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Feature Wed Oct 01 2008

An Interview with Stephanie Kuehnert

by Jason Behrends

When setting out to write a novel, a writer must first research their subject matter. Many writers dig through archives or visit certain towns or countries or interview different people. Chicago's Stephanie Kuehnert may do those things, but a vital part of her research thus far has been playing those old tapes and CDs from high school. The reason people enjoy music so much is that it acts in one of two ways: it is either a trigger to bring up past memories or it is a way of collecting of new ones. When Stephanie plays Smashing Pumpkins or The Ramones or Nirvana, she is taken back to a specific time in her life where she can explore, with clarity, the thoughts and emotions of a young girl experiencing life through music.

Her debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (MTV Books), is filled with music, but at the same time it is filled with raw emotion and a deep understanding of the relationship between a mother and a daughter. The main character, Emily Black, is abandoned by her mother who chooses a life of traveling with the current music scene. With visions of earning her mothers attention and affection, Emily forms a band herself in search of that magical tune that will make everything right again.

With her well-written and original novel in hand, Stephanie recently took the stage at the Metro and then told us all about it.

Gapers Block (GB): Your debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, is filled with music, and all of the positive and negative effects of a life filled with music. How big of a role does music play in your life?

Stephanie Kuehnert (SK): Music has played a huge role in my life since I was about 10 years old and I started discovering bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Faith No More and eventually bands like Nirvana and The Ramones. Music has been my escape since I was a kid. When I'm upset, listening to certain bands helps me work through my anger and pain. When I'm happy, music elevates my mood even more. And music is my primary muse for writing. I don't often listen to it while I write, but I do listen to it a lot while preparing to write and it sparks many of my ideas. And since I was 14 years old, my idea of the best night out is a concert. I love live shows and have seen hundreds.

GB: Speaking of music, you read at the Metro on September 14 with Irvine Welsh and Bill Hillman, which is primarily a music venue. Elizabeth Crane tells a story about feeling like a rock star while on stage at the Metro. What were you expecting, and how did you prepare?

SK: I read onstage at Metro once before during a Columbia [College] event that was a goodbye party for Irvine the first time he was in Chicago for a while. It wasn't a huge event, but it was still the most people I've ever read to and I was completely awestruck to be standing on the stage that so many of my heroes have graced. I've seen many of my favorite concerts at Metro. I was actually so overwhelmed and freaked out that after I read, I completely lost my voice...some sort of psychosomatic thing. Fortunately that didn't happen this time.

I honestly didn't know what to expect. I've seen Irvine fill the place to capacity before, but this was on a Sunday night and it was that weekend with the non-stop rain. Basically I just prepared by reading the section I planned to read about five times as opposed to just rehearsing it once like I usually do. I also asked my closest friends to be there so I could just pretend I was reading to them. I just focused on being confident, reminding myself that I'd been invited to do this and people thought I belonged on that stage.

When I got out there, I realized the stage lights make it so that you can only see the first row, so I felt like I was reading for 15 people instead of 150, which helped. And all the rehearsal paid off, too. I totally nailed the reading. I got the most applause I've ever gotten in my life and afterwards Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro, told the crowd that he thought Irvine, Bill, and I performed with the same power and energy as Cobain, Corgan, and Vedder back in the day. Since Kurt Cobain is one of my biggest heroes, I gotta say that comparison made my night.

GB: How do you select what you are going to read from the novel? Do you skip around or just read a specific section?

SK: I usually chose one section from a chapter or skip through a couple sections of a chapter. I have a handful of scenes that I know work well out loud and don't require a ton of backstory, etc. It depends on the time I am allotted of course, but it also depends on the audience. I'll read a completely different section to a bar crowd than I would to a bookstore crowd or to a library crowd. The other night I read to a library crowd that included a much older gentleman and a ten year-old kid. I'd planned to read a scene that was "PG-13", i.e. it didn't have sex or really serious swearing, but it did involve smoking pot. I ended up nixing that at the last minute because of the audience and went with the first ten pages of the book, which are the safest, no sex, no drugs, no swearing at all. For Metro, I did one of the more fun, raunchier scenes. I like to mix it up, though; it keeps me interested in reading it.

GB: Your novel, despite the language and sex, is classified as a Young Adult novel. What are your thoughts on that classification and YA fiction in general?

SK: My novel is really more of a crossover than a YA, I think. MTV Books is considered a YA publisher, but some of the books it puts out, including mine, are mostly sold in the adult section. So much like I've never felt like I fit in with one particular group or was easily labeled, neither is my book, and I like it that way. I am honored that it is considered by many to be YA, though, because I think right now YA is totally at its best. Some of the most honest, raw, real books out there are YA books. It's a real renaissance era for YA fiction right now.

GB: For people of our generation the MTV logo really means something significant. What has your experience been like with them thus far? What was your first thought when you found out it was MTV Books that was picking up the book?

SK: I begged my parents for cable when I was a kid so I could have MTV and I spent so much of late grade school through early high school glued to it. Before they stopped actually showing music videos, I adored MTV and thought it was on the cutting edge of so much. Since I hold on to that early love, I thought it was pretty cool when I heard that MTV Books wanted IWBYJR. Other than the name, the logo, and the same parent company (and the occasional book about The Hills that they put out), MTV Books is pretty much separate from MTV the channel. But to me, MTV Books has that cutting-edge, in-your-face thing going for it that MTV the channel had in the 80s and early 90s, so my experience with them thus far has been great. I couldn't have found a better match editor-wise than Jen Heddle, my editor at MTV Books and everyone else that I've worked with there has been totally amazing, too.

GB: What is the latest on your next novel Ballads of Suburbia?

SK: The latest is that I'm waiting on my revisions letter. I should be getting that later this month and then I will spend six weeks completely immersed in making Ballads the best book possible. Right now it is slated for a July 2009 release, but those dates tend to shift about until you get closer, but it will be out there sometime next summer for sure.

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