Author Spotlight: Stephanie Kuehn talks When I Am Though With You
Today I'm very excited to have critically acclaimed author, Stephanie Kuehn, on the blog! Her latest novel, WHEN I AM THROUGH WITH YOU, was released on the first of August and it's already earned some excellent reviews. Publishers Weekly wrote: "[A] harrowing story that succeeds in keeping readers off-balance from start to finish as it explores the collision between desire and action in unpredictable physical and psychological landscapes."
Stephanie holds degrees in linguistics and sport psychology, as well as a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her debut young adult novel, CHARM & STRANGE, was the winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, and her second novel for teens, COMPLICIT, was named to YALSA’s 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults list. Stephanie was also awarded the 2015 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship for her forthcoming novel, THE SMALLER EVIL and her most recent book, DELICATE MONSTERS, won the 2016 Northern California Book Award. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their three children, and a joyful abundance of pets.
And now, here's my chat with Stephanie!
Hi, Stephanie! Welcome and congrats on the release of When I Am Through With You. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Hello! Thank you and thank you for inviting me to do this interview! I very much appreciate it. When I Am Through With You is the story of a group of Northern California teens who head out on a three-day backpacking trip in the Trinity Alps. Things quickly go horribly wrong, and they’re soon battling each other, the elements, and a group of mysterious strangers in order to survive. The book’s narrator, Ben, tells readers from the start that he killed his beloved girlfriend on this trip and that he doesn’t feel bad for doing so. What follows is his confession of his actions and the circumstances that led to that outcome.
There were a lot of ideas that inspired this book—and it continued to evolve during the editing process. But I started with wanting to explore the paradoxical notion of a good person doing a bad thing for what may or may not be the right reasons. I also wanted to explore the ways in which abuse and cruelty can shape our idea of what love looks like, with sometimes painful and tragic consequences
Kirkus gave When I Am Through With You a starred review, calling it “a satisfying, sophisticated study in complicated relationships." What are your tips for creating complex, multi-dimensional characters?
Because the book is written in first person—and Ben only has access to his own thoughts and feelings—I tried to make the other characters feel real and complicated by constantly shifting Ben’s perceptions of them. He has preconceived ideas about who they all are, but along the way he has constant experiences that contradict his beliefs. To me, this type of evolving sense of understanding and surprise feels real. We’re all a bundle of contradictions and allowing relational messiness and complexity to live on the page and push the story forward, can help bring characters to life.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
I find the initial drafting stage the hardest. Revising is easier, which is what I have to keep reminding myself—that once I have a draft, I can work on fixing it. But getting to that point is often a struggle. I find I often have to write a story wrong multiple times, before I’m able to find the right way. So reminding myself that initial failure is part of my process is a helpful way of maintaining motivation.
What’s your favorite thing about writing (or reading) unreliable narrators?
I guess my favorite thing is recognizing the way in which we are all unreliable narrators. We all wear halos on our own heads and attribute morality and goodness to the things we like or that serve us well. Likewise, we judge the actions of others through a much harsher lens, one usually clouded by our own biases, assumptions, stereotypes, and insecurities. So when it comes to writing unreliable narrators, I always start with the conviction that my narrators are telling the truth in the way that they know it. Playing with perception and understanding, and allowing it to shift and morph throughout a narrative, is a way of sharing with readers how very intimate ideas of ‘truth’ can be.
Your books tackle intense subject matter, such as mental health. Do you ever find it difficult or taxing to write about these issues long-term, and if so, how do you cope with it?
I find anything having to do with child abuse/the suffering of a child to be extremely upsetting. Although it’s less writing about these issues that upsets me than the understanding and acknowledgment of how prevalent and damaging abuse and cruelty are in our world. I actually think part of how I cope with that reality is writing about these issues. I want them to be in our cultural awareness and discourse, and writing is a way I can help do that.
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author so far?
I had the opportunity to go to Hong Kong this past spring for the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival, which was an amazing and unforgettable experience. I traveled to many different middle and high schools and was able to talk books and writing with hundreds of students. It was really wonderful and I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to do that.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently obsessed with?
I am currently reading a nonfiction book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which looks at ‘black swan events’ (events deemed so rare that we underestimate their ability to occur and therefore are caught unprepared when they do happen) and how they shape our understanding and expectations of society and probability.
And finally, what’s one steadfast piece of advice you would give to other writers?
This is perhaps particular to writing thrillers and falls in line with Vonnegut’s “to hell with suspense!” directive, but my advice is to not keep secrets from the reader. Your narrator may not know everything that is going on, but the reader should know everything your narrator does. This type of narrative honesty is important to me as a reader, so I try and maintain it as a writer, as well.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Stephanie as much as I did! I want to thank her for taking the time to talk in-depth about When I Am Through With You, as well as sharing her tips for crafting complex characters. Be sure to add Stephanie's suspenseful book to your Goodreads list, or order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie.
If you want to connect with Stephanie (and tell her how much you love her books!), please hop on over to Twitter to tweet her at @stephkuehn. And for even more information, check out her author website at stephaniekuehn.com.
And, as always,