Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
Just a week ago I was trying to describe A.S. King to a friend of mine, an adult science fiction and fantasy writer not familiar with her work but always eager to discover new authors. I tried to describe my own first encounter with her, reading The Dust of 100 Dogs after one of my best friends suggested it, but could tell I was completely failing to convey the utter originality, the compelling absurdity of the plot, the rare collision of joyful weirdness and kinship I experienced while reading. I scrabbled around, trying to compare Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Ask the Passengers to other comparable titles (yeah, right!); to explain how it was sort of magic realism, but sort of not; to somehow describe King’s uncompromising depictions of life, especially teen life, and how all my expectations would go sideways no matter which way I was expecting the story to turn, but how there was always hope. I told her about the ants, and about Gerald. And then I finally just said, you know how Vonnegut is just himself and no one else is really like him? A. S. King is like that. Go read everything she’s written and then come back so we can talk about it.
I kind of feel the same way about this particular interview, like I just want to get out of the way and let you have at it. I think you’ll see why right away.
But I do want to throw out a huge thank you to A.S. King for being patient and wildly understanding, for general awesomeness, and especially for giving us a little glimpse of the rest of the iceberg. Thank you.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Confused and confident. A good athlete and talented smoker. A smart kid with D’s on her report card. An all-around walking contradiction. Mullet at times. Owned a boss Blondie t-shirt and wore Chucks with spikes screwed into the eyelets. Loved Prince.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a young kid, I really thought I wanted to be a heart surgeon. I have no idea why, but I was obsessed with the circulatory system. At 14, I got a glimpse of wanting to be a writer after overdosing on Paul Zindel novels, but when I told adults in my life, the suggestion that journalism was my only path to being a writer pretty much killed the idea for me. (No offense meant to journalists. It just wasn’t my bag.)
As a teenager, I had no idea what I wanted to be. I was a peer helper at school, so I was really into psychology and counseling. I wanted to help fellow students work stuff out. But I ended up going to college to be a forest ranger at first. I left that college soon after realizing I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.
Then I went to art school, which again wasn’t quite what I wanted to do but it was close. I got my degree in photography about two years before digital photography came along and made me, a darkroom printer, pretty much obsolete, which was fine because I then moved 3000 miles away and started writing novels.
What were your high school years like?
I was born and raised just outside Reading, PA. High school was interesting. I was still getting poor grades, which was a habit I’d picked up in junior high school–7th grade when a certain teacher was particularly negative toward girls. I only managed to keep my GPA high enough to play basketball. I used to play field hockey, but my hockey coach didn’t really like me and the feeling was mutual, so I quit. Same went for band. And orchestra. I liked hanging out with the drama club students, but I had stage fright, so I was a stage hand. Like I said before, I was a peer helper, which was a group of teens who worked out of the guidance office and talked to teens about any problems they might be having.
Outside of school, I was working since I could get working papers. I started as a bus girl at a diner and moved into fast food worker and then a catering company worker and then a camp counselor (where I met my future husband who was an exchange counselor from Ireland) and then a pizza delivery driver. I loved those jobs. They got me out into the world and meeting other people.
The teachers who influenced me most positively were too late to save my grades because I’d met a few teachers early on who helped me give up on school completely. But those teachers who did influence me positively did so by letting me write my first-person-POV project story from the POV of a can of succotash, write a career paper on being a superhero, and started me writing in journals. Those three teachers saved me, really, even if they didn’t know it then. To be encouraged as a creative-yet-bored-and-underachieving student is a rare thing and it was very appreciated. I got to thank them by name when I was inducted into my high school’s academic hall of fame in 2011. (I am living proof that one can graduate in the bottom third of one’s high school class and still be inducted into the same school’s academic hall of fame.)
What were some of your passions during that time?
Much of my life revolved around smoking. I know this sounds weird, but when you are a teenage smoker, you are planning every minute and everything you do around your next cigarette. This is where I say: If you are a teen smoker and you are reading this interview, please believe me when I say that it is a lot easier to quit now while you are young than it is to quit when you are older. I regret not quitting when I was a teenager. I ended up quitting for good far too late in life and it is probably my only regret. (Seriously. I don’t even regret my few loser boyfriends because I figure they taught me something. Smoking taught me nothing.)
Anyway, I was always a lover of music. I grew up in a musical house and I was really lucky to get to a lot of jazz shows and other concerts before I ever got to high school. Music is still a large passion of mine and you’ll usually find lyrics in my books’ epigraphs because I am very inspired by the music I listen to. I’ve been a Jimi Hendrix fanatic since my sister gave me my first Hendrix album when I was 11. In my junior and senior years I really loved Bob Marley and the Wailers. I still play bass guitar and Mr. King plays drums. My kid plays a wicked good jazz saxophone and my littlest one will one day pick something up, I’m sure. We will be the family von King. I will totally sew us play clothes out of the curtains.
