Stephanie Kuehnert Interviews Holly Schindler!

I am beyond honored to be interviewing the captain of our YA Outside the Lines ship, Holly Schindler, who interviewed me earlier this month. Holly is pure awesomeness and I loved learning more about her life and writing!

SK: Let’s talk about your latest YA first.  I’m in AWE of you for writing a twisty-turny, psychological thriller like Feral.  I love reading thrillers and mysteries, but I don’t think I could ever write one because I’m not sure I could be twisty-turny enough and my readers would be like, ‘Duh, that was obvious.’  Can you talk about your process (if it’s not too spoilery) of building the mystery in this book or maybe give some general tips on how you go about plotting?  Does a lot come in revision?

HS: A big part of the book was born during revision.  Originally, FERAL was an MG mystery.  As I revised, the book got dark—so dark, I got the inkling that it needed to be YA.  That might sound simple enough—you make your tween characters teens, you put them in high school instead of middle school, you give them cars instead of bikes.  Not so.  Changing age categories results in a real overhaul.  I had to ditch my protagonist—she worked as a thirteen-year-old, but not as a seventeen-year-old.

When I brainstormed a backstory for my new main character (Claire), I discovered that she’d endured a brutal gang beating.  At that point, I knew that the book would actually be about recovering from violence, and that the book should be a psychological thriller, rather than a straight mystery. 
Many aspects of the original mystery stayed the same; the meaning behind “cheating” changed when I bumped to YA, but the manner of death for Serena remained unchanged (and, in both versions, the truth of Serena’s death was revealed during a scene at a dance)…

SK: What are some of your personal favorite thrillers and mysteries?  Did you read a lot of them as a kid?  I was totally addicted to The Cat Who…mysteries when I was younger.

HS: The books I read when I was little were mostly contemporary realism.  I’m a child of the ‘80s, so there was a ton of Blume and Cleary in the mix.  When I was in junior high, I happened onto a Christopher Pike book: FALL INTO DARKNESS.  It was the first real adventure I’d ever read.  I remember thinking at the time that it read like a movie—I’d never really had that experience before, as a reader.  It absolutely hooked me, and I spent the next couple of years reading every Pike book I could get my hands on. 

As an adult, some of my favorite mysteries include MYSTIC RIVER and IN COLD BLOOD.  I remember I brought IN COLD BLOOD with me to proctor some final exams for one of my profs in grad school.  (I was finished with my own finals and had turned in the grades for the classes I was teaching, so I had nothing to study or grade.)  I was so enthralled with the book, I wished I had another two or three exams to proctor so I could keep reading!  Such a great, quietly chilling read…

SK: So one of the reasons I was instantly intrigued when I heard about Feral was because of the cats!  I actually helped take care of a feral cat community when I was living in Illinois and I have two cats, so I have loads of good cat stories.  Do you have cats or experiences with feral cats?  If so, tell us a story about them. 

HS: I grew up with two cats I loved to pieces: Peter and Tuffy.  Tuffy, as her name suggests, was born feral.  She was living near my parents’ home shortly after they got married, and Mom adopted her.  Peter was her son.  I always figured Peter thought of me as his pet, especially since he was part of the family before I was.  We were absolutely joined at the hip as I was growing up.

Tuffy is on the left, Petter on the right, little Holly in the middle!

SK: We’re both Midwestern-born, and even though I was raised in cities, one of my favorite things about the Midwest is the small towns.  I made up my little Wisconsin town in I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, but Peculiar, Missouri is a real place and you talked here about why you chose it.  You’ve set other books in the Midwest too.  What keeps you writing about the Midwest?

HS: You’re right—all of my published works take place (at least in part) in Missouri; when they venture out, they still maintain a Midwest feel.  A BLUE SO DARK takes place in Springfield, my hometown, though I fictionalized some of the places—for example, Aura’s school and Zellers Photography don’t exist.  PLAYING HURT opens in Fair Grove, Missouri (just a little over ten miles from Springfield), and when Chelsea, one of the main characters, goes on vacation, it’s to Minnesota.  THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY features a fictional town—just like your JOEY RAMONE!  But my own fictional town is in—yep—Missouri.  And FERAL takes place, for the most part, in a fictionalized Peculiar, Missouri.  (Come on, you couldn’t buy a better name for the setting of a creepy psychological thriller!)

Another setting aspect that’s run throughout my YAs is my use of water.  A big part of that, I think, is that I’ve got so much water so close to my home:

SK: Another thing we have in common is that we’re both music-lovers.  If you had to pick a theme song for each of your books, YA and MG, what would the theme song be?

HS: I’m an insane music addict.  I’ve gone through periods of loving just about every genre—everything from bluegrass to metal (my first concert was Kiss; my current fave musician is Will Hoge).  I taught piano and guitar lessons, too, and love to play some of those old classical pieces. 
It’s really tough for me to write to music—I pay too much attention to it.  I’ve caught myself accidentally typing lyrics while trying to write to some favorite tunes.  But if I were to give each book a theme song…

A BLUE SO DARK: “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.  (Aura’s mother has an extensive vinyl collection; Pink Floyd’s mentioned in the book.)

