Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Author Interview: Courtney Stevens on Faith in Lit & Life

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Today we welcome author Courtney Stevens to discuss her upcoming YA novel, Dress Codes for Small Towns (Harper Teen, August 22, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends...and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.

Billie McCaffrey is always starting things. Like couches constructed of newspapers and two-by-fours. Like costumes made of aluminum cans and Starburst papers. Like trouble. 

This year, however, trouble comes looking for her. 

Her best friends, a group she calls the Hexagon, have always been schemers. They scheme for kicks and giggles. What happens when you microwave a sock? They scheme to change their small town of Otters Holt, Kentucky for the better. Why not campaign to save the annual Harvest Festival we love so much? They scheme because they need to scheme. How can we get the most unlikely candidate elected for the town’s highest honor?

But when they start scheming about love, things go sideways.

In Otters Holt, love has always been defined one way—girl and boy fall in love, get married, buy a Buick, and there’s sex in there somewhere. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple. Can the Hexagon, her parents, and the town she calls home handle the real Billie McCaffrey?

Could you tell us about Dress Codes for Small Towns? What inspired you to write this book?

Hmm. 80's movie antics plus 90's rom-com heart plus a faint Women’s March beat?

When I began Dress Codes, I described it as "Ferris Bueller meets 'The Breakfast Club'" for lines like this, “The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends—a pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and a douchebag—and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.”

Now, I usually describe Dress Codes as sexually fluid "Footloose." Preacher’s daughter. Reluctant small town. A pack of kids to change their hearts.

My inspiration was walking barn beams and climbing on top of old elementary schools and wearing my older brother’s clothes. You know, #girlstuff.

Is Otters Holt similar to the town you grew up in?

If you picked up Matchbox car sized Bandana (my hometown) in the palm of your hand and plucked it down alongside the Kentucky Dam, you’d have Otters Holt. Well, if you added a forty-foot Molly the Corn Dolly roadside attraction. And I personally think you should.

Bandana (Courtney's hometown)
Faith is a subject that doesn't show up very often in YA books, especially books that explore the gray areas of love, gender and sexuality. How did you create the delicate balance in exploring those subjects?

I’ve spent nearly all my adult life working with teens and here is what I’ve learned: every young adult has a spiritual life. Some exercise that life through churches or organized religion; some through atheism; some through questions brought up reading The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead, 2004) or playing Grand Theft Auto or watching footage from the news.

So, very basically, I love to include faith because students are thinking about it.

As for the gray areas, I have two beliefs that guide my writing. One, people are never ever just one thing. And two, it is not my job to draw conclusions—for the church or this generation—but to love them enough to have the conversation.

What appeals to you about writing for young adults?

Young adults will always be the next generation of world changers. Writing for them gives me a chance to partner with them, which I consider a privilege and an honor.

What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

Writing is gloriously, wonderfully hard, regardless of audience. I am currently drafting an “adult” book and there appear to be very few, if any, challenges that aren’t present in both crafts.

I like to say that I write coming-of-truth novels rather than coming-of-age novels. So, the thing that makes the adult book “adult” is the protagonist comes of truth in adulthood rather than in her teen years.

With either audience, the bar is the same: write something that makes a reader love reading more today than they did yesterday.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

I’m mostly in it to see how many tattoos I can inspire.

No, seriously, there is a moment near the beginning of every draft when I realize Why I’m writing the book I’m writing—the reasons do vary widely—and I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do in the universe.

That deep connection of purpose and intention fuels my career and joy.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I often say, I type sitting down, but I write standing up.

If you want to know when and where I type: in my personal office on long binges that rival a Netflix addiction of Stranger Things.

Next writing episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …

If you want to know when and where I write: when I’m rock climbing, or walking The Narrows in Utah, or assembling scaffolding to cover a skylight at church, or asking a librarian if I can drive my sports car through the hallway of a school, or walking 1,000 miles last summer, or planning how I will build a 40-foot roadside attraction in my yard, or ….

Next life episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

Looking back, I can see several cairns that marked my path:
  1. Joining SCBWI as a baby writer
  2. Meeting my critique partners
  3. Swapping from fantasy to contemporary (but back to fantasy soon.)
  4. Prioritizing the continual study of craft
What are you working on next?

My next book (working title: BOOM), my fourth contemporary novel with HarperTeen, follows four teens who are the soul survivors of a bus explosion.

Cynsations Notes

Courtney “Court” Stevens grew up among rivers, cornfields, churches, and gossip in the small town south.

She is a former adjunct professor, youth minister, and Olympic torchbearer. She has a pet whale named Herman, a bandsaw named Rex, and several novels with her name on the spine: Faking Normal (Harper Teen, 2014),  The Lies About Truth (Harper Teen, 2015), and the e-novella The Blue-Haired Boy (Harper Teen, 2014).

As an educator and author, she visits schools, designs retreats, and teaches workshops on marketing, revision, character development, and Channeling Your Brave. She also likes chips and queso and feels deeply sorry for the lactose intolerant.

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