Susan Vaught on Working in a (Maybe?) Haunted Hospital

Susan Vaught is the author of a number of books for young adults, including Big Fat Manifesto, about a feisty plus-size high school journalist, and, most recently, Going Underground, a novel starring an accidental felon—a teenage guy who got caught sexting and has to deal with the aftermath. Susan works as a psychologist, and she carefully takes what she’s learned from the teens she sees in her practice to create interesting, true-to-life characters—without violating her patients’ trust. Here, Susan shares the way her work influences her writing.



In my day job, I’m a psychologist. I currently work in a state psychiatric hospital that’s housed in a wonderful and completely creepy old building constructed before the Civil War. It’s huge, and it’s got tunnels, an old cemetery, a big barn from the time the campus was self-sufficient and grew its own food, an observatory, at least one elevator with pull-out brass cage doors, and a bunch of long, twisty staircases. Despite the could-be-a-vampire-tomb setting, the staff at my hospital is energetic, kind, and dedicated, and we work to offer state-of-the-art treatment for everyone who comes through our ancient, rattle-y doors.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people ask me if I get my story ideas from my work or my patients—and the answer would be . . . sort of.

If people see me as a doctor, I can’t reveal information about them. Medical information is private. I don’t write about real events or people (with the exception of my first book, Fat Tuesday, which was based heavily in my own high school insanity—I mean, experience). I suppose I could if I concealed my patients’ names, but I don’t want anyone who comes to me for help to worry that I might dress up their pain in a circus costume and parade it across a bunch of book pages. But my two-plus decades of working with patients has given me a profound respect for the strength, resilience, and all around goodness of teens—despite the bad rap they often get in movies and books.

Trigger is the book that prompts the most people to ask whether the main character is “real.” Trigger tells the story of Jersey Hatch, a guy who had everything and literally tried to blow it away by shooting himself in the head. Jersey doesn’t die, though, and he has to put his life back together despite the damage he did during one angry, impulsive moment. Have I worked with people who have shot themselves in the head and survived? Yes. A lot of them, and most of them were seriously brain-injured, like Jersey. Bullets aren’t kind to brain tissue. I’ve also worked with a lot of teens and adults who have survived suicide attempts by all different methods—and most people DO survive them, and most of those survivors are so grateful that they did, even if they got hurt or scarred or really messed a lot of stuff up in their lives. Trigger and all the people in it are made up; those characters are works of fiction, but they’re living through very real situations that I’ve dealt with many, many times.

Big Fat Manifesto, which is about a vibrant, plus-sized heroine with a talent for journalism, drama, and focusing on tough issues (maybe the right ones, maybe the wrong ones) is also completely made up. But my experience as a morbidly obese child, teen, and adult formed the basis for many of the characters’ experiences, and my work with teens and adults who have issues with eating and/or their size taught me which situations seemed universal for those who are larger than society deems appropriate. In Big Fat, I wanted Jamie’s voice to ring with the anger, authority, and poignant humor I’ve encountered in teens surviving discrimination, ostracizing, and even broken hearts (those first few romantic relationships can TOTALLY SUCK, you know).

Going Underground, my latest release, takes on the issue of sexting and society’s attempts to regulate, control, and criminalize normal teen sexuality. Del Hartwick gets victimized by our modern mix of twisted morality and outdated statutes, and he’s robbed of everything most teens take for granted—yet he’s not ready to give up, even though he’s working in a cemetery, fending off a wannabe-goth stalker, and having long conversations with a parrot. When he meets Livia, a girl with her own troubling secrets, he knows he has to find his way to his own future—and fast—or lose the best thing that’s happened to him since his life got wrecked. I think my opinions on the legal/social issues come through in the story in loud, obvious ways. So many teens face embarrassing, dangerous, humiliating, and/or life-damaging situations. They face loss and grief and fear and hopelessness. Most of them, contrary to stereotypes and the beliefs of many adults, do not fold, give up, turn bitter, or act out. I’ve seen teens’ resilience, and their desire to move on, in my sessions with them.

So as to the question of whether or not I get my story ideas from my patients and my work . . . sort of! It’s the situations, the commonalities I see, the things my patients share, that spark ideas for me.

And before someone asks—Yeah, I’ll probably be writing something ghostly and spooky set in a really old psychiatric hospital. How could I let that splendid setting go to waste?

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