I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was picked as one of eight “Young adult books that rock” by the L.A. Times. Ballads of Suburbia is set in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Stephanie says that she decided to set the novel in Oak Park: “Because I love reading about the Chicago area during different eras and wanted to capture my corner of Chicagoland in the era I came of age in, the early nineties.”
For more information about Stephanie and her books, visit her web site at http://www.stephaniekuehnert.com/.
Welcome to It Happened in Chicago, Stephanie!
Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.
STEPHANIE: I moved to Oak Park, IL, a suburb right on the Western border of Chicago when I was eight years old from St Louis, IL. Since I was born and raised a city girl, I wasn't all that happy being in the suburbs, but I always loved venturing into the city of Chicago and definitely consider myself a Chicagoan. My mother's family has been here since they immigrated from Poland and she is the one who taught me to love the city of Chicago. I left the area right after high school because I was unhappy in the burbs, but I found my way back, ultimately attending Columbia College Chicago for both my BA and MFA in creative writing. Going downtown for my classes are what truly made me fall in love with this city. Though I've always loved it for its culture, especially the musical culture. I spent my teenage years basically living at the Metro, Fireside Bowl, Aragon, etc seeing punk shows and I still love seeing live bands and supporting local bands in particular. Currently I live in Forest Park, which is another western suburb right on the end of the green line. It's a working class town and I relate to the culture here much more than I did Oak Park; I love living in Forest Park.
Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
STEPHANIE: As soon as I learned to read. My mother's favorite story to tell about me is how I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder so much when I was five, I insisted on being called Laura and I always had to dress in my "frontier dress" and moon boots because it was as close as I could get to how Laura would dress
STEPHANIE: I remember two short stories I wrote circa third grade. One was about a colony of space cows. I'm not sure where that come from... I've always loved a wide variety of stories, sci-fi included, and I've always been an animal lover. The other was a sad tale of a baby who was so sick because her mother drank while she was pregnant (see, third grade and already writing about the heavy issues). That one was inspired by my mom--- not because she was a drunk, far from it! She was a neonatal nurse and would tell me be about her "sick babies" and nursing them back to help. And she has always been my biggest inspiration and cheerleader.
Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?
STEPHANIE: My mother, who always encouraged me to purse my dream. I tried to go to college for sociology and dropped out because it wasn't my true passion and she was the one who said I should go to school for writing because I've always loved it and I should pursue my passion and we'd figure out how I'd pay my bills, lol!
But also several of the teachers I had at Columbia College Chicago, especially the chair Randy Albers. He really nurtured my talent and pushed me to do my best. Professor and acclaimed Chicago author Joe Meno also had a huge influence on me. I saw what he'd done at such a young age and coming from punk sensibilities like me and I thought, there is a place for my voice out there and if I work even half as hard as Joe (because that man is one of the hardest working writers I know), I might have a shot.
Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing Ballads of Suburbia? What was one of the most difficult?
STEPHANIE: The easiest thing was setting up the place. I set the novel in Oak Park during the time I grew up because I knew it so well and, selfishly, I wanted to remember it exactly as it was to me, so why not set a book there. I love books like Crossing California by Adam Langer, The Book of Ralph by John McNally, and Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno that capture a certain part of Chicago during a certain time and I knew it would be so so so much fun to do that for my own neighborhood. I had a blast doing that. Umm but the subject matter was rough. It deals with drug addiction, depression, and self injury. I had to revisit dark places from my own past. I used to self-injure, I struggled with depression, I dabbled with drugs and I lost friends to full blown serious addiction. I had to tap those old dark emotions in creating my characters and bringing emotional truth to the story and it was honestly the hardest thing I've ever done as a writer, but I'm glad I did it. I've never been more proud of anything I've done than Ballads of Suburbia. And I hope it reaches a lot of teens who need it.
STEPHANIE: Man, I feel like I know them all too well and all of their struggles come from either a part of me or my past. I'd probably have to say Emily, the main character of my first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, though. She's a total rock star and just the girl I've always wanted to be.
Q. What type of books do you read for pleasure?
STEPHANIE: Mostly YA. It really is my favorite genre of fiction. I love a good coming of age story. I love stories that are honest and real in regards to the human condition and the human spirit and I think currently the YA authors of the world are handling that best!
Q. What would you like us to know about your current work/s in progress?
STEPHANIE: They are pretty top secret. One, another YA novel, is based in Greek Mythology. It's kind of a revenge novel, but more so a learning to deal with grief novel. The other will probably be an adult/upper YA novel. It's my bartender novel since tending bar is my day job and has been since grad school and I have lots of stories. It's about a mom who has to learn to finally grow up with her teenage daughter.
Q: Anything else you'd like to share?
STEPHANIE: Nope, would just like to say thank you for having me!