For November, all the bloggers here at YA Outside the Lines have paired up and interviewed each other; I'm delighted to bring the first interview of the month, my conversation with Stephanie Kuehnert:

HS: First of all, congrats, congrats, CONGRATS on your new deal with Dutton!  I’m so excited to get my hands on a copy.  Tell us all about it:

SK: Thank you! I’m really excited about it, too! This is a completely different kind of book for me. I think it’s going to be a completely different kind of book, period. It’s a YA memoir and it will be illustrated, but it’s not like a full-on graphic memoir. I’m calling it a zine-style memoir because I want it to have that feel. The illustrations will be a mix of drawings (by a rad illustrator, not me, I can’t draw), cut-and-paste style collages, photos, mixtape inserts, pages from my old zines. Cuz that’s how my old zines were. Me and my friends doodled in the margins, we photocopied old pictures, cut up old magazines. My old zines were also very raw, very honest and this book will be, too. It’s basically the story of my youth—I can’t quite say teenage years because it starts a little earlier than that and ends a little later. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly about friendships, relationships, mental health, all the stuff I was dealing with. If you’ve read my personal essays from Rookie [http://rookiemag.com], it covers a lot of that territory, but gets more in depth. Some of my Rookie essays will be in the book in some form or another.

HS:Like you, I’ve been a music nut my entire life.  (I used to dress up like Cyndi Lauper on Halloween; my first concert was Kiss, which I always point to as the reason behind my deep and fervent wish that all author events could have more pyro.  I also taught music lessons while drafting my earliest books.)  Tell us about music in your life: How does music influence what you write?  How has it influenced your forthcoming book?  Do you write to music?  How have your musical tastes changed over the years, and how has that made an impact on / changed your writing?

SK: Music has pretty much defined my life. The original working title for this book (which will not be used as the actual title, but maybe for an essay or something, who knows) was Geek, Grunge, Goth, GRRRL because those last three things in particular basically sum up my teenage years. Here, I’ll show you:

14 year-old Grunge Stephanie:

16 year-old Riot Grrrl Stephanie:

19 year-old Goth Stephanie

It may seem like a kind of extreme shift and it was definitely perceived that way by a lot of my peers in the 90s because you were supposed to, like, just be one thing or you were a poseur or something. But the thing is, all of those phases add up to me. Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, The Cure—they’re still my favorite bands. And each type of music gave me what I needed at the time. Grunge helped me find my voice. Riot Grrrl/punk gave me a release for my rage. Goth was the darkness I needed to work through. So the forthcoming book will be about all of those things and how my identity formed. It may not reference the bands super specifically because I don’t want it to be this really 90s kid thing, but what I got from those bands will be there for sure.

Music has always influenced my writing. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was basically an homage to Sleater-Kinney and the other all-female and female-fronted bands that got me through high school. I have playlists and a band or three (or six) that really puts a stamp on every book I write, emotionally, thematically, whatever. Sometimes I can’t listen to it while I’m writing depending on where I’m at in the process and what kind of focus I need, but I always draw energy from music either before, during, or after. Discovering a new band can generate story ideas for me, too. I haven’t discovered much lately, though. I need to get on that!  

HS: I know the road to publication this time around was pretty long.  As authors, we all go through long periods with no sale.  It can be a brutal time that plays with your mind / keeps you from being able to get anything decent on the page!  How did you stay positive as you sought publication?

