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Thursday, January 06, 2011

Story Secrets: BALLADS OF SUBURBIA by Stephanie Kuehnert + giveaway!

How have I not already featured this book, you ask? I was wondering that myself. Stephanie Kuehnert's BALLADS OF SUBURBIA was one of my favorite reads of 2010, so I'm thrilled to get to chat with her about it today.

I was so lucky to meet Stephanie in New York at BEA and the Teen Author Carnival (yup, yet another amazing person I met at that fabulous, blogger-created event), and she even very kindly blurbed my upcoming book, Don't Breathe a Word! What an honor that is.

Welcome, Stephanie!


There are so many ballads. Achy breaky country songs. Mournful pop songs. Then there’s the rare punk ballad, the ballad of suburbia: louder, faster, angrier . . . till it drowns out the silence.

Kara hasn’t been back to Oak Park since the end of junior year, when a heroin overdose nearly killed her and sirens heralded her exit. Four years later, she returns to face the music. Her life changed forever back in high school: her family disintegrated, she ran around with a whole new crowd of friends, she partied a little too hard, and she fell in love with gorgeous bad boy Adrian, who left her to die that day in Scoville Park. . . .

Amidst the music, the booze, the drugs, and the drama, her friends filled a notebook with heartbreakingly honest confessions of the moments that defined and shattered their young lives. Now, finally, Kara is ready to write her own.

Put simply, the book is about a group of teenagers who are hurting in the ways teenagers do hurt in real life, but adults like to pretend they don't have to deal with such things. And these teenagers take care of themselves and each other in the only ways they know how. Some of those ways are destructive, but ultimately it's a story of learning how to survive and find your inner strength.

Holly Cupala: Tell us about the story behind the story.

Stephanie Kuehnert:
I lived a lot of what is in this book. It's not an autobiography, but it is set in the town where I grew up, Oak Park, Illinois. The main character, Kara, deals with a lot of things that I dealt with, depression, the feeling of not fitting in, self-injury, distant parents who are divorcing, boyfriends that are no good for you, and her friends deal with a lot things that my friends dealt with like heroin addiction and teen pregnancy.

When I was a teenager dealing with this stuff and watching my friends go through it, I kept thinking why are there no books that deal with these topics, no stories for teens about these kinds of things. At that time in the early to mid nineties, there wasn't as much gritty, honest and real YA lit out there. I had Francesca Lia Block and that was about it. I had My So-Called Life, which the cancelled after one season even though at the time I thought it was the most real portrayal of teen life I'd ever seen. (And that is why I quote from it at the beginning of Ballads: "If you made a book of what really happened, it would be a really upsetting book," which the main character Angela Chase said when asked why she was quitting yearbook.) I was the kind of kid who had always been a big reader so I looked to books for answers and it was upsetting when I couldn't find what I needed as a teen. Since I also loved to write, I promised myself that one day I would write the book I'd been searching for.

That's why this book means so much to me, even more than my first book. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is the book I became a writer to write.

Holly: I definitely felt that as I was reading it, and I love the Angela Chase quote - so true. Tell us about the ballad structure. Did you plan that, or was it a surprise?

I kind of screwed around for awhile after high school, but eventually when to college for creative writing when I was twenty one and in my first year there, I wrote an early version of BALLADS that I called THE MORNING AFTER... but it was basically an autobiography then and it was really bitter and just poorly written. So I set it aside, knowing that when I wrote my "dark truth about suburbia" it had to be really really good to live up to what teen me needed. I was working on what would become my first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, when I took a class with the amazing teacher and author Joe Meno. One day he brought a boombox into class and played a bunch of Johnny Cash and June Carter songs talking about ballads as an original form of storytelling. I listened to those honest, confessional tales that Johnny told and thought about punk songs I loved like "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion and "The Young Crazed Peeling" by the Distillers where the singer just tells the story of their life (or a fictional character's life, I don't want to assume!), how they messed up, how they survived and I thought this is it! This is what I need to do in my suburbia book. All of the characters need to write their ballad or the story of the moment that profoundly changed them in some way. I'll center the book around the notebook and call it BALLADS OF SUBURBIA! It was my big eureka moment and that's how BALLADS because BALLADS. Though I still finished my first book first because I knew I would learn a lot about writing from doing that and I did and that also helped BALLADS be a stronger book.

Holly: The book goes into some dark places, which must have been challenging to write.

