Monday, April 4, 2016

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Sarah K. Stephens, Author

Sarah K. Stephens, Author
"Boys" in Five on the Fifth
Updated December 16, 2016:  Sarah K. Stephens has just released her first novel, a literary psychological thriller, A FLASH OF RED. In the following interview published here in April, she describes both her short story, BOYS, IN FIVE ON THE FIFTH published in Literary Magazine as well as A FLASH OF RED, which concerns the effect on intimate relationships of the inability to separate what we want versus the reality of our lives.
She is currently working on her second novel, Dear Heart, set in the suburbs of northern Pennsylvania and Riga, Latvia in Eastern Europe. She also has several short stories underway, and values both novel and short story media.

When she’s not writing, Stephens enjoys spending time with her husband, playing cards with her children, traveling and baking cakes. She also is “addicted” to podcasts.

Q: What caused you to write your short story, Boys, recently published in Five on the Fifth Literary Magazine?

Sarah K. Stephens: The beginning idea for this story came in response to students sharing their experiences of sexual victimization. As I was encountering more and more cases in my professional life as a university lecturer of young people describing their inability to complete coursework or function on campus as they coped with the effects of a rape or sexual assault, universities around the US were coming under scrutiny for their failures to adequately address these issues as part of remedying an unbalanced and, too often, unsafe campus culture. Boys was written in direct reaction to what I saw on my own university campus, along with those across the country. 

Many universities, including my own, have instituted an emergency alert system where all subscribers receive messages of emergencies on campus.  I signed up assuming it would be used in the case of campus threats, but from 2012 on it primarily became a medium for the university to notify subscribers that a sexual assault had occurred on campus. Rather than being a mechanism for addressing sexual violence on campus, it appeared to function solely as a reporting tool. As the messages piled up in my inbox, I started to worry, first, about the victims and what was being done to prevent sexual assault and to help survivors, but also about the potential for these messages to desensitize subscribers to the issue of sexual violence.  It felt like a superficial attempt to address a very serious issue of safety for students.

My story is a commentary on this reporting system and its potential for harming the cause of ending rape on campus. It examines three young men who proceed to kidnap a woman walking home from the university. They believe this woman witnessed them committing a minor traffic crime, and the plot proceeds from there, the alert system playing a major role throughout the story.

Q:  What can you tell us about A FLASH OF RED?  In what genre is it?

Sarah K. Stephens:  A FLASH OF RED is a literary psychological thriller.  It examines how our intimate relationships are affected when we lose the ability to discriminate the reality of our circumstances from what we desire our lives to be.  A Flash of Red revolves around three main characters: Anna and Sean, who are young married professionals, and Bard, who is a university student in one of Anna’s courses. Each of them struggles with their own personal disconnections from reality—Anna’s and Bard’s stem potentially from mental health issues, whereas Sean’s is a coping tool to deal with his crumbling marriage to Anna.  Throughout the book, these characters become further intertwined until all three must face the truth of what their lives have become, and the part they each played in destroying what they once had.

Q: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you see an advantage to both?

Sarah K. Stephens: I enjoy writing both.  Often, after working on a novel manuscript for a while my mind needs a break from the extended threads of characters and plot that are necessary for writing an engaging novel. I have a notebook where I write down ideas that come to me, and many of these are small observations about human connection or the complexities of navigating our social world.  These ideas might not lend themselves well to a full novel, but are approachable in the shorter format of a story. Short stories offer a way for me to express an idea without the commitment necessary for a novel. It’s a joy to be able to switch between both modes, depending on what is inspiring me that particular day.     

Q: How relevant is your career as a development psychologist to your stories?  Is fiction a helpful method to explain psychological issues or problems that you see?

Sarah K. Stephens: I feel as though my training in psychology plays a foundational role in all of my writing.  Not necessarily in regards to mental health, although that is certainly a strong current in A FLASH OF RED, but also just in the powers of observing human behavior.  I am a behaviorist by training, which means that my skills are focused on examining reinforcement and punishment experiences and how those shape our interactions with each other and our environments. Being able to step back and see how our relational history can shape our future behaviors certainly helps me in creating whole and rich characters, along with a driving plot. Humans are the products of our developmental pasts, and I enjoy using my writing to examine how what happened yesterday, or a year ago, or in our childhood even, shapes our future choices, both as individuals and as relationship partners.  

Q: Do you use humor either in your short story or novel to help develop your characters or tell your story?  How helpful is it?

Sarah K. Stephens: As a writer, I think the humor I use is subtle and rather dry. There is definitely a sardonic atmosphere to Anna’s character, who has strong opinions about her own achievements and how they compare to those of her colleagues, her husband, and her friends.  Within my short stories, so far at least, the humor I offer is more often one that shares an alternate side with sadness.  Some of my characters seem to use humor as a way to distance themselves from the discomfort they’ve created in their own lives—it becomes a protective technique, rather than one of celebration. 

Q: Why will readers engage with your characters? Does the concept of heroes vs villains apply to your stories? Does a villain have to be a person or can mental illness itself be classified as a villain?

