Lumpen cofounder Leslie Stella on the record about her latest book, Permanent Record

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Leslie Stella
  • John McMullen
  • Leslie Stella
Teenagers face a lot of challenges, but Bud Hess has more than most. He's prone to disabling panic attacks. He has anxiety disorder. He's clinically depressed. He's under the care of a psychiatrist. He's slight of stature. He's constantly bullied and humiliated. He's smart but not a good student. He's called racist names. And he's not even really a "Bud." His Iranian-American father had his name changed from Badi Hessamizadeh, in the hope that Badi would fit in better at his new school.

But a name change doesn't come with inner psychological changes. Bud/Badi reacts to problems in the same way he always has: with rage, revenge, and defiance. He does have the support of a few fellow social outcasts in the new school, but his difficulties continue. Rumors surface among the students that Bud was kicked out of his former school because he tried to kill someone. Bud doesn't deny the rumor because it's true. He'd tried to kill himself.

But there's hope (and some humor) in the darkness.

Bud/Badi is the protagonist of Leslie Stella's new novel, the Chicago-set Permanent Record (Amazon Children's Publishing). This book is a bit of a departure from Stella's three previous novels, Fat Bald Jeff (2001), The Easy Hour (2003), and Unimaginable Zero Summer (2005).

We first talked in 2001 when your novel Fat Bald Jeff came out. What's new with you since then?

So much is new since 2001, and yet much is the same. New: I have kids now, an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. I published two more books of adult fiction since then, in addition to my new young-adult novel, Permanent Record. In the midst of all this child-rearing I struggled with writing—or more specifically, publishing. Favorable reviews don't always translate to sales. Horrible reviews don't help either. I spent one dark day in November 2005 being dumped by both my then publisher and then agent. I never quit writing through this time, but I did stop and seriously consider what it was that I wanted to write. I had spent several years writing "to market," in other words, writing what I thought was hot or what would sell, instead of what I wanted to write. None of that stuff worked. At a certain point, I said, "I may not ever be published again, but that doesn't mean I have to stop writing." So I wrote the book I wanted to read, and that was Permanent Record, and that was what sold. Same: I still live in the same 110-year-old house. I have still managed to hang on to my husband and co-Lumpen, Chris. I still stress out and cry about my career!

Your first three novels—Fat Bald Jeff, The Easy Hour, and Unimaginable Zero Summer—seemed geared toward young adults, at least as I define them, that is, people in their 20s. (Those are young adults, aren't they?) But Permanent Record is geared more toward even younger readers, the YA market defined as 14 and up. Did you go that route this time because you're a parent yourself? What was your inspiration?

Honestly, I no longer felt inspired to write about jaded adults. I felt bitterness and cynicism creep into my writing. It was not who I wanted to be. I searched for a long time between my third book's publication in 2005 and the time I wrote Permanent Record in 2010 for what it was I wanted to say. I had several manuscripts that I completed but that went nowhere. Permanent Record, in fact, started out as adult fiction, and Badi, the protagonist, was in those drafts too, but as a supporting character. I knew there was something in those manuscripts I wanted to say. Something worth saving. That something, I finally realized, was Badi.

I think being a parent has helped set me on this path, but it was a long journey. Since my children were born I can't help but take the world more seriously. I envision what is ahead of them, and I feel suffocated with fear and suffused with hope all at once. I wanted to bring that kind of contradiction to what I write.

Speaking of Badi: he's a pretty complex character. (Not that 16-year-olds can't be complex.) He has a lot of major challenges: panic attacks, anxiety, depression—not to mention dealing with bullying, both due to his "weirdness" and his Iranian-American heritage. It is a departure from the main characters of your previous books, who were really pretty lovable, in their own unique ways. How did Badi emerge from your earlier drafts to become the focus of Permanent Record?

In the initial drafts, he was more of a rebel without a cause. There wasn't any backstory to him at all, so there was no justification for his acts of defiance. The seeds of his personality were there, but his characterization was simplistic, incomplete.

I remember when that earlier version had been rejected by some publishing house, the editor's offhand remark to me was something along the lines of, "I'm sorry that we have to pass. I did like the teen characters." And my reaction was, "Yeah, thanks. . . . [my eyes glaze over with the shock of realization] . . . me too." And it hit me pretty strongly: Oh my God. I've been writing a YA novel all this time and didn't realize it. Dummy.

Strangely enough, when I gave the story to Badi—to a teenager—all of my sublimated anger came bubbling to the surface. It was like years of writing comedy for both Lumpen and my previous books fooled me into thinking that I didn't feel things deeply. Writing in the voice of a teen—and certainly he's an unusual teen, but typical in the sense that his emotions are as raw as any adolescent's—allowed me to explore some uncomfortable depths in regard to my own feelings. There's a quote of Badi's that eerily presages my own metamorphosis as a person and as a writer: "Life was easier when I connected with no one. Easier, but empty. Now I'm wildly caught up in other people's lives and my own feelings, and it's crazy and intense and it's scary as hell, too—to be so human, so alive."

Despite its lack of vampires and zombies, Permanent Record would make an excellent teen movie. Fat Bald Jeff would also make an excellent movie; I could see Audrey Tautou as copy editor Addie Prewitt and maybe a bald Zach Galifianakis as IT guy Fat Bald Jeff. For that matter, The Easy Hour and Unimaginable Zero Summer would be top-notch comedies as well. Why has Hollywood ignored your books, Leslie?

Oh Jerome, don't blame Hollywood. Everyone ignores my books.

As far as audience appeal, action, and subject matter, I think Permanent Record is the most viable for development of all four of my books. But it is difficult to get books made into movies. It seems easy because of vampires, but in reality, that's a really long road from interest to option to production to release. It would be a wonderful thing to see it made into a film, but I'm content to have readers.

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Leslie Stella appears on Sun 4/21, 2 PM, the BookMarket, 2651 Navy, Glenview.

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