I first met Kristen-Paige Madonia two years ago. Her writing is forthright and honest. It is this earnestness that stands out the most, employed to great effect as a penetrating light to plumb the depths of her characters’ inner lives, motivations, and secrets. She was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about her debut from Simon and Schuster, Fingerprints of You, which will come out August 7. The novel centers around Lemon Williams, who has bounced from place to place, led by her peripatetic mother, Stella. After she becomes pregnant, Lemon buys a Greyhound ticket, bound for San Francisco to find out more her own father and history. We are proud to also feature an excerpt of the first chapter here.
-George Kamide, Fiction Editor
Streetlight: How did this story come to you?
Kristen-Paige: I started writing the book when I was living in San Francisco just after my MFA program [at California State University, Long Beach]. I was finishing another novel – Fingerprints of You is the first published, but not the first written – and I had an agent and was working on the last draft of the manuscript. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops in the city trying to finish it off, and during one of those days, when I was daydreaming out a window facing Fillmore Street, I saw two women walking through a crosswalk. And they immediately became Lemon and Stella to me. The woman I imagined to be the mother was young to be a mother, but seemed to have a certain spirit about her, a feistiness. And the younger girl I imagined to be the daughter was sassy and confident but also very vulnerable. There was this weird edge of competition between them, too. It couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds that I saw them, but I created all these things, you know? It was fast, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
SL: So they were originally a mother-daughter pair? In your head?
K-P: In my mind, that’s how I imagined them. A young mother though. And so I immediately typed them as a single-parent family. The mother got pregnant very young and was probably not prepared for that sort of situation. And she was trying to figure out how to deal with her teenager daughter who was now becoming an adult. So I put them into a short story and tried to finish this other book and kind of hoped they would leave me alone, but they didn’t. I wrote a couple of short stories for them, but it didn’t take too long before I realized it was a lot bigger than that.
SL: I know some of your other work involves protagonists of this age group. Anywhere between 13 and 20. Is there anything particularly about this age that you’re drawn to?
K-P: I don’t know if it’s the age. You know the book is being called a “coming-of-age” novel now, so I’m learning how to talk about that and what it means. I think I’m really interested in the fact that we’re always changing and learning about ourselves. So weather it’s happening when you’re 14 or 17 or 25, I think there are these pivotal moments in our lives that change our perspectives. And nothing’s really the same afterward. I like to write from that place, that idea. But, I do feel drawn to that 17ish time frame, because I think that at that age we believe we’re a lot older and more experienced than we are. We’re kind of watching the world with wider eyes, and realizing that the world is so much larger than we ever knew. I think when you’re a child, you assume that everyone lives the way you live. Then you realize that everyone’s situation is so very different. So I am drawn to that idea and that age.
SL: Yeah, I knew exactly the way the world worked when I was 17.
K-P: Right, absolutely.
SL: And I now see myself back then as a total idiot.
K-P: Yeah! I think it’s a fascinating time period, when you realize not everyone lives the same way you do, and also that you get to make your own choices. That’s really interesting to me, when you realize you get to decide the kind of person you’re going to be. The way you’ve been raised will affect who you are and what kind of adult you become, but it doesn’t fully define you. And for me, that was a major part of the book: Lemon realizing that she gets to make her own choices, that she’s not solely defined by the skeletons in her closet from her childhood.
SL: I don’t remember who said it, I just recently read a quote where someone said that they consider every novel a coming-of-age novel.
SL: That’s interesting because I thought a lot of the novel itself was defined by choices that you’d made as a writer. The story covers a lot of familiar terrain in the larger American literary landscape: the coming-of-age novel, the classic road novel, and teen pregnancy, which is a well-trodden path at this point. But I still think that the novel feels fresh, and I kept trying to pinpoint some of the choices you made. The potential for cliche was really great, so I wanted to ask if you could talk about how you approached such familiar topics, the challenge of avoiding cliche.
K-P: Right. When we started talking about the publishing process and marketing, I was really glad it wasn’t being labeled a “teen pregnancy” book. That was important to me because I didn’t want the book to be about only one thing, so I was more comfortable with “coming of age” because it’s so broad versus “teen pregnancy.” With “coming of age” people recognize it could mean anything really. The road trip element came, I think, from my own experiences during the time period I was writing the book. I was moving around a lot. I’d moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and I knew I was going to be moving back to the East Coast eventually, too. My husband and I also spent a couple months on the road driving to Alaska, so I was living very much in transit during the writing of the book. I also received a couple writing residencies that year, where I wrote bulk sections of the novel in different places around the US. So the element of rootlessness and road trips was an organic choice because that’s what I was going through. In terms of trying to keep it original, knowing that I was writing familiar topics, I think it comes down to voice. I did work in past tense, hoping to give the story a little room to breathe, but I knew the book would be emotionally driven by [Lemon’s] voice and her story. I hope that is what makes the book a little bit different. That and the mother-daughter relationship – the idea of a teen trying to understand the decisions her mother has made for them, decisions she always viewed as mistakes.
SL: Well, that sort of brings me to the next question, about the teen pregnancy. There isn’t a lot of hemming and hawing about whether to keep the baby. You know, when you come across the pregnancy, your expectation as a reader is “Okay, now we’ll enter the moral debate about keeping it or not,” but this is actually not really an issue. In fact the novel’s focus shifts, the pregnancy becomes almost ancillary to the larger aims of the novel. I was just wondering how you came to make that decision as a writer.
