Joey Ramone in Suburbia
I don’t like labels. I don’t like people trying to put me into a box, a one size fits all idea of me. So I find it quite hard to label Stephanie Kuehnert”s writing as just for young adults. Without a doubt she is a young adult writer, but if you have already grown up, you will still find so much in her writing. ‘I wanna be your Joey Ramone’, and ‘Ballads of Suburbia’ are both written with such depth and feeling, you will feel like the friends of the characters in the book, you will see glimpses of yourself and of your own childhood in these books……unless of course you came out of your teenage years totally unscathed, which in my opinion probably means you didn’t really live it.
In the early 90’s there was a beautiful musical movement that incorporated what became labelled Grunge and Riot Grrrl. Great bands like Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney, their influences like Patti Smith and The Ramones. Feminism became a much talked about issue, cut and paste zines started to appear. I even found myself writing one. It was a magical moment, I still have friends that I met through what I refer to as my ‘fanzine years’.
All of these things are served up intricately in Stephanie’s writing, with a real dose of growing up, friendship, love, music, playing in a band, all those things you dreamed about and all those things that also made that dream a nightmare, like drugs, drink and self harm. Stephanie tackles it all without fear.
So, Stephanie, what inspires you?
Everything. I know that is a wide, wide answer, but I see stories everywhere. Music is always my first go-to for sparking my muse, but I find inspiration in the headlines, on TV, walking down the street. I tend to write about characters whose stories might get overlooked by most people, characters who are stronger than they know and facing very real things that, especially in my YA, adults tend to believe teens don’t have to face. For that reason I have to say my number one inspiration is teenage girls, strong, beautiful, crazy, amazing teenage girls–including the ones that me and my friends used to be.
When did you start writing for fun?
I’ve been writing basically as long as I’ve been able to. So probably six or seven.
Music is a huge focus in your writing, did you ever want to be a musician?
Yes, but I have no talent for that. It never came naturally and I would always get too distracted by other things, especially writing to practice.
Can you play any instruments?
Not really. I’ve attempted to learn guitar on several occasions. I have one and I can play like a couple of Nirvana and Hole songs, but yeah mostly it just sits there…
What or who is your favourite band?
Describe your writing process for us please?
I really wish I could. I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to nail it down and figure it out. I’ve blogged extensively about it and tried a million different methods. The fact of the matter is that it changes with every project. For the most part, I’ve learned that I’m not a person who can write fast, aim for super high word counts or even focus on word count too much. When I do, I get freaked out. Basically my average day is I get up, exercise, feed my cats and myself, make some tea and sit down to write around 10:30 or 11 (depending on if I’ve worked the night before. I’m also a bartender.). I write for an hour and a half, take a break for lunch. Then I write for another hour and a half, and sometimes another, again depending on if I have to work, if I have freelance stuff due, etc. This is how I am when I’m beginning a book at least. Once I get toward the end and when I’m revising, that’s when I’m really happiest. (I loathe first drafts.) Then I binge write, working for like 14 hours a day sometimes.
Now that you are a published writer, have your hobbies changed or would you say writing is still your hobby?
Writing is my job. My hobbies are the things that help me unwind. Reading to a degree, but I also consider that part of my job. Watching TV is a big unwind for me. I used to loathe TV, but now there are so many good shows that tell stories in a great way. And often while I watch TV, I knit or do crafty stuff. I have all these old oversize concert tees from my teenage years when I was super insecure and bought everything in XL. I’ve been using these books http://www.generation-t.com/books/ to transform them. I’m all about doing DIY stuff to unwind lately.
What advice would you give to other writers out there?
I gave a buttload of writing advice in a piece I wrote for Rookie Magazine, so now I would refer people there! http://rookiemag.com/2012/07/write-of-passage/
What do you think of the current trend of ebooks and self publishing? How do you feel about the future of publishing houses is going to go?
I’m putting these two questions into one and saying a big, I DON’T KNOW. I’m not much for reading ebooks yet. I have a Kindle, but I only use it to read my critique partners manuscripts at this point. I like real books and want to hold them in my hand. However, I also still buy vinyl records–but now I buy only vinyl records instead of CDs and I make sure my records come with a digital download. I listen to vinyl at home and my iPod comes with me everywhere else. I don’t feel the need to carry my book collection around with me like that. So yeah, that’s me and ebooks. As for self-publishing, I’ve not tried it yet. However I think it is a great outlet when stories don’t fit the perfect mold of traditional publishing. I hope that much like the digital era of music, it forces publishing to change a bit, to allow for more diverse, edgier, DIFFERENT voices. I don’t know if it will, but I hope so.
Self doubt and teen troubles and self harm feature heavily in your stories, was this a big struggle for you?
Yes, as a teenager, I struggled with self-injury (which I talk about here on Rookie: http://rookiemag.com/2012/06/secret-wounds/) and I dealt with all kinds of insecurities and self doubt stemming from bullying, an emotionally abusive relationship, and honestly, just being a teenage girl and trying to figure out who I was, where I fit, what I liked, etc.
You must find great comfort in knowing you are helping many other people talk about issues that affect so many but alas we still seem to not be encouraged to talk about….
