Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why YA novelist Star Spider thinks every teen should read a psychology 101 textbook

The author of Past Tense answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Past Tense is a YA novel by Toronto writer Star Spider. (starspider.ca)

Star Spider is a Toronto-based short story writer, novelist and psychology student. Her debut, the YA novel Past Tense, follows teenager Julie Nolan, who must, in addition to navigating high school and romance, deal with a mother who insists that her heart is missing. Spider was on the longlist for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Prize.

Below, Spider takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Donato Mancini asks, "Are there certain words you know you don't understand?"

There are so many words I'm positive I don't understand, but I love that. I love learning new words and adding them to my internal dictionary. I'm particularly enamoured with learning scientific words. Biology, psychology (my own area of study at school), physics, chemistry and even philosophy are fields bursting with new words to learn and revel in.

That doesn't really answer your question though, does it? Your question was, I feel, about specific words, and I do know one that is a thorn in my side. Epistemology. I know it refers to the theory of knowledge, but when used in the context of philosophical discussion it drives me nuts. My philosophy prof recently gave me a paper to read and it used the word epistemology at every turn. I was sure, at some point, it was just trying to taunt me. I even brought it up to my prof when I went to discuss the paper. He explained what it meant and then it promptly slipped from my mind and fell on the floor. Maybe it's my destiny to never fully understand it. But it has now become my nemesis and I am hell bent on learning it. Perhaps my next philosophy class will illuminate the mysteries of epistemology for me, so I can learn to love it and use it to confound a new generation of word lovers.

2. Djamila Ibrahim asks, "What dream job or jobs did you have growing up? Has it or have they appeared in your writing?"

My mom always tells the story about my application to the gifted program where they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said: hairdresser. It's because when my mom went to get her hair cut, the hairdresser would let me sweep up and they had this small, square hole in the floor to sweep the hair into. This hole was magic to me. Where did it lead? Was there some stockpile of hair below that formed a big puffy hair cloud you could sleep in? I never figured it out, I guess I was too young (or more likely too old) to ask. Other than that I have wanted to be so many things (and I have been), but none have ever fully appeared in my writing. A hairdresser does make a cameo in my debut novel Past Tense, but that was a different story, unrelated to the mysterious and magical hole into which the hair would vanish when I was a child.

3. Amy Stuart asks, "What's your most unusual writing ritual?"

I don't actually like writing at my desk. I just bought a house with my husband and I have a wonderful desk/office space. It is facing a giant window, wreathed in crawling vines and there is so much light. I also keep my desk very clean, as clutter just gives me a reason to procrastinate. But the truth is, no matter how lovely, I hate writing at my desk. I'm not sure why, but I'm an exploratory writer. I prefer writing in the garden, the kitchen counter, a bar, a Starbucks, anywhere but my actual desk. As I write this the irony is that I am sitting at my desk. But only because it's too dark to write outside.

4. David Chariandy asks, "Is writing for you an act of freedom? How or how not?"

Writing has taken many forms in my life. When I was younger it was a lot of yearning dramatically into my diary and writing poetry about lost love. When I was a bit older I wrote instead of taking photos when I travelled (and I now have a 40,000 word document

of absolutely mortifying world travel diaries). Then when I was older still, my writing was critiqued to the point of annihilation when I was involved in an abusive relationship that tore away every part of myself that I loved. When I escaped that situation the first thing I did was write again. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Shitty novels, a complex interwoven (and absurd) book of short stories. My writing burst out of me because it had been repressed for so long.

So the answer to your question is a big, resounding yes.

My writing is an act of freedom, now more than it ever was. I write novels, short stories, poetry, I write blog posts and Facebook posts about my life, struggles, mental illness, experiences with abuse and my interest in psychology. My fiction has mental health and LGBTQ themes because I identify with those things closely (being both bipolar and bisexual). Every bit of everything I write has a little of myself in it because I am free to do that now and that freedom affords me the luxury of fearlessness. I won't be afraid again to let myself say exactly what I want to say, in exactly the way I want to say it. Writing is good, and freedom always makes it better.

5. Ahmad Danny Ramadan asks, "How do you build your characters? Do they come to you before you write your first draft or are they formed as you write them?"

