Hey everyone! I’m really excited about the Gettin’ Real interview this week!
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time, I was having a crisis in college. I was a graphic design major who wanted to be a writer. With the help of an adviser, I changed majors (and the path of my life) in September of last year. My very first class, on the very day I changed majors, was Stephanie Kuehnert’s Young Adult Fiction. I went in nervous, scared I’d made a mistake by changing majors, and by the end of our almost four hour class I knew I was in the right place. How I didn’t weep with joy over Stephanie’s syllabus I don’t know.
So this is a very cool interview for me. Stephanie was there at an important time in my life, always giving encouragement and showing tools out of her own toolbox for better writing. Enough about me, let’s get started!
Here’s the short bio from Stephanie’s website (I recommend going there and reading the long one though!): Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ‘zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her first YA novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was published by MTV Books in July 2008, and her second, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA was published in July 2009. She lives in Forest Park, Illinois with her husband and three cats. In addition to writing novels, she is a bartender, teacher, staff writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls, and an award-winning columnist for her local paper, the Forest Park Review.
I&A: If you had walk on music (a song that plays when you enter a room), what would it be and why?
Stephanie Kuehnert: It would be “The Young Crazed Peeling” by The Distillers. Basically it’s a song that gets me pumped because it’s about getting through the dark times, using those experiences to shape your life and art, and set you free. It’s the perfect punk song about youth, survival, and freedom. It’s a big motivator for me.
I&A: Music has clearly been a major influence in your life. How does it inform your writing?
SK: Music is one of my biggest inspirations. It feeds my ideas and when I’m in the thick of a project, it feeds my muse and helps me build the emotions in a scene and even shape characters and places. I develop massive playlists when I’m writing. The one for my current WIP is over 100 songs. Normally I just listen to them when I’m working out or cleaning or running errands to keep the story in my mind. Generally I can’t listen to music while I’m writing unless I’m deep in a scene, usually while revising. Then sometimes I make a mini playlist of a few songs that fit the emotions I’m trying to evoke and put it on repeat. However, with my current WIP for some reason I’m listening to music all the time. Proof that your process changes with every project, I guess!
SK: The reason I went to school for writing was to give myself a reason to devote large chunks of time to writing. Writing was my homework and I had to do it. This taught me discipline and got me into the habit of writing regularly. I learned a lot more about polishing and editing. I developed my own voice by being exposed to so many different voices. Like any schooling or job, it is what you make of it. You can skate by, but I went in thinking that I was literally buying myself time to write, hone my skills and network. I took advantage of every opportunity offered to me and pushed myself as hard as I could. Even though I only had to write 200 pages of a book to get my MFA, I wanted to complete a full draft so I did and it was the first book I published.
I&A: You spent some time in Los Angeles seeing the underbelly of the business. What are some important tidbits you took away from that experience?
SK: When I went to L.A., it was the first time I saw writing AS a business. I learned basic things like what I could deduct on my taxes. I learned the value of my own creative properties. I learned to examine my stories and figure out what their hooks were. It just gave me a whole new perspective on storytelling. At that time, I didn’t think I wanted to write for film or TV, but lately I’ve found myself pondering it again. This is why I think it is so important for writers to explore all forms and aspects of writing because there is so much you can teach yourself and bring to your own process.
SK: Emily is the girl I always wanted to be: tough, wild, confident, a rock star. I grew up worshiping bands like Hole, Babes in Toyland, and Sleater-Kinney and musicians like PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon. I wanted to pay homage to them and create a world where they ruled the way The Beatles, The Ramones, and Nirvana did. I loved music, I loved the punk scene, but I have NO musical talent whatsoever, so I decided to live vicariously through Emily. Emily and IWBYJR are pretty much what writing has always been for me, escapism into a fantasy–but of course since I’ve always loved soap operas, too, my fantasies have to have elements of drama and emotional turmoil, which is why I gave Emily a missing mother to drive her.
