Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ballads of Suburbia, A Book Review

Ballads of Suburbia is Stephanie Kuehnert’s second novel, her first being I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone. They came out nearly one after the other, but where her first novel fell short in some places her second showed growth and depth in secondary character development and setting.
The novel is set in Oak Park, IL during the mid 90s, a time of punk and the characters worship that image: dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, drugs, and a ‘I don’t care’ attitude. The main character is Kara, and her story of growing up, falling in love, doing drugs, feeling pain, and dealing with life is separated throughout the novel by confessions of her friends, they’re “ballads,” the stories they were never able to say out loud and instead wrote in a worn spiral bound notebook that they all shared. With so many intertwining stories it’s impossible for the reader to not find a character to relate to. The stories deal with everything from loss of a parent, to abuse, teen pregnancy, drug usage, abandonment, and as the novel continues the stories become more and more intense. Like growing up, life becomes more complicated as we get older.
Though admitting things to yourself is healthy, the longer you keep things from those that care about you the farther you may fall. Kara’s best friend, Maya, repeats her grandmother’s wisdom, “‘Secrets lead to sickness’. She said they call it coming clean because secrets and lies make you dirty inside.” All the characters keep secrets; some never face their demons, but the ones that do come out as better people.

What I'm Not, An essay interview hybrid mix with Stephanie Kuehnert

With two novels published in two years Stephanie Kuehnert isn’t a stranger to success, but she is one of the most down to earth “successful” people I have gotten the pleasure to talk to. During our interview the whole time I felt as if I was chatting with a peer, one who shared my passion for writing, and I realized that is perhaps why her books, I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia had me turning page after page trying to get to what happened next. I could relate to them. She, as a person, is relatable and in turn her characters are. They have real flaws and deal with things in real ways. What would my flaw be? What are my demons? Most days I feel like sunshine, the eternal optimist, the girl people get pissed at because like a sunflower I turn my face to the bright side of all things. But in darkness I grow. I’m a lot more than my sunny surface.
For a long time that is why I wrote. I wanted to be more than happy, more depth than sunshine, and writing allowed me to tap into the darkness. People could die, and do drugs, and cut, and the world could end and on the surface I wouldn’t change, but inside I would feel the darkness. It was my way of experiencing the bad, because my life was so good. And I never regret that, I never think I made the wrong choices because I was good, because I avoided things that could harm me. I’m thankful that I survived my teen years completely unscathed. When I asked Stephanie why she wrote her answer was perfect: “I’ve always just had these stories to tell, I don’t know, I was a big reader as a child and I had a wild imagination and always wanted to make up stories. When I got to be a teenager I started to feel like there were certain stories that were not being told, certain things that I wanted to read about that I couldn’t find books about. This was hard for me because I had grown up seeking answers in books, I used books to tell me things, like a guide, stories I could relate to, so I started to write my own.”
When I looked back on my own teenage years, years the literally just came to a close a few nights ago, I found that while Stephanie was seeking answers she couldn’t find I was looking for adventures I wasn’t having. All the years leading up to the day I moved in my first dorm room can be described in one word: wholesome. I used books as an escape, a way to experience drugs, sex, alcohol, and mischief. It is because of authors like Stephanie that I was able to be included in teenage rebellion, for in my real life I didn’t have anything to rebel against-easy going liberal loving parents, a small high school full of overall nice people, and a tiny town with no McDonalds, Taco Bell, or chain grocery store. Some people would scream at the quaintness of those descriptions, but it made me who I am, a girl that will never be jaded.
The books I read filled me up so completely-everything from teen romances like Carolyn Mackler’s Love and Other Four-Letter Words to fantasy like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the… to sci-fi like Lois Lowery’s The Giver. I wasn’t really surprised when Stephanie answered, “I read everything,” for writers who don’t answer the question “what do you read” with “everything” then they probably aren’t very good writers. She continued, “When I was a teenager there wasn’t much of a YA category. I pretty much went straight from Judy Blume to adult fiction, like Stephen King and Irvine Welsh and classics like Nathanial Hawthorne and John Steinbeck. I was all over the board. For YA probably the only author that I really loved when I was a teenager was Francesca Lia Block.”
