Today’s guest, Sarah K. Stephens visited back in April to talk about short stories and I promised to have her back when her debut novel released. Today is the new interview about that book, a psychological thriller titled A Flash of Red.
Sarah K. Stephens earned her doctorate in Developmental Psychology and teaches a variety of human development courses as a lecturer at Penn State University. Her courses examine a variety of topics, including the processes of risk and resilience in childhood, the influence of online media on social and behavioral development, and evidence-based interventions for individuals on the autism spectrum. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round.
Her short stories have appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Voices Project, The Indianola Review, (parenthetical), eFiction, and the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast. She is also a regular contributor to the Mindsoak Project. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, released earlier this month by Pandamoon Publishing.
Welcome back to Reviews and Interviews, Sarah.
Please tell us about your newest release.
A Flash of Red begins with psychology professor Anna Kline and her architect husband, Sean, each examining their fractured marriage. Both share a mutual obsession with Sean’s failings as a man and Anna’s “specialness”. Although Sean seeks solace from his perfect wife in the cold intimacy of the online world, 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 of her now institutionalized mother.
When Bard, a student of Anna’s with a family history of schizophrenia, discovers Sean’s addiction, Bard’s platonic 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.
After Sean receives an anonymous e-mail at work one day threatening to expose his online activities, he immediately assumes his wife is behind the email, leading Sean to vacillate between playing the role of the perfect husband in front of Anna and covertly struggling with how to counter his wife’s hostility. Meanwhile, disturbing events begin to plague Anna. Ominous messages are left on her doorstep, reveal themselves on her walk home from work, and invade even her most private moments.
As Sean and Anna’s marriage becomes a battleground of manipulation, Bard privately crafts a strategy to save Anna from her husband. When Bard’s plan forces the three characters to meet, the ensuing chaos leaves none of them unharmed. . .or unaccountable.
What inspired you to write this book?
The initial idea came from preparatory reading I was doing for a new course focusing on the intersection between childhood and the internet. In a world where high-speed internet is so accessible, and where so many families do not use internet filters for their children’s devices, pornography exposure is incredibly common in even young children (keeping in mind that a big chunk of early porn exposure is unintentional as children search the Web). When that is mixed with a lack of open discussion about sexual intimacy in children’s other developmental relationships (which is still the norm in much of American culture), children and adolescents develop very skewed views of what physical intimacy should look like.
As I read through this literature, it occurred to me that our culture might be facing an upcoming generation where the very definition of intimacy has shifted. And then I began to wonder what a marriage might look like if one partner was deeply emotionally dependent on pornography—how would that attack the foundation of their union? From there, the story began to take on a life of its own.
What’s the next writing project?
My next novel is entitled Dear Heart—it’s a psychological thriller with a stronger familial focus. The main characters are a Russian Orthodox family who adopt an older child from abroad. Whereas A Flash of Red explores small deaths that can kill a relationship, Dear Heart details how the poison of secrecy can seep into family life. It will be published by Pandamoon Publishing sometime in 2017.
What is your biggest challenge when writing a new book? (or the biggest challenge with this book)
The biggest challenge for me is setting aside time each day to be quiet, still, and write out the ideas I’ve developed in my head. I’m a very active and energetic person, so sitting down to write the words out remains a difficult task for me. Luckily, though, I just installed a standing desk, which makes the process that much easier.
If your novels require research – please talk about the process. Do you do the research first and then write, while you’re writing, after the novel is complete and you need to fill in the gaps?
Given A Flash of Red’s focus on mental illness, I certainly read a lot of case studies focusing on both Schizophrenia and the more specific De Clerambault Syndrome (otherwise known as Erotomania). I also found memoirs of individuals who have coped with mental illness themselves or whose family members suffered from psychosis to be incredibly helpful. Reading such personal reflections on the effects of becoming disconnected from reality enhanced my understanding of the very private experiences that occur in the presence of mental illness. For example, Elyn Saks’ excellent memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, provides detailed insights into the life of a person suffering, seeking treatment, and ultimately living successfully with schizophrenia.
What’s your writing space like? Do you have a particular spot to write where the muse is more active? Please tell us about it.
Currently I write at my standing desk in our home’s living room. I don’t like being sequestered off from my family while I write—I prefer to be in the thick of our home’s active (some might say chaotic) energy. It feeds my thoughts and, somewhat surprisingly, helps me to focus. My desk is also next to a large window, where I can view our neighborhood songbirds as they eat the berries off our bushes. Whenever I get stuck for a word or phrase, I watch the birds swoop and sing, and it always serves to set my mind to work again.
What authors do you enjoy reading within or outside of your genre?
My current favorites are: A.X. Ahmad, Jessica Francis Kane, and Tana French. I have a longtime love for P.D. James’ work and was very excited to see her book of short stories released posthumously this Winter.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers today?
I hope they enjoy A Flash of Red. If they are able, I’d ask them to please post a review on Amazon and Goodreads. In today’s writing world, reviews make a significant difference in authors being able to connect with their readership.
Thank you for coming back to Reviews and Interviews!
Thank you for having me!