Karen Finneyfrock has been a great supporter of Seattle’s writing community through her roles as teacher, writer, and performer. She is beloved to the spoken word poetry scene, having organized the Seattle Poetry Slam for four years. She has published two books of poetry, the most recent Ceremony for the Choking Ghost.
Finneyfrock met Kristianne Huntsberger at Hugo House just before Finneyfrock’s class for teen writers began. The prior week Hugo House played host to a packed house of fans who had come out for the book release of Finneyfrock’s first work of fiction, a new book for teens, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door.
KH: You have a well-established poetry career in Seattle. Several people at your book launch party wanted to know how different it is to write poetry than to write fiction. What do you feel are the biggest differences between those two processes?
KF: There were a couple times in editing the novel when my editor said, “I don’t understand this part,” or “Explain this part.” There were times I felt very frustrated by that because nobody says that to you in poetry. I think my editor was pointing me in the right direction. I had a desire for more ambiguity and I think I had to learn to rein it in and explain more things.
Some things about the creative process are different. There are many, many hours more that go into creating fiction. There is the narrative arc to consider that spans hundreds of pages rather than one to three pages. Even with one novel out and the next pretty close to being finished, I still feel like the process is a mystery and I am still finding my way through it. That is what thrills me about it. That is why I want to write 20 more books to really figure it out.
KH: In your book, Celia changes her name to Celia the Dark. What does it mean for the character to be dark?
KF: That was one of the moments where the poetry overlapped fiction in my mind; in the concept of Celia the Dark. I do, pretty early on in the book, allow Celia to explain what she means by being dark. She says that she has given up on trying to fit in. I tried to allow the Dark to become more metaphorical than that and allow it to represent a lot of things. It represents the feeling of isolation that can come with feeling like you are being judged by your peers in a way that is harsh and negative. It certainly represents the armor that some kids have to wear in order to get through High School, or to get through school at all. But I also wanted to leave some room for it to mean different things to Celia. So although sometimes the Dark feels like a negative thing, it also feels like its part of her creative process. It is part of her attempt to form and identity for herself that was not given to her by other people. There are ways that the Dark is also very positive for her.
KH: Often young adult books tend to be instructional, sometimes very overtly and sometimes quite cleverly. I really loved the part where Celia explains how to write poetry. That was a wonderful kind of overt instruction. What are the instructional elements, both clear ones and underlying ones, for youth who are reading your book?
KF: This book is a very thinly disguised attempt to give kids an outlet for writing poetry, a few simple lessons to follow and instructions that I wish I had as a youth because I didn’t have any instruction in creative writing as a kid and I would have loved it. So you are right, that is certainly in there in an intentional way.
I wondered and was concerned that the instructions as Drake discovers more about the process of coming out and how other teens come out and some historical elements of queer culture, if I was possibly instructing too much… or providing too much information. But at some point I decided I didn’t care, because I decided that it was actually more important that the information get out. You make tough choices when you are fictionalizing something for young readers because, although I want to give an accurate portrayal of the world I also want to give it with the gentle heart of the reader in mind, so I don’t want to make the world any darker or scarier than it actually is.
KH: Writing, in the case of this book, actually saves Celia’s life. From your experience working with youth writers and writing this book and maybe your own experience as a youth writer, how important do you think writing is for youth?
KF: There is no question in my mind that writing, or other types of creative outlets, save people’s lives. I don’t want to hijack any of the stories belonging to the youth that I know, to share them here, but I will say that I have seen dramatic life changes happen to kids that I have known before they discovered creative writing and after they discovered creative writing. I have in fact received long, heart-felt letters from youth about that life change. I think that part of the reason that humans make art is to give ourselves that opportunity for a change.
What I truly love about writing is that you don’t have to buy any special equipment and you don’t have to have a special place to do it. All you need is a pen and some paper and maybe a little bit of quiet space and you can write.
KH: There is also a very important role for reading in the book. In the novel you mention books that Celia is reading: The Giver, Charlotte’s Web and Oscar Wilde. Is this kind of a list of recommended reading that you have put in here? And also, what other recommended reading do you have for youth?
KF: I would say it is a list of recommended reading. I originally left Seattle and went home to Maryland because sister was sick. After she passed away, I found that I was not able to read contemporary literature intended for adults or watch films that were intended for adults because the subject was, I often found, brutal, in the fragile state of grief that I was experiencing. I still wanted to read so I started re-reading bits of young adult fiction that I loved or children’s literature that I loved as a child. I re-read Charlotte’s Web and I re-read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I started again at the beginning of Harry Potter and read through the series and from there I went on to more contemporary Young Adult Literature—John Green, Looking for Alaska; Jesse Andrews, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, David Levithan, The Lover’s Dictionary; Daniel Handler, Why We Broke Up.
KF: Definitely LGBTQ readers. Definitely readers who are interested in the literary and are big readers, who might have read some of the other books I mentioned. Readers who in some way are struggling to see how they might fit in in High School. Readers who might have an interest in poetry at a young age.
Technically, the book says it is intended for ages 12 and up, though it does involve bullying and it could be a little scary for kids who might have some anxiety about High School. I think it is fine for Middle School readers, as long as there is an adult available to talk to them about bullying.
Finneyfrock is a former writer-in-residence at Hugo House where she has both taken classes and taught classes. She was effusive about her appreciation for Hugo House, as well as Hedgebrook, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Arts Corps and Elliott Bay Book Company. “I don’t think this book would have been possible if I weren’t living in Seattle,” she said. “I feel like every time I had a need in finishing this book, Seattle somehow found a way to fulfill that need for me. I felt so supported by the writing community here.”
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer and educator who, when not roaming the world, makes her home in Seattle. She has worked with the Elliott Bay Book Company in various capacities over the past ten years.