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Wisconsin Book Festival 2008: Stephanie Kuehnert speaks
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Stephanie Kuehnert
Stephanie Kuehnert
Credit:Jessie Tierney

Set in small-town Wisconsin, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone by Stephenie Kuehnert is a gritty feminist punk-rock celebration of the rebellious bonds that connect a daughter with her absent mother. Published by MTV Books in July, it has been hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "an empowering new twist on a girl's coming of age."

At the Wisconsin Book Festival, Kuehnert, a one-time Madison resident, to read from I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore. In an interview conducted via email, she recounts the genesis of her novel, describes the strength she finds in punk, cops to admiration for Courtney Love, reveals what she misses about Madison, and explains the significance of listening to Never Mind the Bollocks on her Walkman while being chased home after school by a gang of popular girls. All that, plus cats.


The Daily Page: When and where did you conceive I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, and what was the inspiration?

Kuehnert: The story came together in pieces, mostly while waiting for the 'L' (Chicago's train system).

I first came up with the idea for Louisa's character while I was waiting for the train to go to class. Almost a year after I came up with Louisa, I realized that Emily's story would be more interesting if my Louisa character was her mother, while I was waiting for a train home, and that's when the concept for the novel really came together.

I came up with Emily's character in a workshop class at Columbia. In the first two stories I wrote about her, she was a disillusioned college kid. Then a friend of mine told me he thought she was a great character with a great voice and he wanted to hear more about her. We were taking summer classes together at the time and I thought, "Sure, it's summer, why not just play around?" So I wrote about her as a teenager, the story that became the first chapter of the book.

It was supposed to just be a short story, but I was so excited about it because I knew Emily could be this great female rock star character and I'd always admired female musicians so much. Music by bands like Sleater-Kinney, whose song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" inspired the title of the book, really got me through some hard times as a teenager, so ultimately I wrote this book as a tribute to all the women who rock.


From conception to publication, how did your idea for the novel evolve?
At first I thought it was going to be a short story collection or a novel-in-stories. I wrote from multiple points of view and I wrote the stories/chapters as they came to me, not linearly. I wanted to tell this story of the rise of a rock star and also explore the mother/daughter relationship all set against the backdrop of this fictional, small Wisconsin town. I wanted to capture the place and the community and give all of my characters depth the way John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison do. Yeah, that first draft was almost 60,000 words longer than the final draft… so I streamlined and honed for eight drafts.

Ultimately when the book was sold for the teen market (though ultimately it's become a crossover book that appeals to both adults and teens, which was my intention all along), it was decided that only Emily and Louisa's points-of-view would stay since really it was their story. I hope that I managed to keep my side characters as well-rounded as I wanted though!


You've said I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is not autobiographical, but to what degree is Emily a proxy for your idealized self?
I always wished I could be a girl like Emily. I wanted to be a rock star, but I didn't have the talent or the patience to learn. I was way more focused on writing, which came more easily to me. And I wanted to be the tough, beautiful girl who stood out in a crowd like Emily, but I was always the wallflower.


If somebody optioned the movie rights for I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, who might you want to see in the roles of Emily, Louisa, Michael, Molly and Regan? And which punk icons would you be most thrilled to have make cameo appearances?
I'm horrible at playing the casting game because I don't watch enough movies and TV.

Like for Emily, the actress that I think of who has her look (Zooey Deschanel) or could pull off her sarcastic humor (Ellen Page), might be a wee bit too old. Someone told me that Madeleine Martin, who is the daughter on Californication, would be perfect as Emily, though. I don't think I could pinpoint Regan any easier because I'd need another spunky teen actress. For Michael, Johnny Depp. I know, totally aiming high here, but Michael's got a bit of a Johnny Depp look and Johnny could do the whole soft-spoken musician thing. For Louisa, Courtney Love. Say what you will about Courtney, but her acting in The People Vs. Larry Flynt was amazing and I think she could bring real depth to Louisa's character in that same way. Plus, she's bleached blonde and she's pure rock 'n' roll. Molly's a tough one as well. I don't know… Juliette Lewis? I'm really just naming her because I like her though and again, the rock 'n' roll thing. But Molly's half-Native American, so it would be important to find someone with the right look.

As for punk icons, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. That would be really awesome.


What is your first memory of punk?
Hmm, see this depends on what you classify as punk. For me, even though Nirvana is more mainstream alt-rock, they've got a punk spirit and they are the band that led me to discover punk. But I've told my discovering Nirvana story a lot, so we'll go with something that everyone considers punk. The Sex Pistols. I bought Never Mind the Bollocks... in seventh grade. I don't remember why. Kurt Cobain probably mentioned it in an interview or I read about it in a magazine.

Anyway, I got that tape and the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I was in this theater program at my junior high. There was this group of popular girls who ganged up on me and used to chase me home from school. We were all on rollerblades and I would have Never Mind the Bollocks... on my Walkman and basically be skating for my life to one of my friends' houses with that blaring in my ears. That music was my strength.


