Recently, I read CHARM & STRANGE (St. Martin's Griffin), Stephanie Kuehn’s debut YA novel. From the beginning, I was sucked into the world of Win, a troubled student at a boarding school, and Drew, his alternate identity who exists in fragmented memories of his childhood. The complexity of the main protagonist, both as a child and as a teen, kept me very intrigued. The question of why Win doesn’t go by his birth name contributed to the suspense. The conclusion made me gasp, and it answered all my questions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie. She has her own author page here, and she also blogs at YA Highway.
It says on your web site that you grew up in Berkeley. Were you born there too? Where did you go to school?
I was not born in Berkeley. However, I was adopted when I was very young and my parents still live in the same Berkeley house I grew up in. My father was a journalist and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, so I was around writers and books and passionate people who love words my entire childhood. That was very special and inspiring. For my undergrad degree, I went to UC Santa Cruz, where I studied linguistics.
Tell me about your road to publication.
I think my path to publication was fairly standard and unremarkable. CHARM & STRANGE wasn't the first novel I'd written or queried, and I came up with the concept for it over a snowy spring break in Tahoe. I wrote a very short first draft, then revised it before querying agents. I connected with my agent (the awesome Michael Bourret) through a regular query letter/sample pages and it has been wonderful working with him. One thing to mention about the querying process: if you've read CHARM & STRANGE, you probably know that it's a book that seems to be about one thing, when it's really about something else. When I wrote the query letter for the book, I absolutely spoiled the whole thing in a very upfront way. I was not coy at all about the plot.
CHARM & STRANGE came with a twist, and the story effectively built me up to that twist with the right amount of pacing and suspense to keep me hooked. What advice do you have for writers working on a story with a twist?
It's interesting, I watch a lot of psychological thriller films, and in some ways I think there is no such thing as a twist ending. For people to buy what's going on, the truth has to have been there all along and it's a matter of when/how that individual reader/viewer puts the pieces together. I also believe there has to be meaning to the twist that goes beyond the element of surprise, which is why The Sixth Sense worked for me, but The Village less so. In order to tell a compelling twisty sort of story, I guess my advice is not to hide things. Instead, just keep telling the truth, page by page, bit by bit. All that being said, however, I never set out to write CHARM & STRANGE as a mystery. I simply wanted readers to go on Win's journey with him, and to experience the world the way that he does, because that is how I believe empathy is created.
I found the main protagonist’s first person perspective, as both the troubled young Drew and the hard-to-reach adolescent Win, very honest and raw. What tips do you have for nailing a distinctive first person voice?
In my mind, a distinctive voice is a confident voice. In real life people don't qualify their points of view and I don't think they need to in literature either. If a character doesn't like eggs, there doesn't need to be a long internal monologue about why they don't like eggs or what the backstory behind their distaste is (unless it's plot relevant). They would just think: "Eggs are gross."
I also think, especially in the first-person present-tense point of view, that self awareness can sometimes detract from authenticity. While insight and observation can define a voice, characters who are able to consistently and astutely reflect on their own in-the-moment experiences don't always ring true to me.
As writers, we can often get sucked into our own stories. Because of the dark subject matter of CHARM & STRANGE, did you ever feel overwhelmed while you were working on this? If so, how did you overcome this?
I was very often overwhelmed by it. It still overwhelms me every time I read it and I don't think you can overcome being upset by something like that. However, I definitely found personal meaning in sharing Win's story because I think it's one that is easy to overlook or dismiss. The topic of the book is not something people want to talk or think about, but it's real and it's painful, and I believe that without compassion or conversation or awareness, people will continue to suffer in silence and people will continue to feel alone.
I read a lot of animal stories as a child. As a teenager, I loved Robert Cormier, Joyce Sweeney, Gordon Korman, and Peter Straub.
Would you like to discuss any upcoming projects?
My second young adult novel will be out next year. It's called COMPLICIT and it's about a teenage boy whose life gets turned upside down when his estranged older sister comes back to town.
Thank you so much!
You're welcome, Stephanie!