Today, I am thrilled to share with you our exclusive interview with Fingerprints of You author Kristen-Paige Madonia. I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Kristen-Paige briefly back in October, when she was one of my authors at Wordstock Festival. I already knew I wanted to do some kind of feature on her book here at Novel Novice, but meeting her just solidified my determination to make it happen. Kristen-Paige has lots of events coming up (check out the schedule here), so if you’re able to make it to one of them, I highly recommend doing so.
In the meantime, get to know Kristen-Paige a little better — and learn more about Fingerprints of You — but reading our Q&A below!
FINGERPRINTS OF YOU is such a beautiful story, made up of so many wonderful elements and layers and moments. Did one in particular come first? How did the story come together for you?
From day one, the book belonged to Lemon and Stella’s relationship, to that intimate but often challenging bond that occurs between a young single-parent and their child, specifically, an only child. When the book opens, Sella is still searching for her own direction as a mother and an adult, and Lemon, as a seventeen-year-old, is beginning to question and push back against the decisions Stella has made for them as a family. I originally wrote the two characters into a short story because I was working on a different novel when I first imagined them, but often writers don’t get to pick what they write about, and Lemon and Stella haunted me when I put their story aside.
That story became chapter one and two, and though it was self-sufficient, I simply didn’t feel comfortable with where I left them. I knew there was a backstory worth exploring, and I also knew they both had so much more to learn and grow from the experiences I set-up in the opening. In the meantime, my agent began submitting that first novel I had been working on to all the major publishing houses in NYC, and it was slowly becoming apparent that we weren’t going to be able to sell it. I realized that, in order to protect myself, I needed to begin work on a new novel – I needed to return to the art and create some distance from the industry. And I immediately thought of Lemon and Stella.
By then the short story had been published, so it was in fairly good shape, and I was able to concentrate on writing forward. I applied for and received a fellowship to spend five weeks as a writer-in-residence at the Studios of Key West and finished the first draft of the novel during that time period. Writing in that kind of intense environment – every day, all day long, with no distractions – well, that worked best to help me get the story down on the page as quickly as possible. I was simply playing on the page, no filters, no outlines, and no concerns about the market or about the publishing industry. And then, once I had that first draft and I left Florida, I stepped away from the book for almost six months before I allowed myself to open the manuscript document again. It’s something I always try to do, allow a project to sit for a while, and when I retured to it I was able to see it from a new perspective, a new viewpoint to fuel the rewrite.
FINGERPRINTS OF YOU is a very mature book for YA readers — in that you deal with heavy material, like sex, pregnancy, drugs, drinking, etc. Tell us a bit about your approach to tackling these very adult subject matters in a young adult book.
If truth be told, I didn’t write the book with the YA readership in mind. I had received my MFA and published short stories in literary magazines and journals for some time, and when I was working on the novel I imagined it being read by adults. It’s a literary novel that aims to accurately portray modern society, so it never crossed my mind to censor the content in any way. But the book was ready for submissions during the time when the YA genre was gaining a lot of attention based off of articles such as Margo Rabb’s New York Times essay, “I’m Y.A. and I’m O.K.” and Sherman Alexi’s Wall Street Journal article “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”, so my agent and I discussed the possibility of FINGERPRINTS OF YOU selling as a YA novel.
Even though I didn’t originally conceive it that way, it’s a voice-driven coming-of-age book fueled by a seventeen-year-old character standing on the brink of adulthood, and though there are strong adult themes, in the end we wanted to give the book access to the widest audience, so we sent it to both adult and YA editors. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers called first, and with great enthusiasm and understanding in terms of the vision and style of the novel, and it didn’t take long to realize it was the best fit for the book.
As expected, my first concern was whether or not I would have to make changes based strictly on the YA label, but it was never an issue. If anything, I was encouraged not to “dumb the book down” during revisions, not to make edits based on fear. I’m a firm believer that teen readers deserve the truth, they deserve access to worlds they can learn from, and books they can sympathize with even if the literature contains dark complex situations.
The truth is, a lot of kids are living in these worlds, these not-so-clean-and-easy settings, and if they aren’t living IN them, they’re sitting in class with kids that are. Single-family homes, domestic violence, poverty, racism, teen pregnancy, substance abuse… these “dark themes” we’re seeing more often in contemporary YA investigate issues that exist in our reality, and eliminating those issues from teen literature would be a diservice to readers. My hope is that books like mine empower teens, make them feel less alone, and help them empathize with their peers.