I searched my brain and within a second I responded, “I love her books, I read Weetzie Bat as a teen. Her style was so cool, poetic, have you ever thought of writing something in a really alternative fantasy style like that?” I was excited for her answer, for my current writing obsession is magic realism. I love it when things are possible in some realms of thinking. Like some people believe in ghosts while others don’t, some are superstitious and some aren’t. All things are possible with the right mind. “Like a magically realism thing, yeah I’ve toyed with that, I’m working on something right now that’s urban fantasy that will touch on that a little bit. Honestly it’s not something I’m incredibly confident about. It’s a challenge.”
“Can you talk a little bit the book?” I asked, feeling so very journalistic, like I was getting news straight from the horse’s mouth or whatever. She laughed a little uncomfortably.
“No…it’s still really in the process and I don’t like to talk about it. And when they’re that in the process…it’s just going to deal with mythology basically.”
Well, I tried. Regardless, I’m going to be buying that book whenever it comes out. When in doubt all a good writer needs to do for a jolt of inspiration is scan their bookshelves for the must haves: Greek Mythology, Shakespeare, and The Bible. There lay the stories of the past, the roots of literature. I asked Stephanie what else inspired her and she answered, “Music has always been a big inspiration to me. I like songs that either express such emotions, but are also a memory or tell some type of story and I kind of draw from that. Reading inspires me. I’m a big observer. My other job is a bartender so I’m always listening and observing and seeing people lives and I like extrapolating stories from them. Pretty much everything inspires me in a way.”
Music: some of us pour over our iPods as faithfully as those clutch the New Testament. It’s our generation’s church it’s our religion. I put Jack White on the pulpit and listen to the scriptures of Get Behind Me Satan. I nearly wore out Crystal Castles while writing a science fiction short story. There’s always that perfect soundtrack to writing. If you check out Stephanie’s website you can listen to the songs she was inspired by as she wrote her first novel I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone. The book’s main character is a head strong, independent, chick rock star named Emily. The main character of Ballads of Suburbia is a girl who ultimately is her own savior.
“I’ve noticed that you write a lot of strong female characters, have you ever thought about writing solely from a male’s perspective?” I asked her, curious because I often have trouble writing strong female characters and almost prefer writing quiet pulled away young male characters.
“Honestly, no I haven’t. I have books with male characters and I’ve toyed with the male point of view. There are sections of Ballads of Suburbia that are written from the male point of view, but when I was a teenager that’s what I wanted in a character, I was always looking for a strong female character as opposed to weak female characters like…Bella from Twilight. [Insert a good chuckle]. That was always a search for me, it was always very important for me as a teenager so that’s why I think I lean toward writing that because I know. I want to be able to give girls good role models or strong female characters in fiction and eventually I’m sure if there’s a male character that really strikes me, I mean just because I don’t write from the male perspective doesn’t mean that I don’t really identify with and enjoy writing the male characters in my books, for whatever reason the story doesn’t want to be told from that point of view. I’m not ruling it out that someday it will, but currently the stories that are being told are from a female perspective.”
After reading both her books I know that if I was facing any of the same issues as a teenager as Kara and Emily I would have found solace in Stephanie’s words. They tell young people, especially girls, that you can be whatever you want to be, that in the end you’re the only one who can save yourself so stand up and be brave. “You tackle a lot of issues in your books like addictions to drugs and alcohol, cutting, divorce, abuse, are there any other issues that you think you might tackle in the future?”