PLAYING HURT: “Collide” by Kid Rock / Sheryl Crowe.   A song about two people who have been through hard times and are seeking love—like Chelsea and Clint.

THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY: “This Little Light of Mine,” because Auggie’s on the hunt to find her “shine.”

FERAL: No song, just stillness.  Because nothing is creepier than silence… 

SK: You taught—still teach?—guitar and piano lessons, which means you much know how to play both, which makes me very jealous because I’ve wanted to be more musical than I am.  When people are multi-talented like you, I always like to hear how one art feeds the other.  So how does playing music feed your writing and vice versa?

HS: I don’t teach anymore—just don’t have time for it these days.  But when I was teaching, I was also drafting some of my earliest books—which were all in the adult category.  When I started offering lessons, though, I was shocked at how similar my students were to the students I’d known in school.  They inspired me to try my hand at juvenile literature!  So in a roundabout way, that’s an example of one art feeding into another.

When I was sixteen, I also took guitar lessons from Bill Brown, a local musician who played with several bands (his most well-known band was The Ozark Mountain Daredevils).  I was totally, completely starstruck when I took lessons with Bill—he’s honestly the most talented person I’ve ever been around in my life.  After I’d been taking lessons for a while, he got me to bring in some of my poems, showed me the basics of songwriting.

I do think there’s a music, a rhythm to the written word.  I feel, in some ways, like Bill’s influence is visible in my books.

SK: Your first book, A Blue So Dark, is about a topic that is really close to my heart—the connection between art and mental illness.  I’ve struggled with depression all of my life and as a teenager especially felt my creativity was linked to that—like to be a true artist I should suffer, maybe even be crushed by my pain.  On the flipside, my creativity has also been a source of healing.  Did you discover anything interesting about the connections between creativity and mental illness while you were researching this book?  What drew you to write this story?

HS: I’m really fascinated by the creative process.  Why some people are innately creative thinkers and some never feel the need for a creative outlet.  FERAL also deals with some issues of mental health.  I think the mind is a fascinating place—primarily because we still know so little about it.
I’ve never dealt with any issues of mental health in my own personal life.  I was incredibly shy when I was younger, though—sometimes, I wonder if that wasn’t part of me wanting to write (if it was a way to “speak”).  But writing fiction is more than that—storytelling has just always fit.  I can’t imagine a me that doesn’t write.

SK: I love all your titles, but I also know that often times the titles that land on the book cover weren’t the original titles that the author was working with.  My first book’s title wasn’t, my second book’s title was, and my third book’s title won’t be.  What about yours?  And if some were changed, would you share the original title (or maybe a slew of titles…I know my first book went through a few)?

HS: My mom’s my first reader and soundboard.  She’s also gotten on the cover of every book I’ve ever done.  A BLUE SO DARK was acquired under the title THE OCEAN FLOORMy editor was really lukewarm about it, though.  Mom and I both trolled the manuscript for alternatives; he instantly fell in love with A BLUE SO DARK (which was from her list).  She pulled PLAYING HURT from the manuscript as the title while I was writing the final version.  She also grabbed onto THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY while I was writing the first draft, but initially, the title was spelled THE JUNK-TION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY (it’s a nickname associated with the main characters’ house).  The book was acquired under that name, but Penguin changed the spelling of “Junk-tion,” because it didn’t make much sense without having read the book.  With FERAL, she came up with the tagline: “A wicked game of cat and mouse…”
She’s gonna start charging commission, I swear…

SK: You’ve got one middle grade book out, and when we discussed this interview, you were working on revisions for another one.  What drew you to middle grade?  What do you like about doing both YA and MG?  If you are going to continue doing both, which we hope you are!

HS: When I turned my attention to juvenile literature, I didn’t turn only to YA—I was learning the ropes of the YA and MG worlds at the same time.  The first couple of publications just happened to be YA.

I like being able to move from one genre and subgenre to another.  There’s certainly something to be said for “author branding,” but I’d feel pretty stymied pretty quickly.  So far, I’ve done YA and MG, contemporary realism, romance, and psychological thriller.  I’ve just turned in my next MG to my editor, and also have another YA in development.  I absolutely want to continue writing in both the YA and MG worlds.

SK: What are you working on next? 

HS: I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’m becoming a hybrid author (one who publishes both traditionally and independently).  My first indie release will be an NA.  I filmed a short vlog on why I’ve decided to go this route:


  1. Good luck with this new phase of your writing career, Holly! NA is a genre I've been interested in writing too. I'll be reading your blog and taking notes as you head down non-traditional publishing path. Being a hybrid author makes so much sense and I'll be more and more authors will be joining you.

    1. I'm so excited about it, Jen! I'm doing global edits right now for the NA, and there's already a difference. I'm thinking only about readers (rather than an agent and editor). I can actually feel it making a positive impact on the book!

  2. Your mom sounds awesome! I also really like the premise of FERAL and reading about your process of changing it from MG to YA.

  3. Congrats on the new venture! And your mom sounds like a great person to have on your team.


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