Kody Keplinger (pictured, via) debuted with her novel, The Duff at age 18-years-old. She is currently an honors student at Ithaca College where she majors in writing. We caught up with Kody to find out how she balances all the responsibilities of undergraduate studies and a professional writing career. Here are the highlights from our interview.
Q: Being only 19-years-old, how do you balance writing novels and meeting the demands of being a college student?
A: I don’t sleep. Yeah, that wasn’t entirely a joke either. In all honesty, it is hard. I’m an Honors student, an active member of a performing arts group, and a writer – all that on top of being pretty social. It’s a lot to handle without going crazy sometimes. Luckily, Ithaca College has been a great environment for me. I’m in the middle of my sophomore year, and thus far I’ve survived. The teachers are usually really understanding when I have to miss class for a signing or something, and my friends understand. One thing that helps is that my agent and editor both know (and enforce) that school comes first. So I have my priorities straight. But seriously – I don’t sleep much. That’s just how it goes.
Q: Your book is called the The Duff which stands for “designated ugly fat friend”; in your opinion, what kind of power does a writer wield to influence language?
A: It’s hard to say. Some writers can really shape language–Shakespeare and Poe are known for introducing many words into the English language. I”m not Shakespeare or Poe, and “Duff” is not my creation. Sadly, its a real word that real teens use. My only hope is that people who read the book will twist the word into a term of empowerment, the way Bianca learns to do.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I was inspired to write this book my senior year, when I first heard the word “Duff.” My friend told me about how some boy had referred to one of our mutual friends at a party as “the duff.” When the girl told me it meant “designated ugly fat friend” I was shocked, amused, and then completely appalled. More than anything, though, I was sure I was the “duff” of my group. That’s how the idea started – I wanted to write a book about a “duff,” only I didn’t want her to be the sweet perfect angel most “ugly ducklings” are in books and movies – I wanted her to have an edge. That’s how Bianca, the main character of the book, was born.
Q: What do you hope people take away from Bianca and her being The Duff?
A: I hope people – mostly girls really – realize that every single one of us has had that feeling. It isn’t even about being fat or skinny or ugly or not. Its’ mostly about feeling inferior. “Duff” could be the most awkward person in the room or the least intelligent. The point is, we’ve all felt “less than” before. It’s universal, but I don’t think a lot of girls realize that in high school.
Q: What connection does your book share with the two classics you mention in your book, The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights?
A: Well, when I was writing The Duff I was taking an advanced English course at my high school, and we read The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights. I’d read both before, but it had been a few years. Rereading them, I realized what parallels Bianca had with both Hester (The Scarlet Letter) and Catherine (Wuthering Heights). I always had a weird habit of comparing my life to literature I was reading, so I figured Bianca might do the same. With Hester, Bianca sees herself – her unhappiness with the world around her, her need to escape (which is Bianca’s interpretation of the book). With Wuthering Heights, Bianca mostly just sees how not everyone in the book, or in her life, is perfect and how choices can impact those around you. I don’t want to say more than that because it’s a spoiler – but I loved working two of my favorite books into Bianca’s life.
Q: You became a published author at 18-years-old; how did you get an agent and from there, how did you manage to convince a big 6 company (Poppy, an imprint of Hachette’s Little Brown Books for Young Readers) to take you on?
A: I got an agent the old fashioned way – through slush. I sent out queries and, very fortunately for me, an agent requested the manuscript and loved it. She didn’t know I was seventeen at that time. Not until she offered to represent me. When I told her, she was surprised but not bothered. As for the publisher – well, that’s totally on my agent. I put my book in her hands, and she didn’t disappoint me! She ended up finding me the most amazing editor at an amazing publishing house. I’m lucky to have found her. Agents are awesome.
Q: What advice do you have for young writers such as yourself?
A: Don’t be afraid of rejection. Here’s the honest truth – it’s going to happen. You are going to get rejected at some point. But even 100 rejections can never equal up to the joy of that first “yes!” A fear of rejection will only keep you from a world of awesome that might be waiting around the corner.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: The next book I’ll have out is Lustruck, a modern reimagining of the Greek play Lysistrata–about a high school senior named Lissa who decides to end her high school’s sports rivalry by starting a “sex strike.” It’s kind of a comedy that explores teen sexuality and how it relates to girls in particular. That’ll be out in Fall 2011.