Has it been very cathartic for you to write about such things?
It was cathartic. It was also really difficult, especially writing my second book, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. That is the one that dealt with self-injury and the main character Kara was a lot like teenage me, so getting into her head was like getting back into a very difficult state of mind. At the end of doing my revisions on it, the ulcer I’d developed in high school came back. But overall, it was a powerful experience to get it all down on the page and it was really important to me. I wrote that book because it was the story I needed when I was sixteen. The letters I get from readers about it–about both of my books really–mean more to me than anything.
Do you base your characters on real people?
No, not really. Even though Kara for example is like me, she is very much her own person and her story differs hugely from me. I may draw inspiration from say my best friend for both Regan and Cass (the best friends in IWBYJR and BALLADS respectively), but they are very much their own people… err characters.
Who are your favourite writers?
John Steinbeck, Louise Erdrich, Francesca Lia Block, Irvine Welsh, Joe Meno, Melissa Marr, Jeri Smith Ready, Laurie Halse Anderson. As you can see my taste is quite varied.
The era of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney was such an exciting time and revolutionary, do you think there will ever be another movement like it?
I hope so. I think we need it now, especially since we have Republican senators in the US who honestly believe that if you were “legitimately raped” you won’t get pregnant. But you know if you were asking for it… Ugh, it’s an ugly, frustrating time right now, which means it’s time for another revolution.
You also write for Rookie Mag, tell us a little more about that please?
Rookie is an online magazine for teenage girls, edited by Tavi Gevinson, a sixteen year-old girl, who is brilliant, talented, and one of my biggest inspirations. Rookie is a bit like Sassy Magazine, which was my favorite magazine as a teen, but… I’m gonna say this and I can because it’s not my doing… I think Rookie is actually better. We post new content three times every week day. We talk about the really real difficult things in life (like my self injury piece), the stuff we love more than anything (look for Literally the Best Thing Ever pieces, they are… well literally the best things ever), fashion and beauty (but not in the starve yourself for a boy sort of way AT ALL, more like the many unique ways people can be beautiful and discover their own style), health, movies, music, everything basically. It’s fun, it’s serious, it’s one of the most genuine things out there. It’s pretty much the kind of thing I’ve been dreaming of being a part of since I was a teenager making zines in my bedroom with my best friends. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of something than I am Rookie. I get more excited about it than I do my own books because the other people involved are just some of the most talented, interested folks out there.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Writing in 90 minute spurts. Sometimes I burn candles and incense while I write. Lately I’ve been actually listening to music (I make long playlists for each book) while I write, which I usually don’t do, but ritual like process seems to change.
In England the libraries are heavily under threat of closure, how is it in the US?
Sadly, yes. It varies from city to city. Fortunately the one in my area is doing okay right now. I’m actually on the library board, that’s how much I love libraries. I hope people across the world fight to keep their libraries funded.
I couldn’t imagine a childhood without reading, were you a bookworm?
Yes, one of the biggest. I did summer reading contests every year. I absorbed every book I could lay my little hands on. I read way way up, reading things like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Stephen King books when I was like ten years old just because I’d already read everything I was interested in that was age appropriate 🙂
How did you pick your agent?
My current agent, Adrienne Rosado at the Nancy Yost Literary Agency, was recommended to me by a writer friend of mine who I really, really respect. That’s why I submitted to her. I also knew that she’d read and loved my first two books and represented writers who I liked. When we talked, it became clear that she had a very similar vision for my book and for my overall career and our styles of working really meshed. She’s been an incredibly supportive presence and I’m honored to work with her.
Do you have much control over book covers and book names?
Nope. Like most traditionally published authors, the publishing house’s marketing department has the most control over this. I’m fine with that because they know their side of the business (getting people to buy my book) and I know mine (writing). Ballads of Suburbia kept its original title, which was awesome. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone sold as “All Roads Lead to Rock ‘n’ Roll” and they wanted something catchier, so I listened to my iPod and made a list. When the Sleater-Kinney song “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” popped up on my shuffle, I knew I had something that worked for me on many levels. Fortunately it worked for marketing too. I’ve also been really lucky with my covers. I gave them various photo ideas for IWBYJR, but the photo they chose was so so SOOOOO perfect. I never could have come up with something better. With Ballads, all I told them was I wanted ransom-note style lettering because that’s what’s on the cover of a notebook that figures heavily into the story. They gave me that. That cover was weird for me because the book is set in a real park and that park on the cover is not my park, but I still loved the image. I asked them to add that graffiti on the slide to give it more of a teen feel and they did so. Again, I was really lucky.
Do you feel book covers can really help to sell or sink a book?
I honestly don’t know. They definitely get it noticed though. Ultimately I hope it’s the quality of the writing that sells or sinks a book, but covers are what get people to pick it up in the first place.
What does the future hold for you in terms of writing?
I will be writing for Rookie as long as they let me because I love it! I wrote an adult book, another mother/daughter story, this one set in a bar since I have so much bartending experience. Hopefully that will sell. I’ve also got another YA with a touch of magical realism that’s making the rounds and I’m working on a contemporary YA that’s in a similar vein to Ballads. Hopefully I’ll get something out to you fabulous readers soon!