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An Interview with 2014 Morris Award Finalist Stephanie Kuehn

2013 December 26
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Charm & StrangeWARNING: This book is not about what you are probably going to think it is about. That is pretty much all I can say about Stephanie Kuehn’s debut novel Charm & Strange without wandering into spoiler territory. Told in alternating chapters, the story goes back and forth between Win’s present in a New England boarding school and his past, when he was Drew. Bit by agonizing bit, the tragic series of events is revealed that led to this pivotal night in his life. I am extremely grateful to the Morris, because without it I might never have picked up this little gem of  a book that left me utterly wrecked–and was so worth it. As we continue our series highlighting the 2014 Morris Award finalists, here is my interview with Stephanie Kuehn (in case you were wondering, it’s pronounced keen).

 Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that Charm & Strange had been shortlisted for the Morris? How did you react?

Well, I’m in California, so it was early in the morning and I had just returned from dropping my kids off at school. My sweet and amazing editor at St. Martin’s, Sara Goodman, called to give me the news, and it was a complete shock. It was thrilling, but when I’m surprised, it takes me a while to absorb information, so I don’t think it hit me fully until later in the day. Luckily I already had plans to meet dear friend and author Kirsten Hubbard for coffee that afternoon and she celebrated with me. It was very special. I felt—and still feel—so thankful and honored.

How did your high school experience compare to the school in the book? What was your favorite subject in school? Did you like science—hence all the physics metaphors? Or were you more into English—hence, well, the writing career? Or was it something else entirely? What sports did you play?

My high school experience is definitely reflected in the book. After growing up and attending Berkeley public schools for most of my life, I transferred to a New England boarding school when I was fifteen. It was a huge moment of culture shock for me, but also an experience I am grateful to have had. I think the school I went to was more artsy (and less sports-focused) than the one Andrew attends, but there are similarities in tradition and atmosphere.

As for what subjects I enjoyed, I’ve always been torn between the arts and sciences, which is probably a pretty good metaphor for how my brain works. As a teenager, I wanted to study filmmaking, and the boarding school I chose had a very cool filmmaking program. But I was also interested in biology and thought I might be a bio major in college. However, I ended up studying linguistics and have been drawn to the cognitive sciences ever since. It’s a good fit for me.

For sports, I ran cross-country and played volleyball, although I was certainly no star at either!

 One of my favorite things about this book was the way it made me care about and want to stay with a protagonist who was not an especially likeable person. So why Andrew? What made you want or need to tell this particular story about this particular character? How did you find his voice?

Thank you! There are probably a lot of whys behind why Andrew, although with writing, I tend to find my whys in hindsight, which I don’t think is all that accurate. However, I do know that at the time I wrote this book I had a lot of feelings about shame and hurt and anger, and about mental strength and human resilience. I wanted to explore the ways in which we use fantasy to make sense of ourselves and the world around us, and how what looks like madness from the outside can be a means of survival.

I also believe that compassion shouldn’t correlate with likeability, which is why I didn’t feel compelled to give Andrew sweet or endearing characteristics. Given his upbringing and emotional state, those traits wouldn’t have felt real to me. Ultimately, it’s not a story about liking Andrew. It’s about empathizing with him, affirming his humanity, and understanding how his experiences have transformed him. That’s the story I wanted to tell. I tried to leave everything else out.

For Andrew’s voice, I honed in on his fatalism and fear, and let him be very direct with what he had to say. I actually found it freeing to write from his point of view. He is unreliable, but he is also unwaveringly honest.

 Without giving away too much of the plot, what would you say to readers who might see themselves or someone they care about in Andrew?

For anyone who knows someone like Andrew, I would say that, besides physical safety, the best thing you have to offer is your compassion and empathy, free of judgment and free of cynicism. I think that is the best thing we can give at all times, even to people we don’t care about.

For anyone who sees themselves in Andrew, I would say to please, please reach out for help. There are people who understand and people who care. RAINN and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network  are wonderful resources. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline  (1-800-273-TALK) is available 24/7 to anyone who is in crisis or knows someone who is.

Please tell us a little bit about the book you have coming out next summer. 

My second young adult novel, Complicit, is coming out in June, also from St. Martin’s. I’m very excited about it. It’s a dark psychological story about a boy whose life gets turned upside down when his disturbed older sister gets out of jail and comes back home to make his life miserable. When I wrote it I really wanted to capture the suspense and atmosphere of an Alfred Hitchcock film. I hope I’ve done that.

–Wendy Daughdrill, currently reading The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

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