Interview with Author & Rookie Staff Writer Stephanie Kuehnert
I’m excited to share my interview with author and Rookie staff writer Stephanie Kuehnert who recently sold a memoir that sounds super fascinating. If you don’t know Rookie, the amazing online magazine, then you should because it’s the best. Stephanie had a lot of great things to say about her writing process, her career, and selling her memoir, so ENJOY!
1. You recently sold your memoir five years after you sold your second YA book, Ballads of Surburbia. What was the writing and submission process for your memoir like?
Three years ago I was invited to revisit my own personal teenage angst (and the joyful moments and obsessions with things like soap operas and Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a staff writer for Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls. Though both of my books draw from my real life a little bit (Ballads is set in the town where I grew up) and I have blogged about my personal experiences, I didn’t have much experience writing non-fiction or personal essays. But then, there I was writing one or two essays a month, and it was incredible. The editors at Rookie, especially Anaheed Alani, are insightful genius goddesses. We’ve gone through sometimes six drafts of 2,500 word essay just to get it perfect. It was like part two of MFA program, that’s how much I learned from them. That’s honestly what kept me going while I was struggling to write and sell my fiction and questioning my entire existence as a writer.
So I was building this experience and this portfolio of essays, which because Rookie’s awesome, I maintained all the rights to, and I thought, I could do something with this. As a teenager, I’d put out quite a few zines and working on Rookie really reignited that passion, so I started talking to a couple of illustrators from the site, asking if they’d be game to collaborate with me so I could basically make one big zine about my adolescence. I’d probably been kicking the idea around for about a year, but last summer I moved across the country from Chicago to Seattle and started working full-time. I still wanted to write, but I just wasn’t in the place to plot out a new novel. I was busy and exhausted (in a good way, the move was one of the best decisions of my life) and honestly feeling pretty burnt out about my fiction. I mentioned the zine-style essay collection/memoir idea to my agent and she told me to go for it because she thought it could be really cool and different. I didn’t honestly sit down to work on it until the end of 2013. I thought it would be easier to put together than a novel because a) it already had a plot/structure—my life, and b) non-fiction books like this are sold on proposal, so I was like, I don’t even have to write the whole thing! Of course I was not at all prepared for how involved a non-fiction proposal is. It’s got a whole standard structure with market research and comp titles—you’re basically outlining and marketing your book at the same time. Fortunately my friend Alexa Young, a YA writer who has also written non-fiction for adults showed me some of her proposals and my friend Jessica Hopper from Rookie, who is just an incredible mentor to all of us, recommended this book, which totally maps out the non-fiction proposal. I used those things to work on the proposal part and then put together the sample chapters. Those included one of my Rookie essays, two brand new essays, and an example of the zine-style aspect, which was basically a series of lists that demonstrates how I changed from middle school to high school illustrated by Suzy X from Rookie so it really looks like pages out of a zine.
Altogether, it probably took a really intense two-and-a-half months to write the proposal. Then my agent took some time to seriously craft her list of editors and her pitch. When it went out, we had an offer in a week-and-a-half. That was total insanity to me. My first book took over a year to sell. I’ve had other projects on submission for even longer than that. I don’t even have words for how stunned and amazed I was when the proposal sold that quickly and to my top choice editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel at Dutton. I’m definitely in that magical unicorn field right now.
2. Your editor described your memoir as “pull-no-punches raw” in the Publishers Weekly write up. How were you able to write so honestly about your past?
I’m a hyper-emotional Cancer. I’ve never been very good at keeping my emotions under wraps. The zines I wrote in high school when I was at my angriest and most messed-up were blistering, maybe too honest. I lost friends and scared people away. That experience was kind of scarring and it’s why I channeled my emotions into fiction for so long. I’ve been circling around a lot of issues in my past through my fiction writing and then I started writing for Rookie and tackling the real stories. Because I had some distance and those amazing Rookie editors I was able to really get to the heart of what I was thinking and feeling in a way that felt cathartic instead of out of control and scary. But it’s definitely not easy to do. One of the new essays that I wrote for the proposal is this 13-part epic—like the essay version of a novella, I guess—and it’s about the emotionally and sexually abusive relationship I was in as a sophomore in high school. I’ve been circling that story for years. It was the subject of those angry teenage zines. Pieces of it show up in both my published YAs and I drew from it heavily in my unpublished YA. Writing that essay was the last part of the process. Honestly, I really didn’t want to write it. I almost shelved the entire project to avoid it because I knew I couldn’t write around it—for better or worse, that relationship defined my adolescence and it’s central to this memoir. I am not looking forward to revising it, but I know that working with an editor like Julie, I will be able to make it more powerful than I ever imagined.