“A lot of what I’m writing about right now is about dealing with grief. Both the paranormal book that I’m working on, sort of the situation it arises from is a girl dealing with grief over losing her sister, and I have a women’s fiction book that I’m working on as well that the characters are also dealing with a lot of grief. People deal with grief in positive and negative ways. They deal with it by running from it, or by getting angry about it, that sort of thing. I had a period in my life when three of my friends died in six months. There were two random health problems and a motorcycle accident. I write a lot to help myself through things so that’s why that’s something I’ve been writing about a lot lately. I’m really interested in how humans deal with their emotions. I think that’s the core of all the books are about. People cut, people do drugs and alcohol, people hurt other people, because of their emotional issues.” I was enthralled by her answer. I often think that artists feel things more deeply than others, but we just so happen to have an outlet. After losing a friend to suicide nearly two years ago, exactly two years ago this August 10th, the first thing I did with my emotions was write. I’m still being moved to write about the whole experience and I can look in almost every story I’ve written and see something from that time. An expression on a character’s face that was taken straight from my friends twin sister at her funeral, they way my lungs felt like they were being punched when I heard over the phone what had happened crept it’s way in a fight scene, the distant description in a online article of how and where she killed herself is the same tone I used to write a robot character. I don’t hold too hard onto what happened, but I use it to push me to write deeper more meaningful things. It isn’t hard to tell that Stephanie has also experienced deep sadness, because her characters are so real.
Part of being a writer is never quite growing old. We may grow up, get out of town, become adults, but we must never become numb, we must never forget what it feels like to be young. “Was it intentional to write Young Adult, or did it just kind of happen?” I asked, for I often find myself writing young characters.
“It turned out that way. My first book, I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone, was shopped as an adult book for a year and then my agent said, “You know nobody is picking this up as an adult book. The YA market is really strong and I think it would fit because your protagonist is a teenager.” I was like…she loses her virginity in the first chapter, it was a little extreme, but it was also the kind of book I was looking for to read when I was 14, 15, 16, but I was reading Stephen King and I was reading things out of the adult section, there wasn’t that kind of YA. That’s the kind of YA that I wanted to read as a teenager but it didn’t exist. I just didn’t think it existed but my agent said, “No, you can have sex and drugs and bad language in YA, I would never put you in a situation where you’d be censored so. Let me just try it.” I’m actually sometimes in the YA section and sometimes in the adult section. MTV books is technically an adult print, it’s not in the children’s division of Simon and Schuster. There’s a lot of confusion sometimes. My books have a bit of an identity crisis. Whatever, as long as the people who want to read it find it. That’s all that matters.”
“Do you ever censor yourself?”
“No, not really. I write the stories as they need to be told and if my character is going to say or do something even if I don’t like what they’re going to say or do if it’s true to them then they need to do it.”
I took a deep breath, our interview coming to close. This one wasn’t for me, but for her audience, for anyone out there who is having trouble believing in themselves. “One last question, if you could give any advice, whether it be about writing or growing up or living, to a young adult, what would it be?”
She paused, thinking, “I would just have to say…basically, I know it’s cheesy, but just follow your dreams. Follow your passions. I was really lucky in that. I didn’t go to school for writing initially because I thought I had to be practically about things. So I went to school for psychology for a year and dropped out because it wasn’t working. But I was fortunate to have my mom who had always encouraged me to write stories as a kid, and who encouraged me to go to Columbia College Chicago and has just been there as a cheerleader saying, “Yeah, it’s ok that you’re broke and this is a hard thing to get into. If it’s what you’re passionate about you should just do it.” Not everybody is that luck to have that kind of cheerleader and you just have to be strong and know that if it’s what you want to do just go for it and don’t let anybody judging you hold you back.”
“Thank you.” Thank you. No matter how many times you tell yourself not to give up, not to doubt yourself, it still never works as well as when someone else tells you. It’s not easy, Stephanie didn’t get to where she is by sitting back and doing nothing. She worked at it. She worked at herself and her art until finally it paid off. It’s drive. It’s an unquenchable thirst to succeed. You have to want it. I want it, I’m thirsty.