One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Stephanie Kuehn
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I credit the 2014 Hub Morris/Nonfiction Reading Challenge for the motivation to move debut author Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm & Strange to the top of my reading pile, and I’m so glad I did–what an astounding book! I was thrilled when it was named the winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award. Of course credit for the presence of Complicit on the top of the reading pile as soon as it came out last month goes to Stephanie herself and I expect it will happen again with next year’s Delicate Monsters. If you haven’t had the pleasure (is “pleasure” the right word here? “mind-bending experience” might be more accurate) of reading her work you’ll want to rectify that immediately, at which point I won’t need to remind you to watch out for her next book because you’ll do that on your own. But if you haven’t had a chance to read some of the wise and thoughtful things she has to say about teens and mental health, go do that too; the world of young adult literature is seriously lucky to have her.
Thank you so much, Stephanie, for taking the time to talk with me, for your honesty and for your thoughtful explanations–I could have asked a dozen more questions based on your fascinating answers! And I think The Smiths are kind of boring too.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
When I think back on who I was as a teen, I see a lot of contradictions. I was quiet and awkward. I was loud and gregarious. I was athletic. I was internal. I was lonely. I was social. I was passionate. I was morbidly apathetic. Maybe the only constant is that I’m still the same way. Consistently inconsistent.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to somehow be involved in filmmaking. I’m pretty sure I saw nearly every single horror film that came out on video in the eighties, despite the fact my parents didn’t even own a VCR. On weekends, I would walk to the video store, rent a VCR, along with as many movies from the horror section as they would let me, and then stumble home with my arms full and set everything up. Part of me wanted to direct films or write them, but I was also really interested in special effects.
As for why…well, I’ve always felt a pull to do something creative, and films were an art form that I really connected with at that time of my life. Horror isn’t at all my thing anymore (too scary!), but the films I watched then were stories that explored emotions I wanted to explore: fear and doubt and distrust and disbelief and paradigm shifts about identity and who we are and what the world around us is all about.
What were your high school years like?
My high school years were as eclectic as I was: an anxious mix of thrills and boredom and risk-taking and laughter and compulsive, deep self-loathing. My first two years of high school I spent at Berkeley High in Berkeley, California, which is where I grew up. Ninth grade was fine, and I was part of a big social group of brainy kids I’d known in middle school. Tenth grade, however, was sort of a mess for me, for reasons I don’t totally understand. I became very fatalistic and depressed and obsessive about things that weren’t healthy to be obsessed about. To sort of escape my unhappiness, I ended up going to a boarding school in Massachusetts for the last two years of high school, which was a great change for me. I got to reinvent myself and take filmmaking classes, and I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity.
What were some of your passions during that time?
Books and movies, for sure. Back then, I loved horror novels as much as horror films, and I would buy tons of used mass market paperbacks for a quarter each and just devour them all. I read a ton of random books that way, things like The Fury, Pin, Magic, Willard, The Entity, Summer of Night, Neverland, The House Next Door, plus lots of Peter Straub and Robert R. McCammon and V.C. Andrews. I saw all the film versions of these books, too, although I also enjoyed teen films like The Breakfast Club and The Legend of Billie Jean. For sports, I ran cross country and played volleyball, although I wasn’t great at either. I’m a competitive person, but I hadn’t quite tapped into that side of myself yet. I also rode horses when I was younger, which I loved. I’ve always loved animals.
