Beleaguered university students often have two words on hand to describe the assignment of a thesis: exhausting and stressful. But Alyssa Brugman has another word to add to that list when speaking on her own PhD thesis: “fulfilling”.
It began with a thesis topic on unreliable narration. Brugman submitted a creative piece in response: a manuscript that would become the author’s new YA novel, Alex As Well. In Alex as Well, Alex decides she needs to change, to create a new identity – and decides to explore a new gender identity amidst an imploding family.
“The creative piece was designed to demonstrate a range of narrative devices that I studied in my thesis,” explained Brugman. “The manuscript began as a technical exercise. I was looking for a way a character could be divided by two opposing views. Gender seemed to be a good match for that.”
Emotional development and sexual maturity is already a mainstay in young adult fiction, and she felt as though Alex As Well could add to this area of adolescent characters coming to terms with their identities in their own way.
Brugman’s technical research for the thesis paid off in terms of her approach to her writing.
“I learned a lot of technical terms for things I had done before in other books, and now I can see them when I read other people’s books. It’s kind of like opening the bonnet of a novel, and seeing all the different parts of its engine.”
How an author chooses to approach their selected topic, and voice, through research is often one of the most interesting parts of the story behind the story. Brugman used ‘Making Girls and Boys’ by Jane McCredie as her primary source.
“She talks about responses to gender over in different cultures, and at different times in our history, which is quite separate from how we view gender now. I found that to be enlightened,” said Brugman.
Like other authors, there are certain parts of Alex’s story that Brugman hopes will resonate with readers. For instance, Brugman juxtaposed Alex’s struggles with her identity alongside experiences every teen will emphasize with. After all, who hasn’t had an argument with their parents at some point?
“Alex struggles because her idea of self is different from how she is seen by others. There is friction between Alex and her parents, because her parents had a vision of how Alex would be – how she was raised, and Alex is choosing to be something else,” explained Brugman.“Every discussion becomes oppositional to the point where Alex and her parents come to expect conflict, and see insult in everything the other says.”
Even her favorite character to write, a lawyer named Crockett, was weighed out with a certain technical skill in order to stay imperative to the plot.
Alex As Well is far from Brugman’s first step into publishing. She has been writing for over twenty years, including a period when she had doubts about her own abilities.
“I didn’t really begin to write until I was in my late twenties,” said Brugman. “I wrote Finding Grace, which was then published by the first publisher I sent it to. I didn’t send it anywhere else in the meantime. If they had said no, I probably would have stopped at one manuscript and done something else creatively, like sculpture or acting in local productions.”
“Pursuing creative endeavors is good for your mental health, and is worth doing for its own sake,” said Brugman. “It can be easy to lose sight of the joy of writing. It’s free. There’s no risk. The only thing you are losing is time, and if you are learning and improving your craft then that’s time well spent.”
For more information on Alyssa Brugman, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.