Sunday, August 18, 2013

Author Interview with Stephanie Kuehn

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.

What books/authors did you enjoy reading from as a child?
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!


Vanessa Morgan said...

You certainly know how to make a book sound appealing. Also loving the interview. Started following you via Bloglovin and looking forward to visiting often.

Empty Nest Insider said...

Great interview Cynthia! I enjoyed meeting Stephanie and learning about the publishing process. Charm and Strange sounds like it has lots of interesting twists and turns. Best of luck Stephanie!


Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I already have CHARM AND STRANGE on my TBR list and this interview makes me want to read it even more. :)

I really liked Stephanie's thoughts about twists and psychological thrillers. (And I agree re THE SIXTH SENSE vs THE VILLAGE.)

Thanks for the interview, ladies!

Elsie Amata said...

I love books that have a good twist at the end! Even the title has intrigue. Great interview, Cynthia!

Pat Hatt said...

Nice interview indeed, good info on the publication process too.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

This is a great interview! Thank you Cynthia and Stephanie. I'm going to pop over to Amazon and download a sample to my Kindle before I forget. This sounds right up my alley!

As for spoiling the twist in the query letter -- good for you! I have often given advice to writers on that very issue. The agent needs to know what makes your story unique. There's no such thing as a spoiler in a query letter -- your book needs to stand out among the rest.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

A matter of when the viewer or reader puts the pieces together - now that's an apt description. The twist isn't good if people figure it out way too soon.

PK HREZO said...

Wow it sounds really edgy and awesome! I'll be adding it to my TBR list. I love psych thrillers!
Thanks for sharing!
And Cynthia, you asked about the YALitchat conference and it's going to be real life in NC. But def join the online group. Twitter chats every Wed night 9pm EST.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed the interview, and I love books with twists! Her tip about writing the truth is very helpful. Wishing her much success! :-)

Yolanda Renée said...

Thanks Cynthia for your wonderful comment on Alex's blog.

Wow, what a wonderful review and interview you've done here for Stephanie. Congrats to Stephanie, her book sounds exciting and how awesome to grow up in a 'writing' household!

Julie Dao said...

I keep hearing about this book and I cannot wait to read it! Sounds fantastic! Thank you both for a lovely interview. Giving my character a distinctive, confident voice is something I'm still striving for.

Paul R. Hewlett said...

Excellent interview, I'm hooked! I have to see what the twist ending is in Charm and Strange. Thanks for the interview and best of luck to you Ms. Kuehn.

Paul R. Hewlett

Unknown said...

Great review and interview. I love reading how authors made their way through all this and what paths they have chosen. Thanks, Cynthia and Stephanie!

S.P. Bowers said...

I like how you said you didn't set out to write a mystery, you just wanted the reader to live his journey with him. I like that. I've read books where the writer set up twists and reveals, but do do so, she had to mislead the reader and withold info that later we find out the characters already knew and I just felt betrayed.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Oooo, this sounds like a must read. Thanks for the interview. I'm adding this one to my list.

Tonja Drecker said...

Nice interview! I enjoy hearing all about an author's journey and which turns it takes. Thanks :)

Gina Gao said...

This is a really nice interview! I enjoyed reading this very much.

Tammy Theriault said...

no such thing as a twist ending?? i LOVE this girl

Anonymous said...

This sounds like an amazing read and it was great learning about the author. Yay on the second book.

Mike Louie said...

What a great interview... adding this book on my 'to-read' list! Thanks, Cynthia!

Misha Gerrick said...

Awesome interview, Cynthia.

I also loved what Stephanie said about there not being something like a twist ending.

Nothing annoys me like reading a book where the ending is pulled out of thin air and the writer expects the reader to call it a twist.

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