Interview by Craig Ledoux
Sarah Kuhn received her BA in English from Florida State University and her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Kudzu Review and in many documents on her desktop. She is currently teaching writing to middle schoolers at Harlem Children’s Zone. Sarah is the Fiction Editor of Madcap Review.
Why and when did you start writing?
I started writing in high school. I went through a very long phase of reading medieval, historical romance novels, which then phased into Harlequin romance novels. I ran into some trouble in the early high school years, as I wasn’t a licensed driver yet and public transit in Cape Coral, FL was a sad affair. In an effort to save myself from the embarrassment of having my mother drive me to the library a couple times a week to check out more bodice-ripping romances, I started writing my own and kept them in a number of spiral notebooks.
I don’t write those steamy scenes anymore, but I’ll credit them as the springboard for my love of writing. I think that I loved reading those stories so much that creating my own became a compulsion.
You grew up in a household which, for religious reasons, didn’t celebrate Halloween. How did your parents feel about you reading romance novels? Did they ever find your notebooks?
My parents were much more rigid when I was younger. I didn’t keep the books I was reading a secret, but I also assured my mother that I skipped over the sexy scenes. I think we both knew I was lying, and just ignored it.
No one in my family ever read my notebooks (that I know of), but my high school crush did. I used to do most of my writing during government class, and one afternoon he took my notebook from the metal basket under my desk. I didn’t realize he had it until the end of class when he handed it to me and said I had some good stuff in there.
That must have been mortifying, but also encouraging. Which authors have had the greatest influence on your work, or do you draw more inspiration from the people in your life?
I write coming-of-age stories that I fancy as YA fiction, so I think most of my writing comes from my experiences as an adolescent. Not that my stories come directly from my own childhood: they come from things I’ve felt about myself and about the world as I grew up.
Some of the authors I will always love to read are: Tamora Pierce, Elizabeth Scott, Karen Russell.
I’ve actually never thought of your work as YA. In fact, I wouldn’t put any sort of label on it at all. Though your protagonists tend to be pre-teens or children, I find that your stories are sophisticated and accessible to adults as well as a younger audience. In 2012, Bowker Market Research found that 55% of YA novels are purchased by adults, and of this 55%, 78% stated they were buying the books for themselves. Given this information, what is the function of a label like YA? What is it that draws you, and so many other adults, to this category of fiction?
I don’t think that labeling a work YA means that it’s only meant for a young audience. I’ve always thought that the YA label has more to do with how the work is marketed than with its content. I think that YA novels tend to be a faster read, and more plot-driven than something not targeted toward young adults—this may have something to do with its wide appeal. I’m sure that, for adults, nostalgia also plays into their appreciation of YA literature.
When I imagine the audience I’m writing for, I picture teens. I would hope that my work is accessible to anyone, but it’s important to me that what I’m writing be relatable to young people; I think this is because I had such an intense relationship with books when I was going through adolescence. There was so much about my experience of being a teen that I didn’t want to talk to anyone about, like my body, or the fact that my emotions seemed to be at level 10 all of the time, and I found a lot of comfort in reading about characters experiencing the same things as me.
In his interview with LUMINA, David Shields says, “A book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it*; the latter is a significant human activity to me.” Based on your last response, it seems clear that you write for the latter reason. What, then, do you look for when you read; do you consider reading to be an escape?
I’ve always considered reading to be a form of escapism. Usually, I’m looking for something story-driven, which I find a lot of in YA. The work resonates most with me when I’m able to connect with a character on a basic level. In those instances, it feels like a bonus. I like to have fun when I’m reading, but it’s also good to be reminded of my humanness.
You’ve talked about a wider motivation for writing, but what specifically inspires you? Is your writing informed by location, by scraps of conversation, or is it a purer invention for you?
I think my writing is informed most by my relationship with my sister. I write a lot about close female relationships. My sister and I are very close in age, but growing up, we were very different people. There was a lot of contention but a lot of closeness too, and I’m really interested in that dynamic.
Do you tend to get everything on the page in one go, or for you is writing a process of steady revision?
Writing is slow for me. Not so much a steady process of revision—more a painfully slow drip of ideas.
Some authors have a designated writing room. Do you have any preferences as to location; do you require absolute silence or white noise? Do you hand-write your stories or type them?
I don’t have a specific writing space, but I can’t write in silence or alone. Usually, I like a café, because it can be buzzing but still quiet. I don’t like to do much in silence, actually. If I’m home alone, I’ll put the TV or radio on while I read.
I hand-write and type. It depends on when and where I’m writing. I keep a notebook for emergency ideas, but typing is faster. If I’ve set aside time, then my computer is coming for the ride.
In response to E.M. Forster’s claim that his characters sometimes take over and dictate the course of his novels, Vladimir Nabokov is quoted as saying, “My characters are galley slaves.” Are your characters free to do as they please, or do you exert your will on them?
It’s a bit of both. I think characters are formed from a writer’s will, but the characters can still be surprising to the writer once the story evolves. Maybe it’s just a matter of how much planning goes into the plot or story before the writer begins. I rarely know how my stories will end. I approach writing by inventing the world of the story and developing a vague idea of the characters; then, I wait to see what happens as the characters interact with the world and each other.
If any character were to walk out of a book and into your living room, who would it be?
Ok, allow me a moment to geek out. The character I would most like to meet is Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series. These are the books that first made me love reading. I remember thinking that Alanna was such a badass—she disguises herself as a boy so she can train to be a knight. Plus, she’s magic, as in: has powers. I think she’d be a cool lady to spend an afternoon with.
* Shields is quoting from Samuel Johnson’s review of A Free Inquiry into The Nature of Good and Evil by Soame Jenyns.