A Conversation with Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie Kuehn is the author of the gorgeous and heartbreaking novel Charm & Strange, a fantastically original story about the monsters we carry with us and the monsters we become, and which has received rave reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, Publishers Weekly, and me, among others.

Charm & Strange is a book about trauma and memory and monsters, and I loved the way the structure of the book mimics the complexity and layers of the story itself. Did you always know you'd tell the story the way that you did?

Yes, the way the story is structured is part of the reason I wanted to tell it in the first place. It’s a narrative structure that allowed me to weave themes of matter and antimatter, quarks, wolves, chemical bonds, chemical breakdowns, and Wittgenstein’s private language argument, into a short, dark story about the impact of trauma and the resilience of the human mind.

Win is an extremely believable teenage narrator, which means he also has ideas about gender and how to be a man that are sometimes pretty ugly. Was it challenging for you as a writer to keep yourself from making Win more "likable" and less real?

If anything, I probably erred on the side of making Win more caustic than necessary. At the time the story begins, he's stuck in a holding pattern of destroying his personal relationships and destroying himself. He’s angry and resentful and scared, and I wanted those qualities to shine through. Being in his head isn’t a likable place, but this is somewhat of the point: Win’s suffering isn’t romantic or noble, and not being likable doesn’t make him a bad person. He’s worthy of compassion and care, not in spite of his difficult personality, but because of his humanity.

Thinking about it more, I find likability a strange concept. I don’t understand what role it plays in storytelling. Is Max from Where the Wild Things Are likable? Or is he relatable in his savage and beastly feelings? Win’s a guy who feels as if he’s the only person on earth who experiences the world the way that he does. While his reality is all his own, his sense of psychic isolation is the emotional essence of adolescence (at least it was for me), and so even in his ugliness, he’s relatable.

The book goes to some dark places, but ultimately (for me at least) ends on a hopeful note. What kinds of stories give you hope in dark times?

I gravitate toward stories that are dark. I don’t know that I connect with much else. But I avoid stories with too much cynicism or righteousness. These are forces I find darker than most.

Werewolves start out as one kind of monster at the beginning of the book, and become a very different kind of monster by the end. Why werewolves--for you as a writer and for Win as a character?

When I was growing up, I read and watched every horror book and film out there. This was in the eighties, which was really the horror heyday, and I don’t know, I was one of those creepy kids who liked animals more than people (myself included), so I was drawn to all the transformation stories. Wolfen. Cat People. Altered States. The Wolf’s Hour. There was even a tv show on Fox called Werewolf that I loved, mostly for the Rick Baker special effects (plus the bloody pentagrams!). I think stories like these fulfill the desire to walk as close to one’s own darkness as possible, and as a teenager, that was one of the strongest desires I had. However, as I got older, as tends to happen, the reality of where true darkness lives and what it looks like became more obvious. And more frightening.

Win’s journey is sort of the opposite. He’s closer to darkness, his own and others, than any young person should be. Because of this, he uses his magic, the wolves, as a way to hold onto both his innocence and his sanity. In this way, he is both very strong and very stuck.

What kinds of stories did you read as a kid? What are some books you've read lately and loved?

As a kid, I vacillated between reading animal and detective stories (The Black Stallion series, Albert Payson Terhune and the Sunnybank collies, Trixie Belden, Three Investigators) and horror novels (a few favorites: Shadowland, Burnt Offerings, The House Next Door, The Amityville Horror, The Fury, The Other, Neverland, Summer of Night, The Butterfly Revolution, Willard, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, all those Alfred Hitchcock anthologies). Some of my recent favorites are Citrus County by John Brandon, Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston, Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, and Nothing by Janne Teller.