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December 15, 2015

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Stephanie Kuehn

Kate Hart
To be friends with Stephanie Kuehn is to be constantly humbled but inspired. Her smarts, empathy, and ambition could be intimidating -- after all, who else do you know that simultaneously publishes a book a year, wins major literary awards, runs half marathons, raises three kids, and oh yeah, finishes a PhD in psychology and works as a post-doctoral Fellow?

But Steph is also kind and supportive, uses her successes to raise others, and remains honest about the challenges that she's faced in reaching her goals. I'm enormously grateful that she shares her wisdom with the world, and I can't find any better way to introduce the last Badass Lady of 2015 than in her own words:
"Through my work as a therapist and through being part of a program with a strong social justice emphasis, I’ve learned a great deal about storytelling and systems: the deep power of narrative, how and why certain stories are told and re-told, how meaning is made and who gets to decide. No matter how isolated they are, the characters we create all exist within systems -- family, community, etc. --and we write and publish our stories within systems, too. These are endlessly interesting realms to navigate."
- YALSA interview 2014


Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Stephanie : I have dual careers at the moment. The first is in the field of psychology. I’m currently a post-doc Fellow at a graduate school in the Bay Area, where I work with students and supervise clinical trainees. I’m also the author of three young adult novels: Charm & Strange, Complicit, and Delicate Monsters. And I have a new novel forthcoming in 2016 called The Smaller Evil.

Stephanie Kuehn's book coversThe books I write tend to be psychologically-driven, which often leads people to believe I write the books I do because of my psychology background. However, I don’t know that that’s exactly true. My background does inform my writing to some degree, but there’s a reason I landed in both places. Both professionally and in my writing, I’m interested in the psychology of adolescence, probably in part because I found it such a confusing time. The characters I write aren’t me, but the core themes of all my writing do come down to ways I felt or questions I had when I was a teenager, namely (1) Does anyone experience the world the way that I do? and (2) What does it mean to feel like a bad person?

I’m also interested in the intersection of mental illness and the psychology of adolescence, (although I’m less interested in writing about specific diagnoses). My first three novels all explore the ways in which people come to understand themselves, looking at self-perception and identity through a lens of family history, temperament, relationships, culture, violence, trauma, and resilience.

My fourth novel is a little different in that I wanted to step back and explore not just the psychology of an individual, but group and social dynamics—how truth and belief are necessarily relative, and how self-concepts of independence or individuality are usually determined by those around us.

Stephanie Kuehn arm-wrestling her boss at her wedding
Steph arm-wrestles her boss at her own
wedding. (She's pretty sure she won.) 
Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Stephanie : Writing is my main creative outlet. I write for myself and very much enjoy the selfishness of that. I also run, which I consider a creative act. I’m not sure where the myth that athletes aren’t creative and artists aren’t athletic came from, but in my mind the art of sport is no different than other forms of art. We’re just taught to believe they are.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Stephanie : Sounds. I have an awful aversion to sounds other people make with their mouths that makes everyday life really difficult. The aversion itself is called misophonia and although I’ve had it since I was about 12, I didn’t realize it was something anyone else experienced until I was in my thirties. I just thought I was a horrible and controlling person (although I’m actually pretty easy going!). These days, there’s some comfort in knowing I’m not alone with it, but nothing makes it better, so I either end up avoiding a lot of things (family dinners, going to the movies, eating lunch with coworkers, being around certain triggering people) or I endure them with great discomfort. I also realize that it sounds like a huge exaggeration or that I’m quibbling over a pet peeve (I know there are lots of sounds that people dislike or find rude—like smacking gum or phlegmy coughs), but it’s hard to explain to others the intensity of the reaction, the anticipatory anxiety that comes with it, and how perpetual avoidance of ordinary human sounds (and visual triggers) can take over your entire life.

Steph and Kate with Debra Driza, Amy Lukavics, Sarah Enni, Kirsten Hubbard & Sumayyah Daud in San Diego
Steph and Kate with Debra Driza,
Amy Lukavics, Sarah Enni, Kirsten
& Sumayyah Daud in San Diego
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Stephanie : I got rejected from a doctoral program (in linguistics) when I was in my twenties. I had only applied to one program, which wasn’t particularly bright on my part. But up until that point, I would say school had always been easy for me (and I’ve had a lot of educational privilege), so I wasn’t used to failure. I didn’t end up going back to graduate school until almost a decade later, but that experience made me reckon with how much of my ego was wrapped up in any external affirmation of my own intelligence. When I did end up back in school, I purposely tried to let go of this because it wasn’t important to be the best or have the best grades as a means to feel good about myself: rather, I had to honor and accept the fact that studying psychology was about absorbing and integrating complex theoretical information; challenging myself intellectually; evolving emotionally; learning how to attune with others through empathy; and deconstructing my own biases, all in the service of becoming the clinician I wanted to be.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? 

Stephanie : I feel proud when people say that my writing is different than what’s ordinarily seen in YA. That’s not to say it’s always meant as a compliment (I’m sure it’s not!), but I take it that way.

Steph's medal from a half marathon
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Stephanie : Feminism is complicated for me, as I find I’m often equally distressed by the lack of intersectionality as I am inspired by the fight for gender equality and justice. As for defining moments. I don’t know. Maybe it’s cliché (and maybe I’m really old), but I remember feeling inspired by my own womanhood and feeling connected to the womanhood of others in a university class where we read Women Who Run with Wolves. Also, I have a MA in sport psychology and some of the comments by male peers regarding female athletes not only pissed me off, they made me really delve into why I was pissed off. When men define what a sport is and what makes it valuable, and then assert that men are inherently better at sports, it’s a tautology. (Remember, sport is really art.) But I also love sports, so I agree to be part of that construct. Those are competing truths I have to hold within myself.

As for how feminism informs my work, I suppose I see patterns in the girls I write, even in the books that are narrated by boys. The girls are unapologetically sexual; they like and are curious about sex and want to do things that make them feel good. Their feelings of lust rarely imply love or romantic affection—and this is not a bad thing. They do not fix boys. They put their needs first.

I’m also competitive (because art is also sport) and the frustration I feel when male writers get more attention than their female peers (especially women of color) motivates me to be a better writer. To take more chances. To be less nice.

Stephanie Kuehn at grad school graduation
Steph at grad school graduation
Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Stephanie : I don’t know what the best way is, but at the moment, for me, being involved in a community that is focused on providing support to mothers (and all caregivers) who are in graduate school has been very meaningful. I had my third child two months into my doctoral program, and I know how isolating it can be.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Stephanie : Be fearless in your writing. Be truthful with yourself.

Win a signed copy of Delicate Monsters, since according to Steph, "it features the most unlikable girl of them all."

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Stephanie Kuehn 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, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Stephanie lives in Northern California with her husband, their three children, and a joyful abundance of pets.

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