July 27, 2012
“I wouldn’t mind if my book were banned,” Kristen-Paige Madonia said, when asked about the possibility of her debut novel, Fingerprints of You, being pulled from the shelves. “That would mean it was having an impact. If books are seen as potentially dangerous, it shows they have the power to change lives.” Her editor has a reputation for publishing books that get banned, and one of her mentors, Judy Blume, is probably the most banned author in America. “As soon as you aren’t allowed to read something, you want to read it more, right?”
Kristen-Paige, or K-P, as her friends call her, invited me into her living room and poured me a glass of wine to celebrate the arrival of the first box of her first book. Though initially imagined as a literary novel for adults, Fingerprints of You is being published by the Books for Young Readers imprint of Simon & Schuster, for ages 14 and up. She is 33, but her long mane of hair, her exuberant smile, and her live-music habit (she and her husband spend most weekends going to shows) make her seem almost as youthful as her seventeen-year-old protagonist. We talked about the difference between adult literary and young adult (YA) fiction, and the increasingly blurred line between the two genres; the allure of city life; the parallels of the road trip in the book and the author’s own journey to publication; tattoos; and the giddy prospect of becoming a Banned Author.
K-P lives in Belmont, a young, hip enclave that we locals call “the Brooklyn of Charlottesville,” lined with restaurants, cafes, and clubs. I’m greeted by Berkeley, her four-year-old yellow Lab. “She’s the reason we left San Francisco,” K-P said. “We wanted a dog and room for a garden, more space than we could afford there.” In K-P’s voice I could hear the push and pull of city and small town, East and West, wanderlust and craving for roots. Like her teenage protagonist, Lemon, K-P made a cross-country trip from Virginia to California in her impressionable years, first to Long Beach to get an MFA and then to San Francisco. When I first met her four years ago, she had just moved to Charlottesville and was starting to teach at WriterHouse, our local writing center. Her roots here are spreading, and now she also teaches at the University of Virginia.
Martinsville, Virginia, where she grew up, a few hours from Charlottesville, is a small southern town, and she remembers yearning for the buzz of a great metropolis. “When you’re young, you want to be anywhere that’s different from where you are,” she said. “You want to see a world that’s bigger than what you know. I always wanted to move, to go elsewhere.” It’s hard to read about K-P’s fictional San Francisco and not want to go there yourself, to a place with overtones of Burning Man, Power to the Peaceful, and post-Grateful Dead Jam Band culture, where clubgoers are “masked or winged or adorned with sequined pants, furry leg warmers, feathered headbands, or intricate jewelry” or where girls wear red helium balloons tied to the ends of their pigtails.
A physical voyage is a classic device to effect a spiritual journey, and Fingerprints of You taps into this rich literary tradition. Homer’s Odyssey comes to mind, as does Bonnie Jo Campbell’s recent Once Upon a River. Perhaps the book that comes closest, though, is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Lemon has just read at the start of Fingerprints of You and refers to many times.
K-P’s journey to publication, like Lemon’s trip to find her father, has had some unexpected turns. K-P was working on her first novel when she met Judy Blume, who found one of K-P’s short stories in the slush pile for the Key West Literary Seminar’s Marianne Russo Award. Judy was one of the judges, and K-P won the contest.
“You always hear that it only takes one person to love your work,” K-P said. She still keeps in contact with her MFA mentors, and she has worked with literary greats such as Jill McCorkle and Charles D’Ambrosio at places like Sewanee and Juniper. But Judy was that one person for her. When K-P left the conference, Judy said, “Don’t go back and feel like you’re alone. Remember this happened, and send me your work.”
Eventually K-P began working with an agent in New York, who started submitting her first novel to editors. But this was 2008, the peak of the recession, not a good time to sell anything.
Meanwhile, K-P was sitting at a coffeeshop on Fillmore Street in San Francisco and saw two women who became, in her mind, the two main characters of Fingerprints of You, Lemon and her mother, Stella. The daughter was fragile yet sassy and confident. The mother was young, and the closeness in age of the two made K-P imagine a competition between them. She became intrigued with the idea of having a mother who is still childlike herself, and she wanted to capture a mother’s and daughter’s coming of age at the same time. “I’m fascinated by the idea of your children becoming adults when you’re still trying to figure out what kind of adult you are,” she said. “And,” she added, laughing, “they’re stealing your boyfriends.”
K-P wrote a story about Lemon and Stella, which was eventually published in American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, but she couldn’t let go of the characters. So she wrote another story about them, which appeared in Sycamore Review. She knew the pieces were the beginning of something bigger.
K-P focused on Fingerprints of You while her agent was trying to sell the first book. “It’s not really your problem if the novel isn’t selling,” Judy Blume advised her. “Your job is to write the next book.” Judy’s advice— “Always work on more than one thing at a time”—turned out to be sound.
