Brady G. Stefani has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and a graduate degree in law. During law school, he interned with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, where he interacted with patients suffering from severe thought disorders, including numerous patients presenting with subjectively real memories of being visited and abducted by alien beings. It was through his study of these patients, along with his own struggles with anxiety and cognition, that Stefani became aware of just how deceiving, mysterious, and powerfully resilient the human mind can be.
Welcome Brady, and thank you for being with us today. Why don’t you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself?
I live in Royal Oak, Michigan, with my wife and our twin first grade boys (and Lucy, our not-so-well-behaved Labradoodle). I have a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and a J.D. I split my working hours between practicing law and writing.
As far as my writing goes, I try to thread together my interests in neuroscience, psychiatry and the paranormal. More specifically, in an effort to provide awareness of mental suffering, and spread hope to all those touched by it, I focus on writing YA fiction that explore the experience of being different, and the other-worldly places our boundary-less imaginations can take us. The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman is my first novel. But with a sequel currently in progress, the journey has just begun.
What is The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman about?
It’s funny, I never describe The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman quite the same way twice. But in simplest terms, it’s the story of Courtney, a teenage girl in northern California, who begins experiencing frightening, waking-dreams in which she is visited by alien-beings who claim to have shared an alliance with her grandfather, and are now out to recruit Courtney to join their cause. Of course, Courtney knows aliens aren’t real, so she starts to suspect that she is going crazy. To make matters worse, real or not, these visitors are messing with her thought process, forcing her to revisit frightening memories of her alien-obsessed grandpa who had Courtney tattooed with a mysterious symbol when she was seven, then tried to drown her in a bathtub before disappearing, only to drown himself.
So at first, Courtney just wants the nocturnal visits to stop. Then, she meets Agatha Kirlich, a model in the Norwegian death metal scene, who is obsessed with aliens and is searching for an underground agency she believes can help traumatized abductees like Courtney and her own brother. When Agatha learns about Courtney’s visitations, and sees the tattoo Courtney received as a kid from her grandpa, she is convinced that Courtney is the missing link, and that her tattoo is a clue to finding the secret agency.
While Courtney doesn’t entirely trust Agatha, and still fears that the more she obsesses over aliens, the crazier she will become, Courtney starts digging around in grandpa’s old keepsakes. What she discovers, only Agatha would understand. Soon, the two teens set out on a quest to uncover Courtney’s past, the secret history of mankind, the truth about the alien visitors, and of course, the looming apocalypse that must be averted. Or so Courtney perceives. Reality can be subjective.
What was your inspiration for writing this book?
My inspiration for this book was to use all of the incomprehensible fear and anxiety inside of me, and try to fictionalize a world and storyline where the protagonist’s mental suffering served some greater cause. A story about someone who felt broken but learned they were just unique, or chosen if you will.
What was your biggest challenge in writing The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman?
My first challenge was writing through a first person narrator who is a teenage girl. I’m no longer a teenager, and I’m male. But I spent some time observing and eavesdropping, and I pretty quickly found Courtney’s voice. Plus, for much of the book Courtney is panicking, riddled with anxiety, and frightened of her own mind. And that is state of mind I know all too well. When you’re worried about your sanity, engaging in clever teen banter is not a priority. Although she and Agatha have a good time engaging in battles of wit.
Having a female protagonist was important to me—a way of separating myself from my own painful memories. To have written about a teenage boy undergoing these experiences would have caused me to shy away from certain emotions. Plus, I needed Courtney to possess qualities I definitely lacked as an adolescent. That said, the sequel, which I am writing now, has some interesting male characters.
My second challenge came when I realized that this wasn’t a story about a fight against aliens, but about the danger of burying painful emotions and the struggle to understand and accept oneself.
