Punk rockers read, too

By Jessica Galliart

Stephanie Kuehnert has been busy. She hosted her first book signing at Chicago’s Women and Children First bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St., and the young author has been scheduling press interviews back-to-back all summer.

“It’s kind of getting overwhelming, to be honest,” Kuehnert said. “I’ve got a lot to do in very little time. It’s been great; I can’t be happier about it.”

Kuehnert, who graduated with a master’s in fiction writing from Columbia in 2006, released her debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, in July to rave reviews and has since sold her second book to be released next summer.

Joey Ramone chronicles the struggles teenager Emily Black faces as she comes to terms with the absence of her mother, who left Emily when she was a little girl to follow the music scene. After Emily joins a punk rock band, she sets out to find her mother and simultaneously struggles with her own identity.

Music plays an integral role in the novel, which somewhat serves as an homage to the mid-’90s punk scene that Kuehnert herself was immersed in during her teenage years. The power of music in changing the lives of the characters in the novel leads Joey Ramone to be characterized as a “crossover novel” that intertwines fiction and music.

The Chronicle spoke with Kuehnert about her experiences as a fiction writing major at Columbia, what role music plays in her life and the idea of turning Joey Ramone into a screenplay.

The Chronicle: When did you start writing the novel?

Kuehnert: Right as I was finishing up my bachelors then I stayed on for the MFA program and it was my MFA thesis.

What was your experience at Columbia like?

I love Columbia. Columbia is what made me who I am when it comes to my writing. I couldn’t have done any of this without the education I got at Columbia through the Fiction Writing Department.

Who were your major supporters along the way?

Basically everybody that I worked with. My thesis adviser was Randy Albers, the chair [of the Fiction Writing Department], and he has been like a father to me. He helped me so much; when he was on sabbatical he still helped me, he was great. Joe Meno has been awesome, Sam Weller, Anne Hemingway.

How did Columbia prepare you for getting your novel to where it is now?

Columbia laid the foundation for my entire writing process. Unlike other programs the Fiction program has many generative exercises, whereas a lot of times you go into other writing programs and you only present your work twice a semester. You just sit there while other people criticize it. And that’s not how the Fiction Writing department at Columbia is at all. You go into class, you’re writing. That got me into really good habits. You’ve got to finish a book to sell a book, and it really taught me discipline. With revisions there’s a lot taught about the revision process as well and the way that critique is given in the fiction program. It’s not just slash-and-trash like other programs. It prepared me for the interaction I needed to have with my editor to get the book into the shape that it needed to be published.

The novel is categorized in the young adult genre. Was this your intention?

We shopped it as an adult novel at first, and it didn’t sell. I think being a crossover book is what suits it, because it’s suitable for probably 16 and up. And that’s the audience I had in mind.

How much of yourself did you put into the Emily character?

Just my passion for music. She’s a lot more outgoing and definitely more talented than me. We share that same passion for music.

What were your experiences like growing up in the punk scene compared to Emily’s?

Emily is dealing with it more than I am, as a musician, because female musicians … they’re female musicians. They’re not just musicians. That’s messed up. That’s why I wrote this book to go with that. I was very much a part of the Riot Grrrl scene in the mid-’90s. That was the major part of my punk that I was involved with at the time. I was really influenced by a lot of great women and spent a lot of time with a lot of great women. It has always felt like there is that division—even in punk rock—between men and women.

Is there a parallel between dysfunctional relationships with parents and punk rock?

I think that’s a huge factor. A lot of kids channel their feelings, feeling left out at home or feeling left out at school, and they escape from that into punk music. That’s a lot of what my second book is about, too, finding this family of kids to replace the family you don’t really have. I’ve seen a lot of that throughout the years in the punk scene. My relationship with my mother is really good, so I wasn’t necessarily running from that, but I [knew] a lot of people who were.

What role does music play in your life and in your writing?

Reading and music are my two biggest passions. I’m constantly listening to music and going to shows whenever I can, and that has fueled me since I was probably about 10 years old. With writing I can’t generally listen to music while I write, because I guess it stirs me up too much. I listen to music before I write. There’s occasions that I can listen to something in the background.

You were in the Semester in L.A. program, where you studied how to adapt novels into screenplays. Are there any plans for you to turn Joey Ramone into a screenplay?

I’m not willing to write the screenplay myself. I don’t have the talent for that, and I put it in this form. Someone else needs to put it in that form. This was my project and somebody else needs to take it to the next level. Everyone tells me that it would make a great movie, so hopefully someone will pick it up.

What is your second novel?

It’s set in the Western suburbs in the Oak Park, [Ill.], area. It follows the coming of age of this girl, Cara, and these kids that she befriends at the park in her town, their struggles with growing up and spiraling out of control.

What advice do you have for Columbia student writers?

Keep reading, keep writing, write as much as possible. Keep moving forward; don’t just get stuck on revising one chapter over and over. You’re really in this great environment where you can continue to play and explore the stories you have inside of you. It’s a great community. Be part of it and meet the people in your classes. The people from my classes are still the people I have a writing group with every week and exchange my work with; so there’s excellent connections sitting across from you in that semicircle, and those are the people you really need to get help from.

Kuehnert is touring the country to host book signings for “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” Her next signing in the Chicago area will be at Borders in Oak Park, Ill., 1144 Lake St., July 26.

For more information about Kuehnert and her debut novel, visit her website, StephanieKuehnert.com.