I haven’t done an interview in awhile, and to celebrate the release of my ebook I thought it might be appropriate to post this interview today. I’d like you all to give a big metal Up the Irons! to Stephanie Kuehnert, writer and punk princess.
Stephanie is the author of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and Ballads of Suburbia, two kickass young adult books about punk rock, coming of age, choices and consequences. She’s not a fellow metalhead, but a conisseur of punk and riot grrrl, which makes her kind of like our cool elder cousin.
Stephanie’s books first came to my attention a couple of years ago, when I was madly querying agents in an attempt to find representation for one of my novels. Stephanie’s agent, Caren Johnson, requested the full manuscript of my awesome-in-concept-but-horrid-in-execution metalhead apocalypse book. Getting excited about the potential of having a real live agent, I started reading all the authors she represented, including Stephanie’s debut from MTV Books, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.
I’ve actually got a copy of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone to give away. So, after reading this interview, if you think you’d like to win a copy, just leave a comment – make sure to write your email address in the box – and I’ll draw a random winner next friday.
First, for a bit of background, can you tell us about you and your books.
I’m thirty years old, got into books and writing when I was five and into punk when I was about twelve. I wrote some feminist/riot grrrl zines in high school and eventually started focusing more on fiction. I got my MFA at Columbia College Chicago.
I live in Forest Park, IL with my husband and our three cats. In addition to writing novels, I write a column for my local paper and I’m a bartender.
As for the books, the little descriptions that my publisher wrote sum them up better than I could! (I can’t whittle them down, hence they are 300+ pg books).
I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE is:
A raw, edgy, emotional novel about growing up punk and living to tell. The Clash. Social Distortion. Dead Kennedys. Patti Smith. The Ramones. Punk rock is in Emily Black’s blood. Her mother, Louisa, hit the road to follow the incendiary music scene when Emily was four months old and never came back. Now Emily’s all grown up with a punk band of her own, determined to find the tune that will bring her mother home. Because if Louisa really is following the music, shouldn’t it lead her right back to Emily?
BALLADS OF SUBURBIA:
There are so many ballads. Achy breaky country songs. Mournful pop songs. Then there’s the rare punk ballad, the ballad of suburbia: louder, faster, angrier … till it drowns out the silence.
Kara hasn’t been back to Oak Park since the end of junior year, when a heroin overdose nearly killed her and sirens heralded her exit. Four years later, she returns to face the music. Her life changed forever back in high school: her family disintegrated, she ran around with a whole new crowd of friends, she partied a little too hard, and she fell in love with gorgeous bad boy Adrian, who left her to die that day in Scoville Park … Amidst the music, the booze, the drugs, and the drama, her friends filled a notebook with heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives. Now, finally, Kara is ready to write her own
It’s impossible to talk about I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia without mentioning the music that powers those books. Tell us about music – how you got into it, what it means to you, how it’s a part of you:
The first band I got into was the Beatles and that was via my parents. But when I was 10, I met a girl who was really into music and we used to watch MTV together … back when it played music videos and good ones! We watched 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation and discovered bands like R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction and Depeche Mode.
She also played me a tape called “Bleach” by a band named Nirvana right before “Teen Spirit” exploded. I was in love. The music just spoke to me. It was a safe haven from the kids who taunted me at school and the awkward feelings of adolescence.
From then I went on into punk, starting with the Sex Pistols, but quickly digging much deeper. I also got into bands like Hole and Babes in Toyland and discovered riot grrrl.
Music just speaks to me. It’s part of my soul. Music and books and a pen are right up there with food, air and water for me when it comes to the essentials.
Who buys your books and why? Do you write with your audience in mind?
Both teens and adults buy my books. I don’t know why … I guess they have something they are searching for them. I hear the words “edgy, gritty, and real” tossed around a lot. And of course music lovers tend to gravitate toward me.
I don’t really write with a specific audience in mind. I guess I think age 14 to 35 would relate best, but I just write the characters I would want to read about.
So what’s it like being a YA author?
It’s awesome! YA fans are the best, fellow YA authors are the best. When I was a teenager, a book or a song could feel like it changed my life or saved my life. I’m glad to be able to do that for some teens.
You deal with some very tough, visceral subjects. How do you cope emotionally with putting your characters through these situations, and why do you choose these subjects?
I choose subjects that matter to me, often that have affected me personally in some way. I like to talk about the things that people are uncomfortable talking about. I wanted to read about those things so badly when I was a teenager. I wanted characters I could identify with because maybe reading about them solving their problems would help me solve my own. So now I write those books and those characters.
How I cope emotionally … well, that is harder. Getting Ballads of Suburbia into the place I wanted it to be resulted in a lot of crying jags and breakdowns and the recurrence of an ulcer that I hadn’t had problems with in years. I get through it though because I want my characters to be as real as possible and I think about the people who might need to read about them. I also have a really supportive husband and friends.
Some writers worry about not being able to “get away” with writing about subjects like drugs. What advice would you give them?