What was it about punk that grabbed you and would not let go?
Well, pretty much it was in that moment that I described above. I felt like a voiceless misfit basically from age eight onward. I craved music that allowed me to express my frustration and also that just allowed me to be who I was, creative, weird, whatever. I found that in punk. It gave me strength, it gave me an outlet for all of my feelings, and it was a safe haven where I could be the person I was and not be made fun of for what I was wearing or the creative projects I wanted to try.


To whom or what would you attribute your candor?
I'm sure it comes from many places. My mother and her sisters have never been afraid to speak their minds and I'm sure that's where I picked up on it first. My best friend Katie is a very strong, honest woman who I have been taking cues from since I was 15. I was a pretty quiet kid until I started writing though. And I got the courage to start writing from listening to Nirvana's music.

I thought, "Hey, if this misfit guy can get the whole world to listen to him, why can't I do that as a misfit girl?" And when I did these feminist zines in high school, that's when I really started spilling my guts. And probably my biggest role model then was Courtney Love. I deeply admire that she is never afraid to speak her mind even when it gets her into trouble.


Your manuscript went through eight drafts. How many times did you entertain moments of doubt or frustration, and how did you overcome them?
I had a really bad case of writer's block before I finished the first draft, but honestly I just took that and the revisions I did as challenges. This book is so important to me, so I wanted it as close to perfect as possible. I actually enjoy rewriting and revising as much if not more than writing a first draft. The doubts and frustration kicked in while I was waiting for my agent to sell the book, which took over a year. It was definitely a hard time. I tried to work through it by writing a second book, but I had incredible feelings of self-doubt. When I did I would turn to my writing friends and also to my agent who believed in IWBYJR more than I did at times! She really helped me keep the faith.


How, when and where do you prefer to write?
I workshop once a week with a couple people I went to grad school with. We actually write in our workshops and that is the only time besides for jotting down notes that I write longhand. Otherwise I write on my laptop. I'm a binge writer so I prefer to have a full day to write. I've really just got to get up in the morning and get right into it. I worked a 9 to 5 job for two years and tried writing at night when I got home but it was pretty awful and hard to do because I was too tired. Starting as soon as I get up and writing for as long as I have is the best way to go for me!


What influences account for your tendency to craft short, tight sentences?
Umm, hmm, I should be naming other writers for this, right? Well, I guess I'm weird because I don't really study what I read to that sort of sentence level. I look more at theme and character and place and how other writers handle those things. So to some degree the way I craft my sentences is just innate, but mostly it is just revision. I ramble. A lot.

The first person who really taught me to edit at a sentence level was my thesis advisor at Columbia College Chicago, Randy Albers. He is an amazing writer and professor who helped me learn to love revising. Then there is my brilliant editor at MTV Books, Jen Heddle, who doesn't hesitate to point out when I'm rambling. She's been a huge help with whipping me into shape, too.


How did you learn you'd been included in the NewCity Lit 50 list with the likes of Elizabeth Berg, Audrey Niffenegger and Studs Terkel? What was your reaction?
My friend Jenny sent me an email with the link and told me to scroll to the bottom. When I realized it was the Lit 50, I was like she has got to be kidding. When I was at Columbia we used to eagerly await that issue of NewCity and pour over it for new stuff to read and be thrilled when people we admired were on there. I thought maybe they would have put me on some sort of "writers to watch" list or something because my book wasn't even out yet. But there I was. Number 50. I was flabbergasted and I was proud. It's the biggest honor I've received, that and being on Venus Zine's Hottt List. I can't tell you how meaningful it is to be recognized for the one talent you've felt like maybe you kinda sorta had and have been honing your whole life.


To what degree did your musical tastes overlap with your colleagues at the Columbia College of Nursing?
OK, Columbia College Chicago is where I got my Masters and worked for five years and the UIC College of Nursing is where I worked for two years after graduation, so I'm not sure which you meant, but I will answer for both.

Columbia was an extremely creative, eclectic place. There are definitely plenty of punk rockers. But of course I'm not just a punk rocker, I like all kinds of music from Pink to Johnny Cash to Poison to the Cure. I always felt kinda weird in the punk scene like I had to consider that other stuff guilty pleasures, but at Columbia I met people who had as wide a variety of tastes as me. They introduced me to more cool music and became my concert-going buddies. It was pretty sweet.

At UIC College of Nursing, I mostly gravitated toward the other assistant to the Dean who was a couple years older than me and yeah, we had the same music taste. I didn't really talk music with anyone else except for one person in the Office of Academic Programs; she loved all the alt-rock stuff like The Replacements like I did, but unfortunately we both left the job before we really got to hang out. Otherwise, UIC CON, not a very rockin' job…


You've compiled a sprawling 22-song playlist representing your soundtrack for IWBYJR, with Sleater-Kinney, Courtney Love, Social Distortion, Joy Division, The Donnas, Dead Kennedys, Liz Phair, Clash, Distillers, Muffs, Ramones, Patti Smith and so on. Why no Sex Pistols, X or MC5?
Mostly because if I included absolutely every band that influenced me or my characters it would have been a really really sprawling playlist, so I went with the songs that were directly referenced in the book ("She's Lost Control" by Joy Division, "Gimme Danger" by Iggy & the Stooges, "Chemical Warfare" by Dead Kennedys) or that I felt really conveyed the feelings of a certain character or certain scene.

