Since earning her doctorate in developmental psychology from Penn State University in 2007, Sarah K. Stephens has worked as a university lecturer, teaching a variety of courses on autism, the processes of risk and resilience in childhood, and the influence of online media on social and behavioral development in children and adolescents.
In March of 2016, Five on the Fifth literary magazine published “Boys,” a short story that Stephens had written to address the issue of sexual violence and harassment on college campuses, and in the winter of 2016, Pandamoon Publishing will release Stephens’s first novel, A Flash of Red, which originated from recent research on the effects of pornography exposure on children, and how such exposure can shape young men and women’s expectations and preferences in their romantic lives. Focusing on three main characters, the novel explores the chaos that can result when mental illness and misperceptions of reality invade our most intimate relationships.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I grew up in rural Ohio with my parents and two brothers. Lots of open fields and woods for exploring. I learned early on how to use my imagination to keep myself occupied, building forts and exploring creeks, and I feel that has benefited me in my writing. There’s nothing wrong with having an overactive imagination, as long as you channel it appropriately!
How did you end up choosing to attend Penn State, and what drew you towards the field of developmental psychology?
After graduating with my Bachelor’s in Psychology, I had the choice of pursuing a research and teaching track via developmental psychology or focusing more on mental health issues via clinical psychology. I chose developmental psychology, and Penn State’s program, because I felt drawn towards understanding the progressive elements of human growth, including both normative experiences and unique ones.
Developmental Psychology tries to answer the question: Which factors, both within us and in our environments, shape the people we ultimately become? Understanding who we are and how we get there—that’s developmental psychology.
What steps would you like to see taken to reduce the number of sexual assaults and create a safer environment for both men and women on college campuses across the country?
I would like to see more work focused on prevention. Penn State has instituted a Bystander Training program across our campuses, which is a great start, but I would also prefer to see universities targeting events and activities that data shows are high-risk for sexual assaults to occur, such as football weekends here at Penn State or State Patty’s Day, which is a special drinking holiday enacted by the students. Prior to these events, there needs to be more of a presence on campus and in the community discussing the safety of our students and how to intervene when situations become unsafe. I’d also like to see even more widespread interventions targeting Greek Life, educating fraternities and sororities about bystander intervention and the importance of consent. Penn State has a world-renowned Prevention Research Center (PRC), and I would love to see the PRC partner with Penn State administration in developing evidence-based prevention techniques surrounding this important issue.
From your perspective, how did the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State change the atmosphere on campus? Did it change the atmosphere?
I feel that the faculty and student body grew from that experience. Having gone through the scandal, I find that many members of the campus community are more willing to talk about difficult topics, including sexual assault on campus, and to actively promote the safety of students on campus. There are still accomplishments to be made, but I feel our university is moving forward to a more open and honest dialogue about how to best serve the health and integrity of our students and our community.
What inspired the story of A Flash of Red?
I walk to work each day, and during my 20-minute commute I encounter many beautiful scenes, including the neighborhood cardinals singing in our town’s elm and oak trees. That was really the first spark of the idea for A Flash of Red—how could these vibrant birds signify a character’s connection, or disconnection, from reality.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
P.D. James, Jessica Francis Kane, A.X. Ahmad, and Tana French. Of course, I can’t forget NPR Weekend Books Editor, Barrie Hardymon. Seriously, Barrie could recommend a dishwasher manual and I’d read it—that’s how much I value her literary opinion.
What sort of research has gone into the writing of this novel?
I wanted to ensure that my portrayal of mental illness, which arises in various forms in the novel, was as authentic as possible. Beyond my own training in the field of psychology, I examined case studies and personal memoirs of individuals living with mental illness and the failures and triumphs they’ve encountered as they sought out treatment. Although my characters’ experiences are their own, I feel confident that their depiction of mental health and its challenges is genuine.
How much of yourself is there in the character of Anna?
I think there are parts of myself in all three characters. It was P.D. James who said that each of her characters represent all and none of the people in her life. That’s how I feel about Anna, Sean, and Bard. Each of them carry talismans of reality from my own life, either myself or the people I know, but they are certainly their own unique creations as well. If I had to choose one part of Anna that was me, it would be her wish to have a perfectly-stocked kitchen. I’m getting better, but I still leave the grocery store missing half of my mental shopping list.
What aspects of writing come easiest to you? Are there any aspects in particular that you struggle with?
Ideas come easily to me—I feel blessed in that sense. Characters and stories jump out to me often and I’ve taken to keeping a notebook alongside me to jot them down so as not to forget them. The hardest part for me is the need to sit still and write everything out. I naturally like to move and be physically active—the sedentary nature of the act of writing can get to me. Breaks are essential!
If a local deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it?
Melted Brie, Swiss Cheese, and Spinach (decadence + healthy = Yum!) on a cheese bagel (noticing a theme here) with pesto mayo.
How do you relax or unwind after a long day?
A glass of wine, a walk with the dog, and hugs from my family—perfection.