SK: Oh yeah, this was definitely brutal. It was six years between sales for me and there were two full manuscripts and two partials during that period that didn’t sell. (Though I refuse completely give up on a couple of those projects. I need to make them happen in some form.) I didn’t always stay positive. I was a wreck a lot of the time. I went through several periods of writer’s block. I had a full-on crisis of faith [http://www.rookiemag.com/2012/12/crisis-of-faith/]  about my writing and I got so depressed that I went back to therapy [http://yaoutsidethelines.blogspot.com/2012/12/2012-year-i-took-my-writing-to-therapy.html] . Ultimately, I even moved across the country to give myself a fresh start and because it was something that I could do, that I had control over, to make me happy. How did I manage to keep writing through all of that? Good question. A big part of it was having some seriously amazing writer friends who really got it, really listened, and let me cry and vent when I needed to. At the same time, these friends always reminded me that at my core I was a write, nothing would change that. It was in me. I couldn’t quit if I wanted to and they were write. The other big thing that kept me going was writing for Rookie. It’s the kind of magazine that I dreamed of writing for when I was a teenager. It’s the audience that is 100% who I’m writing for. And it allowed me to do something new, these essays instead of fiction. I’m not at all surprised that the project that ultimately did sell was born from that work. It’s the direction I needed to go in.

HS: I love the fact that you were born in St. Louis—I’m also a Missouri girl (my lifelong hometown is Springfield, home of Tent Theater, Cashew Chicken, and Brad Pitt).  How do your surroundings influence or shape your work?  Do you find your current surroundings of Seattle changing what or how you write?

SK: I’m definitely a big “place” writer. I spent my late teens in southern Wisconsin and that’s where I got the setting for I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. Ballads of Suburbia was set in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. I have two manuscripts that haven’t been published that are also set in the Midwest since that this the landscape that is most familiar to me. I actually came to Seattle for a fresh start after all of that writing disappointment that I talked about before, so while the landscape hasn’t played muse the way the Midwest has for me yet, it has completely rejuvenated me. I spend a lot of time outdoors, going hiking, and it changed my general mindset in a HUGE way, helping me let go of rejection and disappointment and embrace the realization that well, nothing really matters. It’s something I wrote about more in depth for Rookie here. [http://www.rookiemag.com/2014/04/nothing-really-matters/] Right now my main focus is the memoir, which of course takes place in the Midwest, but I do think I’ll set something here soon. I’ve had a couple ideas, mainly involving the woods because they are ancient and eerie and weird and I do love Twin Peaks

HS: I don’t have children; my students helped shape my earliest YA characters.  How do you shape your own YA characters—on memories of teen life?  On teens currently in your own life? 

SK: My stuff is based mainly on memories of teen life, though I do keep current (or try to keep current as best as an Old can) via my seventeen year-old niece and the readers of and many of my colleagues at Rookie—my boss there, of course, is 18, and many of our writers and illustrators are young and brilliant and super inspiring. But mainly, I’m a character writer. I am drawn to the moments when people really change or transform. For a lot of us, that happens in the biggest way when we are teens so I think that’s why the characters that keep coming to me are mostly teens.

HS: So often, we use the word “apathetic” to describe teens’ relationship to politics.  Yours sounds like it was anything but.  How did your own political activism in your teen years help shape your teen characters (and help you find the themes of your work)?

SK: I was definitely politically aware from a very young age. My dad was a hippie who grew up to work in public health and did a lot of work at AIDS organizations in the 80s and early 90s. My mom was a nurse, too, and always used the word ‘feminist’ proudly, so it wasn’t surprising at all that I was drawn to Riot Grrrl and I was definitely encouraged to be an outspoken feminist and to be politically active, even when it was about things that my parents didn’t necessarily get like my veganism. In terms of my characters, well I’ve always wanted to read strong female characters so I write strong female characters. It’s one of those write-what-you-know sort of situations, I guess! Feminism and empowerment are huge themes in my memoir because that’s what saved my life along with writing and creativity. I’d love to write more political characters in the future too.

HS: I incorporated some poetry I wrote as a teen in my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK.  Have you ever revisited your early stuff?  Ever gotten any inspiration from it?

SK: I’ve definitely be revisiting it for this memoir project and also for Rookie. Sometimes it inspires me and sometimes it makes me cringe. Though my old zines are flawed in some ways, the format and my zeal definitely inspired me for this project. As for my old poems, well I unearthed some for Rookie and it inspired me to write a new one for the first time in years! [http://www.rookiemag.com/2014/07/i-will-paint-the-sky/14/] The first one is the new one, the other two are old.

