Alicia Hendley came to Five Rivers’ attention when she submitted her debut novel, A Subtle Thing, to us for consideration. We liked what we saw and are pleased to be releasing the novel later this year. As part of your introduction to Alicia Hendley, we thought you might appreciate this interview we recently conducted with her.
Alicia: Growing up with a librarian as a mother and a philosophy professor as a father, I don’t remember a time in which the world of books and the world of ideas weren’t vital parts of my life. Family suppers were a place where ideas were discussed and often hotly debated. I remember always feeling like it was okay to speak my mind or to ask questions, as long as I did it in a respectful way.
It’s funny, but growing up I considered Nate to be the real writer in the family, my brother Matthew to be the scholar, and me to be somewhere in the middle. The fact that my father had written academic books escaped me at the time. I always knew that my mother was an avid reader, but I didn’t learn that she also enjoyed writing until I was an adult. While I don’t think she’s written a book, she has created some beautiful stories and memoirs.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader. I remember as a little girl going with my dad to pick my mom up from the library after work and roaming the aisles in the children’s section like a kid in a candy store. Reading has always felt like a need—if I don’t have a book on the go, then it feels like something is missing. I was one of those kids who would read with a flashlight under their blankets or while walking down the street (I don’t recommend the latter!). My mother introduced me to some of the early books that I love still—like the Betsy-Tacy or All of a Kind Family series, books whose characters were written so richly and vividly that I’d forget they weren’t real.
Q: Your family immigrated from the U.S. to Canada. I suspect the move had to do with a position for your dad? And do you remember that move, and how did it affect you?
Alicia: My father accepted a position at the University of Waterloo in 1966 after completing his Ph.D. at Yale and he moved with my mother and their 2-month-old twin boys to Canada. My dad had a few other job offers (all in the USA), but my parents took a leap of faith and moved here. I am the only one in the family born in Canada (although I maintain dual citizenship thanks to my parents). As a child, not having any extended family nearby meant that my parents’ friends, who were a fairly diverse group of people in terms of ethnicity and culture, became our extended family. I’ve always appreciated this.
Q: Your primary career is one as a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, working with young adults. Would you say academia exerts extraordinary pressures on students, especially in light of their inexperience and youth? Or do you find students are generally far more resilient?
Alicia: I think that for any student, university is a time of major transitions. Many are away from home for the first time and are attempting to make day-to-day decisions without frequent parental input. Some have the added pressure of being in a new country or having to speak a new language. For many students, university life can feel quite pressured and demanding, particularly with regard to certain academic programs, which have very high expectations for their students. That said, I think that in general university communities are becoming more aware of the stresses students may be under and are offering more services and support than ever before.
I also think that many students are quite resilient, if given the time, space, and support they may need to adapt. To be honest, I think the transition to university life is often at least as challenging for parents, who might not realize how resilient their children truly are, if given the opportunity to experience things on their own.
Q: What are some of the common problems you see, as a psychologist, if you’re able to disclose that information?
Alicia: I would say that in my past work as a psychologist I’ve seen clients present with an extremely wide range of problems, from temporary stresses to actual psychosis (e.g., schizophrenia). In terms of my work at the university clinic, the majority of clients I have worked with are struggling with a mood (e.g., depression) or anxiety concern.
For some individuals, such a concern might be temporary and related to stresses (e.g., academic, relational) in their lives. For others, they may be struggling with a clinically significant problem that might require more in-depth treatment. My Master’s and Ph.D. theses were in the area of eating disorders, so I have also worked with a number of clients experiencing anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
Q: So why the transition to writing fiction? What was the spark that made you decide to invest so much time and energy into the crafting of a novel?
Alicia: I would say that for me, writing came before an interest in psychology. To be honest, I kind of stumbled into psychology, thanks to having an amazing professor for an introductory course as an undergrad. Writing has always been a given to me, something that I’ve felt like I had to do to be myself. In the past I’ve sometimes focused on writing poetry rather than fiction, but I’ve always written. I remember when my eldest two children were little, I would jot down ideas on scrap paper while watching them play. It’s just something that I’ve always done and somehow made time for. From about the age of eight or so, I’d lug my parents’ ancient typewriter into my room and peck away at the keys for hours at a time, writing stories or poems. Some of the stories were pretty dreadful, but I didn’t care. I used to persuade my best friend to listen to instalments of whatever book I was writing, including a cheesy teen romance novel I wrote at around age 12 or 13 (sorry Alison!).
