One of my favorite books this year and probably the one that had most impact on me has been Ballads of Suburbia. It's a heavy and dark novel that includes many cruel realities of life and teenage years. You can read my review here. Stephanie Kuehnert -the author- is now one of my favorite authors, because I consider her writing unique. I hope you enjoy this edition of BTB, featuring Stephanie and her story behind Ballads of Suburbia.
How did you come up with the story?
~ This is a story I think I've been trying to write in some form since I was in high school, back when I was feeling the feelings that Kara was experiencing-- the loneliness, the desire to find your tribe so to speak. And growing up in the suburbs I saw all different kinds of dysfunctional families even though it was supposed to be the kind of place where things are perfect. Basically I've had these characters voices and their heartbreaking tales in my head for years, but I needed a structure. I was taking a class with the amazing author Joe Meno and he brought in a bunch of Johnny Cash CDs one day and started talking about ballads and how they were one of the original forms of storytelling. And I thought about Johnny's songs and about songs by bands like Social Distortion and the Distillers, these punk rock singers telling it like it is and I thought my suburban characters need an outlet like a ballad. I came up with the idea of the notebook and the different ballads in class that day.
Does it have to do with your life?
~ No. It's set in the town I grew up during the time I grew up there, but Kara is not me. We struggled with some of the same things like cutting and loneliness and divorced parents, but it's not my life. It just seemed like a good place to set it, somewhere I knew so well and since I knew the book was about heroin and there was a very real heroin problem in Oak Park at that time, it made sense.
How long did the book take to write?
~ Well, I wrote a version of it way back in 2000/2001. But that version was thinly veiled autobiography and I didn't like that. I wanted to give these characters their own lives, not force my life on them. So I put it away and wrote I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and got that ballads structure idea in the middle of writing I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, but just took notes and waited. I started writing Ballads in the version that you know it in 2006 and it sold in 2008, but I was also working on IWBYJR revisions and such at that time. I dunno, total it was probably a year and a half or two years, but the brainstorming took an addition 6 years!
What other books influenced?
~ The books that have been big influences on me include Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno, and Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. I don't know if I can point at their direct influences on Ballads. The last two definitely would have been the biggest influences on Ballads specifically. Though also the other day, I realized that The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll was probably a huge subconscious influence on the book.
How has the book changed your life so far?
~ Um, I wish I could say it had really changed my life, like that it was really successful and I was able to write full time or even that it made me a more confident writer, but writing is such a tightrope walk. You never feel good enough as a writer and as for success that would free me from a day job (or in my case, night job as a bartender), yeah not so much. The way it has changed me is that I feel like I have reached out to the world and a few people have read the book and are reaching back and that feels great. I went through a lot of darkness during my teenager years and I revisited that darkness in order to write this book. This book drove me to the brink of nervous breakdowns at some points. But when I get letters from kids saying it inspired them to stay sober or stop cutting or from kids who hadn't gone through anything like my characters but say that it really made them think, that makes it all worth it.
Why do you write YA?
~ Because my inner teenager is still alive and well. Because there were stories I was searching for as a teenager and rarely finding so I'm writing them. Because "coming of age" or the teenage years is the most interesting and important period of life in my mind. And most importantly because there a teenage characters in my head who need to be given a voice.
What are your favorite books?
~ Basically all the books that I named in the influences list and all the books I am about to name below. Oh and in addition to those Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone by Jeri Smith Ready. Mostly I read YA because it feel like the voices in it are some of the most real and honest in contemporary fiction. But I also love classics like Steinbeck, Hawthorne and of course Shakespeare.
Name 3 YA book that you would call a must-read.
~ Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr (it helps if you read Wicked Lovely first, but isn't necessary), and Beige by Cecil Castellucci. Oh and honorable mentions: Looking For Alaska by John Green, Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block and Leftovers by Laura Wiess. Yeah, sorry, seven is more my kinda number :)