Name: Stephanie Kepke
Age: 49 years old
Where are you from: Long Island, New York
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
I am married with three boys and two rescue dogs. My boys are eighteen and a half, sixteen and a half and twelve and a half. My oldest just finished his freshman year at my alma mater, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and I couldn’t be more proud of how well he did. He’s in the College of Engineering, while I majored in English. He knows exactly what he wants to do, while I changed majors every year and graduated with a degree in English, because it was the only one in which I had enough credits to graduate. My favourite major: Independent Study in Creative Writing and Photojournalism. I still love telling stories with photos—good thing there’s Instagram! I also took writing workshops after college at Simmons College in Boston and few other programs.
My family life is busy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love spending time with my boys. When I can get them to carve out some family time from their busy social lives, I’m always extremely grateful. Our favourite things to do usually involve being outside—on the beach or on a nature trail. We are planning a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer—we’ve never been there and are so excited!
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I recently celebrated the launch of my book of essays, Boys, Dogs and Chaos, at an amazing book store on Long Island, Book Revue. The biggest authors—from J.K. Rowling to Hillary Clinton—stop there on book tours, so it was humbling and a great honor to read and sign books there. I hope to do a (very) mini book tour this summer, with stops in the Boston area and Montauk (fingers crossed!), and maybe my hometown too.
I had been working on my next novel, Feel No Evil, but that’s been delayed a bit while I work on the screenplay adaptation of my first novel, Goddess of Suburbia. I can’t really say anything about that yet—but it’s been a lot of fun. I think it will be an adaptation of the first version of the novel, which had a murder. An agent asked me to take it out back in 2013 (two years before it was published), but I think it will be perfect for a film version—romance and mystery intertwined with a thread of humor always make up my favorite films.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. My second grade teacher told my mother I should be a writer after I wrote a “book” about a mouse and an elephant who were friends. (Apparently at eight years old I thought that was hilarious, because I had read that a mouse is forgetful and an elephant never forgets. Plus, you know…the size thing…) I haven’t wavered in my path since. I found a journal from when I was twenty-one years old that probably gives the best explanation for why I started writing (or at that point continued writing), “I want to write things that make people cry on airplanes. I want to write things that make people feel. Things that make people have to swallow hard and close my book on when they’re on mass transit. Close it, and wait until they get home or get to their hotel room, so they can be alone and let their true feelings show. Laugh or cry.” I wrote that after I had to closed the book I was reading on a plane, because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
That’s a great question. I guess I first considered myself a writer when my first article was published. I was twenty-one years old, and it was for a gift magazine, Gift Reporter. It was an article about a teddy bear festival in my college town. After that article, I wrote several more my junior year. I traveled around the country for the same magazine the summer before my senior year. I attended gift shows and interviewed so many interesting people I met at them. One person asked me for my autograph when he realized I had written an article in the magazine I handed him (part of my job was working the magazine’s booth at the gift shows). That really made me feel like a writer. But…I stopped considering myself a writer for many years—after my second child was born, I stepped away from writing until my third and youngest child was in nursery school. It was about seven years, though I probably wrote bits and pieces here and there, I didn’t consider myself a writer at all during those years, and maybe not again until my first article after my hiatus was published when my youngest son was in kindergarten.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I had plenty of time to muse on different story lines while sitting in my minivan while my son napped in the back seat after nursery school three days a week; and I wondered what it would be like if a regular, worn-out mom suddenly became an Internet celebrity. This was at the height of Paris Hilton’s celebrity (my son is finishing up seventh grade now), so I decided a sex tape going viral would be a good vehicle. It also worked, because I wanted to explore a character who doesn’t see how beautiful she really is. She has body issues—and having a naked video zooming around cyberspace and not dying of shame is very freeing for Max. I had hoped that a lot of women would recognize themselves in Max, and it’s been really gratifying that they have. Most of us are harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be—I’m included, of course.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I think my writing style is realistic and conversational, with hopefully some poetic language thrown in. A recent review of A New Life stated, “She writes on this personal level like she’s your friend…” I’ve heard that a lot, that reading one of my books feels like chatting with your best friend, and I’m so honored, because that’s my goal. I love writing “domestic fiction” that hopefully resonates with readers who see themselves in the characters. You’ll never find a vampire or even a millionaire playboy in my books—not that there’s anything wrong with characters like that, they certainly sell tons of books!
