Hello darlings! It is time once again for our ongoing series of Morris nominee interviews, and today is my lucky day, because it’s finally my turn to introduce you all to Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced “Keen”).
Kuehn’s debut novel is Charm and Strange. Here’s the summary from Goodreads:
No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself …of the wolfish predator within. But he’s also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.
Intrigued? It’s a devilishly hard book to blurb, I think, because so much hinges on the revelation of a terrible secret. I had to prance around lightly in my own review, so as not to spoil it:
1) I stayed up til 2 to finish it, which just doesn’t happen to me.
2) I bawled like a baby, which is also pretty rare.
I don’t want to spoil it. Part of the experience is that you’re unfolding the truth at the same time Win is (well, a little faster probably, because you’re able to admit possibilities he can’t). It’s a gut-wrenching exploration of dissociation, sanity, and the purpose of metaphor. Win looks crazy to the people around him, but the story is told in such a humane and sympathetic way that you realize he’s this way for a reason, that it’s the way he preserved his sanity and survived.
Well-written and devastating. Possible trigger warning, if you’re expecting a paranormal. NOT paranormal, in the usual sense of the word.
I have also written a spoiler-ful review over at Someday My Printz Will Come. Don’t look at that unless you’ve read the book, because this is one that really deserves not to be spoiled. The book is a harrowing read, but hopeful and life-affirming in the end.
All righty then! On to what you really came for, Ms. Stephanie Kuehn in her own words:
1) Charm & Strange is a difficult book to discuss without spoiling, in large part because the book is about recovering memories and integrating the past and present. The reader learns the truth along with Win, and it would be a shame to pre-empt that. What is your go-to, spoiler-free description when someone wants a quick summary?
It’s the story of a boy who believes that he is a monster. And it’s about understanding why.
2) I loved the book, but it deals with some very difficult, painful, and upsetting topics. In my review on GoodReads, I almost felt I should give some kind of trigger warning, but that’s hard to do without spoiling. How have readers reacted to this book?
Thank you! I don’t totally know how people have reacted to the book. I get the feeling it’s something people either really, really connect with or they hate. Or they liked aspects of it but wish they hadn’t read it? I can understand all of those viewpoints, I suppose. It is an upsetting story and a very sad one.
More than anything, I’ve enjoyed hearing from readers, and I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me and shared their own stories. Knowing that people have found the book meaningful is a special thing. It’s everything, really.
3) You study clinical psychology, which would seem to have a clear connection to this story. What are the roots of this novel, and how did it grow?
Yes, I think it’s obviously a very psychologically driven story, or at least told as one. I know that when I was writing it I was exploring some of my own ideas about how—from science to myth—we develop a sense of ourselves, and under what circumstances change can occur.
I think I was also affected at the time by how quickly angry young children (especially boys) are labeled as “bad” and what this does to their self-perception. The anger of others can be hard to contain. It’s an emotion that’s easier to push away or minimize than it is to accept. But as adults, I believe it is up to us to hold the anger of children and not ask them to keep it inside. It is up to us to try and understand why they’re hurting.
4) I’m also interested – maybe even more interested, because it’s less obvious – in whether your background in linguistics also plays into the story. There’s a moment where Win talks about Wittgenstein – and then a quote from Wittgenstein near the end – that make me suspect a preoccupation with language itself, how we make ourselves understood and how to find the words for the most terrible of experiences. Was it hard to find the right words for Win? What were the challenges in fostering reader empathy, as opposed to pity or revulsion?
On a philosophical level, I’ve always been drawn to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, the notion that a language known to only one person really isn’t a language at all. In the words of Saul Kripke (from On Rules and Private Language): “the sceptical solution does not allow us to speak of a single individual, considered by himself and in isolation, as ever meaning anything.” When I was writing the book, that abstraction of a private language felt like the perfect metaphor to represent someone who has endured unspeakable trauma and has been made to feel as if no one else experiences the world the way that he does. If there are no words to communicate one’s reality, what is there? If you can’t connect with others, what are you?
The beginning of Charm & Strange finds Win trying his best not to communicate with others at all. This is because he fears hurting and he fears being hurt. In this way his suffering has dehumanized him. It’s an awful thing, his loneliness, and much of Win’s journey is about accepting that a positive connection to humanity is part of what makes him human. Ultimately, it’s the friendship and empathy of others that become his catalysts for change. These are two of the strongest forces I know.
On fostering empathy: I believe empathy comes from understanding what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, and I tried to write the story closely from Win’s point of view so that the world is experienced as he perceives it. In that way, I hoped readers would connect with how his struggles come from a place of strength and resilience, not weakness.
On finding the right words for Win: It wasn’t hard to find his words. Win speaks through his own lens, but he tells his truth openly. “I feel dark,” he says. “I feel used.”
5) You touched on a particular preoccupation of mine, which is metaphor. Win has created an entire mental schema with which to understand what has happened to him, but to me, approaching from outside, it looks like a metaphor. One of the reasons I write fantasy is because it enables me to couch real struggles in metaphorical terms, to examine problems one step removed from their painful immediacy. Some summaries of Charm & Strange make it sound like it’s going to be a paranormal story, which it very much is not. What is your take on the role of metaphor in fiction and in life? How can art help heal our traumas?
That’s really interesting to think about. It’s true that the use of fantasy in Charm & Strange represents a form of dissociation and coping for the narrator. It’s also true that I chose the mental schema I did so that I could play with genre in a certain way, both as a metaphor for painful truths, and as a way of keeping the reader in Win’s mind. And it is fascinating to consider how we, as a culture, use metaphor to distance and deconstruct complex realities, not just in literature, but in all forms of storytelling. As actual psychological processes, however, I do think there are big differences between what is an individual’s trauma reaction versus a voluntary artistic choice or social allegory.
Culturally, we use fantasy and metaphor in other ways, too: For many people, Santa Claus is a symbol of faith and childhood innocence. In the book, letting go of that particular innocence is a milestone of growing up that Drew marks. Later in his life, Win’s letting go of the magic he needed to endure his childhood becomes a different sort of innocence lost. It marks the integration of his past and his present, as well as his stepping out onto his path toward healing—the magic he gives up is his belief in his own badness.
6) How long did it take to write this book, and what was it like to live with these characters and this particular story? Was it ever overwhelming? What kind of coping strategies did you have to develop?
The book was published almost exactly two years after I sat down to write the first sentence (which has never changed), so in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take very long. And yes, on an emotional level, it was hard to work on this story. There’s pain that comes from being attached to characters whose hurt you can’t fix. That’s probably a metaphor, too.
I was also going to say that the process of writing the book made me sad, but I actually think I was in a dark place when I started it. Sometimes writing is a way of coping.
a) Morning or night?
b) Cats or dogs?
Both! I love all animals. Sadly, we lost our old doggy this past fall, but we have a young dog and two sweet cats.
c) Sherlock or Watson?
d) Weirdest thing you ever ate on purpose:
Ohhh. I’m sure I’ve eaten some things other people would consider weird, but I don’t tend to eat things I think of as weird on purpose. Maybe a peanut butter and cheddar cheese sandwich? Those are really good, I swear!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Rachel! I really appreciate it.
Thank you, my dear. I loved the book. It made me think, which is what I look for most in literature.