Stephanie: It took me to dark places for sure. The last round of revisions on this book were one of the hardest things I've ever done. My editor told me that I needed to really express Kara's pain and bring it to life for the reader. Especially since Kara cuts herself which is not something everyone does (thank goodness since it's a very unhealthy way to cope) and I needed to show why. I'd stopped cutting myself about six years before that, but I had to go back there (as in access those emotions and motivations, not *actually* cut) to get inside Kara's head. And since she and her friends deal with a lot that I dealt with, I was revisiting a lot of ugly memories and dark emotions. The ulcer that I'd gotten at the end of high school actually flared up again at the end of my revisions process even though it hadn't bothered me in years! But, I think I finally put all of that ugly stuff from my past to rest and I hope that I wrote a very honest book that will help people who are dealing with what the characters are dealing with or help people who haven't lived that kind of life understand and have empathy for those who have.

Holly: Beyond the spark that brought BALLADS to life, what is your biggest inspiration?

Real life. Real people. My own experiences and also what I see others going through and surviving. I'm a huge people watcher and observer and that feeds my writing big time. Also music. Music is so huge for me.

Holly: What do you most hope your readers will take away?

If my characters aren't the type of people they are familiar with, I hope they will find understanding and empathy. If they are dealing with some of the situations that my characters are, I hope they will know they aren't alone and that they will find a way to "sing their own ballad," meaning talk to someone or release those difficult emotions through art or writing like I did. You are strong, you are a survivor and you can heal.

Holly: Any secrets you might be willing to share?

I don't have too many secrets. I'm very open about things because I saw the way secrets can hurt growing up, so all my secrets are laid bare through my books and my blog-- the serious secrets that is. As for the silly stuff, I have a couple guilty pleasures that you may not expect from a punk rock chick like me. As Holly knows, my musical guilty pleasure is Matchbox 20. Normally I'm all punk and indie bands, but I just can't help it! And the other big guilty pleasure is that I'm addicted to the soap opera, One Life to Live. I have been since the summer before my freshman year of high school. I watch it every day!

Holly: What’s up next?

Right now I'm trying to get a draft of the bartender book into shape for my agent to submit to publishers. That will probably be sold as an adult fiction book, but I also have ideas for another contemporary realistic YA, a post-apocalyptic YA, and an urban fantasy YA and I haven't decided which will be the next project!

Find Stephanie:


And check out the BALLADS OF SUBURBIA trailer:


Thank you, Stephanie!

Stephanie has kindly offered a copy of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA to one lucky commenter with a US address - all you have to do to enter is leave a meaningful comment below before midnight on Monday! I hope you enjoyed!


  1. I love that the subject matter of this book is so gritty and raw. It's much appreciated. I've been meaning to read this for a while.

  2. It sounds like this book has alot of the things that many people are trying to deal with. I would love to read it.

  3. This book has been on my to-read list forever, I'm kicking myself that I haven't read it yet. I love gritty realistic fiction like this. Great interview!

  4. I have been hearing such grand things about this novel! Everyone is recommending it as THE Indie's pick.

    Can't wait to pick it up soon.

  5. Thank you for the interview. I appreciate the opportunity to hear from an author who shares some of the most difficult experiences of growing up. While I assume many of the novels I read have protagonists that resemble the authors, it comforts me to hear Stephanie say this outright. It's extra reinforcement for the "you're not alone" message found in the characters' experiences. For young readers who do need these topics, we need them told sincerely.

  6. This has been on my TBR list for such a long time, and yet I've yet to read it. I really liked the interview though and I've added Ballads to my list of books to pick up the next time I go to the library.
    melodiousrevelry (at) gmail (dot) com

  7. I cannot imagine putting myself back into the emotional place for cutting. That must have been so difficult - but I'm sure it made the story that much stronger!

    themgowl at gmail.com

  8. The books looks great and I really enjoyed reading the interview! The trailer was pretty epic!

    Please enter me and thanks so much!

    gsarnak410 at gmail dot com

  9. Wow. This sounds like it would be a great book to read! I love books that pull music in, and I totally think it's great that your guilty pleasure is Matchbox 20! I love it!

    basicallyamazingbooks [at] gmail.com

  10. Thank you (Stephanie) for sharing the struggles you went through when revising your book in the interview. When you have experienced something, then write about it, it seems more real. With some things, you have to have "been there" to really "get" some things. I also think you have guts to share something so personal. Kudos to you! I would really love to read this book, even more than before. Thanks for the giveaway.

  11. This book sounds amazing. I was incredibly self-destructive as a teen growing up in suburbia (I'm in my early 20s now) and I wish more books like this existed. I can't wait to read this! Thanks for sharing your story Stephanie.