3. I read on your blog the amazing way your agent broke the news to you that you sold your memoir. How did you find your agent and how has your working relationship developed over the years?
Adrienne is my second agent and she is Literally The Best Agent Ever. Of course I will always be grateful to my first agent too—we just reached a point where we had different visions and were going in different directions; she isn’t even agenting anymore. When I was looking for a new agent, I asked my writer friends for recommendations. Barb Ferrer, who writes YA as Caridad Ferrer and was a fellow MTV Books author, told me that her agent loved my first two books, so I queried her with my new manuscript. It was an adult book that hovers in between upmarket women’s fiction and New Adult (which wasn’t even really being taken seriously then) so other agents were hesitant to take it on because they weren’t sure how to shop it. Adrienne was one of the agents who loved that book enough to try, her feedback on the manuscript totally clicked for me, and since she was very enthusiastic about my published novels as well, I got the sense that she would really be in it for the long haul. So I signed with her and I’ve repeatedly told people that it was the best decision I’ve ever made aside from marrying my husband. We’ve been working together since 2010, so she’s really been through it with me as editor, career planner, and cheerleader. She was there during the darkest periods of writerly self-doubt and even sent a copy of The Little Engine That Could to encourage me at one point. After having a few projects out on sub together, she knew how eagerly I was awaiting The Call and I’d told her that previously I’d only gotten The Email so I made her promise to actually call, so I’d have a story to tell. She took it to a whole new level by sending a singing and dancing gorilla telegram! Basically, this woman knows how to make me grin like crazy and I trust her advice implicitly, so Best Agent Ever and I can’t wait to see what is to come next for us.
4. You’re a staff writer at Rookie. How did you get your start there, and what do you love about writing for the online magazine?
I got the Rookie gig through blind submission. Tavi’s from my hometown (ie. the town Ballads is set in), but um, she was born the year before I graduated high school and got the hell out of there (at least for a little while), so we never met. A few friends of mine had told me about her blog, the Style Rookie, and they sent me her call for writers, illustrators, and people interested in helping her create a Sassy magazine for the next generation of teens. I started making zines right around the time Sassy disappeared partly because I’d always wanted to do something like Sassy (but maybe more DIY and underground), so I wrote a letter to Tavi and crossed my fingers. A few months later, she wrote back and was like I can probably only pay in candy and mixtapes, but I’d like to have you write for me. I said OMG gadghaghajdga YES! We got together for coffee, she told me about her vision for the site and I was blown away. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And they don’t pay me in candy, but I would totally do it for candy because I’ve never been a part of something so positive, so energetic, so powerful. The Rookie generation has given me renewed hope. These girls that I’m working with and the audience that we’re writing for are going to change the world. That’s the best thing about writing for Rookie. It’s the best community on the internet and it has made me work my ass off to be a better writer. As I mentioned before, the editors have been real mentors and teachers, but also have you read Jenny Zhang? Hazel Cills? Pixie Casey? Danielle Henderson? Every writer on that site is made of pure gold. They are so freakin’ talented and set the bar so high, it keeps me inspired and motivated. Finally, Rookie is such a GORGEOUS site. I’ve always been word girl, not image girl, but working with the illustrators and just taking in the eye candy our artists create every day has really given me a new perspective. The photos and images on Rookie are one of my biggest muses. I never would have thought about doing the memoir zine-style without being surrounded by these art and design geniuses. So, um, in short, I love EVERYTHING. I’m grateful every day to be a part of Rookie.
5. You’ve published two YA books—I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia. What would you tell aspiring YA authors about your experience as a YA author and what advice would you give them?
Well, I guess to continue my metaphor, that the road is endless and you will likely have to climb some seriously steep mountains, but there are also delightful valleys filled with magical creatures and singing, dancing gorillas. In other words, write because you have to, because you love it so much you can’t stop, and if you don’t stop, Good Things will happen. Also, nothing will go as planned. I wrote a letter to aspiring writer me about that on my group blog, YA Outside the Lines, just four days before I learned that I’d sold my memoir. Part of me hates it when nothing goes as planned, but the detours that I took are what led me to where I am and I’m very happy with that.