I recently read The Kissing List written by the amazing author Stephanie Reents. The book is about a group of four women in their 20s who meet while studying abroad at Oxford. The book follows them on their journey to New York on the “cusp of adulthood”. I rarely ever recommend books, but this is definitely a must read for any girl entering their 20s. After reading the book, I was so excited to get to ask Stephanie a few questions. She is pretty amazing!
What originally made you want to become an author?
Gosh, that’s such a great question. I’ve wanted to be a writer – or had storytelling tendencies – since I was a little girl. One of my earliest memories is of climbing into bed with my Grandpa Buzz (what a great name, right?) and reading him stories from the newspaper. The only rub was that since I couldn’t read, I just made everything up. But this was perfectly fine by him. Grandpa Buzz shared my zany imagination – he invented silly songs to mark major events in the lives of my brother and me. He told me stories about why the irrigation ditch that ran through my neighborhood was sometimes dry. When he and my Grandma Frances would arrive at Christmas, he always claimed that someone dropped garbage bags of presents in the back of their Ford truck, and of course I believed him.
Grandpa Buzz definitely showed me it was acceptable, and even a very fine thing, to have a wild imagination. Then, when I was in sixth grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Mr. Lythgoe, who treated me and my classmates like writers by giving us a little time to write each day. Sometimes he assigned prompts, but he also gave free writes, allowing us to continue stories from one day to the next. Writing regularly was invaluable, though the best gift Mr. Lythgoe gave me was reading my work and really engaging with my imaginations. Instead of correcting my grammar and punctuation, he told me how my stories made him feel. This is probably the moment I learned how powerful storytelling could be and started dreaming of doing it some day.
Where did you get the idea to write “The Kissing List”?
It’s a little known truth that being in your 20s is pretty hard.
After I graduated from college and before I started a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, I flew home to Boise, Idaho, and cleaned up my childhood room. When I’d finished boxing up mix tapes of early 80s New Wave music, track and cross country ribbons, my funky thrift shop jewelry, I had – I told myself – completed the transformation from child to adult. And yet when I arrived in Oxford, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Not only was I terribly homesick, I felt out of place, adrift without competitive running in my life, and ambivalent about my desire to study British literature. Things got so dreary that first winter that I called my mom and announced my intention to drop out. Being at Oxford, I told her, was an obstacle to my goal of becoming a writer. Luckily she talked me into staying a little longer.
Let’s face it: the 20s are a harrowing and thrilling time; you’re figuring out your professional identity, your romantic attachments, and your personal priorities. You have more freedom than you did in college, but not necessarily more good sense. I wanted the stories in The Kissing List to reflect the perils and pleasures of those years. One of the ways that my friends and I survived this time was by telling stories of our escapades. Part dark, part funny, the stories of our adventures and exhilarations, scrapes and scandals helped us make sense of our good and bad decisions. Storytelling drew us into permanent intimacies, helping us forge families of choice that were vital, especially to those of us who were so far from home, either geographically or emotionally. Finally, telling these stories offered the evidence we needed to see that we’d survived.
Were all the characters in the book based off of people you know in real life?
Some of the characters in my book are drawn from people I know, but as I tell my students, real life doesn’t necessarily make for good fiction. The writer’s job is to make meaning of life, and that often means (if you’re writing, in part, about things that happened to you) intensifying emotions, making up events, and exaggerating people’s personalities. Which is to say: some of my friends are starting points for the characters in this book, but the characters always take on a life of their own.
I will admit (I haven’t said this anywhere else!) that I was terrified of a few people from my past reading these stories, recognizing aspects of themselves in the characters, and calling up and yelling at me. This hasn’t happened. There are several different conclusions to draw from this: 1) I’m a worry wart; 2) The people who I was most scared of reading the stories have such antipathy towards me they would never buy my book in the first place; 3) We’re all a little narcissistic, and no one is thinking about us as much as we fear they might be.
On a serious note, whenever I was writing about an incident drawn from life, my intention was never to get revenge on someone who, at one point, had hurt or disappointed me. Indeed, when I look at the stories that have some basis in my autobiography, my fictional persona is oftentimes the most flawed character. Take the story, “Games,” for example. I did once go away for the weekend with an old boyfriend, his best friend, and “a small woman with big hair” with whom both men were mesmerized. And in real life I was jealous of the attention they paid her all weekend. I was probably even a little furious with my boyfriend, but to be honest, I don’t remember if we fought about it. (This was a long time ago, and we fought about tons of pretty silly things.) That’s the extent of the similarities between the real weekend and the fictional one. In the story, Sylvie, the protagonist, gets so fed up with her boyfriend that she risks her life to make a point. The intensity of her insecurities drives her to make a terrible decision. That’s what makes “Games” a harrowing (and therefore satisfying) story. That’s also what makes it a piece of fiction.
What kind of things did you go through during your quarter-life-crisis?
I’m a slow learner, and therefore my quarter-life crisis probably began when I was twenty-four and lasted until I was at least twenty-eight. Though I knew I wanted to be a writer for a long time, I also had a strong conviction that I needed experience in the “real” world. This, coupled with my intense homesickness for the west, led to my first questionable decision of my twenties: to move directly from Oxford, England to Idaho Falls, Idaho, to work as the education reporter at a daily newspaper. Being back in the west, I thought, would also allow me to have lots of deep, substantive conversations with other westerners about what made westerners unique.