Sarah K. Stephens: Throughout A FLASH OF RED, all three characters fluctuate between ethical and unethical behavior in their interactions with each other and with others.  I think Anna, Sean, and Bard all represent the complexity of human nature—how we can be empathetic one moment and then flip into an entirely selfish repertoire the next.  Anna in particular prides herself on her ability to care for and be considerate of others, but often this compassion is fueled by self-interest.  I feel this pressure to reconcile our self-focus with our love for others is a conflict most human beings struggle with. Within my field of developmental psychology, there is a long-running debate about whether humans can ever engage in a truly altruistic act—that our actions are always seated in some form of self-preservation. In that sense, we all function as heroes and villains at different points in our daily lives. 

As for mental illness, I wouldn’t classify it as a villain any more than I would classify a more traditional physiological ailment as villainous.  Mental disorders are a fact of our neurology and are often grounded in our genetics and/or the physical functioning of our brains. I suppose I am most interested, not in the villainous tendencies of ill individuals, but rather in how our state of mental health (or lack thereof) can shade our interpretations of our daily lives, and ultimately contribute to poor and sometimes dangerous judgments in our actions.       

Q:  You have described A FLASH OF RED as a literary thriller. How do you create the suspense to deliver a thriller? 

Sarah K. Stephens: I think one of the main facets of a compelling thriller is to give the reader enough information to make predictions about what is going to happen in your story, but not enough that they can solve the puzzle too early on.  I’m a huge fan of P.D. James and, although she wrote mysteries and not thrillers, her ability to pepper her decadent prose with hints for the reader made her novels feel like a treasure hunt.  Every time I began one of her mysteries, I told myself I would figure out the ending before she revealed it.  And I never did!

The other important rule to keep in mind is to never underestimate your reader by using clichés and common tropes in your writing.  Thriller audiences are going to feel belittled if you don’t present a fresh and unique plotline—so much of writing a thriller is knowing how you are going to captivate the readers with something unexpected and, although dark, also delightful in its unpredictability.  

Q:  What makes your stories plausible and credible? Did you need to do any research?

Sarah K. Stephens: Being a development psychologist, I feel many parts of this story emerged out of my professional training.  I have long been fascinated with the human mind and the complexity of our social relationships—which is undoubtedly why I chose a career devoted to these topics—and so it isn’t surprising that my creative writing often examines how our connections to each other can go wrong.

For A FLASH OF RED I reviewed scientific publications related to the symptomatology, prognosis, and treatment of schizophrenia.  It’s a complex and multifaceted disorder, with a great deal of variety in its expression from one individual to another, and I wanted to make sure my representation in the novel was as accurate as possible. Reading Elyn Saks’s memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, provided a window into the personal experience of schizophrenia and the system of treatment many patients encounter.

My interest in de Clerambault’s syndrome began, not from my training, but upon reading Ian McEwan’s novel, Enduring Love. From there, I read the scientific literature that is available on this somewhat obscure disorder in order to incorporate facets of it into my own writing. It’s a great fit, given my interests--the syndrome is truly an archetype for love gone terribly wrong.

My research for my short story, Boys, revolved more around understanding the system of reporting Sexual Assault established at my campus and at universities across the country, along with organizing my knowledge of the Title IX investigation of over 50 universities and resulting responses to these investigations.

Q:  Do you plan to continue writing? If so, what are you considering next?

Sarah K. Stephens: Definitely.  I have several short stories in the works or in a state of seeking publication, along with a finished draft of my next novel, Dear Heart.  This novel alternates between the suburbs of northern Pennsylvania and Riga, Latvia, in Eastern Europe.  It focuses on a Russian Orthodox family who is seeking to adopt an older child, and the family secrets that are revealed during that process.   

Q: Tell us about Sarah K. Stephens. What do you like to do when you’re not writing or teaching?

Sarah K. Stephens: I enjoy good food, healthy exercise, and travel.  An ideal day-off for me would involve a nice long run in the morning, baking a cake in the afternoon, and playing cards with my children and husband in the evening.  I’m addicted to podcasts (Serial, This American Life, and TED Radio Hour being some of my favorites) and can often be found with a good book and a glass of wine curled up by the fireplace.  

About Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology in 2007 and teaches a variety of courses in human development as a university lecturer. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.  Stephens’s short story, Boys, was recently published in the March 2016 issue of the literary journal, Five on the Fifth 


What happens when you can’t tell the difference between desire, obsession, and reality? Thanks to her husband, Anna is about to find out.

Psychology professor Anna Kline and her architect husband, Sean, are a young couple in a fractured marriage, each struggling with their own misperceptions of reality. Sean seeks solace from his perfect wife in the cold intimacy of love and sex offered online, while Anna copes by offering her own oppressive version of devotion. Becoming an ever more tangible presence in their weakening marriage is the question of Anna’s mental state and whether she will follow the same path as her now institutionalized mother.

When Bard, a student of Anna’s with a family history of schizophrenia, discovers Sean’s addiction, Bard’s admiration for Anna morphs into a delusion of special intimacy. Guilt-ridden with his own past failure to protect his older sister, Bard’s skewed mind begins to see Anna as another woman in need of rescue.

As Sean and Anna’s marriage becomes a battleground of manipulation, Bard privately crafts a strategy to save Anna from her husband, sending their three worlds spinning out of control with irrevocable and deadly consequences. A Flash of Red's driving plot and multi-faceted characters detail the destruction that ensues when mental illness attacks our most intimate relationships.

Purchase Links A FLASH OF RED
Barnes and Noble

Author Links
Facebook Page Sarah K. Stephens
Short Story  Boys featured in Five on the Fifth literary magazine March 2016 Issue
Publisher’s Announcement of A Flash of Red

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