From the minute it came out when I was fourteen, I loved the movie Amadeus. It is still one of my all-time favorite movies and the book I am writing for 2015 has been influenced by it greatly. Outside of that, I remember no other movies from high school. I remember lying about going to the midnight movies and going out dancing at a local club instead. (Mom and Dad, if you are reading this, I’m sorry about that. I was never by myself or unsafe, but I did lie to you every single time I said I was going to the midnight movies. I think you may have known this because I never remembered the movie I’d seen the night before.) I loved older movies, really, which were only available when the TV aired them back then in my house. (We didn’t have a VCR until my junior year, or maybe my senior year.) My favorite was probably The Shining. Around my junior year, my dad and I watched Deer Hunter together and it remains one of my favorites. As do The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. I think those are standards for my generation.
Though I loved basketball and I played pretty well, my only real passion at the time was getting the hell out of high school. No offense meant to the place, but it wasn’t for me. Too many boxes. Too many rumors and immature people. Too much bullshit. I just wanted out.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
When I was fifteen, my mother became very ill one night and went to the hospital. The next morning after basketball practice, my father and I went to visit her. Something was very wrong with her, but they didn’t know what. As my father and I stood in the room, we watched her fall asleep–or so we thought. But she wasn’t sleeping. She’d died. Luckily, a nurse arrived to bring my mother some juice and behind her came a doctor who needed to see my mother right that minute, so thank the gods for them because them not arriving at that moment would have changed the ending to this story as well as my life. When the nurse couldn’t wake my mother up, she did all that stuff they do in a hospital if someone has died. Oxygen tanks. Recessed lights, the shock paddles came out and we were asked to leave the room. She was resuscitated and she is still alive and well today even though she’s pulled this dying stunt a few more times since. (See how we joke? Joking helps.) I had at least one doctor tell me she wouldn’t live another 6 months.
This was a very difficult experience because I was completely by myself, really. My dad was there, but this was his wife you know? And my sisters were older and I had to call them on the pay phone in the hall in ICU and tell them to get home ASAP and they didn’t really understand what I’d seen. I’m still not sure if they really understand it. But let me tell you: I grew up very quickly that day. Very very quickly. I changed instantly–I became– more forgiving and helpful and I hugged more often. I was scared, but I felt brave, too. From that day forward, I felt I related a little less to all those other kids in school. They were still all so concerned with the high school stuff and I was just hoping my mom would be alive when I got home or would make it to my graduation.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
Since I already mentioned my English teachers who influenced me greatly with their encouragement, I think now is the time to say that being a camp counselor was probably the coolest thing I ever did. I did it for two years and got paid peanuts and yet it didn’t matter. It was a job like no other and it taught me a lot of great skills. (For the record, if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, you want to be with me and Mr. King. Our outdoor survival skills are pretty impressive.)
And I can’t bring up being a camp counselor without saying that the impact that meeting Mr. King had on my future adult self was more than profound. I mean, wow. Meeting one’s soul mate at 17 is rare. Few adults understood it and most underestimated it. We wrote letters to each other and we talked on the phone (briefly–it was very expensive) during our four and a half years apart. When I graduated college, the first thing I did was get on a plane for Ireland and the minute we saw each other in Dublin airport, we knew we would be together forever. Having Topher in my life–even when we were apart–gave me confidence. Stopped me from going too nuts over boys and wasting my time caring about what I was wearing or how I looked. I’d already found the person who would find me beautiful for the rest of my life, you know?
So, without the sappy love part, being a camp counselor was such a cool experience, I’d do it again if I had time or they paid me enough.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
There is no way my teen self would listen to any advice, but I’d have told her to skip the mullet. And, as mentioned before, I’d have told her to quit smoking.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years?
I don’t really do regrets because I really believe that everything we do lands us where we are. But, since you’re asking, yeah, I wish I would have applied myself and been a kickass student. I was smart. I LOVE learning. That one teacher in 7th grade just made me so mad and no one cared that he was being such a bad teacher and my giving up on school to prove it didn’t hurt anyone but me. I would have loved to have learned calculus. And a lot more history. Mind you, all of this is great to say, but my memory skills still suck and I probably would have had to have been a different person to actually achieve this, so it’s not really a regret. It’s a wish.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
Smoking. Just kidding. I miss being so in shape that I could run up nine flights of steps without being winded. (What irony here in our last answer. Which brings us back to the very first answer in this part of the interview– I’m still a walking contradiction.)
Every Day I Write the Book
Readers and reviewers have pointed out a number of recurring themes in your work: identity and self-discovery, family, choices and consequences, love. You’ve written elsewhere that you don’t consciously write to a theme or about an issue (like bullying, sexual identity, alcoholism, etc.) but I wonder if you could talk about those themes a little bit anyway. In some ways the themes listed above are universal, but in your books they feel specific and personal and powerful. Any thoughts on how a theme develops, either consciously or unconsciously, in your work?
