"The needle skipped and skittered for a few seconds until it found its groove, the first chord scratching its way through the speakers, a catchy chorus reverberating in my ears. Earthquakes. Rock gods."
Whenever two arts merge I get very excited. It could be a novel about about graffiti or a painting filled with letters and text, or it could be great cover art on a cd or book. However, two mediums that seem to be destined for each other are music and literature, and I am not just talking about song lyrics. Music seems to touch a writers soul a little deeper then others, and they are frequently compelled to write about this connection. They way they can honestly express the emotion and sound is magical, you can almost hear the tones as you read the page.
When I first found out about the debut novel of Chicago writer Stephanie Kuehnert from fellow writer Robert Duffer, I knew I had to have her on Orange Alert. Not only is she telling compelling tales of growing up in Chicago, but she is writing about music. No, she is not writing about classical music and chamber orchestras, she is writing about Punk Rock! Raw and in your face, she is utilize a sound and attitude and style that was and continues to be the backbone of a culture of rebellion. I say rebellion, but in their rebellion from authority a tight community was born.
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone comes out on MTV Books this Tuesday (July 8th), and I could not be happier to have the chance to talk with Stephanie about the book, YA fiction in general, and what lies ahead for this Chicago writer.
Orange Alert (OA): Your debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, comes out this month, what can you tell about this novel?
Stephanie Kuehnert (SK): It’s a book about punk rock. It’s about the Midwest and mothers and daughters and the deepest kind of friendship. It’s about following your dreams and running from your nightmares. The more specific, back jacket copy description 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?
OA: This novel is being classified as YA (Young Adult), did you set out to write a YA novel? This is a growing genre do you intend to continue writing for that audience?
SK: I didn’t set out to write a YA. I set out to write the kind of book that I would have loved at sixteen and now at 28 and later in life, too. My agent shopped this book as an adult book for a year. When it didn’t sell, she told me that she was gonna shop it as a YA. I said, “That’s fine, but what about the sex, the drugs, the swearing, and the darker aspects of the book? I won’t censor that stuff to sell it.” She promised I wouldn’t have to and I didn’t. It’s still basically the same book, except there used to be other adult perspectives in there besides Louisa’s, which I would have needed to take out anyway to focus the story. And some people are classifying it as an adult book, some as a YA. The MTV Books line is kinda weird like that, some of their books are definitely YA, some like Laura Wiess’s books and my book, they shelve in the adult section.
But I love YA right now. It’s basically all I’ve been reading for the past year. When she set out to pitch IWBYJR as a YA, my agent told me that YA was edgier now and she’s definitely right. When I was a teen, the only YA I read was Francesca Lia Block because, though she did it through fantasy/magical realism, she wrote about the gritty, real stuff that me and my friends were facing: eating disorders, sexual abuse, homophobia, etc. You didn’t see much of that in YA then, but now you do. Now it feels like some of the most honest books out there are YA. So yeah, I intend to continue to write for both mature teens and adults like I have been because those are the kind of stories I have to tell.
OA: Your next novel, Ballads of Suburbia, does not appear to be a YA novel. I think there is large group of readers out there in their late twenties who at one time (or still to this day) relate their experience to the movie Suburbia. Was that movie as much of an inspiration for this novel as your own experience in the Chicago Suburbs?
SK: I think Ballads is going to have a similar audience as IWBYJR, older teens and adults. The characters in Ballads are actually younger than in IWBYJR, which follows both an adult character, Louisa, and Emily from age 14 through 23. The Ballads characters range from 13 to 17, but the subject matter is definitely heavier than IWBYJR. So I’m actually going to be really interested to see who relates to which book the most.
And yes, yes, yes, the movie Suburbia is as much an inspiration for this novel as my own experiences, maybe even more so. Because that movie was about kids with difficult home lives who found a family among their friends and that is at the core of Ballads. And the kids in Ballads do the best they can to help each other out, just like in Suburbia, but in some cases they fail because they’re not adults and they really do need parents. I’m pretty nervous about how Ballads is going to be received. I’m afraid people are just gonna think I’m badmouthing my hometown (Oak Park) and that the book is autobiographical, which it is not. There are maybe two or three things in there that are true, like that I met my best friend while shoplifting at North Riverside Mall, but really I just chose Oak Park because I know the landscape and it’s a quintessential suburb in a lot of ways. The reason I wrote the book was to tell a story about kids raising themselves and to capture certain aspects about the teenage experience that I felt needed attention. Again, like with IWBYJR, I was writing the kind of book that I needed/wanted to read at 16, and yeah, I wanted to read a book like the movie Suburbia.
OA: You have a lot of experience writing DIY zines, do you feel that blogs are in anyway reducing the need or novelty of the underground culture? Have you seen a reduction in the amount of zines produced in the last ten years?
SK: Over the last ten years my zine experience has changed. Ten years ago (or maybe more like twelve) I was writing and reading riot grrrl zines and intensely personal zines, now I’m reading and submitting to lit zines and there are still plenty of those around even though there are many online, too. I know there are still riot grrrl zines and punk fanzines out there. I don’t see them as much, but that may be because I am out of the loop. However I wouldn’t doubt that there are less zines being produced physically rather than online. I hope some people still do it though because it’s fun. I used to love sitting around with three of my friends in high school cutting pictures out of magazines to use to make statements with in our zines. And figuring out ways to scam photocopies, that was cool, too. Of course the environmentalist in me says less paper usage is good…
But blogs and the internet have definitely changed our culture. They’ve made the underground a lot more visible, which I don’t have a problem with at all. I’m not one of those people who wants to keep the underground a big secret. I want whoever wants access to that to have access to it. I really enjoyed the kind of discovery process I had as a teenager, which was using the mainstream to discover the underground. Kurt Cobain would mention the Wipers and Bikini Kill in an interview and I admired him, so I’d go check out those bands, then I’d read their liner notes to discover more bands and so on. Now I guess that sort of search can be done through Google and Amazon recommendations, but it’s still a discovery process so that’s all that matters. And I was lucky because I lived near Chicago so I had access to underground stuff. What if we’d moved to South Dakota like my dad had wanted to at one point? If I felt out of place in Oak Park as a teen, how alone would I have felt there? That’s why I try to be really accessible online, especially for the kids in small towns who are looking for things they can’t find in their town.
