Stephanie Wrobel Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Stephanie Wrobel
Photo: Simon Way

Stephanie Wrobel

An interview with Stephanie Wrobel

Stephanie Wrobel discusses her second novel, This Might Hurt, set inside an East Coast cult.

With a title like This Might Hurt, is there anything you'd like to warn readers about before they dip in?

I think the opening scene is the most gruesome! From there, the action becomes significantly less… repulsive.

How would you describe This Might Hurt?

This Might Hurt is a story about pain, fear, and endurance. It explores the light and dark sides of belief.

What kind of research did you do for the novel? Did anything surprise you?

I read books and articles and listened to podcasts about some of the most famous cults: Peoples Temple, Heaven's Gate, the Manson Family, FLDS, the Rajneeshpuram community, and NXIVM. I also did a ton of research on mentalism, self-help retreats, fear, pain, and persuasion.

On the cult front, I was most surprised to learn that pretty much anyone can be taken in by a cult if you catch them at the right—or wrong—time in their life. Plenty of lawyers, doctors, etc. have signed up. We tend to view cult members with disdain, judge them as naïve at best or unintelligent at worst. That's simply not true.

Another surprise was learning that brainwashing isn't real. Human beings can, of course, manipulate one another to extremes, but there's no such thing as taking over someone's mind against their will. A degree of consent must be present.

From the pain/fear perspective, I had never really thought about how much fear plays a role in pain. It's been scientifically proven that dread is more painful to the brain than the thing you're dreading. If you're afraid of an impending experience, the physical pain of said experience will be much worse than if you weren't afraid. That blows my mind!

In our culture there is a fascination with the psychology of cults—their leaders, followers and those who escape. Why do you think our society finds them so intriguing?

People love a good story, and cults almost always offer one. You take an unusual but exceptional individual who gets a bunch of other people to live under strange circumstances through means that are manipulative, unethical, and sometimes degrading. Conflict is inherent within cults; watching others try to navigate that conflict fascinates us.

Why were you personally inspired to write about the subject?

Like everyone else, I'm also fascinated by cults—and have been for as long as I can remember. In writing the book, I wanted to answer two questions: why do people join cults, and why do people lead them?

Did any real-life cults inspire the story?

An amalgamation of the cults mentioned above inspired the story. When you dig into a lot of them, you find patterns: peculiar terminology, hierarchies of participation or loyalty, the use of blackmail to keep members in line, leaders who are charismatic, narcissistic, and unpredictable. I incorporated all these elements into the novel.

I always want my books based in psychological and practical reality, so I dove deeply into real cult belief systems before developing my own. For example, Manson preached that his family should live in a constant state of fear. To them, fear was beautiful, a state of heightened awareness. My fictional cult, Wisewood, takes a different approach. They believe fear is the single biggest obstacle standing in our way; only by eliminating it can guests reach their Maximized Selves. These sound like opposite positions, but when you strip away the jargon, most cults promise the same thing: an elevated consciousness, a superior way of being.

The fictional community of Wisewood lives on a private island off the southern coast of Maine. Is it based off a particular place?

Wisewood isn't based off any real island or resort, but I imagine its location in mid-coastal Maine, about seven miles south of Vinalhaven Island, which is the most populous island in the area. Choosing a real region grounded some aspects of the story, like weather, transport, and agricultural possibilities, but creating a fake island allowed me to dress the set precisely as I wanted.

In your debut novel, Darling Rose Gold, you explored a complicated mother/daughter dynamic and in this next novel, This Might Hurt, you explore the equally complicated dynamic of sisters. Tell us about Natalie and Kit's relationship at the start of the novel.

Natalie and Kit only have each other for family, but they have opposite outlooks on life. Natalie is all about security—climbing the career ladder and contributing to her 401(k). Meanwhile, Kit's focus is meaning; she has spent her entire adulthood trying to find the thing that will give her life purpose. Consequently, Natalie sees Kit as an irresponsible flake while Kit sees Natalie as an inflexible tyrant. At the beginning of the novel, they haven't spoken in six months while Kit's been away at Wisewood.

What challenges did you face while writing This Might Hurt?

What challenges didn't I face?! That old chestnut about the second book being the hardest one for an author rang true for me; I struggled through all seven drafts. First and foremost, I found writing three first-person narrators with unique voices to be a real challenge. My cast was also much bigger this time than with Darling Rose Gold, so I spent an entire draft bringing the supporting characters to life. Finally, I didn't want my fictional cult's beliefs to be outlandish. My aim is for readers to nod along with Wisewood's principles, to think of them as harmless at first, even smart—because that's how these communities come off to new members. Nobody goes to an introductory meeting and is told they'll someday be forced to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid at gunpoint. The slide down the rabbit hole is gradual.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Stephanie Wrobel at BookBrowse
This Might Hurt jacket Darling Rose Gold jacket
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All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Stephanie Wrobel but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Barbara Bourland

    Barbara Bourland

    Barbara Bourland is the author of the critically acclaimed I'll Eat When I'm Dead, a Refinery29 Best Book of 2017 and an Irish Independent Book of the Year. People called I'll Eat When I'm Dead "delectable." Wednesday Martin,... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    This Might Hurt

    Fake Like Me
    by Barbara Bourland

  • A.F. Brady

    A.F. Brady

    A. F. Brady was born and raised a New Yorker. She works as a New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor/Psychotherapist and has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Brown University and two Masters degrees in ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    This Might Hurt

    The Blind
    by A.F. Brady

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