By Tom Lynch
The title, of course, is lifted from Sleater-Kinney.
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” the debut novel from local author Stephanie Kuehnert, is a punk-rock novel of heavy awareness. Everyone wants to be a rock star. Kuehnert’s protagonist and narrator, Emily Black, is no different. Living in a tiny town in Wisconsin, left alone with her father as an infant when her mother hit the road following her own rock-star dreams, Emily’s now your favorite teenager, much cooler than you were when you were there, the dark hair, the red lipstick and the witty asides and retorts all part of the angst-ridden fireball.
Nothing’s quite as it seems, of course, as Emily will learn quickly enough, even as she’s catapulted to her own rock ‘n’ roll stardom. (The name of her band, She Laughs, seems like it could have been Kathleen Hanna’s project after Bikini Kill.) Emily wants to find her mother; truth is, she wants her mother to find her. Emily’s got guts—precocious, sexually and intellectually—but nothing seems to give her more pause than when she considers the real-life tale of her long-lost mother.
Was Kuehnert an Emily years ago? “More like who I wanted to be,” she says, now in her late twenties. “I was a lot more insecure—she has her own insecurities, but she’s a lot stronger, the kind of girl I wanted to be. I had some friends who were like her. I have friends [now] with similar attitudes and I admire that in them.”
Kuehnert was raised in the Midwest, growing up in St. Louis and then Oak Park, spending some time in college in Yellow Springs, Ohio, only to drop out and move to Madison, Wisconsin. At 21 she found herself back in Oak Park, got her bachelor’s and master’s in fiction-writing at Columbia, where she studied with Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) and Joe Meno (“Hairstyles of the Damned”), both influences present in Kuehnert’s work. She started writing her novel during those years at Columbia.
“It was really helpful being in school,” Kuehnert says, who now resides in Forest Park. “Those classes, they just provide a lot of generative activities to help you visualize the story, get you pumped and excited about it.”
Kuehnert says that other than the book’s opening passage, which was taken from one of her diary entries (and edited to fit Emily’s character more accurately), and the musical tastes of the lead character, “Joey Ramone” is in no way an autobiographical endeavor. She wasn’t concerned with alienating the non-punk crowd, either. “I kind of [just] wrote what I wrote,” Kuehnert says. “I figured that there is a musical appeal that will definitely appeal to punk-rockers, plus there is a wider story, the straight-up literature storytelling, where it really doesn’t matter what kind of musician she is, with [the story of] her parents and everything like that.”
The honesty of the storytelling is an unexpected hook to the jaw. While later in the novel a sort of rock ‘n’ roll fantasy ensues, Emily’s formative years, the evenings of sex on the glass-covered gravel outside of punk shows, the boozing-in-secret while battling off the surging, energetic crowds, read with an emotionally gritty truth. “I just kind of wrote it the way that it felt to me,” Kuehnert says. “That was Emily’s character. That was who she was, who she had to be. It wasn’t like I was necessarily trying to be gritty or raw or any of those things. That’s who my character was, and I had to be true to my character.”
Another carefully constructed piece of the book are those punk shows that Emily attends—with detail, Kuehnert captures the essence of the dirty floors, the smell of sweat and unwashed hair, the intensity of a live band playing in a crammed room, shit sound and raw enthusiasm, even anger. “It was important to me,” she says. “I spent a lot of my teenage years at punk shows. I just loved that part of my life. It was fun to write and capture that. All I can do is capture my own perspective of the way things were and translate that into a fictional place. So I had to make it emotionally true, [to] make it connect, to [give] the feeling of being at a show.”
She says that the book finally being finished, ready for release next week, is both relieving and stress-inducing. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking,” she says. “You create this thing, you spend, like, five years on it…and now you have to hand it out and let it be judged. And judged in so many different ways, judged by peers, judged by the kids who read it, or the adults who read it, which is the most important thing.”
Kuehnert’s second novel, the Oak Park-set “Ballads of Suburbia,” will be released next summer by MTV Books, which is also releasing “Joey Ramone.” “My first book was a tribute tot he Midwestern landscape,” she says. “This one is a tribute to my particular part of the Midwest.”
Stephanie Kuehnert celebrates the release of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” July 9 at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299, at 7:30pm. Free.