July 20, 2021

Sully, Messed Up: Q & A with author Stephanie Simpson McLellan

Yesterday I reviewed Stephanie Simpson McLellan's new middle grade/young adult novel Sully, Messed Up from Red Deer Press. This story about bullying was so compelling that I asked author Stephanie Simpson McLellan if I could do a Q & A with her to learn a little bit more about Sully and his story. She graciously agreed.

Sully, Messed Up
Written by Stephanie Simpson McLellan
Red Deer Press
312 pp.
Ages 11-15
April 2021

Today I present that interview with author Stephanie Simpson McLellan about Sully, Messed Up.

Author Stephanie Simpson McLellan

HK:  When Sully wakes up on the first day of Grade 9, his face is messed up, with his nose, ears, mouth, nose and eyes relocating themselves around his head. Throughout the story, his facial landscape changes, but no one, except the Purse Lady, can see it. What was the purpose of giving Sully this transforming face?
SSM:  When I wrote the first draft of this story many years ago, my own three children were journeying through the often confusing and anxious space called adolescence. I remember well navigating this time myself. Every emotion feels so big and significant, and certainly anxiety – Sully’s prevailing emotion - can feel very physical. Most of us can relate to feeling sometimes that whatever emotion we’re feeling must be obvious – as plain as the nose on our face. So, at the most basic level, Sully’s messed up face is a metaphor for what he’s feeling inside.

Over the last year as I worked with Peter Carver on the book, I started to think also that it was an especially apt metaphor given that, with the popularity of social media, little is private. Both the good and bad things that happen to you— and everything in between—are very public. It’s like one giant bulletin board where everything about you is posted for everyone to see. No hiding! We even post emojis to tell people how we’re feeling, which is like giving people permission to look into your heart. In this vein, the metaphor of Sully’s messed-up face plays with how public everything is these days by taking it out of the digital space and putting it back into the physical world. Sully’s misery feels very public to him—so real and uncomfortable that surely everyone must be able to see his fears and insecurities.

HK:  I loved Mr. C’s fence of figurines whose scenes predict or illustrate Sully’s life and those of others in it. The characters you chose to represent each of the story’s characters, like Charlie Brown for Sully, Sleeping Beauty for Blossom and Madonna for the Purse Lady, were brilliant.  Please tell us about the inspiration for this fence, and how you chose the figurines to symbolize the characters.
SSM:  True Street, where the fence is located, is loosely based on a real street in my town that comes off Newmarket’s Fairy Lake Park. While I’ve taken some creative liberties with the actual geography and look of the house that sits on this short street, the real house actually did have a snake-rail fence about a decade ago, to which plastic figurines were affixed and often rearranged. While I never knew (or even saw) the owner, those figurines on the fence intrigued me, and I wondered what motivated someone to do this.

The character of each plastic figurine took some time to sort out. The final cast of characters is probably version six, changing each time I rewrote another draft. I wanted it to be at least somewhat plausible that each figurine could exist, and that readers would know who they were, but also wanted each figurine to reflect and reveal the character it represented. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, but then life (and high school as a subset of life) is a little like that – throwing people together from all sorts of backgrounds.

HK:  As an educator, I was saddened by the ineffectiveness and ignorance of Sully’s teachers and even his principal with regards to his bullying and the hazing carried out in the school. Why do you think they were all so oblivious of these goings-on? Or were they?
SSM:  My own kids had some great and not so great teachers. That’s probably true for all of us. I think, truthfully, that the bully/victim dynamic is tough on everyone, and as much as a school can say they don’t tolerate bullies, there are many things that make this difficult to regulate. For one, much of what happens to Sully occurs off school grounds. Secondly, Sully himself hides what’s happening from the teachers and other adults, fearing reprisal from the bullies. My goal wasn’t to paint the school administration as ineffectual but perhaps instead to reflect that there are some kids who fall through the cracks for one reason or another. In my son’s case, I knew there were teachers and administrators who cared, but it didn’t change the outcome. Mr. Green and Ms. Winters are parodies of real teachers I’ve known. The wonderful Ms. Wippet embodies many of the incredible educators I’ve encountered, but even Ms. Wippet can help only so far as Sully permits her to. 

