Monday, June 10, 2013

CHARM & STRANGE: An Interview with Stephanie Kuehn

Published by St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN 9781250021946

"A lonely teenage exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy must either surrender his sanity to the wild wolves inside his mind or learn that surviving means more than not dying."
(Description via WorldCat)

Stephanie Kuehn's debut, Charm and Strange, is a story about healing and about having old wounds ripped open. 

Kuehn exposes Win's confusion, anguish, and anger with subtle compassion and understanding. 

As an early reader, I'm happy to have a chance to share this conversation with the author. 
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Do you have theory of reading? How do you imagine your readers?

I’m not sure I have a consistent theory of reading. I like to read books quickly and straight through, if possible. I think most stories were intended to be read this way, and it’s part of why I have a preference toward shorter books.

Particular to Charm Strange, I suppose I imagine most readers coming to it expecting one type of book and perhaps experiencing doubt about their expectations—whatever they were—over the course of the story. That’s meant to be a parallel process to the narrator’s, but I realize this creates an ambiguous reading experience, even if the story itself is not ambiguous. 

Do you have a theory of sentences/story? 

My theory of story comes from my theory of empathy: that is, empathy for another person comes when we can experience and perceive the world the way that they do. As a reader, I’m always drawn to stories with difficult or unreliable narrators because I seek to understand their inner world, what makes sense to them, given their context and circumstance. I think finding a point of relatedness to others is a fundamental part of humanity, and this drives my storytelling.

On a sentence-level basis, I strive to say what I mean (as the writer, not as a particular character). In college, I studied linguistics (not literature), and ambiguity in syntax is something I actively try to avoid.

Memory is an important aspect of Charm & Strange. What is the most essential thing to know about memory? 

Oh, I could say so much about memory. Charm & Strange is centered around the relativity of memory. The main character, Winston, is remembering his childhood from the perspective of who he’s become as a result of those memories. That’s obviously a very personal lens through which to tell his story and there’s nothing objective about it. But that’s true of all memory, of all truth—meaning is what we make of it. Meaning is what matters.

Other than that, I believe memory is a full body experience.It’s more than just the replaying of events inside our minds. Our experiences change us chemically, especially childhood experiences and especially traumatic ones. At the beginning of Charm & Strange, Win is triggered by two events he isn’t aware of on a conscious level: a random act of local violence and the unwanted attention of a girl. For most of us, there isn’t a connection between those two things, but for him there is. And it’s his body that reacts first. His mind follows.

What is resilience? Why does it matter? Is Win a resilient character? 

Win’s cousin Anna tells him that “love doesn’t always look nice,” and I think the same is true about resilience. Win is resilient because he ultimately makes choices to move forward with his life, even when those choices are painful to him and confusing to others. His resilience doesn’t look or feel good, not even to him. But his resilience isn’t about happiness or joy; it’s about self-preservation.

Is a YA audience ready for ambiguity?

That’s an interesting question because I’ve been thinking about ambiguity quite a lot of late. There’s actually a line inComplicit that reads: “Ambiguity is the devil’s emotion,” and that sums up my feelings about it pretty well. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a feeling I strive to get rid of when I experience it. So maybe that makes for a difficult story. I don’t know. However, ambiguity in life is true, and I can only write what feels true to me. 

If you wanted to send your book out into the world with three companion novels, what would those books be? What synergy would develop among those books?

Night of the Moonbow by Thomas Tryon
I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier
Gossamer by Lois Lowry

I see the synergy of core themes around trauma and sadness and unimagineable cruelty. But I also think there’s a takeaway from all these books in that they remind us—through empathy, not sympathy or pity—that mental illness isn’t about being crazy. Not at all. More often than not, it’s about strength, resilience, and the sad, hard truth that reality can be a very dangerous place.

The giddy throw away questions...

You live with children and other animals. What have you learned from those companions lately?

They cannot be counted on to keep their own nests clean.

What was the last bit of science news that made you giddy?

This is a terrible answer, but I recently read something about men having daily hormonal fluctuations that caused something called Irritable Male Syndrome. That made me a little giddy.

If you could play fairy godmother, what is the gift you would give a random child?

A collie dog.

This is not puppy-p@rn.
This is the right answer. 
(And with that answer, Stephanie proves she has the makings of the best fairy godmother ever.)

Can you tell me about your experience reading John Fowles The Magus

Talk about ambiguity! When I was 19, I spent a summer working at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in this fast food restaurant that featured an animatronic pirate named Captain Ned (along with his squawking sidekick, Seaweed the Wonder Parrot). At the time, The Boardwalk also employed a bunch of British students, and I worked alongside an Englishman named Paul. Paul and I both loved to read and we spent that long Santa Cruz summer swapping books. There were two that he recommended that still hold a special place in my heart (and mind): The Magus by John Fowles and The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

You grew up in Berkeley. Do you have a favorite place there? (Did you ever visit the Adventure Playground?) 

Yes, I have visited Adventure Playground many times. I used to go to a summer camp that would spend three days up in Tilden Park and two days down at the Marina (and in the Adventure Playground). My own kids are going to that same camp this coming summer, a good thirty years later! But my favorite part of Berkeley is the whole Elmwood neighborhood, which is where my parents still live and where I grew up. The Elmwood theater, which burned down and was later reborn, is a particularly nostalgic spot. I used to sit in the balcony and watch old Hitchcock films there (Rope and Rear Window were standouts for me). They also played The Gods Must Be Crazy for what seemed like years. I probably saw it 50 times.

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