Stephanie Kuehnert’s new book, Ballads of Suburbia, is our Book of the Month here at yaReads. We think Stephanie is a pretty amazing story teller and is a breath of fresh air in the world of Young Adult fiction. She deviates from the regular YA formula and her books are confronting, edgy, and real. It’s great to see someone pushing the boundaries. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions about Ballads, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
If you had to choose a ballad that fits your own life story what would it be?
Okay, this is seriously the hardest question anyone has ever asked me! It’s hard for me to choose just one because different phases of my life had different songs. I guess, I’d have to say “The Young Crazed Peeling” by The Distillers though. There are things that don’t apply literally (I’m not from Melbourne, I didn’t have an abusive dad, though my mom does blame herself for me growing up troubled a bit), but it’s basically to me about getting through your rough teenage years where you’re bored and troubled and as Brody sings “you can wash it all down, swallow your story, get smacked up, yeah and go down in drum roll glory, but it won’t solve it, committing self inflicted crime.” And then you’re “liberated from those sad side city streets”, find love, speak truth, and “it hit me, I got everything I need. I got freedom and my youth.” Basically my troubled youth ended well, and gave me a gift of creativity, and I finally did find good love.
You’re obviously heavily influenced by music. What are your top three bands/artists of all time?
Nirvana, Hole, and Social Distortion, all of whom I discovered between the ages of 12 and 14.
Where does your musical influence come from?
Somewhere around age 10 or so music became as essential to me as food, water and air. I got into the Beatles first, through my parents. Then we got MTV and I started getting into alternative rock like REM, Jane’s Addiction, Depeche Mode and Faith No More as well as heavier stuff like Metallica and Megadeth. I had a couple friends who were always discovering new bands first, like one of them got Nirvana’s first album Bleach right before Nevermind came out and they got huge. One of them got stuff from a cool older cousin. That was where I heard Hole’s first album and I remember that friend brought the first Nine Inch Nails album to my 12th birthday party and we were like “The devil wants to f*** me in the back of his car?!?” BAD-ASS! But really it was Nirvana that had the hugest influence. Something about how Kurt Cobain screamed, it just soothed all that hurt inside and I wanted more music like that. So I bought bands’ albums that he mentioned in interviews. That’s how I discovered the Sex Pistols. Nirvana and The Sex Pistols were my two favorite bands in junior high and from there I went on to discover more punk. Punk gave me voice and a sense of release. It all comes from that.
Now for Ballads, how long did it take to write?
Actual writing time probably 2 years, but I wrote a really, really crappy book when I first started the creative writing program at Columbia in 2000/2001 called The Morning After. It had some of the same characters from Ballads, but it was a fictionalized version of my own life and that was not what I wanted to do. I had something to say about suburbia and I wanted to do it justice and find the write structure for it. So I shoved that manuscript in a drawer and went on to write my first published novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. In the middle of doing that, while I was in grad school, I took a class with Joe Meno and he did this whole lesson on ballads and that was when I realized I needed these confessional type ballads for my suburbia book. Still, I finished writing IWBYJR and then came back to Ballads in 2006. I need a lot of stewing time for my books. But the ballad structure was exactly what I needed. I wrote the book fast. I think the only scene from The Morning After that made the cut though was when Kara and Adrian meet.
***SUPER SPOILER WARNING***
Did you make a conscious decision to kill of Maya, or did the story kind of write itself that way?
I knew Maya was dead when I met her. Ballads, unlike IWBYJR, I wrote linearly. I wrote that epilogue first and when Kara had that vision of Maya, I saw her too and I knew that Maya was dead. I knew how she would kill herself too, but I had to discover the whys through the writing, let Maya slowly reveal them to me.
A lot of the characters in Ballads (Liam and Kara especially) say that love is for suckers, yet they both end up falling for the people they’re messing around with. Do you think that people can have no-strings attached relationships like they were both aiming for?
Kara’s story is not as uncommon as society would have us think. Why do you think teens (and people in general, I suppose) turn to self-mutilation, drugs and substance abuse to help solve their problems? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself and I would say no. I had a couple Adrian style relationships when I was younger and always got emotionally involved and got hurt. Now I’m a very emotional person so that is just me, but when I’ve seen other people do it, it seems like someone always gets hurt too.
Kara’s story is not as uncommon as society would have us think. Why do you think teens (and people in general, I suppose) turn to self-mutilation, drugs and substance abuse to help solve their problems?
Because as a society we don’t communicate well. That’s kind of the whole theme of Ballads, the whole tragedy of it. If parents had talked to children or children had talked to parents or other trusted adults or each other, things might not have happened the way they did. I hope this story creates a dialogue and gets people talking so fewer kids suffer in silence like the characters in Ballads and like I did as a teen too.
If Kara’s parents had stayed together, do you think she would have gone down a different road, or do you think she was destined to learn life’s lessons the way she did?
Well, it depends. If they stayed together for the right reasons and actually created a healthy environment, then maybe things would have been different. But “staying together for the kids” and creating this unhealthy silence wouldn’t haven changed things. Also Kara had other issues. She felt isolated and friendless, she might have still gone down the same path because of that. I don’t think anyone is destined for anything, there are always choices, but there are also always multiple factors that shape why we act the way we do.
***SUPER SPOILER WARNING***
Do you think Adrian will ever clean himself up?
Um, I don’t know. Part of me wants to hold out hope. Part of me is cynical because I have friends (ex-friends really) who are still in the throes of addiction and it seems like they will never come out. Adrian’s a lot like them because he just doesn’t care. If you don’t care enough to save yourself, you’re pretty much screwed. No one can save you but you.
For all those people out there who live by the motto “once a drug addict, always a drug addict” what do you have to say to that?
Depends what you mean by that. If it’s like a negative thing, like people can never turn their lives around, I think that is bullshit. There are always choices and opportunity for change. But it is a fight to overcome an addiction. I struggled with self-injury and even though I haven’t cut in eight years when a friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident last year, it took unbelievable willpower not to go back to old ways of running from pain. So yeah, you are always an addict in that sense where it’s not like you can just indulge again without consequences. But you can start fresh and turn your life around.
What would be your advice to teens reading Ballads that might be following a similar path as Kara?
Find someone trusted to talk to. Friends are good, but finding an adult is important too. There is no shame in therapy. My life didn’t turn around until I seriously started going to therapy. That combined with my art–my writing–helped me through my darkest times. Art is the best escape– no hangovers, no regrets, no scars. Finding some form of art–music, writing, painting, photos, film–to express yourself with is the best way to begin to heal. Along with talking. Talking is so necessary.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few different things. It takes a while for the ideas to formulate so I do more than one thing at once until I really get going. I’m working on a book about a teenage girl and her alcoholic, still-teenage-acting mom trying to grow up and finally put down roots somewhere together. Then I’m working on a book with paranormal elements, that involves mythology and rock ‘n’ roll.