Please welcome author Sarah K. Stephens. Her first novel, A Flash of Red, will be released this winter. Be sure to check out the excerpt after the author interview.
Where were you born and where do you call home?
I was born in Northeastern Ohio, in the heart of the Rust Belt. My family lived out in the country, though, and so much of my childhood was filled with woods and creeks and lots of fresh air. My family and I currently live in Central Pennsylvania in a lovely little town, but I still miss having the woods behind my house, just waiting to be explored.
What or who inspired you to start writing?
Beginning in elementary school, I was invited to participate in an advanced English track which lasted from early elementary school all the way through 8th grade. My English teacher for all of those years, Mrs. Lippiatt, inspired me to challenge myself as a student and as a communicator. It was in her class that I read Shakespeare for the first time, discovered poetry, and learned to channel my creativity when faced with a cold prompt. She taught me the power of words.
What is the best thing about being a writer? The worst?
The best: Having a professional excuse to lead an examined life. I don’t feel guilty taking time to quietly handle my thoughts and experiences—it’s this time alone that allows me to cultivate the ideas for my novels and short stories.
The worst: The physical stillness that is required to write my ideas out. I would prefer to be constantly in motion, moving through the world.
What fuels you as an author to continue to write?
As a university lecturer and a developmental psychologist, I have the opportunity to meet extraordinary people in my classroom each semester. It’s also a professional necessity to keep informed of my field’s innovations in understanding the human condition. Both of these intertwine in my mind, pushing my brain to seek out what it means to engage our hearts and minds in this world. The majority of my ideas stem from the constant pulse beating around all of us—Who are we? What will we become?
What inspired you to write this book?
The concept for A Flash of Red originated from recent research on the effects of pornography exposure on children and adolescents. As I was preparing material for a course examining the influence of the new Internet Age on children’s development, I encountered a wealth of empirical data confirming that children are encountering pornography and that this exposure is not benign. Viewing sexually explicit images affects young men and women’s expectations and preferences in both their romantic and sexual lives, often reflecting the norms set in pornographic contexts, which I think anyone can agree is not an adequate or complete model of sexual intimacy. A Flash of Red arose when I started asking myself, What would happen if pornography became a third party in a marriage?
How did you come up with the title?
I often begin writing with a title already in mind—it seems to stem from some organic place when I initiate the writing process. A Flash of Red is a symbolic reference to the plot of the novel—one I knew would be a part of Anna and Sean’s story from the start.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
For A Flash of Red, I reviewed literature 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.
Understanding the influence of pornography on relational and sexual development is also a large portion of this book, and I examined scientific publications to acquaint myself with this phenomenon as fully as possible. For readers particularly interested in this topic, Peggy Orenstein’s book, Girls and Sex, provides an excellent account of how porn is shaping the next generation’s views of intimacy. She also wrote an excellent op-ed piece for the NY Times on this very topic.
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.
Which of your characters is your favorite? Do you dislike any of them?
My favorite character to write was Bard—I love how he examines the world from a distance, even as he tries to open his heart to a select few. I don’t dislike any of my characters, but I found Sean was the hardest to write. He’s struggling so deeply in knowing who he is, and it was painful for me sometimes to convey the authenticity of his sadness.
If you could jump in to any book, and live in that world, which would it be?
I would love to be friends with Elizabeth Bennet, and visit her at Pemberley.
Do you have an all time favorite book?
This is a dangerous road to travel down—one where I can easily get lost. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
What book are you reading right now?
I’m attending the Skidmore Summer Writers Institute in July, where I will have a chance to work with Amy Hempel and Paul Harding. Currently, I’m poring through Hempel’s short story collection.
Tell us a random fact about you that we never would have guessed.
I make homemade pizza for my family almost every week—the more cheese, the better.
Excerpt – A Flash of Red
Anna’s heart skipped a beat in a wave of involuntary fear. There were only two eggs in the refrigerator.
Five minutes before, Anna came down the stairs, perfumed and fully dressed, ready to begin her day. She would make pancakes for her husband, who was still asleep in their bedroom. She would wash fresh raspberries to put on top. She would lay the table with care. All of this to set a pattern of comfortable predictability for Anna, ensuring the day would unfold in a way she could control. But now, everything was skewed by yet another ordinary situation somehow turned inexplicable in Anna’s life. Or at least she preferred to see these blips in her daily horizon as having no reasonable explanation, because the most reasonable explanation of all was unacceptable.
She’d checked last night before going to bed–everything she needed was there. A full carton of eggs, their twelve white orbs nestled neatly in the divots on the side of the refrigerator door. Anna always took them out of their cardboard container after returning from the grocery store and moved them lovingly to their designated place. So where had they gone?
And that’s when it rushed over her. Standing in front of the pristine refrigerator, its clean angles and cool air pouring over her chest and thighs through the thin satin and crepe of her dress, Anna thought again about the dark spot inside her head. The one we all share. The one where our brain oversteps the rules of generosity and creates reality for us. She learned this small biological fact with indifference in college. Now, when it shoved its way into her conscious thought, like it had just now, the sheer density of it warped her mind like a black hole, devouring everything around it. How else do our minds betray us? How will mine? Anna knew only part of the answer.
Anna blinked rapidly in an attempt to clear the blurry sights in front of her. She could fix this. Everything could be put back in order. Ignoring the skittering thoughts inside her head, Anna amended her plans. She had two eggs. She would make them sunny-side up for Sean with two slices of her homemade bread and strawberry jam she canned herself last summer. The fresh raspberries she would put on the side for him in a bowl. She would eat cereal afterwards while Sean did his assigned chores.
Anna took a deep breath. And another one. Then she shut the door to the refrigerator and placed the eggs on the counter by the stove, careful not to crack their fragile shells. Putting her favorite cast iron pan onto heat with a bit of Portuguese olive oil drizzled inside, Anna wrapped her slim fingers around the first egg, feeling the tensile strength of the shell shift slightly under the pressure. In one swift and practiced movement, Anna split the shell against the edge of the skillet and poured the viscous contents out, the yolk centered perfectly within the white that emerged from the sizzling heat. Yes, that was better.
About the Author
Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology in 2007 and teaches a variety of courses in human development as a university lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short story, Boys, was published in Five on the Fifth’s March 2016 issue and her flash fiction piece, In Concert, was featured by The Voices Project. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.
And be sure to look for A Flash of Red coming out Winter 2016.