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
“Goddess of Suburbia” is what the tabloids coined Max as her video went viral and the name just seemed appropriate for the book. She is a goddess, but doesn’t realize it, because of her cottage-cheesy thighs and gray strands threaded through her blonde tresses.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I would love for readers to grasp a few messages—first that you are the only you, and you’re perfect the way you are. Flaws make you unique, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of—live your life out loud and don’t worry about the size of your thighs. Also, it’s never too late to stop living your life on “autopilot” and start living authentically. Max is in her forties when her life implodes, forcing her to finally break out of the rut she’s been in—and it’s a blessing that she doesn’t quite grasp at first.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The book is realistic in the small moments—Max’s relationships with her children, her best friend, her (soon-to-be ex) husband and her ex-boyfriend. It’s realistic in Max’s insecurities about her appearance, the judgmental moms surrounding her and the way she sometimes feels like she’s failing as a parent. What is absolutely not based on any of my own experiences—or the experiences of anyone I know—is the sex tape going viral. Nope, never happened to me!
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? A mentor?
I had some amazing writing teachers, but from twenty-eight years old through thirty-one years old I studied with Jill McCorkle—three annual one week workshops at Simmons College (the New England Writers’ Workshop) and one eight week workshop the next year when I was a mom of a one year old (it was an amazing once a week escape). I’d have to say Jill was my biggest influence—my first published work, the novella A New Life, was written during that eight week workshop.
Books that have influenced me include Tending to Virginia, Ferris Beach and Crash Diet by Jill McCorkle (there are more, but I kept it to three); Happy All the Time, Laurie Colwin; The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker; A Vocation and A Voice, Kate Chopin; Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich; Fortune’s Daughter, Alice Hoffman; and The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg. Those are probably more books than you were looking for—sometimes I can’t stop when it comes to talking about my favorite books. I have at least ten more that I could list.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I haven’t had much time to read at all, to be honest—so I don’t know many new authors. I did read Sleeping With Santa by my friend, Debra Druzy, and that was great—spicy and sweet. Her next book, Falling for Cassanova is on my TBR list. I have books by many of my other author friends on my TBR list—Arla Dahl; J.C. Wing, and others—too many too list. Most of the new authors I’m excited about are authors I know personally, because I know that they are good.
I would have to say that my favorite author is also my favorite teacher (mentioned above), Jill McCorkle. I hadn’t read any of her books until I studied with her, and I was just blown away. I read Tending to Virginia twice, I loved it so much. The first time was during the first workshop I took with her. The second time was a couple of years later when I was pregnant—the main character is a pregnant woman who goes home to her family during the end of her difficult pregnancy to be taken care of by the women in her family, three generations (to put it simply—it’s more complicated and nuanced). I was living five hours from home during that pregnancy (my first), and it comforted me.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
My friend, John Giannone, was incredibly supportive during all the rejections I received when sending out Goddess of Suburbia a few years ago. He sent me a message reminding me of how many times J.K. Rowling was rejected. He read the book three times, at least, and offered me his eagle-eye journalist’s (he was a print journalist before becoming a television sports reporter) advice. He also read my synopsis and pitch letters, as well. And he gave me advice on my book covers. I’m blessed to have friends who support me, and I could think of at least half a dozen others I could list here (for example, my friend who called me while he was on a date, to offer sympathy after I texted him about my first rejection or my friend who read my elevator pitch in the wee hours of the morning and coached me on it), but John’s message about JK Rowling really resonated with me when I was feeling frustrated (and John’s many stints as beta reader helped).
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
I was just having this conversation with my husband last night. Writing is my career—it’s my job and the only one I have ever wanted. But, that said…when you don’t make any money, it makes it challenging to think of it as more than a hobby. On the other hand, there are a lot of other benefits a career affords you, besides just monetary, especially a career in writing. Holding a book in my hands that I’ve written gives me a sense of accomplishment that is hard to beat. My words will live forever now. And that’s pretty heady stuff that even a hefty paycheck can’t match (though, of course I wouldn’t turn one down…).