HK:  Outside of bullies Tank, Ox and Dodger, so many characters could have altered the course of Sully’s story in Sully, Messed Up if they had spoken, listened or acted. Sully needed to speak up sooner, teachers and administrators needed to listen and open their eyes, and Sully’s classmates could’ve stepped up rather than act as silent bystanders or reinforcers who perpetuated the bullying with name-calling and laughter.  Which character or characters, outside of the trio of bullies, do you think was most important in that they could have changed everything for Sully by acting differently?
SSM:  Sully himself, as he came to realize, was the key to changing everything. Blossom and Morsixx tried very hard to help Sully but I believe that no matter how much we are loved and cared for by others, we are each ultimately responsible for ourselves. We make our own choices. It is up to us to advocate for ourselves. When I reflect back on some of my other books (such as Hoogie in the Middle and The Christmas Wind) I realize the thread of this is in much of what I write.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I’m not saying bullies can’t gain power over others (history gives us enough of those examples), but I believe that on a personal level, you can shrink a bully’s power by refusing to consent to the opinion they have of you. Decide that their opinion is not valid and then live that. Making a decision like this changes the way you think, feel and act. It changes the choices you make.

At one point in the book, I quote Barack Obama’s eloquent line: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” I think all the people in the world could have come to Sully’s aid, but it was only when he was ready that he became able to change is outcome.

HK:  Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” figures prominently in Sully, Messed Up, both as part of an English assignment but also as reflective of Blossom’s story. Why use this classic ballad to mirror one character’s story?
SSM:  My undergrad major was English Lit (with a minor in Economics) and I loved nineteenth century literature. “The Lady of Shalott” poem and the beautiful rendering of it by John William Waterhouse, always stayed with me. When I first conceived the character of Blossom (at a Motocross park in Chatsworth, Ontario where my son was riding), it was with the image of “The Lady of Shalott” in my head: someone ethereal and mysterious; strong and individual, but also someone under the control of something bigger than her and, thus, ultimately fragile.

HK:   Though readers cannot help but feel bad for Sully as a victim of bullying, he is not always a likeable character. He’s so wrapped up in his own issues, monumental as they are, that he can’t see how rude he can be to others like Winston and Blossom and Morsixx. Why make Sully worthy of both our sympathy and occasionally our scorn?
SSM:  Not all of us are born leaders and heroes, and certainly Sully isn’t either of those for much of the book. But I think most of us have, or have had, a little bit of this in us. A preoccupation with our own story, unable to see outside our own heads. I wanted to make Sully real, someone deeply flawed who would really have to work at creating the best version of himself. Throughout much of the book, he giftwraps himself as the victim Tank is seeking. He does understand this on some level but hasn’t grown enough to alter it. I do love books where the protagonist is a hero waiting to happen, someone who already has the right ingredients for greatness, but I wanted to pay homage to someone who might never have completely realized his own potential without first being dragged kicking and screaming to this point. I think there are real Sully’s in every school. Kids who are under the radar, who don’t believe in themselves, who are fearful and anxious. I wanted to volley the idea that even these “through the cracks” kids have the potential to pull themselves in a different, and perhaps better, direction.

HK:  If there was one message you would like readers to take from Sully, Messed Up, what would it be?
SSM:  I would like readers to reflect on the idea that we are each captain of our own ship. That change starts with us and if we’re not happy with our current reality, it’s up to us to make different choices – including asking for, or accepting, help from others.

• • • • • • •

Sincere thanks to Stephanie Simpson McLellan for agreeing to be interviewed and providing such thoughtful and honest answers to my questions. 
Learning even more about Sully, I encourage all educators and school administrators and parents to read Sully, Messed Up to help the young people in their lives.
• • • • • • •

Though Sully, Messed Up is Stephanie Simpson McLellan's first novel for young people, she has an impressive collection of children's picture books. Do check out these titles too.

Leon's Song (2004)
The Chicken Cat (2000)

No comments:

Post a Comment