You see, at first, I set out to examine the psychological effects that being visited by aliens would have on a teenage mind and how the effected teen would go about finding help for such an unbelievable problem. However, the further I got into the storyline, and the deeper I got into Courtney’s mind, the more I began to realize that it didn’t matter whether aliens are real or not, as long as they felt real to Courtney. In this sense, the aliens began to transform from being “the problem needing fixing” to an unconscious trigger urging Courtney to dig into her past and fix “the real problem”—her inability to accept the things that happened to her, and allow those experiences to be a part of who she is now.
What lured you to the Young Adult Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre?
During a summer break in high school, I suffered a traumatic brain injury. When I returned home from the hospital, I had no visible injuries—I looked the same, talked the same, and to my friends I was more or less the same person as I had been. However, things on the inside were not the same. My thoughts were not always under my control, and just below surface of my mind were ever-present, fearful memories of my accident and time in the hospital, that I couldn’t fully access. My mind became a frightening place. Unfortunately for me, I kept this from my friends and family. I was crazy, and people could sense that, they just didn’t know the extent of it. And I did everything I could do to bury my feelings of suffering as far down as I could.
As a kid, I had always been drawn to books and movies that explored alternative realities: The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, and Quantum Leap to name a few. Especially after my head injury—things, to me, just seemed different than they appeared. I felt there had to be more going on than we could see. Another world perhaps, other dimensions, forces at work behind the scenes.
Fast forward to law school. I interned for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health where I conducted involuntary commitment hearings. There, I came across patients diagnosed with schizophrenia who wholeheartedly believed they had been abducted by aliens, and that they were not mentally ill, but were experiencing side effects of the abductions. They believed that they knew the truth, and the rest of us were wrong. I was fascinated! Hooked on aliens!
Around the same time, The X-Files show came out, and I loved it. Then in 2005, Harvard psychology professor, Susan Clancy, published a book based on her case studies entitled Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. Clancy more or less concluded that the alien abduction phenomenon was caused by a combination of sleep paralysis and the mind’s ability to suppress memories of traumatic experiences and convert them to fantasy. It was sound theory. But she dismissed the possibility that these people were actually being visited by aliens. Just as no one has produced irrefutable evidence that aliens are visiting Earth, neither did Clancy prove the people she interviewed had not been visited by aliens.
So, I set out to create a fictional rebuttal to Clancy’s theory. A story about a girl who is being visited by aliens and no one believes her. But again, the deeper I delved into Courtney’s character and her motivations, the more I began to suspect that I was writing about my own post-brain injury experiences. The experience of not being in control of your mind, of desperately seeking some explanation for my experiences, otherworldly or not, and yet having nowhere to turn for help.
How do you think writing for the YA crowd differs from writing for a more mature audience?
Well, interestingly, many of the readers who have read my novel, or leave reviews anyway, are in their twenties and thirties and older. So I am not sure that I am yet reaching the teen to early twenties readers whom my novel was geared toward. For some reason, they haven’t found my book yet. But I’m hoping they will come around.
That said, writing a novel that examines the struggles and experiences of a teenager is much different that writing the story of an adult—be they reflecting on their past or consumed in present. The main difference, in my experience, is that an adult protagonist brings adult experiences to their dilemma. And as they say, hindsight is 20-20. What is interesting to me about teenage characters is that they not only lack the life experience of an adult, but they are physically, neurologically and psychologically transforming from children to adults. They are often faced with adult experiences, but have yet to develop the maturity and perspective to see beyond the present moment.
Not that adolescents are not mature and intelligent— nor are all adults mature and intelligent. Adolescents are often smart and mature. However, they oscillate between the urge to retreat to the safety and innocence (perceived or real) of childhood, and the hunger and desire to shed the safety of youth and become self-reliant. Being able to write about and examine the process of a young person breaking away from parental protection or lack thereof, and learning to rely on one’s self in the face of adversity or trauma, “coming of age”, is unique to YA. And that is what I love about it: a character facing the great unknown. The YA audience wants to see the protagonist cut the ties to its youth and emerge self-reliant. Adult fiction readers, would expect the protagonist, as damaged as they may be, to come in with insight, buried or not, and to mature and apply that insight.
