A teen reclaims an insult in her debut novel
For those who don’t spend much time around high schoolers, “Duff” is short for “designated ugly fat friend”—what über-hot Wesley Rush calls Bianca Piper as compared to her two beautiful best friends. But in a moment of lapsed judgment, Bianca kisses Wesley, and then the two start surreptitiously hooking up—an escape for Bianca from conflict at home.
Although The Duff contains steamy scenes and a love triangle sure to keep the pages turning, author Kody Keplinger addresses more serious themes, too: body image, alcoholism and the sacrifices of friendship. She also has a knack for writing in an authentic teen voice.
No wonder, considering she wrote The Duff when she was 17 years old. (She is now a 19-year-old student at Ithaca College.)
Keplinger’s youth piqued our interest in this much buzzed-about teen novel, but the quality of her writing compelled us to keep reading and ask the author a few questions.
Bianca eventually comes to the realization that every girl feels like a “label” at some point: prude, tease, ditz, Duff, etc. Do you think this is true?
Oh, yes, I definitely think so. I have never met a girl who didn’t feel labeled as something, even if the label was only in her head. Sometimes there are multiple labels—I’ve felt like the “Duff” so many times, but on top of that I’ve felt like the “party pooper” or the “drama queen,” too. Both because I was called these things and because, at other times, I just convinced myself it was true. I think every girl has been there. Sometimes others label us, and sometimes we label ourselves. It’s sad and frustrating, but I think that’s one thing we all have in common.
A high point in the story is when Bianca and her friends start referring to themselves as Duffs in casual conversation.
I’m a big fan of that scene myself, because it’s something my friends and I actually do now. One of us will say, “Looks like I’m the Duff tonight, but next week, you better let me have the spotlight.” It’s a joke, and having the word reclaimed and reused in a non-hurtful way is so empowering.
I think it’s important for girls to reclaim these labels and turn them into something else for many reasons. One is that by reclaiming the word, it makes it harder for others to use it in a cruel way. “Drama Queen” is a label that was originally meant to be hurtful. Meant for a girl who starts too much drama or is overdramatic. Now, I hear girls use it in other ways, and many girls admit to being “drama queens.” Now it’s a weak insult, so I feel like the phrase has really been reclaimed.
If we take them back for ourselves, the words can’t be used to hurt us anymore. The labels may never go away, but we can change their meanings.
Bianca comes to terms with her various relationships as she’s reading Wuthering Heights. Are teens today interested in classics as well as contemporary YA?
You know, I didn’t even consider that as I was writing The Duff. When I wrote the book, it was for fun, with no idea that it would wind up getting published. But all throughout high school, I was obsessed with the classics. Particularly anything by Jane Austen. So allusions to classics in contemporary fiction always made me smile.
I was taking AP Lit when I wrote The Duff and in that class we read both The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights. I’d read both before, but they meant so much more to me at 17 than they had when I first read them at 14. I worked both of them into The Duff because, if I was reading these books and finally understanding them as a senior, I figured Bianca may be, too.
Also, I’m seeing so many YA books out there right now with allusions to classics. Even Twilight has some classic lit references, so I think some of these famous stories that are commonly read in high school are prime material for the characters in—and readers of—young adult literature to relate to.
One of the major plot points in the novel is a love triangle. Did you know from the beginning who Bianca would end up with? Do you think she made the right choice?
I absolutely did not know who Bianca would end up with. I wrote The Duff without any sort of outline or plan. At first, I just knew that I wanted to have an “enemies with benefits” relationship. I knew that my “Duff” character would be tough and cynical. I hadn’t even planned on a love triangle forming, but my characters surprised me. I wrote blindly, but by the time I was halfway into the book, I knew who Bianca had to choose. Her choice didn’t really shock me—it shocked me more that I hadn’t realized from page one who she would have to choose. Do I think she made the right choice? Absolutely, and I hope readers will agree. (Though, I admit, I do love the other boy involved.)
When did you start working on The Duff? Was it difficult to balance writing with being a full-time student?
I started writing The Duff in January of 2009, when I was halfway through my senior year of high school. Honestly, I didn’t see writing as a challenge with being a student. Probably because I was always writing. I’ve been writing since I can remember—for fun more than anything—so I just knew how to make time for it. Add that in with not having cable or internet at home, and writing became my chief form of entertainment. I did school work, and then spent the rest of my time writing. Usually, I’d write while watching TV—one of our five channels—so I had some background noise. That’s how I do homework, too. So I can honestly say that about half of The Duff was written while I was on my living room floor watching “Gossip Girl.”
Do you think teens are more inclined to read books written by their peers?
You know, I really don’t know. A lot of books I read as a teenager, I had no idea how old the author was. The only book I ever read already knowing the author had been a teen when she wrote it was The Outsiders, and that was a classic in its own right already. Had I known of other teen authors at the time—I say at the time because now I just read everything that comes into my path—I might have jumped on it. But during high school, I didn’t ever look up or see the need to look up an author’s age.
In the end it’s going to depend on how much a reader actually cares about what they are reading. Some readers are the types to research books online or in the library and find out facts like that—I was never one. I just took recommendations from my librarian, and usually info on the author never came up. I think in some cases teens will be more likely to read books by other teens, but in a lot of cases, a teenager may not even know the author is a teenager unless they read the “About the Author.” Everyone is different on how they decide what to read, I think.
Are there any other books or authors that inspired your writing?
I think I was most inspired by Sarah Dessen and Judy Blume. Blume’s honesty and Dessen’s prose were always things I loved. But I drew a lot of inspiration from television and movies, too. I don’t know if I ever would have written The Duff had I not watched “Gossip Girl” obsessively during my senior year—and, um, still. There are a few references to the “Gossip Girl” TV show within the book, even, because it captivated me so much. I knew I wanted to write something that conveyed the tension and chemistry some of those characters had.
I’m reading so much more now, and I continually draw inspiration from new things. Books that make me go “Whoa, I want to know how they did that!” Elizabeth Scott, Simone Elkeles, Stephanie Kuehnert, Carolyn Mackler and Lauren Oliver have really inspired me as of late. I’m reading their books obsessively and hoping that one day my writing will be as enthralling.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few things! I find my problem is that I have too many ideas and not enough time to write them—which is actually saying something because I do tend to write first drafts pretty fast. But I’ll have another book out in Fall 2011. It hasn’t been titled yet, and I don’t want to give anything away, but it takes place in the same town that The Duff took place in, as many of my newer projects do. I just can’t seem to leave Hamilton High School behind.