Somebody needs to read what you are writing. It will mean something to someone. That is who you are writing for, not for critics, not for people who are gonna freak out if you write about a touchy subject.
Just handle the subject well. Write to be true to the character and the story, not to sensationalize.
How did you get into writing in the first place? How did you learn the techniques necessary to craft such amazing stories?
I decided I wanted to write back when I was about five years old and reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books. My mother always encouraged me. She took me to young authors conferences when I was in grade school. She wanted me to go to college for writing, but I didn’t at first. Thought I should do something “practical.” It wasn’t until I ended up at Columbia College Chicago, where I did both my bachelors and masters degrees that I really honed my craft. It was a hotbed of creativity. The instructors were incredible and listening to the many voices and stories of my classmates was inspiring.
Do you have to go to school for writing? No, not necessarily but it was good for me. You do have to get feedback on your work though. Join an online writing group or an in person one. Join writing associations like Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) or Romance Writers Association (RWA). Those are two I am a member of but there are associations for other genres too. Join writing listservs and take in as much as you can. Read as much as possible. I firmly believe that you cannot be a writer unless you are reading!
Describe a “typical Stephanie Kuehnert novel”, from start to finish.
Man, I don’t know. I don’t write to a formula and I don’t want to put myself in a box. It’s a roller coaster ride though. You will watch the main character and all the characters around them change and respond. All my stories are coming of age stories where someone discovers something about themselves.
And I like to make the place very real and vivid whether it is a made up place like in IWBYJR or a real place I know super well like in Ballads. I also like to make all of my characters as fully fleshed out and real as possible so you will get to know everyone. And there is always music involved.
What advice would you give to anyone else wanting to write for a living?
Be strong and be patient. Don’t give up. It’s hard. It’s hard to sell a first book and it’s hard to keep selling books. But you have to keep believing in what you are doing. You also have to be flexible. At this point my books don’t pay hardly anything. I make my money bartending and writing for the newspaper. So be adaptable and look for other things you can do to fit in nicely with your writing.
How do you promote your books?
Mostly online. I blog, I tweet, I’m on facebook and I have my own website which I run a street team through like bands do, so I have special contests and giveaways to the folks who sign up and they help me promote.
I do events around Chicago where I live and sometimes travel when I can afford to and do other events. I prefer to do events with other authors cause it’s less intimidating.
Promotion is a real time suck. You gotta do it, but it’s like a whole other job!
What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you because of your books?
I get to feel like I’ve helped someone. I’ve made impact on people’s lives. I’ve gotten emails from people who said my books have helped them face their problems with their family or friends or drugs or cutting.
No matter what happens, whether or not I ever make it big as a writer, I made an impact on someone and that’s why I do what I do.
What are the next steps for Stephanie Kuehnert? Upcoming projects / travel / new directions, etc?
Umm, I’m going on vacation to Seattle. Like leaving in 10 minutes! But other than that right now I have another YA book (which I’m hoping will be a series of books actually) that is doing the rounds and I hope it will sell soon. And I am working an adult book too about a mother and daughter who are both bartenders since I’m a bartender and I’ve got all kinds of great stories about bars!
What was the first music album you ever brought?
On cassette tape, Madonna- Like A Prayer. My mother was displeased. She didn’t think Madonna was a good role model. Honestly I think she thought Courtney Love was a better role model when I got into her. Even though Courtney’s crazy, she’s feminist and speaks her mind. Madonna’s cool too though.
What bands and albums have you heard recently that have stood out to you?
My favorite new band right now is Civet, an all-female punk band from SoCal that’s on Hellcat. They were the kind of band I was dreaming of when I wrote I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Just kick ass women playing rock ‘n’ roll as hard as the boys do. Their album Hell Hath No Fury is a must.
I’m also loving the Maybenauts which is a local Chicago band. They remind me a little bit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and are amazing live. Jane from the GoGos produced their first EP, Big Bang.
And I can’t get enough of The Gaslight Anthem right now. Their songs just conjure so many stories for me.
What was your best ever live music experience?
It was Hole at the Metro in Chicago in October of 1994. This was right after Kurt Cobain died. As to be expected Courtney Love was putting on either incredibly emotional, powerful performances or she was a trainwreck. This was one of those powerful performances. And it was a small club, I was so close to this woman that seriously inspired me back then. It was amazing.
Who or what inspires you?
Music, books, things that I see on the street, little newspaper articles. I’m constantly observing as a writer and that drives new ideas. But my readers are the ones who keep me going when I’m feeling like I’ll never be able to write another book or just in a bad funk. They totally inspire me.
Stephanie is awesome and, like her books, her blog is incredibly honest and direct. If you don’t happen to win the giveaway, I hope you consider picking up a copy of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone or Ballads of Suburbia. I read IWBYJR in the midst of my first attempt at a metal-inspired novel, and she showed me how it can, and should be done.
Keep it Krieg and Comment Away! \m/