So there’s that. And when writing YA fiction, I can’t swear as much as I would like to. Or I can, but I can count on the editor to cut out 75% of my profanity. Teenagers swear. What can I say? I like to hear my characters swear.
What is the best part about being an author of YA novels?
The best part is when someone asks me what I do, I get to tell them I am a writer, as opposed to telling them I am an attorney. Although I am not yet able to financially support myself with my writing, and thus I split my time between writing and practicing law, the conversations that arise after holding myself out as writer of young adult fiction are far more interesting than the conversation I am usually dragged into after telling people I am an attorney. No offense to attorneys, many have interesting career related stories! I am not one of them.
What distinguishes The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman from other YA Science Fiction/Fantasy?
Well, despite the alien visitors and journey into the unknown, Alienation is more of coming-of-age story about a girl with a problem and no one to share it with, than it is a hardcore sci-fi novel. It takes place in modern day Bay Area, California, with parents and curfews and the drama of high school life—no post-war dystopia, etc. Courtney is a seemingly normal girl.
The sci-fi in this book (and there is an elaborate world of secret societies battling over access points to an alien universe that co-exists with our own) is completely undetected by 99.99% of the world’s population. So, whether it takes place only in Courtney’s mind, or her mind is able to perceive what normal people cannot, Courtney and her few allies are quite alone in their quest. They’re not unsung heroes, but they’re unknown heroes who, if they were to come forth with what they knew, normal people would dismiss as crazy.
What is it you hope readers take away from your books?
I would love it if readers, especially teens and young adults, would come away from reading my book with the understanding that EVERYONE goes through painful traumatic events in life that often feel overpowering. Traumas come in many shapes and sizes. The loss of a friend or family member, a parent leaving, being bullied or ostracized, the onset of mental or physical health issues, or the suffering of sexual, physical or mental abuse are just a few of the many heartbreaking tragedies that teens can face.
The emotions that follow are often overwhelming and seem insurmountable. And unfortunately, for those teens who have no support, or who are too ashamed or embarrassed to think and talk about what happened, the emotions become unbearable. Many choose the path I took after my head injury, burying those thoughts and feelings at all cost. But that solution is short term at best. Talking, thinking (and for me writing) about what happened and is happening to you, helps you gradually make sense out of it all, and in doing so you strengthen your ability cope with the feelings you’ve spent so much effort running from.
So in short, the takeaway I’m hoping for is an understanding that everyone goes through horrible things and feelings like an outcast at times, and if and when it happens to you, you need to first know that you are not alone. Second, as uncomfortable thoughts and feelings arise, your way through this is not to push your feelings away, but to share your experience with other people. Find friends or experienced adults to talk to. The more you bring your thoughts and feelings out in the open, the more you start to make sense out of what happened to you and how you can move forward with your life despite of it, and finally the less frightening the feelings associated with your experience become.
That may sound like dime store psychology, but books that show characters going through this process are invaluable to anyone wishing to become a better, stronger, and more content person.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing, or about life in general?
Two pieces of writing advice come to mind (we’ll leave life advice for another interview).
The FIRST piece of advice is the old adage, if you want to write, you must read, and read more. I’ll take this a step further: if you want to publish a novel or memoir, then figure out what genre your envisioned story falls into, and then read current books within that genre that are being well-received by readers and/or are selling. The Catcher in the Rye (1951); The Outsiders (1967); Less Than Zero (1985); and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), were some of my favorite YA books when I was growing up. And they are all still amazing.
However, if you were to use their plot structure as your blueprint, readers would probably find your story lacking the present day pacing they’ve grown accustomed to. You need to know what people are reading, what they’re expecting plot point and pacing-wise, and match it. Likewise, relying on a ten year old best-selling how-to-structure-your-novel book (calling for twenty-five pages of set-up before the inciting incident, then crossing the threshold at page 90) is a set up for failure. Things move quickly these days.