Let’s just say things didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. First, with only a summer newspaper internship under my belt, I was a super green reporter. I wrote so slowly I regularly pulled into the empty parking lot at 6 a.m. in order to file stories by noon. I was also petrified of calling strangers on the phone (a huge part of reporting a story). One of the low points of my newspaper stint came when the managing editor took me out to lunch and told me I was a disappointment. “You’re a Rhodes Scholar after all,” she said, “I was expecting a whole lot more.” Eek!
Second, when I moved to Idaho Falls, it was as though I’d I entered the witness protection program and shed my identity. At Debbie’s Brothers, a dive bar that featured something called “Hour of Power” (all the Budweiser you could drink in an hour for $1), no one wanted to talk literature with me. No one wanted to hear about my adventures in England. In fact, they looked at me skeptically when I occasionally launched into a story from the past. Worse still, I didn’t have much time to work on my fiction, and I worried that I was losing my imagination.
Finally, I was lonely. Though I grew up in Boise, Idaho, I had no idea that eastern Idaho was so conservative. Since many people my age were married or coupled up, I spent a lot of time driving to pretty spots in the Tetons where I went on long runs. I knew it was time to leave when I showed up at a New Year’s Eve party and found all of the men watching the Playboy channel. No one wanted to talk about being a westerner; they just wanted to be. Looking back this makes perfect sense, but at the time, it seemed terribly disappointing.
After a year and a half, I sold my car for $1,600, and with that huge sum of money, I moved to New York City where I had neither a job nor a place to live. More crises of various sorts followed. But I have to say that staying out all night at a wine bar (followed by latkes with sour cream and apple sauce at sunrise the next morning) or spending Saturday night in, with the Sunday Times and lemon ice from the authentic Italian bakery down the street, made it all worth while.
What is the most important lesson you learned in college? your early twenties?
Wow! These are really thought-provoking questions.
In college I started learning something that I’m still working on, and that is to have more confidence in myself. Like a lot of over-achievers, when I graduated from high school, I was pretty convinced that the only reason I did well was because I was studious. I didn’t think of myself as smart or talented. I was just a workhorse – strong and steady and a little dumb. In college, among kids who’d gone to prep schools and kids just like me who’d gone to public high schools, I occasionally felt a glimmer of being special, of having an unique way of seeing the world and an interesting voice to express what I saw. I was also humbled by all of the brilliant people I encountered. I discovered I wasn’t as much of an imposter as I thought, but I also wasn’t the smartest person in the world. Both revelations were a relief.
In my twenties, I learned that there was no downside – indeed it could be a productive thing – to take risks. As I mentioned earlier, I moved to New York with no job and no place to live. (I did have friends who didn’t mind me sleeping on their couches for a couple of days.) Though I was initially scared, I realized that the worst possible scenario wasn’t all that bad: I wouldn’t find a job, and I’d have to fly back home to Boise, Idaho and convince my parents to give me my room back. But this didn’t happen. Instead, I temped for many months, I interviewed for lots of different jobs (everything from investment banking to public relations), and eventually I went to work for a nonprofit devoted to public education reform. Since then, I’ve always tried to set aside my irrational fears (that are also perfectly natural) and really try to evaluate what I have to lose by trying something new; more often than not, the potential for growth far outweighs the risk.
What are your plans for the future? Are you currently writing?
For a long time I was a gypsy – I moved every two or three years: from Boise to Massachusetts, from Oxford, England to Idaho Falls, from New York City to Tucson, from San Francisco to Lancaster, PA, from Providence to Albuquerque. I said goodbye to friends, packed only what would fit in my car or the body-sized duffels I got as a high school graduation present, and set off for places, some of which I’d never even visited. I loved this about myself. I got great bursts of energy from mapping an unexplored city, furnishing an apartment on a shoestring, and creating a whole new life for myself.
You can imagine my trepidation when I received a tenure track teaching job several years ago. How would permanence square with my adventurous side? I’ll admit that the first couple years freaked me out, and I constantly plotted my escape. Then I got a little stripey cat with a big personality. Then I bought a house, an ancient Victorian with an overgrown backyard in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Providence, RI. Then I met my boyfriend, a native Rhode Islander who has helped me grow to appreciate many of the wonders of the Ocean State. So while my future still includes adventures – because really, if you’re open to the world and paying close attention, you can experience a sense of discovery and therefore adventure almost anywhere – I’ve made peace with staying put.
Intellectually, I’m feeding my love of risk-taking by trying to write a novel, my first! The Claustrophobic House is a crazy, surreal novel that explores some of the BIG, FUN metaphysical questions: What is the relationship between the body and the spirit? If a man dies alone and unnoticed, was he ever really alive? If you are spiritually, or emotionally, dead, what kind of existence do you have? Set in Oxford, the book three characters – a William Morris scholar who dies and whose body disintegrates into blue dust, a scout who finds severed body parts in the students’ rooms that he cleans, and a professor of Medieval literature who develops an impossible pregnancy. As their lives intersect more and more, the book asks whether there is still a place for mystical experiences in Western culture, or whether we have we come to believe that everything must have a scientific or rational explanation.
(Book Cover image via Hogarth.)