Kody Keplinger is one of the youngest published authors around, let alone published author with a movie adaptation. The DUFF is based on Keplinger’s first book, with ‘DUFF’ standing for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Mae Whitman stars as Bianca, the girl who learns that she is the DUFF for her popular friends.
I got to speak with Keplinger when she came to L.A. for the film’s press junket. We had fun talking about alternatives to DUFF and learning about her next book called Lying Out Loud. The DUFF opens Friday, February 20, 2015 in theaters.
Kody Keplinger Interview:
I’m sure everyone’s asked you how you wrote a book at age 17. I’m going to take the opposite perspective and ask you what took so long?
Kody Keplinger: [Laughs] “I know, right? Just damn middle school and high school getting in the way. Yeah, I wrote a lot actually all through middle school and high school. The DUFF was just the first project I actually got published. But I wrote a lot before that, but I would never finish things. The DUFF was one of the first projects, I think the second project I ever actually finished because I got distracted very easily as a writer.”
The movie really captures social media in a visual way. How did the book deal with social media?
Kody Keplinger: “So, there’s a little less social media used in the book because I wrote it in the late 2000s. While there was social media happening, it wasn’t quite as big as it is now. So that’s one thing I really like about the movie. I think they brought it more into the modern context and they’ve done a really great job of incorporating the themes of the book but using modern social media to really make it a little more present, which I thought was really a smart choice.”
Have you incorporated more social media in subsequent books?
Kody Keplinger: “Yes, I have actually. The book that I have coming out in April is called Lying Out Loud, so LOL, haha. There’s a catfishing storyline so it definitely incorporates social media through instant messaging and texting and stuff like that. So I’ve definitely started including it more in my books.”
It seems like teenagers know that saying fat or ugly are mean, but they came up with the term The DUFF to pretend they’re not really saying it. But it’s still not nice, right?
Kody Keplinger: “The thing about the word DUFF is I actually learned the word when I was in high school. It was a word being used when I was a teenager. That’s why I got the idea for the book. I did some research afterwards though. I found out that it really originated via some reality dating show in the early 2000s. That’s where it apparently became a thing people were saying.
My interpretation of the word DUFF is not about being fat or ugly. It’s about feeling less than, about feeling like you’re the least adequate person in the group whether it means you are the most overweight or that you’re just the least intelligent or not the smartest. You just feel awkward in your own skin. I don’t think it has anything to do with what you look like. I think that that word is just kind of the odd one out in a way. What’s funny about it is when I was in high school, I started asking my friends about this word because I was sure I was the DUFF. I was convinced. When I started asking my friends about it I realized everyone thought it was them. Everyone thought they were the DUFF in the group. I realized again it has nothing to do with what you look like. People just interpret that word as being the odd one out, the least something in the group and everybody can relate to that.”
Right, it’s comparative to who your other friends are.
Kody Keplinger: “Mm-hmm. What’s funny is if you ask pretty much anybody if they have a DUFF, their response is going to be, ‘No, I am a DUFF,’ no matter what they look like which is why I thought it was so badass that Kylie Jenner wore the ‘I’m somebody’s DUFF’ T-shirt. I thought that was so cool because if someone that famous and that beautiful can say, ‘Yeah, I felt like somebody’s DUFF before,’ and I’m sure she has. She’s got a lot of famous beautiful sisters as well. If someone can say that, it kind of shows that anybody can feel this way. It’s not necessarily what you look like.”
Do you think each sequel could maybe add an F, so the next one can be The DUFFF, and then The DUFFFF?
Kody Keplinger: [Laughs] “So the Designated Ugly Fat Friend Forever?”
I was thinking another mean adjective. I should’ve come up with some other F adjectives for you.
Kody Keplinger: “I’ll have to think about it. Last night, I was coming up with alternatives to DUFF, so one I came up with is Dangerously Unstoppable Fashionable Friend. I haven’t thought about adding more Fs. That’s tricky. I’ll have to think on that.”
Was the mom riding the lawnmower with a glass of wine in your book?
Kody Keplinger: “No, but I thought that was amazing. I saw that clip in the trailer and almost died. I think we can all relate to that moment in life when we’ve got to get stuff done but we’re also kind of a mess. I think Allison Janney is just perfect. She’s absolutely hilarious and beautiful and just amazing. I think she brings so much heart to everything she does. I’m so glad that she was cast as the mom.”
She really sells it. Did your mom have those sort of self-help philosophies?
Kody Keplinger: “My mom in real life? No, actually. The mom in the book and the movie is very different from my mom. My mom was kind of the rocker mom. I had to be able to identify AC/DC and Led Zeppelin just by the first few chords of a song by the time I was six. That was my mom’s hobby, so it was less self-help and more like I’m going to educate you in the art of classic rock. That was more my mom.”