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I would have caught the typo in it before it went to press. But, I was able to change that when I ordered more books, so I guess the answer would be no. Boys, Dogs and Chaos is my heart book. Being essays, it’s a peek into my soul…I actually couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out, which is pretty unusual for me. I’m generally harder on myself than any critic.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
As I mentioned earlier, I was in second grade, and I wrote a “book.” That is my earliest writing memory and one that really sparked my interest. My teacher’s positive reaction was quite heady for me—I adored her. As I got older, I really dreamed about my words affecting people. I wanted to make people laugh, cry, feel…
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Sure! This is an excerpt of Feel No Evil (warning—it’s about a sexual assault, though it is not graphic at all):
2:21. 2:22. 2:23. All I could see were the digital numbers of the clock. All I could hear was his menacing voice, “Is it going to be hard or soft?” All I could say was, “Please stop. Please don’t.” See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. They forgot feel no evil. All I could feel were his hands pushing down on my shoulders and the searing pain ripping through my core.
I close the journal—the flowers on its cover faded; the paper almost silk-like from age. It has been over twenty years—twenty-one years, to be exact—since I wrote those words. I wish that they were fiction from a long ago college creative writing class, but they aren’t—they’re real and every year on the anniversary of my assault I pull out that journal and read that entry. After I read it, I put the journal back in my old leather briefcase on top of my closet and drink a glass of wine. It’s my way of marking the anniversary and moving forward. My husband, Alec, keeps our kids downstairs or even takes them out for a slice of pizza or ice cream, so I can read it alone, in peace. So I can shed a tear or two.
I know that it might seem odd for a forty-one year old woman to still think about something that happened so long ago, but if you’ve ever been assaulted, you know that the fact of what happened never really goes away. It just sits like a rotten little bit of food in the back of the refrigerator. The smell will eventually take over the whole thing if you ignore it, so every year I pay attention to it—I take out that rotten bit of food, throw it in the symbolic garbage and try not to think about it, until it starts festering again a year later. It’s an odd ritual, to be sure, but one that works for me or at least it did work, until this year…
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I find it challenging sometimes to get out of my own way—I want everthing to be perfect and that can keep me from getting the words down. But, I try to remember that I can always edit after. Also, I have a hard time naming secondary characters. Usually the main character’s name will just come to me, like Kate in Feel No Evil; Max in Goddess of Suburbia; and Tess in a book that has no name yet, but I feel like Tess is just waiting her turn to be written (a single mom parenting a son with OCD—but there’s a lot more to the plot “written” in my head). I usually go to baby name databases and look up baby names in the 1960s an 1970s, the era during which most of my characters were born.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
No—the only time I traveled for my book was when I had a book signing in Massachusetts. It was amazing. I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and several of my college friends attended. Also, my husband is from the Boston area, and his relatives attended too. It was like a fun party. There were even people there I had never met, who found the event on Facebook. I hope to travel there again this summer for another signing.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Greg Simanson designed the cover of Goddess of Suburbia for Booktrope. Michelle Fairbanks of Fresh Design (formerly of Booktrope) designed the cover of Boys, Dogs and Chaos. Diana Carlile designed the cover of A New Life for The Wild Rose Press. RJ Morris designed the cover of You & Me for The Wild Rose Press.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Changing the plot of Goddess of Suburbia twice for agents was probably the hardest part—and was also probably pretty foolish on my part. One agent told me the book should be darker, so I added in a murder (my friend said she kept expecting someone to get killed when she read it). That took a couple of months to rewrite. That agent disappeared—she’s not listed anywhere anymore, so of course that didn’t work out. Then another agent two years later told me that the book was too dark, and she wanted more romance. So, I spent three months rewriting it without the murder and with more romance. My dream editor at one of the big houses had an exclusive and waited almost a year for all the rewrites, but passed on the rewritten version, even though she loved it, because it was now lighter than what her imprint was acquiring. The agent who requested that second rewrite never responded to it. So…through that very difficult situation, I learned a very important lesson. Don’t change your work, unless you have a signed contract in hand—and even then, fight for what you believe in. It’s your baby, and what one agent dislikes, another may love. When Booktrope accepted Goddess of Suburbia, there were no major rewrites—just little, tiny stuff that made it better. I also had a great editor, who said to me right off the bat, “This is your baby.” That helped in the final editing process a lot. Of course, sometimes a bigger edit is exactly what the book needs—an editor who ended up working on my novella’s asked me to add a sex scene. That really made the book better, according to many readers (it was just suggested in the earlier version)…