OA: What is your impression of the Chicago literary scene? Is there one? Do you feel there is a growing community of quality writers in the area?
SK: I love the Chicago literary scene as much as I loved the Chicago punk scene in the early to mid-nineties. I see a lot of similarities between the two, like the energy, the sense of community, and the independent/D.I.Y. spirit. If people see something missing from literature, they don’t just complain about it, like “Oh mainstream publishing or literary journals don’t appreciate this,” they take the initiative and fill the void themselves by creating something. Like Featherproof Books. They are definitely my favorite indie press. I can’t even tell you how impressed by them I am, everything from their books to their approach for promotion. Genius. And we have amazing independent bookstores like Women and Children First and Quimby’s. We have a ton of great monthly reading events. In planning my book tour, I looked for reading series in other cities and except for San Francisco, no other city came close to the quality and quantity we have here. And they keep popping up in the most unique place. A friend of mine was sick of having to go to the North Side for everything, so she approached the owner of a café in North Riverside, the Tamale Hut Café. Tamales, BYOB, and readings, can you beat it?
And the reason why there’s room for all these reading series is because there is so much local talent. What’s also cool is we have such historically vibrant theater and music scenes as well and I think those scenes crossover with the literary scene. We’re a damn talented city, Chicago.
OA: What was your experience at Columbia like? Is Columbia playing a role in the scene as you see it?
SK: Columbia was amazing. That’s why I stayed on to get my MFA there when I finished my BA. It was such a supportive environment that allowed me the space to generate so much material. I really came into my own as a writer there. As a teenager, I thought writing was a really solitary thing, but you cannot get good at it without feedback from other writers and without listening to other people’s stories. Columbia is one of my biggest inspirations.
And yeah, maybe I’m biased, but I think they play a huge role in the scene. It’s a place where thousands of artists meet up. It’s like a big creative brain trust. So many cool collaborations come out of there and so much quality work.
OA: What's next for Stephanie Kuehnert?
SK: Well my best friend says she’s gonna learn to captain a ship so our dreams of piracy can be realized, but that might take awhile… In the meantime, lots of readings around Chicago and a jaunt to the West Coast to teach them about how great Chicago is. You can see all those events at www.stephaniekuehnert.com/gigs.html. I’m also trying out this event called Rock ‘n’ Read in L.A., which I hope to bring to Chicago this fall and you can find out about that at www.rocknread.net. Then I have to revise Ballads and then hopefully I’ll have more time to focus on new stuff because I have two great story ideas battling for my attention right now.
OA: As a fellow Vegetarian (I know you are a Vegan), do you ever feel a need to express your beliefs in your writing? Where can we find the best Vegan food in Chicago?
SK: I only express my beliefs when it comes organically. I don’t set out to create characters with my belief system. Emily’s a meat eater, that’s what’s true to her character, so she is. But my feminist beliefs come out in IWBYJR because that’s organic to the story. However, in one of the new books I’m working on, one of the main characters will definitely be vegan because it suits her. She’s a teenage anarchist kind of character. So my vegan beliefs will probably come out there.
Chicago has lots of great vegan food, except someone needs to bring a vegan restaurant to Forest Park and the near western ‘burbs ASAP because we’re sorely lacking over here and instead I’m trekking into the Loop to go to Karyn’s or up North to go to the Chicago Diner or Pick Me Up or South to Soul Vegetarian.
OA: Music is clearly a major influence in your writing, and I love the streaming mix on your site for "Suburbia". Have you ever thought of including a physical mixtape in the with your novels? What would the mix for I Wanna Be You Joey Ramone sound like?
SK: Hell yeah that would be awesome to include a mixtape (or maybe CD because I might be one of the last people on earth who still has a working cassette player) with my novels. Now I just need to get enough clout with my publisher to suggest that…. But in the meantime, I do make mix CDs and I run contests on my website and have a street team who I reward with stuff like mix CDs. The mix CD I created for IWBYJR (you can stream this mix at her website) was this:
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Sleater-Kinney
Don't Take Me For Granted by Social Distortion
Mono by Courtney Love
Gimme Danger by Iggy & The Stooges
She's Lost Control by Joy Division
40 Boys In 40 Nights by The Donnas
Chemical Warfare by Dead Kennedys
Fuck And Run by Liz Phair
Wander Alone by Tiger Army
Death or Glory by The Clash
Ask The Angels by The Distillers
Mother by Babes In Toyland
I'm Not Dead by Pink
I Wanna Live by The Ramones
Rock & Roll Girl by The Muffs
New Wave by Against Me!
Kool Thing by Sonic Youth
Suddenly Cool by The Methadones
Another Shot Of Whisky by The Gits
Ragged Company by Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
Don't Turn Away by Face To Face
Land by Patti Smith
Some of these songs are mentioned in the book and the rest just suit the mood or the characters. What I wanna see though is other people’s soundtrack for the book. That might have to be an upcoming contest….
For more information on Stephanie Kuehnert please visit her website.