathleen Reardon’s new book.

Has your Parkinson’s influenced the content of your writing?

One of the characters in ‘Shadow Campus’ has a father who has Parkinson’s. In the book, described by Forbes as “fast-paced” and a “masterful debut”, young professor Meg Doherty is found hanging in her office nearly dead on the eve of her tenure decision. Her estranged brother, Shamus, must fly from Connecticut to Los Angeles to help discover who did this to his sister, putting himself in harm’s way as he deciphers the politics of academia.

I have written a booklet yet to be published about the communication challenges faced by people with Parkinson’s and I’ve presented on that topic. I’m hoping to find a publisher for that booklet as communicating with family, friends, co-workers and doctors can be difficult with Parkinson’s – not only when our voices go soft, as mine sometimes does – but because Parkinson’s is a complex disease. Explaining symptoms to others and knowing with whom to do that are two challenges most people with the condition face.

I intend to write a memoir in the near future. Parkinson’s will definitely be a part of it.

Lead image credit: Chris Noblet.

Need to know

Kathleen Reardon was a professor at the University of Southern California, and a visiting professor at Stanford University, US, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin, Ireland, and a distinguished research scholar at the Irish Management Institute, Ireland. 

She moved to Ireland shortly after her diagnosis with Parkinson’s. There, she began to paint and has since written two crime mystery novels, ‘Shadow Campus’ and the sequel ‘Damned If She Does’. The third book in the trilogy will take place in West Cork, Ireland. She has also published ten nonfiction books on communication, negotiation and politics at work.

Kathleen is doing virtual meetings with book clubs during the coronavirus. She can be reached via her website or LinkedIn.

For more information on Parkinson’s and creative therapies, please visit the EPDA website.


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