Writing her own soundtrack

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By Mark-Chistopher Mitera

Forest Park resident Stephanie Kuehnert sounds very much like your typical youthful rebel. Two of her cats are named after punk musicians, Courtney Love is one of her heroes and she used to tend bar at the Beacon Pub. She'd love to meet a pirate, and one of her interests, according to her My Space biography, is "bad decisions and the stories they create."

Oh yeah, and after dropping out of Antioch College, she spent a couple of years partying and contemplating running away to New Orleans to be a stripper.

Now superimpose that image of Kuehnert with the one who is articulate, possesses a master's in fiction writing from Columbia College in Chicago, works a full-time administrative gig, loves watching soap operas and reading "everything you read and hated in high school."

She also enjoys reading young adult novels, and that's no surprise because she is awaiting the publication of her own, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone."

The novel, which will be published in July by MTV Books, already has garnered some impressive prepublication buzz, including praise from Irvine Welsh, acclaimed author of "Trainspotting."

So how does one go from being a self-described Goth girl penning bad poetry in high school to a soon-to-be-published novelist who watches soap operas for tips on story pacing and dialogue? Like most writers, the 29-year-old Kuehnert "loved reading since I learned how." She dabbled in poetry and short stories throughout high school and started writing a novel while at Antioch College in Ohio.

"I was a sociology major at Antioch, but I took a lot of writing classes," she said. "Then I dropped out after a year to be a writer."

Some writer. She danced and drank away the next two years in Madison, Wis., before moving back in with her mother in Oak Park to attend Columbia College. While attending the Chicago college, Kuehnert massaged a character she had developed in one of her writing classes into what eventually would become "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone." The novel follows the paths of two women: Louisa, a young woman who abandons her infant daughter Emily when she is 4 months old to follow the punk-rock scene, and Emily who, years later with a band of her own, launches a search for her mother.

The character Emily, Kuehnert admitted, lived out her own personal fantasy of being a rock star, but that is where the similarities end.

"When it comes to fiction, I don't take characters from my life," Kuehnert said. "But I do take a passion or a vibe."

Not too many people were caught unawares by Kuehnert's success.

Katie Lagges, who has been best friends with her since they were students at Oak Park-River Forest High, revealed that Kuehnert is "very passionate not only about her writing, but pretty much about everything in her life. So I'm not surprised."

Lagges echoes several comments by others that Kuehnert's writing is "raw and edgy. It has soft moments, but it has a definite edge. Like Stephanie."

Randy Albers, department chair of Columbia College's fiction writing department and Stephanie's thesis advisor, agreed.

"Stephanie is an interesting combination of someone who's very out there, very into music, very much an iconoclastic thinker. But she's also someone who is smart and very hardworking."

Those qualities were crucial to the writing of the novel, particularly when she hit a drought.

"I was almost done with the book, and I suddenly had this period of writer's block," Kuehnert said. "Everything I was writing was just horrible; it wasn't me."

Fate intervened at a writer's conference sponsored by Columbia College, where she met a literary agent.

"She read one chapter [of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone"] and the next day, she took me out and said, 'I want this book by September'," Kuehnert said. "So that gave me a goal to finish it."

One of her former instructors talked her through an outline of the book as she was despairing that she would never finish, "and once I had the outline, I could do chapters every week." Her thesis advisor Albers also got into the act, reading the completed manuscript over the summer and offering his comments.

"All of these people gave me the goal," Kuehnert said. "I do my best work under a deadline."

Nearly a year later, Kuehnert's agent had sold the novel to MTV Books. Although MTV Books is a publisher of young adult fiction, Kuehnert said the novel will be available in the general fiction section of bookstores.

"The young adult book market is getting a lot more sophisticated as a genre," Caryn Johnson, Kuehnert's agent, said. Just a few years ago, she continued, books by authors such as Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine and L.J. Smith were popular, but too formulaic. "Now, these books have so many nuances. They deal with classic teenage problems of body image, sexuality, social order, but explore issues that were usually reserved for coming of age novels. And books like 'I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone' are reinvigorating the genre."

Though she occasionally has a problem with motivation, Kuehnert is disciplined when it comes to her art. She writes every night for two or three hours, and all day on Saturdays. She also maintains a journal and regularly attends meetings of a local writers group.

These days, Kuehnert is feverishly revising her second novel, "Ballads of Suburbia," which primarily is set in the Oak Park of the early 1990s. Hopeful that MTV Books will pick it up too, she nevertheless is realistic about the difficulties faced by first-time novelists.

"I might sell another book, I might not, but I can't not write," she said.

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