I&A: The following year, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA was published. It has a specific format utilizing song lyrics, something we tried in your class as well. How does that format open up the stories in BALLADS, and how does it work as a writing exercise?
SK: My idea about ballads came from a class I took in grad school with the author Joe Meno. He brought a boombox to class one day with a bunch of Johnny Cash and other CDs and talked about how the ballad was the first form of storytelling. Listening to Johnny Cash also got me thinking about punk songs like “The Young Crazed Peeling” and “Story of My Life” by Social Distortion and how they were ballads too. They aren’t sappy, they are straight-up honest accounts of how the singer/character they are singing about lived and where they fucked up and what they did or didn’t learn. I thought, what a great way to get to the heart, to the truth of a character. I tend to write these really emotionally complex characters, many of whom hide behind anger, sorrow, or some kind of tough facade. What I did was think about the lyric of a song that would matter the most to them, strike the deepest chord, and why. I wanted to know their deep, dark truth, the moment that changed their lives and made them who they are. I did this in Ballads for many of my side characters and actually got to include those stories in the book because of the way it is structured. (The characters keep a notebook in which they write their “ballads.”) But it’s something I always do in general when fleshing out my characters because I write really character-driven stories and I don’t want any of my characters to fall flat and just be the bad guy or the sidekick. I want to know what motivates them. So yeah, I think about their favorite song, listen to it a bunch of times, and then write the story of the moment that shaped them into who they are.
I&A: You are also a staff writer for Rookie, an online magazine for teen girls. Would you talk a little about the goal of the magazine and what draws you to this work?
SK: Rookie is basically just that, a magazine for teenage girls, one that strives to be honest and real, a peer or maybe a big sister rather than an adult talking down to teens explaining how they should be. It’s meant to have something for every teenage girl. It’s not “alternative” or for the wallflower, and it’s not “mainstream” and all about how to get the guy or get your bikini body or whatever. It’s just real. I feel like the editor, Tavi Gevinson who is a real live sixteen year-old girl sums it up best in her first editor’s letter here: http://rookiemag.com/
I&A: After publishing two young adult novels, you are currently writing a book for adults. How have you found the transition to be?
SK: I actually finished that book and am hoping my agent will find a home for it soon. I honestly did not find it to be any different. Since I write older YA, I never shy away from any “difficult” or “edgy” topics in YA. I think there might actually be more sex in my YA books than my adult book because that’s what the plot dictates. In terms of language, detail, and story, it was the same, too. I never “write down” to teenagers, I think their expectations are the same as adults if not even higher, so I always push myself to write the best book no matter what. The one difference I expect that I may find is that adult readers probably don’t connect as deeply to the characters and story. Basically I don’t expect as many enthusiastic emails and tweets about the adult book, but hopefully I’ll be wrong. One of the best things about writing YA is audience enthusiasm though.
I&A: In what ways have you found social media to be useful in staying in touch with fans and fellow writers?
SK: It’s really just incredible how my readers can reach out to me and I can get to know them through Twitter and Facebook. It totally makes my day when I wake up to a tweet or a message with a reader reaction to one of my books. And it is amazing to have such a huge and supportive online community of writers. There are writers I’ve met through listservs and various social media platforms who have become some of my best friends and the key people I turn to when I’m feeling stressed about my writing. Being a writer is lonely and it can be hard too, just typing away into the void not knowing if it really matters to anyone. Social media gives you a much-needed support system and a virtual water cooler to like share cat pictures and stuff, which writers don’t have since they work alone.
I&A: What advice would you give a writer just starting the query process?
SK: Basically make sure you are sending your strongest work–don’t get it out there until you’ve had critique partners read it and you’ve really polished it. Then do really solid research about the agents or publishers you are submitting to. Follow their guidelines, personalize your query letters. Check out www.agentquery.com which has a great database of agents and some wonderful pointers on writing those letters. Know that it will take a long time, you may experience a lot of rejection, but all it takes is one yes, and if you persevere, you will get there!