Sarah K. Stephens’ debut novel A Flash of Red debuted earlier in December from Pandamoon Publishing. It is a fantasticly gritty and dark psychological thriller. Sarah is a trained psychologist, professor, writer, fellow Crime Writers’ Association member and friend. We recently discussed her debut novel. Find the interview below.
A Flash of Red is such a fantastic psychological thriller. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
The initial idea came from preparatory reading I was doing for a new course on children’s development in an online world. I started reading research on the effects of pornography exposure on children and adolescents, which primarily indicates that children’s ideas of sexual behavior and relationships are negatively affected by the themes presented in porn. 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. Today, the most popular porn regularly presents themes of male dominance, physical aggression against women via sexual acts that incite gagging or choking and demeaning language against women. Given these patterns, it’s not really surprising that porn use in adolescence is linked to viewing women as objects (and bear in mind that objects have no voice, desires, or consent), more aggressive behaviors during sexual intimacy, and higher levels of erectile dysfunction because intimacy with one partner does not compare to the variety available online.
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. I had to ask the question: Can emotional intimacy remain when porn is the main educational tool for that ‘intimacy’? And then I began to wonder what a marriage might look like if one partner was deeply dependent on this form of stimulation—how would that create fissures in their union? From there, the story began to take on a life of its own.
Sex and control are big themes in A Flash of Red. Anna Klein has withdrawn from her husband, Sean, because of their struggle with fertility and a subsequent rift that develops in their relationship. Their relationship is so realistic and complex. What is the magic you have that makes these two characters’ lives jump off the page?
That’s very kind of you to say that Anna and Sean’s relationship reflects the complexities found in real relationships. For me, my training as a psychologist has taught me two rules that I think are essential in life in general: The capacity to listen and the capacity to observe. I’ve always found human beings and relationships fascinating—that’s why I went into my field of developmental psychology to begin with—and when that inherent interest became reinforced with the skills necessary in the helping professions, I found my interest only grew. So much of the change in human relationships, both connections and disconnections, occur as a result of small actions, rather than huge betrayals or revelations. Tone of voice in a discussion, a small gesture poorly timed, or a miscued facial expression can alter the state of an intimate relationship in significant ways, both in the moment and, in accumulation, in the long term.
The thriller genre has many excellent examples where huge secrets propel the story forward—and these are certainly satisfying. For A Flash of Red, though, I wanted to examine the ‘thousand cuts’ that could eventually lead to the death of a relationship because the reader is more likely to have lived these themselves.
Perception is another big theme in A Flash of Red. Anna Klein isn’t quite sure of her own sanity due to a family history of mental illness and some other sinister reasons I won’t go into at the moment. When you created the character of Anna were you drawing on your training as a psychologist? I’m picturing you poring over case studies and sciencey stuff but these characters are so vivid and anything but clinical.
I certainly read a lot of case studies of clients struggling with mental illness, including both Schizophrenia and the more specific De Clerambault Syndrome (otherwise known as Erotomania). Given that I am a self-identified science nerd, I have to say that they were fascinating—but you’re right, others might find the descriptions in case studies sterilized or removed. 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. Just as one example, which I mention in the acknowledgments of my novel, 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.
If I sat in Anna Klein’s lecture, how much different would it be from Sarah K. Stephen’s classroom?
Ha! Well, you know me, Francis. In my class, there are no cell phones and no laptops—but plenty of opportunities to ask questions and delve into material together. Science-lover that I am, all of my classroom policies are derived from higher ed research suggesting that tech in the classroom for notetaking actually hinders retention of content. Anna’s style in the classroom is probably a little more forgiving than mine. Those who have read the novel know that, towards the end, she has other issues on her mind than whether her students are checking Instagram on their phones. I have a feeling as well that Anna might be a little more derisive of student questions—she likes to be on the top of the ladder. She’d never admit if she didn’t know the answer to a question—which is something I do quite regularly in my classes. After a decade of teaching, I’ve realized there is great wisdom in admitting what you don’t know. Then you just go look it up for your students—and both of you learn together.
A Flash of Red deals with some very heavy adult topics without fear. How did you get to that place of honesty in your writing? It’s admirable.
This might be a remnant of my work as a teacher at Penn State. In my courses, I often have the opportunity to connect our course material with my own life—I share stories from my childhood, my marriage, and my role as a mother with my own children. Sometimes the stories are flattering, but oftentimes they reveal mistakes that I’ve made and paths that I wish I could go back and avoid. Students remember material more because these stories connect theories and research findings to a real-world context. Often, after I’ve shared a more embarrassing or unflattering experience with my students, I hear from several of them afterwards about how that story normalized their own experiences or helped them feel better about a life choice they’ve made.
In other words, I strive for authenticity in my teaching, and I try to do the same in my writing. Although A Flash of Red does not resemble my own life in its main plot points, the intricacies of human connection are in many ways universal. I worked very hard to create those complexities in my novel. They may not be pretty, but they are certainly real.
Did you cut something from A Flash of Red because it was too hard to keep in?
No, it’s all in there. Every last bit of underbelly I could muster.
What was 13-year-old Sarah reading?
Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World—as dystopian as that book is, it made me want to study human behavior. After I finished it, I told my parents I didn’t want to be an Egyptologist anymore (I was kind of obsessed with King Tut back then)—I was going to be a Psychologist.
What’s next for you?
My next novel is entitled Dear Heart—it’s a domestic thriller focusing on a Russian Orthodox family who adopts an older child. If A Flash of Red explores small deaths that can kill a relationship, Dear Heart does the exact opposite—big secrets abound. It will be published by Pandamoon Publishing sometime in 2017.
Thank you, Sarah! A Flash of Red is an incredibly well-written, disturbing and entertaining novel. Go get it today!
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. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red (read Chapter 1 here), was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.
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