With music, I was all over the place. I grew up in the eighties and liked a lot of popular stuff, but never took my music identity very seriously. At one point, when I was in Berkeley, this new girl moved in next door, and she was super into The Smiths. She was also really cool, so I tried to be into The Smiths, too, only they were boring and I secretly listened to things like Ice-T’s Power when she wasn’t around. I also had an older cousin who lived with us for a while. He was horrified that I liked Duran Duran and tried to reshape my musical tastes by buying me an angel fish named Lou Reed and making me listen to The Velvet Underground.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
A huge part of my self-concept has always been independence, and I think I’m good at portraying a sense of personal strength and confidence. But I’ve always had a hard time showing vulnerability. I don’t know why this is. As a result, during times when I was younger and really struggled with depression and self-harm and obsessive thoughts, I didn’t know how to talk about my thoughts and feelings. At all. So I just kept everything inside of me, and it was maddening. It’s sad to look back and know I suffered for years with problems that I understand much better now, and it’s part of why I’m so committed to working with teens and ending stigma around mental health issues. It’s also why I think books are so important. I had those, and they were important to me.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I think being proactive and making the decision to leave home when I was fifteen had a huge impact on who I am now. So many doors and possibilities opened up for me mentally, just from having the chance to start high school over and make new connections with new people. I’m not generally an advocate for running away from one’s problems, but for me, the choice to do so was grounded in caring about my future at a time when I’d given up on myself. It was very positive.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
My advice to myself teen self would be to be patient. I was very impulsive when I was younger. Everything I wanted to achieve felt like it had to happen now. Patience would’ve served me well back then. I would not, however, have ever heeded that advice. Of course not!
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
No. I mean, there are times I wish I’d been kinder. Or more honest. Or more willing to connect. But those things can’t be changed, and they’ve made me who I am. I do cringe at some of the really risky things I did, like getting into cars with people who were drunk. That is regretful.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
My sheer willingness and drive to just play.
Every Day I Write the Book
In both Charm & Strange and Complicit your characters interact with each other in ways that feel genuine, despite the unreliable and sometimes murky reality that your protagonists navigate. Could you talk a little about how you approach creating authentic and compelling relationships between characters? How do you inspire empathy and compassion for characters that readers might not relate to or even understand, characters like Win who aren’t necessarily “likeable” in the traditional sense?
Thank you! Empathy is something I care deeply about, in life and in literature. However, I also believe that while empathy and compassion are most certainly connected, both are just as biased as all other human emotions. This is why qualities such as likeability (along with many others) can play a role in narrative empathy. But liking Win isn’t the point of Charm & Strange, and it wouldn’t have been true to his character to write him differently than the way that I did. Instead, I focused on telling the story in such a way that a reader would feel what Win feels, which is what empathy truly is.
When it comes to the relationships between characters, my approach is to layer on conflict and contradiction and more conflict, because that’s what feels real to me. It’s rare, for me, at least, to feel just one way about a person. I usually feel many ways about people. So in Complicit, Jamie loves his sister Cate and he’s scared of his sister Cate and he wants to protect Cate and he wants Cate to leave him the hell alone. These are all valid truths within him, and I tried to put them all on the page.
Speaking of Win, I want to take this opportunity to talk about resilience. In various interviews you mention resilience as being not only integral to the survival of some of your characters, but also a trait that’s critical to success in real life. Would you describe resilience in this context and talk about how it’s reflected in your writing and why you value the concept of resilience as a mental health professional?
It was important for me to portray Win as someone who, despite his struggles, is seen as strong and resilient, not weak or ‘crazy.’ It goes back to the stigma around mental health, the damaging idea that mental illness is symptomatic of some sort of moral weakness. We shame people for their emotions in our culture, and it is such a hurtful thing. To counter this, I wanted Win to be experienced as someone who was doing his best given the traumatic circumstances of his life. That is what resilience is. Whatever magic Win holds onto is magic he needs. It’s magic we would all need. And needing is okay when you’re hurt. It really is.
“When something is named, we have this very human tendency to want to categorize it as being like something else…This is good in certain ways: naming things gives us a way to share experiences and understand them. However, when something is named, it is also distanced from whatever it is that makes it unique. It becomes less like what it is and gets perceived as more like what it’s like.” You were describing mental health strategies and treatment in this quote, but I’m wondering if your background as a linguist influences your ideas about names and labels as well? Could you talk a bit more about the impact of naming, especially in the context of your characters and their beliefs about themselves?
Definitely! Language, by its nature, is reductive, which is part of what I think I was talking about in that quote—what it means to name something in the context of giving/receiving a mental health diagnosis.