Ten years later … where do you think Lemon is?
That’s a hard question to answer without giving anything away, but I imagine her love for literature and music will grow… that she’ll pursue a life in the arts, perhaps, and that she’ll continue to travel and to learn more about the world from a larger viewpoint. And I feel certain that Aiden and Emmy and Ryan and Simon will always be a big part of her life, not only in memories, but as she moves into adulthood. Ten years later she’ll be twenty-seven, and I’m guessing by then she and Stella will have put the greater part of their battles behind them.
You spent some time working on FINGERPRINTS OF YOU at various writing retreats … tell us about these programs. What do you like about them?
Writing in that kind of environment, being faced by the blank page every day all day long, can be one of the most terrifying but fruitful ways to write. Writing residencies and colonies essentially provide artists with the gift of time and space, and while it can be challenging to have no distractions — no grocery shopping to do, no phone or email access, no dog to walk or day-jobs to tend to — it’s also an incredible gift to be able to eat, sleep, and breath your work. I typically apply for residency fellowships when I know I’m preparing to begin a new project. For me, first drafts are the time to write without editing, to play on the page and allow the characters and the story to surprise me, and being isolated helps that process. I love being removed from my world, being in a new and unfamiliar space, and I also love meeting other artists. I’ve found such inspiration at the writing residencies I’ve attended, and there is no doubt in my mind that this book could not have existed without the support of those organizations.
I know you lived in San Francisco for a while — and it definitely shows in your descriptions of the city in FINGERPRINTS OF YOU. Did any of your favorite spots in the city make it into the book?
So many of them! The live music culture of San Francisco plays a large role in Lemon’s story, just as it played a large role in my own life when I lived in the city. As a result I inevitably sent her to Haight Street to hang out with the street musicians and introduced her to the Burning Man and Jamtronica music scene at the New Year’s festival, two elements of the novel I based on my own experiences. The Sutro Baths, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Grove, a cafe on Fillmore Street, also serve as important settings in the book, and they’re all places that mean a great deal to me.
FINGERPRINTS OF YOU is really refreshing take on the “coming of age” story, one of my personal favorite types of stories to read. Do you have a favorite “coming of age” book?
I have so many favorites! The first that always comes to mind is THE OUTSIDERS, by S.E. Hinton. That book changed my perspective and gave me access to a world so unlike my own. Even though I read it for the first time in middle school, I firmly believe it shaped me as an author in terms of my tendency to write against the old advice “write what you know”. I also often return to Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS and Cervantes’ DON QUIXOTE, both of which, I believe, are their own kind of coming-of-age stories. And more recently written favorites include John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA and John Corey Whaley’s WHERE THINGS COME BACK.
Judy Blume blurbed your book. I think everyone is dying to know … how did that happen? (Because it’s awesome!)
I know, I mean who the heck lands a blurb from Judy Blume, right?!? Judy discovered me back in 2008 when I entered a contest for emerging writers run by the Key West Literary Seminar. Essentially she found my short story in the slush pile and fell in love with what I was trying do on the page. She was on the Board for the organization and served as one of the judges for the contest, and when I ended up winning, part of the award was to attend the conference in Florida. While I was there I had the amazing opportunity to meet Judy, and something just clicked. She’s so incredibly dedicated to fostering new talent, and she became a long-distance kind of mentor for me. She read part of the novel I was working on at that time, and then, when I began writing FINGERPRINTS OF YOU, she read that as well. Needless to say, having her support has meant a great deal to my career, but more importantly, she’s served as a constant reminder that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Whenever I get bogged down by the industry, when I react emotionally to the rejection and the challenges of publishing in the current climate, she’s the one I contact. And she tends to say the same thing every time I get in touch with there – in one way or another, she always tells me to keep at it. “It’s not your job to sell books,” she told me once, “It’s your job to write them.”
Living or dead, who would you like to have dinner with?
Bob Marley or Flannery O’Connor, it’s a toss up.
Avocado and tomatoes
Private concert: who’s playing?
My husband, a bag of good books, an empty beach, a glass of dry white wine, and live music.
Look at your desk right now. Name five things within reach.
A photo of my mother, Raymond Carver’s WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, my writing journal, my coffee mug, and a collection of photos torn from a magazine of a girl I imagine looking a lot like the girl I’m writing about in my new novel.
Thanks again to Kristen-Paige for such a great interview! If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out Fingerprints of You, in stores now.