In terms of writing A Subtle Thing, I can thank my third child Max for that! I find that being alone with a small infant all day is physically demanding but not mentally. While nursing Max or watching him nap, my mind would be free to create ideas for my book. I’d often jot down thoughts in a notebook and then run to the computer whenever he’d nap, to write my novel.
Now that I’m again on maternity leave with my fourth (and final!) child, I find the same thing happening again. Nursing a baby takes hours each day, hours in which you have to remain still. I can’t do laundry while nursing, I can’t prepare meals, but I can use that time to read or to write. I’ve been able to create my next book this way and I’m very excited.
While the baby is so young, we’ve kept our toddler in daycare during the day. In a few months he will also be at home with me, which will mean I’ll need to become a bit more scheduled in terms of when to fit in my writing (e.g., once all four are in bed!). I’m lucky to be married to a professional writer (a journalist) who takes having time to write very seriously!
Q: The story you tell in A Subtle Thing deals with a heart-breaking and, in the end, an uplifting journey into a young woman’s battle with clinical depression. Is clinical depression more common than we realize? Give us some background about the condition?
Alicia: I chose to write about clinical depression (known as Major Depressive Disorder) because it is one of the most common mental health diagnoses, particularly for women, and it affects such a significant proportion of the population. In a way, the fact that it’s so prevalent is good news, because it means that a lot of time and money is being put in to develop and research reliable, effective treatments. Unfortunately, for a lot of people depression is a recurrent disorder which impacts them throughout their lives. While there seems to be increased public awareness about depression, for many it remains shrouded in secrecy or shame, as if it were a weakness or failing, rather than a legitimate medical condition.
Q: If someone close to us is suffering from clinical depression, what kind of interventions would you suggest?
Alicia: I would suggest that if a person is worried about a loved one, that they trust their instincts. I would encourage them to express their concerns to the loved one, no matter how difficult this is to do, and to seek out information and help for that person. To me, knowledge is definitely power, so learning more about what depression is and what help is available within the community is important. Family physicians are often the front line for help, but hospitals, community mental health centres, public health units, or university/college counselling clinics can also provide valuable information about what resources might be available to the person in need.
While you cannot force an adult to get help, one can be upfront about one’s concerns and consistently offer emotional support. Major depression is a serious, isolating disorder and one which does carry the risk of suicide. It might even be helpful for a concerned person to speak to a counsellor or a psychotherapist themselves, so that they can get advice about what to do.
Q: Why tell this story, then? Why write A Subtle Thing?
Alicia: I didn’t intentionally plan to write a story about depression, it just kind of unfolded that way. I started “hearing” the voice of the protagonist in my head and she kind of took it from there. People in my life who have read my stuff (like my friend Alison, my husband Joel, or my brother Nate) will likely tell you that much of what I write has a “dark” side to it. One glimpse of my poetry from adolescence could be proof of that! To me, though, my writing isn’t dark so much as it is about the search for meaning in life, across experiences, including upsetting ones. I think that’s what drew me to psychology in the first place. Having a philosopher as a father certainly helped!
Q: Rumour has it you’re now working on a second novel. Any chance of sharing a synopsis of it?
Alicia: Definitely! I’m very excited about the novel I’ve been working on. The book focuses upon issues related to past childhood bullying and the impact such experiences have upon those involved, now that they are adults. The victim in question struggles with a disorder called trichotillomania, which is compulsive hair pulling, but really it could be about any “difference” or “oddity” among us. The book is not the victim’s story so much as the story of her former friend. The death of the victim at the beginning of the book leads the main character on a journey into her past, a journey which forces her to re-examine her image of self as “good”. Such self-examination has repercussions for the current relationships in her life. At the centre of the book are issues related to guilt, reparation, and self-forgiveness.
Q: As always, I must ask, when Alicia Hendley isn’t being a mom of four, a wife, a psychologist and a writer, what does she do to find distraction and interest?
Alicia: A good question! Other than try desperately to sleep (a limited commodity with a two-month-old!), I like to immerse myself in the world of stories, whether through reading books or watching movies or certain TV shows. Other interests include cooking, taking long drives, or spending time with family.