Interview: Mark Stevenson talks about Jessie and the Monster
Mark Stevenson is an author and educator, happily married to Trudi, with whom he has two daughters. For many years his daughter Frankie wrestled with anxiety, something Mark and his family struggled to make sense of. He wrote Jessie and the Monster to help other parents of young people suffering from anxiety, and to offer the children themselves a hopeful future. Mark talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Jessie and the Monster.
Jessie and the Monster is a fictional story based on a girl, Jessie, who suffers from Anxiety. In real terms, her life has become unsettled by the significant illness of her mum. In a parallel world, this Anxiety is, in fact, an evil monster that has broken through from his dark domain and invaded her Kingdom. Though the wisdom of the King’s son and her own courage and tenacity, Jessie learns how to not only deal with this tormenting entity, but how to face it successfully.
What inspired you to write this book?
My daughter, Frankie has suffered from Anxiety ever since she was young. Despite many visits to a myriad of experts, nothing worked. In her teenage years she was committed to Auckland Hospital so acute was her condition, and we did fear for her life. It is hard to imagine, but today she is healthy and vibrant and in February she begins her career as a teacher. I had prayed non-stop since her being four years old for her to be set free from this affliction, however though not completely healed from it, she has accepted it and has even used her understanding and empathy to help others. In my job as an educator, one of my portfolios was as SENCO, which deals with behavioural and learning impairments in children. Over the years I have seen an exponential growth in the number of cases of anxiety that has caused incredible stress, shame and suffering on not only the child, but also on their family. This book was written with the intent of helping people, particularly students and their families who are inflicted with it.
What research was involved?
As part of my role, I did ongoing research through mainly educational sectors such as RTLB services and Whirinaki. These supplied me with further, clinical understanding and also workshops within our school to help with develop and implement processes and personalised learning plans to scaffold each student. Probably the greatest research was the ongoing relationships I built with students with anxiety and their parents to understand the individual issues and needs involved.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
This book started 20 years ago in my head! However, in late 2018, whilst running each morning, I began to form the plot line of two fantasy worlds colliding; one good and one evil. In my mind I could see the whole thing, and thus the story was created. I seriously loved it. I approached several publishing houses and one referred me onto Linda Cassells, a well respected editor and publisher. Linda agreed to help me with the editing. I imagined this process to be minimal in requirements. How wrong I was. Linda is amazing; seriously amazing. What a gift. During Lockdown we would meet and she would coach me on how to turn a ‘rough diamond’ into what I think, is a treasure. The editing process took about twice as long as the writing of the draft! Despite a significant amount of work, she was instrumental in its evolution whilst not losing my vision nor my personal voice.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Snow Patrol, Open your Eyes. Brilliant.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?
Two things stand out. One, is turning the vision into words. The other is a little weird but true. The editing had finished and the next step was the illustrations. I was excited as I had completed all these myself. I loved them and I knew Linda would as well. She didn’t, in fact she basically ‘fired’ me from this role. I remember we were siting in a cafe when she said, 'Nope Mark these are just not suitable. We need someone else.'
Now you might think I would be devastated. I wasn’t. I was honoured. Linda had developed a similar belief and passion for this story that in a way, I saw she ‘owned’ it as much as me. She had caught the vision and belief it was a great and much needed piece of literacy. What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Did and little jig with my wife!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
The Dry, by Jane Harper. I love the development of characters, the powerful creation of a barren landscape in my mind and how my mind tried unsuccessfully to solve a whodunnit.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I am currently writing a book of short stories, called Black Pearl.