Interview with Alicia Thompson
An interview with Alicia Thompson, author of Psych Major Syndrome.
First of all, how on earth did you manage to write a novel and finish college at the same time?
It’s all kind of a blur, actually. But writing my thesis helped me finish Psych Major Syndrome, since I never wanted to work on my thesis so I would distract myself with the novel instead. It’s kind of like how your room is always cleanest when you have a big paper to do.
How were you able to get it published?
I sent the manuscript out right away, even though they tell you not to do that. I also broke all the rules when it came to who I sent it to. I made a huge list of all these agents – it hung on my wall for a really long time, I still have it somewhere – and I crossed off any who represented an author I actually respected and liked. I just didn’t think I had a shot with them. So my first round of queries went to a bunch of agents I really had no personal connection with or any reason to believe they were the right fit for my book. Of course, I didn’t have much success. Then I made some revisions to the manuscript and sent it to one agent in particular, who I really respected and who I researched a lot, and she responded to my query to say she wasn’t interested. But at that point I was invested, and so I asked her to take another look at a partial. She did, and less than a year later she’d sold my book
Despite your degree in Psychology, what motivated you to become a writer?
Writing has actually been my Plan A since kindergarten. When I was in high school, I had a couple rough years where I just stopped doing homework or caring about class, and my mother told me I needed to get my act together if I wanted to go to college and do anything with my life. Just to be difficult, I would say I didn’t need college, and that my plan was to write and do whatever menial job I had to do in order to cultivate my craft. I brought up Leonardo DiCaprio a lot at that point, both because I had a HUGE crush on him, and because he didn’t go to college and yet was enormously successful. So Leonardo DiCaprio was my poster child for why school didn’t matter.
But of course I realized my mom was right (aren’t they always?), and I turned my grades around and went to college. I majored in psychology because I’ve always been interested in it and because I figured I needed a Plan B – it IS hard to make a living from writing. I was always writing, though, and when I finished the book I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t have given up on Plan A so easily, and it was worth a shot. What if Leonardo DiCaprio had become an architect? Who would’ve been eating Gilbert Grape, then?
What parts of Psych Major Syndrome were based on your own experiences in college and as a Psychology major? What parts weren’t?
A lot of it came from my own experiences. The psych department at my school was more like a grad program in some ways than undergrad, and so there was a lot of competition over research opportunities and conferences and who was co-authoring a paper with a professor and who was going to what grad school. I didn’t know anyone as crazy about it as Sydney and Ellen, though – it’s more like everyone had this undercurrent of competition running through them, and I just exaggerated it in a couple of characters to make them more interesting.
The part where Leigh goes to a conference pretty much EXACTLY happened to me, including her lovely neighbors at her hotel. Yikes!
I almost feel like there is a double-meaning to the fact that you use the word “Psych” instead of “Psychology” in the title. It almost seems like a play on the words “psychological” and “psychic.” Did you do this deliberately to highlight the dichotomy of analyzing (which Leigh does a lot) versus intuiting (which is not necessarily her strong point)?
That makes the title sound really brilliant – I wish I could take credit for it! I don’t think I thought that deliberately about it, but I definitely wanted to highlight the difference between Leigh – who thinks TOO much with her brain – and her parents, who take a more spiritual approach.
I spent about three weeks when I started the novel asking people, “What’s the term for when a medical student thinks they have every disease they research? What’s that called? There’s a similar term for psychology, right?” I never did get a good answer, so I just made it up myself – Psych Major Syndrome!
Why do you think that Leigh is so oblivious to her own feelings and motivations?
Leigh spends so much time trying to break down her life and examine it from every angle that she never looks inward to see what she wants. I think she lives too much in her head, and not enough in her heart.
The freshmen in this book seem so certain of their path in college. I don’t recall being as decisive about my first year. Did you know you wanted to be a Psychology major when you went to college? Do you think some of these characters might change their minds?
Most college freshmen don’t know what they want to major in – or if they do, it changes by the time they actually have to declare a major. I actually did know what I wanted to study right away – technically, I was a psych/history major, so I had to start really early if I wanted to fulfill all the requirements to fit both majors. But then again, I’m unnaturally decisive when it comes to huge life-altering decisions – I spend an hour agonizing over what to have for dinner each night, but I only applied to one college and I married the only man I’ve ever dated. So I know it’s unusual.
The fictional Stiles College in the book is very rigorous, and that’s why there’s so much pressure for the characters in the book to know their path, and also why the kind of students who go there would probably know what they want to do. Of course, they could always change their minds – I like to think that Andrew decides to be a performance art major after he has an epiphany his second year. But maybe not.
Why do Ami and Leigh become friends so fast even though they are so different?
I think they become friends so fast because they ARE so different. They really balance each other out. Leigh can be too neurotic, while Ami can be too freewheeling. They can get on each other’s nerves and they might bicker, but they really complement each other.
I like how you demonstrate how confusing relationships and sex can be for college students who are making a life on their own for the first time. This felt very real to me. Did you set out to specifically address the thornier issues of birth control, pregnancy, and condoms as they relate to the dynamics of a relationship or did this just happen as the plot developed? I think it’s great that at one point Leigh actually states: “A girl should always carry her own condom!”
Wow, thanks! I didn’t start out intending to take the book in that direction, but they’re definitely issues that are important to me, and as you pointed out, they’re a big deal for college students who are newly independent and exploring more adult relationships. When I was in college, I did really participate in a mentoring program that dealt almost exclusively with teenage pregnancy. I’m not sure why – we had other issues in the handbook we were supposed to cover, including, oddly enough, personal hygiene. During our training session we were told not to be “too frank” with these girls, and that abstinence was the party line. And I just remember thinking, how are these girls supposed to learn anything if we can’t really talk to them?
Now that you are in graduate school, what is your focus? Are you working on another book? How is your graduate experience different from college?
Well, I’m in grad school for creative writing instead of psychology – one day, when the kids I haven’t had yet are grown and moved out of the house, maybe I’ll go back to school for clinical psychology, because I do find it fascinating. But for now I’m at USF getting my MFA in Fiction and having a blast with it – my professors and classmates are awesome, and it still amazes me a little bit that I get to write all the time and get credit for it.
I’m working on a couple of projects right now – the first is a middle-grade series about four gymnasts that I’m writing with a former Olympic champion. I am super, super excited about that project, since I’m pretty much obsessed with gymnastics, and it’s a lot of fun to write. The second project is a young adult novel about a girl who’s having trouble keeping afloat in her life . . . it has a lot of psychology in it, too, but is a little more serious in tone than Psych Major Syndrome. The thing I love about grad school is that it’s like my classmates are all on top of their game – they’re writing brilliant stuff, they’re making insightful observations about stuff we read in class. It’s a really inspiring environment to be in. But in college, you’ll stay up until four in the morning eating Taco Bell and debating which Bill and Ted movie is better. In grad school, everyone has jobs and kids and a life completely separate from school, so it’s harder to form those same close friendships.
Thank you for this interview!
Thank YOU! These questions were really interesting, and I had a blast answering them.