K-P: I think that as I got to know Lemon’s character as I wrote the first draft, I realized pretty early on that it wouldn’t be an issue for her. And it’s not a religious-based decision for Lemon, I didn’t want the book to be about that, it was simply based on her personality. She’s a fighter and a survivor, and she faces things head on. She was going to work with what she’d been dealt, that was just her character.
SL: Let me go back a moment. When did you start writing this?
K-P: I started writing it in 2008, and we sold it in 2010, and it will be out this summer, so it’s been a four-year process.
SL: I ask because I was interested in some of the doors that open in this story. For example, how the war came in.“
K-P: For Emmy’s character? Well, I knew that initially Emmy was supposed to represent the opposite of Lemon. When they meet Lemon sees Emmy as a “normal kid”: she has parents that are still married, one older sister, and she’s lived in the same town forever, she’s never moved around. Everything that Lemon’s never had, which is really appealing to Lemon. But as they get to know each other, Lemon realizes that Emmy’s family has their own issues, too. The crux of Emmy’s family situation is her dad being sent to Afghanistan. So Lemon realizes there is no such thing as a “normal” family, that everyone has their issues to deal with. And Lemon and Emmy live in a small town where that kind of thing was happening all the time. There were people who never really thought they were going to have to go and serve [in active-duty combat], they were in the reserves. It was happening a lot, but I didn’t think it was being talked about all that often. It seemed important to bring that to light. And I think, too, it’s significant now. A lot of teen readers had to deal with this situation, and I think it’s important to give them a character that represents their experience.
SL: And I happen to be privileged to know that you didn’t write this explicitly as a young-adult book. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to publish it as such?
K-P: Sure! I can talk a lot about this (laughs). When you first write a book you don’t think about anybody reading it, at least I didn’t. I was writing for other reasons, so the idea of teens versus adults, it just didn’t matter during the writing process. But I was ridiculously fortunate and found a strong supporter in Judy Blume early in the writing process of Fingerprints of You. She found my work through a contest in 2008, a blind submission, and became a mentor for me while I was working on the book in terms of encouraging me during those periods of time that I struggled. She read a number of different things that I was working on back then and noticed that I was writing these gritty teen characters, and she thought there was a possibility YA might be a good fit for them. But it was fairly early, and I didn’t really think that much about it.
Later, after my agent had seen the book a handful of times and we were working on prepping it for submissions, I remembered what Judy said and started researching the genre. I realized it was a really vibrant part of the publishing industry and that it was growing and gaining a lot of attention. So I started reading the books and was blown away by how smart and powerful the YA novels were. John Green, Jay Asher, Laurie Halse Anderson…The readers and bloggers and writers in that world are just so empowered right now. It’s an amazing thing to watch happening! So my agent and I were getting ready to submit the manuscript, which for us meant that we got on the phone and talked about possible editors to send to based on who she thought would be good and who I thought would be good. We were on the phone for about an hour and she never mentioned YA, so I finally asked. My agent is amazing, I love her, but she’s a fireball. I mean she talks faster than anyone I know — and so I said, “What do you think about YA?” And there was this dead silence on the end of the phone. Finally she said, “I don’t think you wrote this as YA.” And I said, “Well, no, I didn’t, but do you think it’s an option? Do you think that might be a good place for it?” We talked a lot about it after that, but we had a hard time deciding because YA is not clearly defined right now. Which is one of the things I love about the genre. I think that’s what makes it such exciting place to be. So in the end we decided to send the book to both, to YA and adult divisions. We wanted to keep the doors open. So we sent the manuscript to six editors, three YA and three adult. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers was the first offer we got, and with a lot of enthusiasm. David [Gale], my editor, was someone who I was familiar with because he’s known for publishing books that push the envelope. In fact, Judy Blume had mentioned him to me in an email back in when she first read part of Fingerprints of You. He’s published a lot of books that have been banned, books for children and teens, and I’d heard wonderful things about him. It all felt really serendipitous, so we signed with him. There was no doubt he was the perfect editor for the book.
SL: Do you foresee any unforeseen risk in having your debut come out as YA? I don’t want to use the word “pigeonhole,” but these days anyone who comes out with a book, it seems as if the entirety of their career is defined by the first thing they publish.
K-P: Sure, but I think there’s a risk no matter where and what you publish. I’ve just finished the first draft of a book that’s not YA, and that’s risky too. I just think it’s part of my job as a writer to not think too much about it. Sure, I could get really worked up and worried about it, but that would affect my work. I think I need to write stories that are demanding to be written at the time. YA or adult, it doesn’t matter. The nice thing is that I haven’t encountered any pressure either way. I’m lucky because the people I’m working with, my agent and my editor, are very respectful of the art and allow me to ignore the industry for as long as possible during the writing process.
SL: Can I ask what you’re working on right now?
K-P: Sure. I just finished a first draft of another book, which means it’s kind of awful and really messy. It’s very different than Fingerprints of You. You’ve seen some of it. It required a new set of skills for me. I’m experimenting with point of view and had to do a lot of research. It was a completely different process, and that was hard, but I think it was good for me and good for the work. So I’m letting that sit for a couple months now and I’m starting to take notes for the book after that. That novel has a teenaged narrator, so I do think it could be YA, but it’s a little too early to tell.
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