To be honest, I often have trouble articulating my process when it comes to fiction. For the themes in my books (often the mental health related) I have an approach (which I'm trying to refine) and I enjoy doing research to develop them. But when it comes to characters it's hard to say. With fiction, I'm typically a (seat of my) pantser. I'm not amazing at outlining (although I'm working on that as I make my way through school and learn new ways of researching and outlining for academic purposes), and with my fiction it's more like a spark, then a lot of frenzied writing, then a slow comb through for edits. Somehow in that messy tangle, characters tend to emerge. I will say that the voice for my main character is usually the thing I find first. If I don't have a voice that intrigues me and makes me want to learn more I usually head back to the drawing board. The drawing board in most cases is walking around the city thinking and talking to my husband about plot. But if I do find that voice I love and can see myself working with it for a while, I will just kind of go for it and hope some good characters emerge. I feel like I've been lucky so far that this approach has worked. I worry sometimes that the luck won't last forever though…

6. Louise Bernice Halfe asks, "Do you believe in the spiritual process of writing?"

My teenage self (who was a total witch and a hippy) would have loved this question. My adult self loves it too. Creativity is such a mysterious force. I love being in the flow state, that perfect combination of just challenging enough so you don't get bored, and not too hard that you get turned off completely. Time seems to slip away when you are deep into an act of creation and everything in you is so laser focused that you feel brilliant no matter what the end product is. I'm so fascinated by the question of creativity. How we perceive it when we are in it, how we perceive it when we are out of it, what parts of the brain are involved, what the genetic components are, what neurotransmitters are working for us to help us work. All of these questions add up to a spirituality of sorts. The fact that our cells are combining in just the right ways to move electrical and chemical impulses through us. The way that these impulses allow us to create remarkable arrangements of words, which bring such an array of emotions to others. It's magical. It's an otherworldly experience to be in it and fascinating experience to try to understand it. And I don't know what could be more spiritual than that.

7. Robert Wiersema asks, "If someone were to create a comic book based on your life, what would your hero name be, and what would be your special gift/skill?"

Awesome! Oh I would love for someone to create a comic book based on my life. Crap, that sounds super egotistical. But really, who wouldn't be flattered by that?

Okay, but seriously, I have actually had this conversation before (probably many times) with my husband, and my superhero name would definitely be Star. I know it's my actual name, but I chose that name when I was younger (it was an offshoot of a nickname a friend gave me) and I legally changed my name later on in life. So Star is the name that I thought was the most kickass and fitting for my ideal self. I'm always trying to live up to it.

As for my superpower, it would definitely be something to do with the brain. If mind-reading wasn't super invasive and creepy, I would definitely say that. I love people and their stories and I love trying to understand the reason people think the way they do. I think reading people's minds would make it so much easier to understand them. But again with the creepy, so maybe I could refine that a little and go with something a little more complicated. I'd love to be able to see the history of individuals (social/environmental, psychological and genetic) that led them to being who they are. It would be like a movie of their life on fast-forward that would tell me exactly why they are them. I feel like that would make me a super-empathetic hero, who would be completely dedicated to the rehabilitation of the criminals I would have to deal with in my super-hero life.

8. Jesse Jacobs asks, "Name the book that every teenager needs to read."

There are so many awesome YA books out there that I think would truly benefit teens. But for this question I'm going to have to go with a first-year university psychology textbook.

Bear with me here.

When I first read a psych 101 textbook, it blew my mind. Learning about perception, how we view the world, all the categories we make in our minds to help us understand things without getting overwhelmed (which inevitably, and unfortunately, leads to bias and prejudice), all the fallacies we are always committing, all the ways there are to be mentally unwell, all the social pressures we fall prey to (Milgram experiment anyone?), understanding group think and how to think critically about all the information we are always taking in. I could go on forever here. My point is that this is absolutely vital information for the growing mind. We need to teach our teens how to think about thinking and to be aware of all the pitfalls that are built into our lovely, wonderful and beautifully flawed brains. If we can give our teens the tools to recognize mental health issues and find help that would be amazing. Also this knowledge can help in learning to understand each other, which would go a long way to fostering empathy, and understanding and breaking the stigma and misunderstandings that have built up around mental health and treatments. It might also give teens a little push to be charitable toward both the struggles they are facing personally, and those others are facing as well.

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