Kristen Paige Madonia
I first met KP Madonia about a year ago, just before her wonderful YA novel, Fingerprints of You, was published. She is part of the growing list of amazing authors for young readers who call Virginia home, and I feel so lucky to have her as a colleague and resource. Girls of Summer fans got a chance to meet KP at our live Girls of Summer launch this year, but you can also find KP teaching creative writing at The University of Virginia and at WriterHouse, a nonprofit in Charlottesville dedicated to providing a workspace and learning community for writers at all stages of their careers.
KP’s debut novel struck me as a masterwork on voice. She writes characters that are layered and complex, and she doesn’t flinch once from difficult topics or people. Here KP — on her way to becoming a mom for the first time in the fall – talks about mothers, daughters, and the role of honesty when we write for and about strong girls.
You capture such a complicated relationship between Lemon and Stella. Stella, in particular, is difficult to categorize as a “good mother” or a “bad mother.” Then again, Lemon dabbles in some pretty questionable choices herself. What do you think is the most compelling part of their relationship? What are they working against, and what do they have in their favor?
I’ve come to realize that I don’t believe in characters that are all good or all bad; I write realistic fiction, so I try to be true to the fact that everyone is flawed, that we all make mistakes, and that we’re all in the process of growing. So, no, I never wanted to be able to categorize Stella as an absolutely good or an absolutely bad mother. She is doing the best job she can with what she has to work with, and that’s one of the largest lessons Lemon learns during the course of the novel. And Lemon, as a seventeen year old, is certainly apt to make her own mistakes, too. For me the most compelling part of the relationship is the intimacy between them — Lemon has never met her father, and Stella moved them around so often that it was difficult for her to make friends. So they relied on one another. They are partners, for all the challenges and rewards that entails, and they know each other best and have always had a close relationship. That kind of intimacy works for and against them in the novel.
Interestingly, Lemon’s quest is one of discovering the father she’s never met. Teen girls and their fathers can have awkward relationships in the best of circumstances. It made me wonder about your thoughts on why dads matter to teen girls, and to Lemon in particular?
Oh, I think it’s inevitable for young women to be curious about their family roots, particularly if there are many unanswered questions and secrets, such as Lemon’s case. I also think that there comes a time in most teenaged girls lives when they feel the need to step away from their mothers and to push back or question the decisions their mothers have made for their family. It’s part of growing up, and it seems to me most young girls go through a stage when they want to establish their individuality; that often means wanting to be as different as possible from our mothers! So that, in turn, leads to a great interest in the father figure and their role in the family dynamic.
I’m a personal fan of strong girls who make mistakes and become stronger for it, and of course, Lemon falls squarely in that category. Why is she floundering with bad choices in the beginning? What do you think makes Lemon a strong girl eventually?
It’s funny, with Lemon I think her greatest strengths are also the attributes that get her into trouble. It’s her curiosity that leads her to make questionable decisions in the opening chapters. And her curiosity is based on her upbringing, her exposure to adult situations at a young age, and her relationship with her mother. Of course her curiosity is also what leads her to San Francisco. She’s quite stubborn, which translates to a great resilience later in the book. She’s a fighter and is committed to finding her own way and to making her own decisions, to creating her own path.
I think being a strong girl is all about balance. You must establish your individuality, but, at the same time, you cannot be afraid to ask for help. This whole growing-up-thing is so difficult! So a strong girl is able to find the balance between honoring and developing her independence while also being brave enough to lean on others — family members, friends, teachers, etc. — when needed. And that is exactly what Lemon learns to do.
You explore the different kinds of relationships that women – young and grown – have with men. These run the gamut from predatory to respectful. What do you hope your readers pull from Lemon’s varied experiences with the men and boys in her life?
I hope readers leave the book with the sense that Lemon has learned not to define herself by the men in her life.
Was it challenging to write truthfully about an edgy teenage girl? What was hardest to write and why? What do you say to the squeamish adults in the reading crowd about the mature content in the novel?
Well the goal is always to write truthful fiction, regardless of subject matter or intended audience. But when I initially wrote Fingerprints of You, I wasn’t imagining the YA readership, so I never thought to censor the content in any way. And once we sold it to the young adult division at Simon & Schuster, my team there was clear from the start that this book was going to be one of their cross-over books, a book that would appeal to adults and young adults. In an ideal world, the novel will open the door for communication between the two; in fact, it’s been a popular pick for mother-daughter book clubs for just that reason. Sure, there are adult themes in the novel, but those subjects are also a realistic portrayal of the issues our teens are facing, and I believe it’s crucial that we provide books for them to use as a tool to explore those issues. Introducing children and teens to complex themes and content in books gives them a safe place to process the issues. And the hope is that, after they read the novel, they talk about it with their parents, librarians, teachers, etc. if they have questions or concerns. The hope is that the book will provide an excuse for truthful conversations. Teens deserve honesty in literature, and as an author it’s my responsibility to approach the work with the goal of authenticity while avoiding gratuity.
This book is exceptional in so many ways beyond the plot and characters. I love the story behind the cover of this novel. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Oh, I was so fortunate when it came to the cover! It’s based on the first sentence of the book: “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 wit her wanting to sleep with Johnny Drinko, the tattoo artist who worked in the shop outside town.” Simon & Schuster assigned me a brilliant art director, and she fell in love with the setting of that opening scene. The tattoo images are carried through out the novel as the theme of being marked by those around us develops, so she quickly decided to focus on that for the cover. She created a beautiful sketch but ultimately wanted it to be as authentic as possible, so she brought in a tattoo artist from San Diego to create the final art. All of the images and fonts are custom tattoo art by Terry Riberra. He did an amazing job, and though I had to idea when to expect, when I first saw the cover I immediately knew it was perfect.
What are you working on next?
I’m finishing off a new YA novel this summer, which is very exciting. I can’t say much about it yet except that it is set in San Francisco and has become a wonderful kind of love letter to the city and its history.
Finish this sentence for me: Strong girls —
– find balance between establishing and honoring their individuality while participating in their community.