Turning Illness into Inspiration, and Other Lessons from Author Alana Somerville

What Would You Do If You Only Had Three Years Left to Live?
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Turning Illness into Inspiration, and Other Lessons from Author Alana Somerville

What Would You Do If You Only Had Three Years Left to Live?

For Alana Somerville, hearing that news at 33 years old left her thinking of her children. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was looking for a way to document her journey for her two young kids.

“I wanted my children to know who I was, should this whole cancer thing not work out how I hoped,” she says. “As I wrote, I also realized that my story might help other women who were going through the exact same experience.” 

Becoming An Author Wasn’t Originally in Alana’s Plan

She studied literature in university and considered going into journalism before becoming an elementary school teacher, a position she’s held for 17 years and counting. 

“I decided to pitch my story to multiple literary agents, and after being denied a dozen times, the fire within me grew and I more or less wanted to prove them wrong.”

And with that fire, her debut novel Holding on to Normal came to be.

Here’s what else Alana shared with us:

Getting To Know Alana Somerville

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Hands down it would be from my mom. When I was going through my treatment and waiting for test results, she told me not to worry until it was time to worry. She said that if the diagnosis ends up being something worth worrying about, then I will worry then, but if I worried prior to that, then I would have worried twice. And if the test results ended up being great, then if I had worried prior to that, I would have worried for nothing. Essentially, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, and in the meantime, worrying isn’t going to help in any way, shape, or form.

What’s your dream brunch date?

Will Ferrell. He just makes me laugh; just looking at him cracks me up. If I could spend an hour with him, even without lunch, it would be incredible!

What’s on your bookshelf?

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, and The Secret Path by Gord Downie, to name a few. Lots of cookbooks by Ina Garten, as well.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

Busy! So busy! I teach full-time, and my children go to the same school that I teach at. So from the time we wake up it’s hectic because we all need to get there on time. Both of my children play travel sports and so our extra-curricular and after-school schedule is usually busy five to six days a week from about 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. When we get home from school, I try to cram some dinner into the kids before we head out, and then when we get home from activities it’s time for a second dinner, homework, baths, beds, lunches, etc. When they go to bed, I am trying to catch up on schoolwork or real estate, as I am a part-time real estate agent on the side. I am also a single parent, so when the kids are with their father I am trying to catch up on things like yard work or housework. I love being busy though. I don’t sit still well I don’t think, and so this really is my “normal”.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

People would be surprised to know that I think about my experience with breast cancer all the time – almost every day. It has gotten a bit better, and I put up a really good front on the outside, so most people think it doesn’t bother me or haunt me, but the fact is that it does. It changed me, and I am grateful and blessed for the way in which it changed me, but the thought of a recurrence still scares me.

What’s your go-to meal or recipe?

Depends on if my kids are with me or not. My kids love shepherd’s pie, and although we don’t eat it all the time, that’s their most requested meal for dinner.  

However, if it’s just me, I definitely eat a bit lighter. I’m super happy with a power bowl salad that’s loaded up with protein and lots of yummy extras like avocado, hardboiled eggs, seeds, chicken, cheese; not too filling but one of those “feel good after you eat it” kind of meals. My favourite take out or restaurant option would be Thai.

What helps you get in your flow or zone?

I love going for long walks, although I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I would like. I live near the lake and so there’s a beautiful biking path all along the Niagara River that leads to Lake Erie and that’s my go-to spot. It’s such a beautiful area that, in my opinion, is a hidden gem. Maybe that’s why I love it. It’s peaceful, serene, and when I get my music going and start walking it gives me a chance to wind down and take a break from the busy life.

What makes you feel most alive?

I feel very alive when I am active, while I’m going for a walk or doing yard work. I don’t love yard work, but I feel like I’m being productive, and so maybe that’s part of it. Of course, being with my kids makes me also feel alive, and when my son scores a goal in hockey and says he scored it for me, or when my daughter does a school project on her hero and it’s a project about me, those are probably the moments when I feel most alive.

How close is your offline life to your online life?

Great question. It always bugs me when I see people post pictures of their happy family despite the fact that they just found out their husband is cheating on them. We all know these kinds of people and I definitely wouldn’t say I’m one of those. I do have two separate accounts when it comes to social media. I have a personal Instagram and Facebook account and also a business version of both. The business one is where I post things about the book and real estate, and the person one is where I post images of things that I do with the kids. Although parenting is not always rosy, and not every minute of our family time is joyous and smiling, I try to embrace the happy times and those are what I usually post about.

In real life, face-to-face interactions are on the decline as the world becomes more and more virtual every day. What are some ways you connect with your tribe? What do you do to ensure you’re having authentic face-to-face interactions regularly?

When I’m with my children, we try to sit down to eat together, with no technology or TV. Doesn’t mean that always happens, but we try anyway. I think it’s important to get actual face time with your family, and I think that dinner isn’t just about the food; it’s about time together. Like I said, sometimes we are too rushed, but of course we try to squeeze it in when we can.

I also have a close group of girlfriends, and oddly enough, we really never text each other, unless it’s to make plans to get together face to face. We save things up and spend 3-4 hours catching up over dinner, once every couple of months or so.

When you’re writing – where do you write? What is the setting?

My go-to spot is at my dining room table with my laptop in front of me. I also need peace and quiet so I can focus, and so this usually doesn’t happen when my kids are awake, so my writing usually happens after 9:00 p.m.

How do you handle failure?

Although failure is frustrating, the process of failing at something usually drives me to succeed. Being denied a dozen times by multiple literary agents is what drove me to self-publish my book on my own, and then ultimately push to have it published by a larger publishing company.

Learn more about Alana’s journey in her book, Holding on to Normal, available here. You can also visit her on her website or follow her on Twitter.

We love getting to know inspiring authors like Alana. If you’re an author and would like us to feature you on The Journal, don’t hesitate to email us here

Shannon Hodgen is a lifelong writer, DIY enthusiast, and homebody. She satisfies her need to put pen to paper–or, more accurately, fingertips to keyboard–as an agency copywriter, blog contributor, and freelance editor in Toronto.

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