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned that perseverance and hard work pays off…and also to never give up. There were times that I thought I would never finish—whether it was the first draft or edits. But, I took my laptop everywhere when I was on a deadline. I even took it to the beach and the pool. And I also learned that I do much better with a looming deadline—it gets my butt in gear. But, I probably already knew that from all my late nights before deadlines in my twenties as an arts reporter and music journalist…
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
When I was deep in revisions, I pictured Kristen Wiig as Max—she’s vulnerable and beautiful, but you can imagine that she might not realize it. But now that there’s a real chance that it will get made (fingers crossed), I’ve been thinking about indie actresses. It struck me recently that Katheryn Hahn would be the perfect Max. She just lights up the screen and steals every scene she’s in. Plus, she does desperation and even lunacy so well. I just love her.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Just keep at it. If there is nothing else you have a passion for, nothing else that makes you feel alive, nothing else that lights a fire in you, then write and don’t worry about the rejections. But, if there is anything else that makes you feel like that, and you want to write simply because it seems like it would be fun—or you dream about being a famous author…find something else. To weather rejections, you have to have a deep passion for writing and a conviction that you are meant to do this. If you have that, and you believe in yourself, your words will get out there. It only takes one yes, to make every single no fade away.
And if you never get that yes from a publisher, you can be the yes and self publish. That’s what I did after my publisher folded when Boys, Dogs and Chaos was in the proofreading stage—I published it myself, and I’m so glad I did. Two of my books, my novellas, are traditionally published—but that publisher does not publish non-fiction, so I took matters into my own hands and it is so gratifying to know I did it myself. Now, I never have to worry about whether or not my next book gets rejected, because I know that I can simply get it out there on my own.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I LOVE hearing from you! Seriously, the best thing in the world to me is when a reader reaches out and lets me know that my work has affected her (or him—there are guys do read my books). I have made friends with many of my readers this way. Most I only get to see in cyberspace, but some are from my area, and we’ve become friends in “real life.” I’m so grateful for that.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Cut to the Chase—it’s a book about the art of screenwriting. Something I’ve learned I really need a refresher course on if I’m ever to finish the adaptation of Goddess of Suburbia.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I believe it was Little House on the Prairie—I’m sure I read other books before that series, but that’s the first book I remember. Or, perhaps it was Anne of Green Gables. I remember that was the first book I really got lost in—Gilbert was my book boyfriend!
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
My dogs and my kids make me laugh more than anyone. They are just inherently funny. I also love funny movies—pretty much any old Mel Brooks movie; Fletch; Bridesmaids; The Hangover; Airplane. Luckily, I married someone who likes funny movies as much as I do—if we have a rare movie night, it’s always going to be something that will make us laugh. And my friend Scott has always been able to make me laugh for 30 years—since we met in college. We share the same twisted sense of humor.
Animals in need or being harmed in some way make me cry more than anything else. Oh and America’s Got Talent. I cry at least twice during every show. My kids think it’s hilarious. But, there’s always some back story that just brings on the waterworks. The producers play it up too—showing the family of the performer and pretty much everyone in the audience wiping away tears. I know I’m not the only one who sheds a few tears. Sometimes I can have a good cry to a song—only when I’m driving, though. I don’t “ugly cry” in front of anyone. Ryan Star’s new song, Don’t Give Up has definitely gotten me teary lately—I’ve been going through some challenges, especially with one of my kids, and it’s just a really emotional, beautiful, inspiring song.
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
I would love to meet Don Henley. He sent me $100 when I was twenty-six years old and I’d love to thank him for it in person. (I had written a letter to The Eagles about my anger over a radio station that was bashing their ticket prices—I told them it was worth my rent money. He wrote to me that I won their “sweetest person contest” and reimbursed me.) I tried to thank him in person (I had written him a thank you note) when I saw him in concert in Rhode Island at a music festival not long after. But since I didn’t have a press badge, I was shooed away. I think that moment led me to become an arts reporter and music journalist—after that, I always had a press badge and met so many amazing musicians, but never Don Henley. He’s been my favorite musician since I was a little girl (and perhaps the reason I married a drummer).
