Stephanie Kuehnert Interview

Ballads of Suburbia
Stephanie Kuehnert

A Conversation with Stephanie Kuehnert

Q: The opening lines from the Smashing Pumpkins are really powerful. Why did you start there?

A: Simply because I think it’s a beautiful song about Chicago. When I moved away from Chicago and would go back home to visit, that song would always pop into my head—even though I wasn’t born in Chicago, it’s my home. Some of my memories of growing up in the Chicago area are beautiful, some are painful, but it’s my place. I think that’s how Kara feels, too, and the song just sums those feelings up perfectly.

Q: Whose ballad is closest to your heart? Whose was most difficult to write? Do you have a favorite?

A: I don’t know which is closest to my heart; they all are to some degree. None of them directly relate to my life experiences, but I’ve felt the emotions that each character is expressing at some point. Adrian’s ballad is my favorite. I love his voice and it was a nice change of pace for me to write from a male POV. Though I loved writing in Stacey’s voice, too. Maya’s and Christian’s ballads were the most difficult to write. Maya’s ballad is a suicide note. It was very complex. And Christian . . . he’s an abuser. He lies to himself. His view of the truth is skewed, so how is he going to be honest in his ballad?

Q: Christian seems to be the “villain” of the novel. Is his name meant to be ironic? Did you include his backstory to make him more human? Are his mother’s death and his stepmother’s flight supposed to justify his violence toward women? And why is that coupled with the tenderness he shows his little sister?

A: Christian’s backstory certainly does not justify or excuse his violent actions. I included his ballad for the same reason I included the others, because I believe, like Adrian does, that an event or series of events can shape who we become. Of course how we were raised comes into play as well and look how Christian’s dad treats women. I don’t think people are just evil or “villains” through and through. Real people are multidimensional and I strive to portray my characters that way. I know firsthand from volunteering with domestic violence survivors and surviving an abusive relationship myself that abusers like Christian are not mean all the time. They often do have a tender side like Christian with his sister. And yes, his name is meant to be ironic.

Q: Female friendships seem to be central in the novel (Mary and Jessica;Kara, Maya, and Cass; and Kara and Stacey). What are you ultimately saying about them?

A: Teenage female friendships fascinate me. They are so complicated. They can save a girl’s life or they can destroy her. I’ve experienced each of these types of friendships. I’ve had the backstabbing/mean-girlfriend, the friend who is so dear, but you both have too many trust issues to open up, and the childhood friend from whom you grow apart. Ultimately, I guess I’m hoping that when I write about female friendships, it will help girls to examine their friendships, cherish and build the healthy ones, and escape the unhealthy.

Q: Did you pull from your own experiences to portray the early stages of Adrian and Kara’s relationship?

A: Oh, god . . . Yeah, a little. I definitely had a couple of those we’re not-really-dating-but-we-kinda-are relationships. And of course I got attached like Kara did.

Q: How many ballads did you contemplate writing while you were trying to find the right lines for each character? Was it a difficult process? Can you share some lyrics that didn’t make it into the final story?

A: Actually all the ballads that I planned to write made it into the book. I usually wrote a draft of the ballad before coming up with the lyrics. I’m constantly listening to music so if I heard a line that reminded me of a character, I’d write it down. Some, like Adrian’s and Cass’s, came to me right away, and I knew Liam’s would be from a Johnny Cash song so I just listened to a lot of Johnny Cash. In the first draft, Maya’s lyric was “She looks like a teenage anthem/She looks like she could have been happy in another life” by Everclear, but that song came out after Maya died. I think the Hole lyric suits her much better anyway. That was the toughest part, finding a lyric within the right time period by a band that the character would listen to.

Q: What type of research did you do to portray Kara’s sensation of cutting? Was it difficult for you to get inside her head during those moments?

A: I didn’t have to do research because I self-injured as a teenager. All I had to do was remember, but those are some rough memories. So in some ways it wasn’t hard to get inside her head because I’ve been there, but in other ways, it was the hardest part about writing this book. It’s a painful place to go. I haven’t cut in eight years, but it’s a lifelong addiction.

Q: How much of the novel, like ballads, is supposed to be didactic? What do you want your readers to take away from the novel, from the perceptions of suburbia?

A: I never go about writing a novel intending to teach a lesson or moral. It’s always about the characters. I like to write about the kinds of characters that I wanted to read about as a teen, to tell stories that are underrepresented in literature. I wrote this book simply to give kids like my characters a voice. There is a perception of suburbia as perfect and safe, but there are broken homes and broken hearts everywhere. I think there is a tendency in our culture—maybe in suburbia especially—to ignore the elephant in the middle of the room. We don’t talk about our problems. We don’t always pay enough attention to what’s going on with our kids and then are shocked when they OD on drugs or a school shooting happens. I didn’t have a lesson in mind while writing this book. I just wrote it to break the silence.

Q: Writing is obviously important to you, but why do you make it central to the story? Does creating their own stories give the characters a sense of control? Is it supposed to be therapeutic?

A: I do believe it is therapeutic. It was for me and for many of my friends growing up. As a teenager, it is so hard to talk to anyone about your feelings, but if you don’t work through them in some way, you can lose control of your life. This book is ultimately about breaking silence. Writing is the tool that these characters use to do that.

Q: Why did you end with Lina?

A: Because she is the future. She is the next generation; she is hope. I don’t write stories with happily-ever-after endings—Maya and Quentin wouldn’t have died if I did—but I do like to end on a hopeful note. Kara has been resistant to writing her ballad for years, but looking at Lina, she finally realizes why it is important to be open about the painful things in life. She’s learned to break the silence. Hopefully, Lina will have a better life because of it.

Q: Do you have another book in the works?

A: Yes, I have a couple actually. One draws on my favorite Greek myth, the tale of Persephone, and continues to explore the dynamics of friendship between teenage girls. The other is my “bartender book.” I’ve been a bartender for a few years and have collected some great material so I need to write a bartender character!