Saturday, October 6, 2012

Interview, Pt. I: Nathan Kotecki, author of Suburban Strange

In preparation for tonight's reading at 7, I sat down with Nathan Kotecki on an appropriately overcast afternoon a few weeks ago to talk about his new YA novel, Suburban Strange. As a first time author, Kotecki's story is especially interesting -- an architect, DJ, and now, an author of supernatural fiction, the Durhamite & I discussed first-time authorship, Henry James, and Goth culture. This is part one of a two-part interview.

LG: What drove you to write the book in the first place?

NK: I really struggle to answer that question, because it really happens so spontaneously. I’ve always been a scribbler, even just having that notebook by the bed. You write speculative fiction but
it’s really self-indulgent and you don’t think it’s going to go anywhere. It was right around Halloween of 2008. I started with this very basic idea of this girl who kind of finds herself in the midst of this alternative group and has to decide whether it’s the right thing for her or not. It was one of those things that I just kind of kept writing to find out what happened. It was very organic.
I was pretty much 80% of the way through this before it really occurred to me that I was writing
a novel and I had to decide if I was going to be serious about it and finish it and see if there was
something to do. I hope it doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but it was really so organic that I kind of
surprised myself.

LG: Was it always a series in your mind, or did it start as one book?

NK: No. When I finished it, it was very much a stand-alone. It wasn’t until I was in the process
of shopping for an agent that I thought, “OK, what are the kinds of questions they’re going
to ask me that I should be prepared to answer.” And that occurred to me, that that would be
one that I’d be likely to be asked. I thought, okay, could this be a series? The more I thought
about it, the more obvious it was that it really could. It was at that point that I stepped back and
thought, “What are the ways that I can use this to lay the groundwork for an ongoing series?”
Originally, it was a stand-alone, and it wasn’t until I actually took myself seriously that I
thought, “No, actually, this is a story I could continue telling and be very happy.”

LG: Had you read a lot of YA before you started writing this?

NK: No. None.

LG: Really?

NK: I am a classic literature snob. I think that probably shows up, too.

LG: I definitely think it did.

NK: I’ve never read Twilight, I’ve never read Harry Potter. I basically spent these last six months
trying to nibble around the edges and find out how I fit into this genre. But no, it was one of
these things where I kind of discovered I’d written a young adult novel in the same way that I
discovered I’d written a novel, and then had to find out how to position it that way. At this point
I’m still very intrigued to find out more about the genre.

LG: Was it difficult to occupy the headspace of a young high school girl, because… you’re not?

NK: Complicated answer: I’ve had a real admiration for male authors who are able to write female
characters. I think Henry James is a really good example of that — someone who can really inhabit the psychology of a woman. I don’t flatter myself to think that I’ve done that in any
way, the way that, say, Portrait of a Lady does. But it is something that I had in mind — is this
something that I can do? The more I thought about it, I guess to segue to the other complicated
part of the answer, is that I will jokingly describe this as autobiography by way of funhouse
mirror. The things that Celia goes through, I’m not saying that I went through, but everybody
deals with insecurities and everybody deals with that turning point where you have to decide to
take control of your own life. Those things aren’t very gender-specific. I guess I had close female
friends from high school and beyond that, I don’t think I consciously thought about it too much,
but all those things kind of shaped the way I thought about Celia. I was intrigued to find out
— that was one of the things that I was most interested in when I first asked people to read this
back in the day, from the beginning. Is this voice sounding like a teenage girl? It was kind of a
relief when it seemed like people thought I’d been successful at that.

LG: Kind of a non sequitur, but how has your architecture affected your writing? Do you think it has
at all?

NK: Absolutely, yes. I am a better writer for having studied architecture. I guess the way that it makes
sense to me is that you go to architecture school and you deal with design in a very pure sense. I
remember in first year architecture school, we did exercises like “create a sculpture that responds
to a piece of music.” Those kinds of exercises that have very little to do with architecture and
really have more to do with flexing your creative muscles and figuring out how you make
design decisions. That’s applicable in any art form. It made me a better visual artist, it’s made
me a better graphic designer. I definitely approach writing, and I certainly approach things like
manuscript revisions, in a very design sense. Like, “What is my plan? What is the agenda for
this? How am I thinking about things like structure, and rhythm, and balance, symbolism?” I
absolutely do think it changed or shaped the way I write.

LG: Have you done any workshopping or writing at all in your academic career?