HS: I largely found my own master’s degree to be of little use as I turned my attention toward becoming a full-time author.  How did college help shape you as an author?   Did it help?  Hinder?  How so?  Any advice for a writer thinking about an MFA program?

SK: I feel like college and MFA programs are totally up to the writer. I actually went to school for sociology first because I didn’t think writing could be taught/I thought it would be a waste of time/money and being a writer was totally an impractical thing to do with your life as much as I loved it. I dropped out after a year because writing WAS the thing that I wanted to do with my life. So my plan was to work and write… What I actually did was drink and party and work just enough to kind of afford my life and not really write at all. I needed discipline. I ultimately went to get my BA in Fiction Writing because I wanted to carve out the time and motivation to write. I didn’t know if it would “teach” me anything. As it turned out, I did pick up a lot of craft tools as well as really committing the time to my writing. I wrote a very rough autobiographical novel in my first year of my BA program. It went into a drawer and didn’t come out until the very end of my MFA program when I started to reshape it into Ballads. I decided to continue with an MFA because my BA had been so productive for me. I wrote IWBYJR as my thesis. Writing a whole book wasn’t required, but I went for it. I also met my first agent, the woman who would sell IWBYJR a year after I finished grad school, at a literary event put on by my school. While my MFA didn’t teach me a ton about the business or publishing side of writing life, it did do more than most programs and it helped me make that very valuable first agent connection. I wish more MFAs had this practical side, but I think that some of them are starting to.

HS: What’s your writing fuel?  (This could be anything—food, music, the outdoors, a friend, etc.)  What inspires you, what makes you feel fresh and energized and ready to tackle your work?

SK: Music has always been my go-to, but I’ve really learned in the past couple of years that nothing clears my head better than being in the outdoors. This is why my husband and I go on hikes every Sunday (and I take photos which you can see at http://seattleboundwritergrl.tumblr.com/). Since I work full-time now, my best writing day is Saturday and I like to go for a long and very scenic run along the I-90 trail in Seattle, which takes me out part way over Lake Washington. That plus a good playlist helps me get into the mindset of whatever I’m working on that day.

HS: Can you leave us with a taste—a line, an excerpt, a tiny sneak peek—of the new book?

SK: Okay, this is very rough. It could change a lot. Since the book sold on proposal, I’m still drafting it, but this is one of the pieces I submitted with the proposal. This is from a long section at the heart of the book, a thirteen-part piece currently called, “True Bad Romance.” The first line of Part I begins: “My very first impression of Greg Francis was that he was kind of an asshole.”

Then, kind of a contrast, this is the beginning of Part II:

January, my sophomore year of high school. One hour before the Acetone show in Greg’s basement.  Acacia, Robin and I are at my house about to sit down to dinner with my parents, but we’re as wired as Beavis when he has too much caffeine and becomes Cornholio. We pace in circles, putting my poor black-and-white dog on high alert. She watches with wide eyes as we chant, “BUTT! BUTT! BUTT! BUTT!” like third grade boys. Then we transform back into teenage girls, synchronously cackling in a way that could have gotten us burned as witches.
The dog whimpers and my dad declares, “Jesus Christ! How much sugar have you had?”
Our eyes meet and the chant changes to “SUGAR! SUGAR! SUGAR! SUGAR!”
“Oh god,” Dad groans.
Mom just shakes her head. She knows, no doubt, that our bizarre hyperactivity isn’t the result of too much sugar or caffeine or even drugs. It can only be about a boy.

...Stay tuned for more conversations between YA Outside the Lines authors throughout November...


  1. Love the photos of grunge, Riot Grrrl, and Goth Stephanie!! Great interview!

  2. Thanks for asking such great questions, Holly! It was a blast to do this with you!

  3. I love this interview! Looking forward to the new book.

  4. I love the photos of teen Steph, too. Thanks for such great answers, Steph...And I agree--can't wait to read this new book!


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