Was the language as edgy in the book, or is the movie even toned down from the book?
Kody Keplinger: “The movie’s a little more toned down from the book. Bianca has a little bit of a potty mouth in the book, but if the book was translated exactly as is, it probably would’ve gotten rated R, so I’m glad that they toned it down a little bit so that the message can reach a wider audience. It’s still pretty edgy PG-13 though which I love.”
Why is granola a topping mistake?
Kody Keplinger: “Oh, I have been wanting to know that forever. After I saw the movie, I specifically sought out one of the producers. I was like, ‘Tell me why this is a topping mistake.’ I can’t remember if she told me the answer or not. I’m going to say it’s a topping mistake because instead of granola, you could also have chocolate chips which are always better.”
So that wasn’t from the book? That was new?
Kody Keplinger: “No, that was definitely new and I thought it was hilarious. It was funny, in the early screening that I saw I was with a lot of teenagers and when the yogurt guy appears on screen, I don’t know what it was but the teenagers freaked out. They all screamed. They loved him and I love that little moment. It was really fun.”
Getting into publishing at a young age must have been a big deal. Was then negotiating movie rights a whole other ballgame?
Kody Keplinger: “It was really interesting because the movie rights sold before the book even came out, shortly after the book sold it was optioned. So I was really excited about it. I was excited that someone wanted to make it, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. So I told myself, ‘You know what, this is fun, someone is interested but I’m not going to believe it’s really happening until it starts happening.’ And then last year, things started happening. There was casting and Mae Whitman has always been my dream Bianca. Since I wrote the book, I’ve always wanted her to be Bianca so when she was cast it blew my mind. It was just one of the most exciting moments of my life and that’s when it started to feel real to me. It was very strange but then went from this idea of it’ll probably never happen to suddenly everything was happening at once. I’m still kind of reeling I think.”
Now that you’re in your 20s are you starting to write about different things?
Kody Keplinger: “I’m not really. I think my writing has matured as all writers do after they’ve written a few books but I’m still really interested in writing books about teenagers. I’ve actually started writing some books for middle schoolers as well, so am I regressing, going backwards in time somehow?”
It might be that you’ve gained perspective on those years.
Kody Keplinger: “I think so. High school was tough but I think middle school was tougher for me. Middle school were some hard years and looking back on it as an adult, it’s interesting to re-evaluate things that I didn’t understand at that age. So writing about it has been really, really interesting. I guess I feel that way about high school in some ways too now that I’m in my 20s and have a little bit of distance from high school. Like I said, I think some of my writing has changed but I’m still interested in the same content. I still love to write about teens. I still love meeting my teenage fans. I still feel very much a part of that group in a way. Maybe I haven’t grown up quite enough.”
How did it feel the first time you signed one of your books?
Kody Keplinger: “It was kind of mind-blowing I think. I first signed one of my books at Book Expo America in New York City a few months before the book came out. It was an advanced copy of the book and I had a signing line I had to do because the book was getting some promotion. So I didn’t just get to sign one and revel in it. I had to then go and sign I don’t remember how many copies, probably 100 copies back to back to back. So it was really exciting but it also gave me some carpal tunnel.”
Are you going to college?
Kody Keplinger: “I left college a few years ago, actually. I went to Ithaca College right out of high school in upstate New York. I was a writing major. I’ve been living in New York City now a few years. Ithaca’s a great, great school. I love that town. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life and it was very much an inspirational place to be. It’s stunning up there.”
What’s next for you?
Kody Keplinger: “As I mentioned before, I have a new book coming out in April called Lying Out Loud which is a companion to The DUFF. The characters from The DUFF do appear in the book and I’m so, so excited. It was fun to revisit those characters a few years later and to introduce some new characters that I’m really happy about and I’m really hoping that readers will love.”
What’s your process for writing? Do you start with characters or an outline of the story?
Kody Keplinger: “I always start with characters when I’m starting a new book. I’m really drawn to characters and character development, so I usually have the characters in my head, a voice in my head, and then slowly the plot or a scenario will come into my mind. With Lying Out Loud, I realized I had this character of Sunny in my head and I wanted to do something from the point of view of a catfish, of the girl who’s catfishing someone. I started taking notes and piecing it together and making a plot out of that. Eventually I had a storyline and then I outlined and then I wrote the book.”
How involved were you with the adaptation of The DUFF?
Kody Keplinger: “I wasn’t involved directly with the movie but I did get to go to set when they were filming, which was probably one of the most fun days of my life because I got to meet the director and some of the cast. It was so cool to actually get to meet Mae in person and actually tell her face to face that I’d always wanted her to be this role. It was such a fun experience to get to go to set and see it coming together and to talk to the cast and answer their questions and ask my own. That was one of my favorite things about this whole process.”
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