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
“She always tried to help.” I always try to help those in need. I was the Community Service chairperson for my boys’ elementary school for nine years—it was supposed to be a two year post. I created and ran fundraisers for everything from helping earthquake victims in Haiti to pets in need at the local shelter to collecting books and jackets for the Department of Social Services. Or perhaps I would just go with the simple “Mom. Wife. Animal Advocate.”
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Trying to save dogs is my other hobby, if you can call it that. I’m a “cross poster.” I post death row dogs on my Facebook rescue page, Lucky Dogs (and Cats), though lately I haven’t been that good about it, because I’ve been so busy and for some reason, I haven’t been receiving dogs to post. But, I’m passionate about helping animals. I also love to read, of course, but I don’t have time for that either lately… I used to make memory books—I decorated the outside, leaving the inside blank. I sold them as baby books, sign in books for bar and bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens and other celebrations. They sold at our local Y, along with greeting cards I crafted. I also made and sold jewelry. I love crafts and have a craft closet and cabinet, even though I haven’t used much in it lately.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I watch mostly hockey, believe it or not. I’m a huge Rangers fan—so every other day from October through the spring (June if they make a deep playoff run), my youngest son and I watch hockey. That said, I love funny shows. I’m a sucker for Seinfeld and Friends reruns. My kids go to sleep really late, so I don’t get the TV to myself much… One show my kids and I do all watch together is America’s Got Talent. Even my oldest watches with us. He’s usually running out with friends, so I make the time to sit with them and watch it. (Of course, he leaves as soon as it’s over to see his friends, but for those two hours it’s family time.)
Regarding movies, I love small stories saturated with emotion—movies about regular people. I love movies that I can see myself in, more than super hero or action movies. One of my favorite movies is Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (it was his last movie). It was just so real and touching. And I love funny movies (see above). If there’s a movie that’s funny and emotional, that’s one I’ll watch again. Besides Enough Said, some of my other favorites are Friends with Kids, Along Came Polly, Love Actually are all some of my favorites in that category. Oh and I’ll always watch You’ve Got Mail or While You Were Sleeping any time they are on. See the previous question about what makes me laugh for some of my other favorites.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
My favorite foods are: Pizza; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (especially chopped up in vanilla ice cream); New York bagels that are as big as your head (Bagel Boss on Long Island are the best). Wow—I sound really unhealthy! I’ll add tomatoes—especially the ones sold at my local farm stand in late July through August. They are grown right at the farm, and they are so amazingly delicious, you can just eat them on their own—maybe just a sprinkle of sea salt. To me, they taste like summer. Of course the freshly picked Long Island corn from that same farm stand is amazing too. Now, I’m getting hungry!
Colors: My favorite colors are either cheerful, calming or both. Green (especially mint or sage green), pale pink and butter yellow (not really bright sun yellow).
I have very varied taste in music—I love classic rock (Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel); new wave from the eighties (Howard Jones, U2—which fits into classic rock also, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, The Cult); and singer-songwriter “adult alternative” rock—Ryan Star, Matt Nathanson, Jude Cole. Music is my inspiration when I’m writing. I always create a Pinterest board soundtrack as soon as I start working on a story. The soundtrack of a story is so important to me.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I would have liked to have been a fashion designer. I designed my bat mitzvah dress and my prom dress. My father was the general manager of a girls’ dress company, and I would go into work with him sometimes and just stare at all the bolts of fabric, imagining what I could create with them. When I designed dresses, the women who worked for him would make patterns and sew them for me. I took fashion design in high school, and if the fashion design classes weren’t on the other side of campus at 8:00 in the morning, I probably would have majored in it in college, so my laziness at age eighteen determined my life course… I also have always loved photography—my junior year in college I switched my major to creative writing and photojournalism. I didn’t have enough credits to graduate, though—so I stuck with my English major. And here I am, still writing decades later, so I guess everything happens for a reason…
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
www.stephaniekepke.com is my website. You can get to my blog from there—there’s a button in the upper right corner. With a click on that, you’ll land on all of my essays.
Amazon Authors Pages USA https://www.amazon.com/Stephanie-Kepke/e/B00SHUYLXM/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1