“Judy is amazing,” K-P said. “I could talk about her for hours. Not only is she incredibly prolific and an amazing writer, she has dedicated her life to fighting censorship and fostering new writers. I love her books, no question about it, but more importantly, I love her passion for the art of writing and the importance of freedom of speech.”
Judy Blume was the first person to recognize that K-P was writing gritty teen characters. “She read my first novel,” K-P said, “which has a young protagonist, too. And she mentioned the possibility that my work might be considered YA, but I never thought much about it. I was just focused on doing the work and hadn’t considered an actual audience at that point.” But when it was time to submit Fingerprints of You, she and her agent decided to send the manuscript to both YA and adult fiction editors, recognizing the increasingly blurred distinction between genres. “I wanted the book to reach as many people as possible,” K-P said, “the label never mattered to me.” They sent the book to six publishing houses, and the first response came from Simon & Schuster’s Books for Young Readers. She said, “My editor loved the book and realized, I think, that it could be a crossover that appeals to YA and adult readers. It was clear very quickly that he was the right editor for the book.”
Her editor never asked her to tone down the adult themes for a young audience. “I don’t shy away from anything in the novel,” she said. Inappropriate sex is upfront at the very beginning. The first chapter gives us smoking and drinking and strip poker played by an underage girl and her mother’s boyfriend. But the sex serves the plot and the characters’ emotional developments and, in the end, teaches lessons we all want our teenage children to learn.
“My editor did point out that I used the word fuck a lot in Stella’s dialogue,” K-P said. “He didn’t tell me to take it out, just to consider how and when I used it. And when I looked, I was shocked to see that it had become a writing tic, the kind of crutch I caution my students against. Instead of creating other more powerful and interesting ways for Stella to show her emotional reactions, I was having her drop the F bomb. I’ve got nothing against profanity, but it this case it was lazy writing. I wasn’t doing my job as well as I could.”
K-P hadn’t read much YA until she became a YA author. Then, she said, “I became obsessed. I didn’t know what the label meant, so I did a lot of research. I’ve been completely blown away by how brilliant so many YA books are and by how aggressively they address contemporary issues confronting teens.” Some of her favorite authors are John Green, Jay Asher, Peter Cameron, and Laurie Halse Anderson, and Judy Blume. “Teens deserve smart, literary, challenging, topical books just as much as adults do.”
Of course, many of our favorite adult literary books have young people as protagonists. Perhaps The Catcher in the Rye would have been labeled YA had it been published in today’s climate. All YA books must have a young hero, but not all books with young heroes are YA. Besides that, the rules are hard to figure out. “Maybe what makes my book YA is that it’s in a teen voice,” K-P said. “It’s in the past tense, but the very close past, with the immediacy of a story being told about something that just happened.” The voice does change, but there is no retrospective, no adult-looking-back-on-her-childhood tone. “The kid we hear in the tattoo parlor chewing gum and hanging out with her friends sounds younger than the confident and forgiving teen we hear at the end,” K-P said, “because she grows and changes and learns during the course of the novel. But it’s still a seventeen-year-old’s voice.”
Fingerprints of You doesn’t look like a typical YA novel, perhaps implying the goal of marketing it as a crossover book. It doesn’t have a photo of feet at the beach or a bare shoulder with long hair blowing in the wind. It features a picture of the tattoo that is described in the first sentence: “My mother got her third tattoo on my seventeenth birthday, a small navy hummingbird she had inked above her left shoulder blade, and though she said she picked it to mark my flight from childhood, it mostly had to do with her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.”
This was always the first sentence, she said, the seed out of which the entire book grew, and it couldn’t be more apt, with its themes of childhood’s end, mother-daughter conflict and competition, and teen sexuality, with a whiff of danger and permanent marking.
“I don’t have a tattoo,” she said, before I even asked. “I’m terrified of the permanency in a way. But I’m giving a reading at a tattoo parlor in Brooklyn in August, and I’ve thought about the possibility, about tattooing the title of my book on the publication date. I’ve never been able to think of something important enough to want on my body forever. But having your first book published. Something you worked and waited for, for so long. What could be more important than that?”
It’s clear from K-P’s hardback-lined living room that books are an essential part of her life. We sipped our Viognier and chatted about the titles she’d read recently, including one of her favorites with a teen protagonist, Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints. She pulled down John Irving’s In One Person, also recently published by Simon & Schuster, to lend me, and opened the book to this quote: “In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us—not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” Of course, I recognized passage. It’s the epigraph K-P used to open Fingerprints of You, a line from Irving’s 2005 novel Until I Find You. In his latest book, Irving has created a character who is a writer who quotes himself but is actually quoting early John Irving. “It’s a brilliant device,” K-P said. It’s also an apt and lovely quote, which perfectly captures the permanence by being marked by time, like a tattoo, which is at the core of Kristen-Paige Madonia’s beautiful debut book.
Author photo credit: Chris Gordon.
Cover art: Terry Ribera, 2012.