NK: I took a poetry class. I took one poetry class as an undergrad and enjoyed it, and do still enjoy
poetry, although I haven’t been writing as much in it. But that is the single writing class I ever

LG: Wow. Where were you in school?

NK: Miami University of Ohio.

LG: It’s interesting, the Gothic subculture in this. What draws you to that, do you think? I know that
you personally were a DJ.

NK: It’s part of my high school experience. It’s kind of not very obvious. I will call myself “the
most vanilla Goth you’ll ever meet.” I listen to this music on a daily basis. I have for however
many decades. So the natural love of it is there. That was really my point of entry into this. It
was really about what it would be like for a girl, high school age now, to engage with this kind
of alternative Goth culture which is admittedly much older. That’s the whole book: there’s this
group of kids who are contemporary, but just happen to like this music that’s much older. That was very much the starting point. For me, it’s always been part of my aesthetic. I’m drawn to
darkly beautiful things, to things where — I think there’s a line in there about rummaging around
in the ugliness to find the beauty. That’s just always been part of my aesthetic.

LG: There’s a lot of debate, even in a New York Times article I read recently, where a lot of YA
novels get a lot of flack for being really dark, or being really into death and depression, things
like that. Do you think that’s a timeless theme in literature?

NK: I have a couple of reactions to that. For one thing, I think being a teenager is inherently dramatic.
Not necessarily darkly dramatic, but everything that happens to you is the most important
thing that’s ever happened to you, and everything that’s happened to you has never happened
to anyone else. Nothing is proportional because you’re not old enough to really have a sense
of proportion. There is drama in being a teenager, and I think that that makes it very easy for
teenagers to be responsive to things that are inherently dramatic. Obviously dark things are. I
can’t say I’m surprised by it. I think it makes sense. I think people a lot of times will overstate
a teenager’s enjoyment of dark things with some huge psychological profile that I don’t think
really exists most of the time. Most of us do all kinds of dramatic things as teenagers and then
grow up and leave most of it behind, become healthy adults. There’s also something — and this
is not just in the YA category — but dark dramatic things make for good drama. They make for
good art. That’s in any genre, so of course it’s a little more pointed. I would say that I think that
there is a responsibility that comes along with that. It does make me nervous that there seem
to be books that are very formulaic in the way that they approach dark materials now, because
it’s something that sells. It goes along with, “Do we need another vampire book? Do we need
another book that has X, Y, and Z in it?” I think if you’re going to write about dark things, if
you’re going to write about sensational dramatic things like this, I think there is a responsibility
to at least tell a good story while you’re doing it. Not to just turn it into another set piece. I do see
that at times.

LG: Since this is a multi-part series, do you feel pressure in terms of how you move forward? Do you
have an idea already?

NK: The second one is done. I actually was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal, so the second
one is in the pipeline for publication next fall. There really wasn’t. It was one of the first
indications I got that Houghton-Mifflin was really interested in working with me, because they
gave me a two book deal without seeing anything about the second book, which I was really kind
of surprised by. So yeah, I don’t want this to turn into The Suburban Strange: The College Years,
so really, it’s not about Celia. I’m not going to follow Celia out of high school. The second book
is told from the point of view of a new character who arrives at Suburban, and Celia’s still in
the book. Everyone who hasn’t graduated is still in the book, but it’s told from Bruno’s point
of view. It really turns Suburban High School into the main character, because it’s kind of the
epicenter of this conflict between the Kind and the Unkind.

LG: I’m intrigued with the marketing of this. Looking at the cover and the blurb on the back, it didn’t
seem to have the same referentiality that the book had — every chapter was an album title, things
like that. How are you pushing this, in terms of who you’re trying to sell it to?

NK: There’s always that tension, isn’t there, between what my vision is, and then the best way to
sell this book. That was a big part of the conversation that I had with the design folks and with
the publicity folks at Houghton-Mifflin. At the end of the day, the cover and the blurb are what
convince people to buy the book, but it isn’t necessarily the reason why they’re going to enjoy
the book. You basically just want to make sure that they pick it up. So there were decisions that
were made that I think were a little sensational — the quote on the front, and a quote on the
back, on the actual hardback. There’s that excerpt where Mariette and Celia are talking, and she
says, “I don’t think the point is to hurt a girl, I think the point is to kill her.” This really really
(makes slasher noise) version of the book. And obviously there’s a lot more subtlety in there.
I think the concept was, let’s, I don’t want to say trick the reader, but let’s go for the obvious
selling points, which are supernatural thriller, and then let the subtlety of the book happen on the
back end.

Part II coming soon!