I believe this reductive nature of language is something that is both good and bad: through language we can talk about things and share and understand experiences. But we also lose the individuality of experience, because the human mind is driven to put things into categories, to understand what things are like other things. Categorization, of course, is how we learn from past experience, and this is important, because we reason heuristically far more than we reason logically (even if we aren’t aware of it). But language is also vital on an existential level. As Wittgenstein asserts, having a shared communication system is an integral part of the human experience. Our connectedness to others is how we validate and understand ourselves. There can be no private language. So for Win, who’s been a part of something he can’t put words to, he feels, quite literally, as if his humanity has been diminished.
In Complicit, there is much more naming of things going on than in Charm & Strange. Jamie has lots of names for what’s going on with him and his sister. He has words for the differences between them. Cate is crazy, and he is good. She’s wild. He’s anxious. She’s dangerous. He’s in danger. Our personal narratives and belief systems are all wrapped up in language: it’s how we make meaning of ourselves and others, and like Jamie and Cate, it’s easy to become invested in the truth we believe our stories tell, even when there’s evidence to the contrary.
Finally, and along similar lines, your books have been categorized as “dark psychological thrillers” by a great many reviewers and I’m curious about your reaction to that label, which is accurate and maybe doesn’t tell the whole story. What draws you to that genre in particular, and do you think you could have told Win or Jamie’s stories any other way? Without giving anything away, could you tell us something about your next book, Delicate Monsters? Are you interested in exploring other genres, audiences, or formats in the future?
I would definitely be open to writing for different audiences or in different genres in the future. As for the label, it’s interesting, I never thought of Charm & Strange as a psychological thriller, but it does get called that and maybe that label is accurate. I very much enjoy psychological thrillers, especially in film, and I can see that I used elements from that genre to build the suspense in that book. Personally, I see it more as a story about the aftermath of trauma, but maybe genre is in the structure? I don’t know. Genre is reductive, too.
In Complicit, I definitely wanted to create the atmosphere of a Hitchcock film, so I suppose that label makes more sense. There’s much to admire in Hitchcock’s work, but what I love most is his sense of psychological destiny: his films have this crawling sense of dread throughout, where you know, no matter how good their intentions, or how hard they try, the characters’ fatal flaws are always, always going to catch up with them.
However, there are many ways to craft psychological suspense. Delicate Monsters, which is about a teenage sociopath and her relationships with two boys, who happen to be brothers, follows a very different structure than my first two books, but I think it still fits into the same space: it’s dark. It’s odd. It’s unsettling in its morally ambiguity. It goes where it has to go.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from E. Lockhart: The internet tells me you are a doctoral candidate in a field related to mental health. In what, specifically? I ask because I have a doctorate (in English, 19th century British novel) and often think about how and whether the work I did long ago affects my current work as a novelist. How do you feel yourself fitting into the institution of academia and how does your scholarly work connect with your fiction?
Thank you for the question, Emily. I am getting my doctorate in clinical psychology, so my focus is less academic and more applied. My studies definitely do influence my writing, although maybe not in as direct a way as one might think. Through my work as a therapist and through being part of a program with a strong social justice emphasis, I’ve learned a great deal about storytelling and systems: the deep power of narrative, how and why certain stories are told and re-told, how meaning is made and who gets to decide. No matter how isolated they are, the characters we create all exist within systems—family, community, etc—and we write and publish our stories within systems, too. These are endlessly interesting realms to navigate.
Stephanie has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Gene Luen Yang. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!
Stephanie Kuehn grew up in Berkeley, California, which is a quirky sort of a place with a ton of wonderful bookstores. Her very first job was working in one of those bookstores, and she’s been a freakishly avid reader for as long as she can remember. Back then, some of the books that had the greatest impact on her life were young adult novels, and now, as an adult, she’s found her own passion in writing books for teens. Her first novel, Charm & Strange, was named the 2014 winner of the William L. Morris YA Debut Award and Complicit, published in 2014, has received multiple starred reviews. Delicate Monsters is forthcoming (2015.)
Other passions include mental health advocacy, social justice, and sports of all kinds. When she’s not writing or reading (or studying for graduate school), she’s usually outside running or playing with her family. She currently lives in Northern California with her husband, three kids, and menagerie of pets. Life is loud, joyous, and filled with animal hair.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, her last name is pronounced keen.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle and The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear