Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ‘zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her first YA novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was published by MTV Books in July 2008, and her second, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA was published in July 2009. In addition to writing novels, she is a staff writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls. Her work at ROOKIE and her zinester past inspired her next project, a zine-style memoir to be published by Dutton in 2016.
Stephanie lives in Seattle with her husband and two cats. She works full-time in the English Department at Seattle University and also teaches fiction writing at Hugo House, which is how I was lucky enough to meet her. (She was my teacher for a YA Novel Workshop class.) Stephanie was so kind as to answer a few questions for me about her new memoir and her writing in general.
You recently sold a “zine-style” memoir to Dutton Children’s Books, who says it will chronicle your transformation “from geek to grunge to goth to grrrl.” What else can you tell us about the memoir?
The idea for the memoir sprung out of my work for ROOKIE. I’ve been writing for the site since it launched in 2011, and a lot of what I write about is my own teenage experience. (I also get to make playlists, write recommendations for everything from music to candy, and talk about how much I love soap operas and cemeteries).
It was cathartic [writing honestly about my past], and the more I thought about collecting and expanding essays, and illustrating them to make it feel like a zine, the more psyched I got. It was the kind of project I’ve been dreaming of since I was sixteen.
My memoir is going to be a chronological collection of illustrated essays that form the overall story of my life from about thirteen to twenty-four. I’m writing about things like depression, self-injury, bullying, the emotionally and sexually abusive relationship I was in at fifteen, and my addiction issues in my late teens. It’s pretty intense stuff, but it’s also about identity: all those phases I went through, the bands and fashion I loved. I plan for there to be pages that look like fanzines for certain periods of my life.
How has the experience of writing this memoir been different from writing novels?
I sold the memoir on proposal, which is how non-fiction is generally sold, so I have a rough idea [of what it will be like], but in working with my awesome editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, I imagine things will change.
The novels I’ve written, especially BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, dealt with some of the things I actually struggled with, like depression, addiction, and self-injury. I was DESPERATE to read about those things when I was a teenager, so that’s why I wrote my novels. It was a bit scary to make the transition from fictional characters working through those things to writing about my own actual history, but from the comments and emails I’ve gotten, I know that I’m helping readers with my honesty.
How did you get started writing zines in high school? How do you think being a part of that culture shaped you as a person and a writer?
I discovered punk rock around eighth grade/freshman year and riot grrrl during my sophomore year. I discovered zine culture in those scenes and started making my own the summer after sophomore year. I went through an abusive relationship sophomore year, so punk, feminism, riot grrrl, those were my ways of surviving the aftermath. I was inspired by Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, all these zines about feminism that I was mail-ordering. Some of them were so raw, and I felt that raw—reading those zines gave me permission to express that.
This was also around the time my family got the internet… AOL! And I found this whole community of grrrls online. We traded zines, we poured our hearts out over forums and listservs. I would not be alive without that, honestly. And getting that permission to write about my bloodiest most awful feelings definitely shaped me as a writer. My fiction is usually described as raw, honest, edgy—all of that started back in 1995/96 when I was writing zines. Also, that punk D.I.Y./ “do it yourself” ethic has always stuck with me. It’s shaped how I’ve written my books, how I’ve promoted them. With this new book, I haven’t really seen anything like it, but I was like, I’ll find some way to make it happen.
I found on Zinebot this cover of Kill Supermodels, a zine you wrote with some friends in high school. Do you still have copies of your old zines?
Oh my god, wow! I didn’t realize that was online! Yeah, I have all my old zines—even the poetry zine my friends and I did, Crust, which was a play on Crest, our high school literary magazine that I thought I was too punk rock for — haha!
We did four issues of Kill Supermodels, which was a straight-up riot grrrl feminist zine that I did with my three best friends. The whole thing was about killing the concept of the supermodel—the tall, thin, white girl beauty standard—not about killing actual supermodels. I made sure to explain that every time because I didn’t want to promote violence against women… but I wanted a really attention-getting title.
What sort of things did you write about in your zines?
We wrote about sexism and homophobia—stuff in the national news at the time and stuff that was happening in our high school. We wrote poems to our female heroines like Amelia Earhart and diatribes about not shaving our legs. We wrote about music we loved and hated.
I also wrote these angry, intensely personal things about having rumors spread about me, and as I started to realize my relationship had been abusive, I started writing about that. Soon I started doing personal zines, and they were deeply, deeply personal. They were about the abuse, about my struggle with cutting, about being bullied, my relationship with my dad, everything.
I did three [personal zines]: Goddess Defiled, Hospital Gown, and Do Not Go Quietly Unto Yr Grave. Hospital Gown was featured in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s book ZINE SCENE, which I was super proud of, but Do Not Go Quietly was the most artistic, and it’s my favorite.
Will your memoir include pieces from your old zines?
Yes, it will. There will be pages from both Hospital Gown and Do Not Go Quietly for sure. In the essay that I wrote about the abusive relationship, there were certain parts that were best told by the girl who had just gone through it. I might be able to write more articulately now, but the stuff I wrote then was totally from the soul.
Is there anything you wrote back then that embarrass or surprises you now, 20 years later?
There’s definitely some Kill Supermodels stuff that embarrasses me, mainly because I was so angry about so much that I never took a step back, and I was publicly shitty to some people who I wrongly blamed for things. I was also really black-and-white back then. Like about what made you a sell-out or a poseur. I was a judgmental little asshole sometimes, but hey, I own it now. That’s part of growing up.
The level of my pain is the surprising part and the scary part. I hurt so badly back then that there are some things I don’t remember happening or writing or feeling because I must have blocked it out. That’s hard to revisit, but again, I own it.
You often write about music, and the zine scene of the 90’s was closely tied to music. What bands did you listen to back then? How does music still inspire your writing?
I went through a few phases. I was really into bands like Nirvana, Hole, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, and L7 in eighth grade and freshman year. Nirvana is still my all-time favorite band. Reading interviews with Kurt Cobain was how I discovered so many other bands and musicians, like PJ Harvey and Bikini Kill.
Sophomore and junior year, I got seriously into Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, The Gits, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, which were Corin and Carrie’s bands before Sleater-Kinney. Sleater-Kinney was a band I discovered at the very beginning, and god, they were totally my band—hence I ultimately named a novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.
I was also really into punk bands like Rancid and Social Distortion, early Green Day, all the Lookout! Records bands. I still listen to a lot of those bands. Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees, his solo albums are like the music of my soul.
Music is my biggest inspiration for writing. I make playlists to tease out the themes and emotions in my stories. The music I listened to as a teenager, especially bands like Nirvana, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney are what gave me the strength to use my voice, and today music still powers it.
It seems like writing for Rookie magazine has been like getting back in touch with the zine-writer you were as a teenager. Would you say that’s true? What would you like to tell us about writing for Rookie magazine?
Definitely! I responded to Tavi’s original call for submissions for her Sassy-inspired mag for this generation of teen girls BECAUSE it fulfilled my teen zine-writer dreams.
Writing for Rookie is incredible. The community of readers is like no other. It’s the only place on the internet where it is safe to read the comments because they are all smart, insightful, and completely heartfelt. It’s a dream come true to write for our readers AND to work with such incredible writers, illustrators, and editors. I cannot express how amazing our editors are. I like to say that it’s been part two of my MFA program because that is how much they’ve taught me. I’ve become a much better writer because of Rookie. I’ve become better at analyzing my own thoughts and feelings as well as more culturally aware and informed. Every day I read the site and am in awe. I’m seriously lucky to be a part of something so real, so smart, so beautifully executed. Rookie is Literally the Best Thing Ever.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
Ah, there is so much great advice out there. I constantly have to remind myself that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Also “butt in chair” and just WRITE is essential. It’s so easy to get derailed even by social media, promotion, etc., but the key is to JUST FINISH THE DRAFT. And then rewrite!
What’s one piece of advice you would have given your teenage self?
The advice I’d give teen me or an aspiring writer me is something I wrote on one of my group blogs a couple of months ago (just four days before I learned I sold my memoir, actually) and that is to embrace the fact that nothing will ever go as expected. Not life. Not any novel I’ve written. Certainly not my writing career. As a planner, this KILLS me, but those derailments—dropping out of my first college, changing plot points in a story, starting to write non-fiction—all brought me to this awesome place I’m in now. So yeah, nothing will ever go as planned and that’s okay. It will give you new stories to tell.