I’m very excited to be touring the awesome Stephanie Kuehnert (one of my fellow TFCers) and her latest book Ballads of Suburbia which I can’t wait to read.
In high school, Kara McNaughton helped maintain the “Stories of Suburbia” notebook, which contained newspaper articles about bizarre and often tragic events from suburbs all over, as well as personal vignettes written by her friends,which Kara dubbed “ballads”. Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara likes best.
Not the clichéd ones but the truly genuine, gut-wrenching songs that convey love, loss and an individual’s story. Those “stories of Suburbia” were heartbreakingly honest tales of the moments when life changes and a kid is forced to grow up too soon. But Kara never wrote her own ballad. Before she could figure out what her song was about, she was leaving town after a series of disastrous events at the end of her junior year of high school.
Four years later, Kara returns to face the music, and tells the tale of her first three years of high school with her friends’ “ballads” interspersed throughout. Among them are her best friend Stacey, who dates guy after guy trying to find the one who will take care of her the way her parents never did; Cass, who copes with her mother’s mental illness and her older brother’s abandonment by doing copious amounts of acid; Adrian the creator of the “Stories of Suburbia”, who has “Thrown Away” tattooed on his forearms to express how he feels about his
adoptive parents and his birth parents; Christian, who seems like the nice guy type that Kara belongs with, but has a violent streak; Kara’s little brother Liam, who idolized Johnny Cash as a preschooler and has idolized Kara all his life though she lets him down again and again; and Maya, an eccentric but beautiful redhead who refuses to talk about her mother’s suicide.
Then of course, there’s Kara. She begins high school as a loner, who copes with her lack of friends and her rapidly unraveling home life by going to concerts with Liam, smoking the occasional joint, and cutting herself when things get really bad. She’s reluctant at first when she tags along with Maya to Scoville Park, where the “misfit” kids hang out, but she really wants “a life.” The summer after junior year that life nearly ends with a heroin overdose, the event that triggers Kara’s exit from Oak Park.
All the things that happen in between make up the ballads of suburbia.
And now for my usual set of questions:
What inspired the plot for your book?
I have a list of early inspirations of the book and its characters that I will share:
-Chicagoland, particularly the little corner of it I am so familiar with being the near western suburbs
-The epic fall and rise out of the ashes that makes you a person (Mythology)
-Suburbia (the place and the 80s movie)
-Family (the one you are born into and the one you chose, which often mirrors the problems of the original family but also fills the void)
-“Fitting in”/Jenga/house of cards
The main characters and the influences for them are:
Adrian is imagery of the worn cuff of your jeans slowly being worn away as you walk without you even knowing it.
Maya is scarlet lipstick stains on a cigarette butt.
Liam sang Johnny Cash as a little kid not the Beatles like everyone else.
Kara is the bastard child of a PJ Harvey song and a Mark Lanegan song.
Some of that may seem rather vague and I came up with that list when I was in first draft phase which is why I thought it would be particularly fun to share. But ultimately, the plot was inspired by my own experience in suburbia. It’s not autobiographical by any means, but I saw that a lot of things were not as happy and safe as they seemed and wanted to bring that out into the light.
Why did you decide to write in this genre?
I write the kinds of books I wanted to read as a teenager. As a teen, I read adult books, so I didn’t necessarily set out to write YA. I wanted to write books that both teens and adults would love and honestly as an adult, the genre I love most right now is YA! It’s the most honest and real and interesting. I’m glad to be a part of it!
What is your writing process like?
Well, it really depends on the book. Each times I start a new project I learn to write over again. For the most part though, I start with an idea and I toy with it forever. Then I finally start to write in fits and spurts. Then I binge. I go away for a week and just write like 10, 12 hour days. Then the first draft is finished and that is the part I hate most, the first draft. Revising is the fun part. Perfecting, shaping.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the fits and spurts phase. I have a few different ideas I’m toying with, but right this very second I’m toying with a book about a girl who has been moved around by her mother her whole life, so she goes on this road trip to find her “real home”. She’s on the road with a boy who is like a brother to her who is dealing with bipolar disorder and off his meds. But um, I could end up putting out a very different book next. Who knows really!
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I love to listen to music and go to concerts. I also love to read and just veg out in front of the TV with my fiancé.
Who do you like to read?
A wide variety of authors from the classics like John Steinbeck to gritty
contemporary adult like Irvine Welsh, to Urban Fantasy like Jeri Smith-Ready and
then mostly YA, in which my favorites are Melissa Marr, Francesca Lia Block, Cecil Castellucci, Laura Wiess…. Oh I could go on…
Here’s what people are saying about BALLADS OF SUBURBIA:
“….an intensely real and painfully honest novel of high-school anxiety.” and “….Kuehnert nails the raw vulnerability of teendom and delivers a hard-hitting and mesmerizing read.” – Booklist
“Like an American Beauty for the teen set.” – NewCity
“With her first two novels, Kuehnert has created vivid pictures of teenage lives that lie in that borderland that abuts adulthood. It is a fertile, confusing and intense place, and Kuehnert never holds back. But like a good ballad, she keeps the stories taut and precise, with a touch of heart thrown in for good measure.” – Chicago Sun-Times
“This book is powerful. It’s been haunting me for days. Yes, haunting me.” – The Story Siren, 5 star review, Recipient of the Luminous Pearl Award
“BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is a remarkable achievement that hits you right where it counts (your heart) and lingers where it matters (the brain). I’m truly looking forward to seeing what Stephanie Kuehnert will do next.” – Steph Su Reads, 5 out of 5 rating
“This novel was addicting. It was harsh, raw, cruel, sad, and painful, but the scariest of all is that this is real. In one powerful novel, whole worlds are exposed. I recommend this novel to anyone ready to see the truth.” – Reading Is Bliss
“All that really needs to be said about Ballads of Suburbia is that it’s spectacular, and that I can’t recommend it enough.” – Frenetic Reader
Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ‘zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and lives in Forest Park, Illinois. Her first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, was released by MTV Books in July of 2008. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, also published by MTV Books, is her latest release.
Link to Epilogue (ie the very first chapter of the book) on Stephanie’s site: http://www.stephaniekuehnert.com/ballads/index.html#chap1