I'm sure there is an X song that would have fit, "Los Angeles" or "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene" for Louisa maybe… MC5, honestly I am not as familiar with their music as I probably should be. And the Sex Pistols… Okay, I know the Sex Pistols are the quintessential punk band in most people's eyes and yes, they were one of my early introductions to punk, but they are not the best example of punk at all in my opinion and they are not the kind of punk that my book is about.

IWBYJR is about American punk. There is a list of punk bands in the description on the back of the book. They initially included the Sex Pistols and I asked them to take it off. I said if they needed to include a big British punk band to include the Clash because that was a band that my character Michael really loved, but Louisa is on the road stalking the American punk scene. Iggy. The Ramones. Social D. Minor Threat. The Replacements. Those are her bands.


If punk had never happened, what kind of person would you be?
I'd be a lot quieter and a lot less sure of myself. Actually I might not be here at all. I don't know if I could have survived high school without punk rock. Maybe that sounds extreme, but it's true.


For a book like IWBYJR, how do rave blurbs from magazines like Bust, zines like Venus and all those bloggers who have weighed in compare to critical praise from more mainstream sources like the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Trib?
All praise makes me happy. I have low self esteem and putting my art out there for the world to judge is the scariest thing on earth. But it makes me extra happy that Venus, which is totally my kind of mag with my kind of audience from my hometown, featured me on their Hottt List and the blogger reviews are really special because for the most part they have been written by teen girls, and that's who I wrote this book for. I wanted to write the book I was seeking as a teen and I'm glad so many of them are enjoying it.


When you lived in Madison 10 years ago, where did you reside and where did you hang out? What kind of boxed wine did you favor, and where did you buy it?
I lived downtown for a couple years. On Main Street and on Wilson near Broom. Then I moved to the West Side to be closer to work and get a bigger place, but the neighborhood was not nearly as lively. It was practically Middleton. I was a total goth chick back then so I hung out at Club Inferno and at the Cardinal on '80s night and then at this cemetery in Sun Prairie. We called it G.R. which must have been short for something, but the boxed wine has made my memory foggy. I also used to go to Cambridge to this lake where there was also a cemetery and a playground. Swimming, swings, and a graveyard, it was my ultimate place. I also adored A Room of One's Own, so I'm super excited to be reading there. I drank Franzia Chillable Red which I mostly purchased at Woodman's. I miss Woodman's, there's nothing like it in Chicago.


Did you get any of your tattoos in Madison? If so, which ones, and who did them for you?
Nope. I was too broke for tattoos in Madison. I spent all my money on boxed wine. Sigh.


Besides music, where else do you seek and find inspiration?
Places. The outdoors. That is one of the major things I miss about living in Madison. In Chicago it takes well over an hour to get past the sprawl and into the country. There is so much beautiful country right outside of Madison. I love that. When I go away to write it has to be some place beautiful. I went to Mineral Point and to some place in Canada. Perfect. Though urban landscapes inspire me, too. I love Chicago, Seattle and L.A. for that. Especially Seattle, which has the mountains/trees/water nature thing too. It's kind of like a big Madison.


Now that you've sold your second novel to MTV Books for publication next summer, what's next?
Write more books. I have two ideas fighting for my attention right now and am hoping I can choose one soon so I can write it quickly and get to the next one. I'd also like to do a graphic novel series at some point. I can't do the art, just the words, but I think it would be a fun medium to try and I have an idea for that too.


What book would you recommend as a complement to IWBYJR?
Hairstyles of the Damned, by Joe Meno. It's like the boy rock 'n' roll coming of age in the early nineties story. Not to mention Joe Meno is my hero.


What was the last book you read that you're recommending to friends, and why are you recommending it?
Beige, by Cecil Castellucci. It could also go as a complement to IWBYJR. It's a book about a girl finding her own identity. She's in the punk scene because her dad is a drummer, but she's not a punk. Or is she since punk is really a mindset more than anything else. I just love it. I wish I could have written it. Cecil Castellucci is my idol right now because she writes realistic books with teenage girl main characters who are strong individuals. They're real and honest and good role models. We need more books like hers!


Which of the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival are you most eager to see?
Judy Blume. I grew up with her books. She's a hero of mine for sure.


Why cats?
Interesting you ask that because my youngest cat (who I still think of as a kitten) just crawled up on my lap now and I wish I could just take a picture and give that as my answer. He's on my lap and warm and cute and oh now, he heard a noise and has to go check it out. I love that they are so inquisitive and unpredictable, cuddly at one moment, aloof and independent at the next. I love their unique personalities. Some are really smart, some get by on their looks (*cough* like the kitten on my lap). They are a lot like people except more loyal in many cases. I don't know, the first pet I had was a cat, maybe that's why I'm so into them. I like dogs, too, but cats are just the best. They're freakin' adorable and more fun to watch than TV.


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