Karen Finneyfrock on Her New Novel and Teen Poets

Five years ago, Karen Finneyfrock was a celebrated Seattle poet walking through an airport. Then a sentence popped into her head. “At fourteen I turned Dark,” it said. “Now I’m Celia the Dark.” Finneyfrock wrote the line down and kept writing—for four years. This month, Viking Press will publish the finished story, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, introducing Young Adult readers to a preternaturally talented 14-year-old poet as she struggles to fight off bullies and find friendship. The 40-year-old author recently took a break from teaching poetry to real teenagers at Nathan Hale High School to talk about Celia.

What prompted that first line?
This was one of those rare moments of pure inspiration. I don’t know where it came from. I wasn’t planning on writing a novel, much less a Young Adult novel. I wasn’t even reading that much fiction. In fact, I think I was reading this book called Radical Self-Acceptance [laughs]. It’s a book about Buddhism and accepting shame. So I wasn’t even thinking about writing a Young Adult novel. A voice in my head just said that line. It was Celia’s voice, and really it was her voice that guided the entire book.

This is your first book of prose. Are you nervous?
Yes. I hate to admit to being so self-involved, but I’m very nervous.

You’ve published a number of poetry books. Is there a difference between prose nerves and poetry nerves?
Actually, yes. In some ways I’m much more nervous about receiving criticism on my poetry. My last collection was very personal. It was all based on a death of someone close. The emotions connected to it were very raw, so I was much more sensitive about criticism. With prose, I have been able to read the initial criticism with some remove.

Is much of Celia’s story your own?
Not that much. I was never really bullied in high school. I was once, in this summer bible camp, but not in the dark way that Celia is bullied. I wasn’t a child of divorce like Celia. But I did have a gay best friend like she has in Drake Berlin. I really wanted to explore that kind of friendship, between a girl and her gay friend.

Why did you set the story in Hershey, Pennsylvania?
I grew up in Maryland. Once our family took a trip to Hershey, and it had a big impact on me. So many of the details I remember from that trip are woven into this story. It also seemed like a perfect place to set this story. Celia and Drake, these two kids who are sort of outsiders in this town that is named after a corporation.

The story is very contemporary. What did you do to better understand the landscape of modern teenage life?
Being a teacher helped a lot. I really enjoy teaching teenagers. One time I gave a classroom a prompt and while they were all writing their poems, I was writing down what they were wearing to use in the book. So I’m kind of a spy, too.

Celia’s poetry is quite good. Did you grapple with whether or not to “dumb down” the poetry to make it more realistic?
Oh man, did I grapple. But I’ve read a lot of poetry by teenagers and I’ve come across some gems. There is something about the teenage mind that allows for some really amazing work.

Parts of the story actually serve as a kind of instruction manual for teenagers who might want to write poetry. My hope is that the book might lead to more kids writing poetry.

Were you a poet when you were 14?
I think I might have written a couple poems by that age, but they were most likely horrible.

Is this the last that we will hear from Celia and Drake?
Sadly, I don’t think we are going to hear from Celia and Drake again, at least not for a while. Right now I’m working on my next book, which is also a contemporary Young Adult novel. This one is about a girl who grew up in a commune outside Bellingham. When she turns 16, she has to move to Seattle and enter public school. So I get to write about Seattle, which is exciting. I get to grapple with how to explain what the weather here is really like.

The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door will be published on Feb. 21. Illustration by Sam Alden.