The SECOND piece of writing advice I stick to came from a psychiatrist. Paraphrasing him: stop trying to hide from or get rid of feelings and memories that make you uncomfortable, and instead, tear off the bandage, poke the wound, and then make a story of out of your past experience. This is the basis of modern psychoanalysis—past traumas will continue to traumatize you until examine them, pull them out into the present, and make them part of your life story—part of who you are.
This holds true for writing. Don’t just write ‘what you know about,’ write about what frightens you or breaks your heart to even think about, and as you write about it, you will begin to see it in a new light. Everyone goes through traumatic experiences, and they like to read about people experiencing and overcoming such traumas. To write about it authentically, you need to dig deep and find the source of the wound, and then dissect its cause for the reader, and through your character’s resolution, show the reader a new way of carrying on with high spirits despite the mark it left.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t write in a bubble. Feedback is key to improving your craft, and can help trouble shoot pit falls and flush out the essence of any particular story you are working on. I haven’t been involved in a writers group since college, but there are plenty of them out there, whether it’s online or meeting up the old fashioned way at a coffee shop. I do send my drafts out to editors for what they call a critical review. It is a for-pay service, but it’s invaluable.
What do you like to do in your free time?
‘Free time’ what’s that? Unfortunately, my mind is not my own. I am consumed with whatever writing project I am working on: whether it’s plotting, writing, editing, brain storming, or reading other writers’ works. I imagine it’s much like a mathematician obsessed with solving a perhaps unsolvable equation—my mind does not shut off and is always arranging and rearranging the plot pieces. I do have free time, though. And if I keep busy enough, I can stay in the moment, instead of being sucked back into my writing project. I coach my kids’ hockey team, cheer at their soccer games, and weekend nights I enjoy loud music and the company of family and friends.
So, what’s next, do you have another project in the works?
I am working diligently on the sequel to The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman. Alienation is a self-standing book. However, the storyline begs to continue. I am really excited about the sequel. With much of the world building out of the way in the first book, I am much freer in the second book to dive into the action as well as explore the psychological effects the events of the first book had on the characters. They’ve come out as different people. And now they need to wrap their heads around their secret knowledge, and at the same time try to fit in with their peers and continue their development toward adulthood.
Oh, and I’m somewhat involved in a teleplay for a pilot for a television series “based on The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman” that may or may not be making its way around Hollywood. But that’s just a stack of paper with words on it. And as the late Bon Scott so accurately opined, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.” Well, it’s more than a long way to reach even the first step in the film and movie industry. So my focus is on writing my sequel!
Do you have a website or blog (or both) where readers can learn more about you and your works?
As you can tell in this interview, I enjoy discussing writing and psychology and science fiction. And I’d be happy to join in any conversation on any of the above. So hit me up on FB, Twitter or email me from my website, if you have a comment or question. I’d be happy to engage.
Where can readers purchase The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman?
All the usual suspects. My Amazon page has reviews, and you read the first chapter or listen to the first chapter of the audio book version here
I’m also on Barnes & Noble and the eBook and audio book are also available at iBooks and Audible.com respectively.
If you prefer to shop at local independent bookstores, check out IndieBound’s link to The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman. You can go to IndieBound and type in your area code and find local bookstores that either have the book in stock, or can order it in for you to pick up. So that’s the source for supporting the local book stores.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers today?
The universe often appears indifferent—bad things happen to good people—but we are all made of energy and infused with excitement for life. Don’t let the bad things get in the way of your excitement. Find something great about every day and be grateful for the experience. Then wake up the next day and look for ten more things to enjoy and be grateful for.
Brady, thank you so much for joining us today! I really enjoyed getting to know more about you and your work and look forward to the upcoming sequel of The Alienation of Courtney Hoffman.
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