Theme doesn’t really occur to me until after the first draft is already written. I write every day without knowing what’s going to happen next, so really, the book leads me to the theme/s, not the other way around. The things my characters do and feel are very universal. You’re right about that. I think they are personal and specific to me when I write them because I affix an emotion that I have experienced onto a character’s experience. So, I know what it feels like to be embarrassed about being bullied, for example. I also know how it feels to sit at a funeral of someone who used to be a best friend, but screwed me over based on someone else’s lies. I do write personal books, but never are they true stories–rather they are true emotions superimposed onto people I have never met before, but with whom I am about to become very good friends.
I may think that a theme is developing about halfway through a book, but I don’t like to flag it for sure until I am truly done and I can get the wide story out first–because if I limit myself to that theme halfway, then I feel it will lock me in, and the last thing I want to do is give a lesson or preach, and I think locking myself into a theme halfway through would leave me open to doing this. I only tell the stories. It’s up to others to think about them and figure out what I meant. (That’s not to say I don’t know what the themes of my own books are. I do. But I layer ideas, so there are always more than one.)
Your characters are remarkable–memorable, unique and imminently relatable. This is true of main characters like Emer/Saffron, Vera, Lucky, Astrid, and Gerald, but it’s also true of the entire population of your books, where characters like Fred Livingstone, Uncle Dave, and Ken Dietz fairly jump off the page. Do your stories start with a character, or do they start somewhere else like a plot point or a question? Do your characters show up fully formed, or do they reveal themselves as you write?
First: Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way about my characters and it’s nice to hear this.
My characters always come first. When I start a book, I have no idea where it will go or end or what will happen to these people I invent in my head. They are certainly not fully formed when they come to me. I often use Vera Dietz as an example of this. When, around page 11, Vera is driving to work from school and she reaches under her driver’s seat for something, I had no idea what she was reaching for. I was so surprised when my fingers typed a bottle of vodka. I remember thinking What? She’s so smart! So practical! What is she doing? Why would she do something so dumb? So risky? This is the moment when I realize that the character is about to take me on a journeyâ€¦not the other way around. For what it’s worth, without tossing out a massive spoiler, I also did not know Lucky Linderman’s secret until he told me two-thirds of the way through the book. I find out when you find outâ€”which is why I love reading. And writing.
In an interview with you for Amazon.com, author Paolo Bacigalupi, says that “the safe choice would have been to make this [Everybody Sees the Ants] a completely ‘realistic’ novel,” but you never seem to take the safe choice, in any of your books. Instead, you opt for complex narrative structures (like interjecting flashbacks, changing narrators and points of view, and flow charts) and elements of surrealism or magical realism that are anything but safe, straightforward, or predictable. Could you talk a little about the choices you make in your writing? How do you find the narrative structure and plot elements that feel right for the story you want to tell?
It’s questions like these that make me a slightly frustrating interviewee. A lot of these elements choose me. I don’t choose them. I mean, had my dad not taught me how to flow chart as a child, I probably wouldn’t have had Ken Dietz talk in flow charts, but there you have it. The ants appeared, same as Vera’s vodka did, and then they started to talk. As for being safe, I refuse. This business is–a business. Books like mine are always going to be, how do I say this–not as popular as whatever is popular at the time? Not as financially supported as a Kardashian? You get my meaning. Why would I write any differently (and could I if I even tried?) in order to be safe? What is safe? Will safe feed my kids any better? I just don’t think it would.
And so, all I’m left with is myself.
And myself writes books like mine. If you have ever talked to me, you know I talk very much like how I write. I didn’t know this until other people told me, but apparently, you have to trust me and keep up and then whatever I am saying will lead you to the point, just like my books. So I figure if I am going to struggle through this career as I have done so far, then why the hell not just be myself?
I once saw a great interview with the Grateful Dead. The interviewer asked Jerry Garcia why they never sold out. Jerry answered something like, “We would have sold out, but nobody was buying.”
Your new book, Reality Boy, came out in October 2013. You’ve mentioned in interviews that you aren’t really a fan of television or of celebrity culture in particular. What inspired you to write about a former reality TV star?
I haven’t watched television in about 15 or more years. I also do not like celebrity-obsessed culture. It vexes me. I remember when Entertainment Tonight came on at first and I remember thinking then, as an eleven-year-old kid, Why would I care about the personal lives of these people? I still don’t get it–especially now, in the age of reality TV. Why do we pay attention to so many people who have no talent but to be famous? And more importantly, when it comes to the few parts of popular culture that I do see, I can’t figure out why we are essentially eating our own self-esteem. Who cares about the cellulite on female celebrities’ legs? I am disgusted by that part of my culture. I am disgusted that my daughters have to grow up in a place where they are urged to fill their gender role by buying magazines that will ultimately make them feel like shit about their own perfectly-functioning and normal bodies. Please don’t mistake this for snobbery. I totally don’t care if you or anyone else watches TV or reads celebrity magazines or not. I just can’t, personally. It’s like I’m from Jupiter or something.
Reality Boy is about Gerald Faust–a boy who was once a five-year-old reality TV “star”–if you call being a mess on TV “stardom. Now that Gerald is a teenager, he’s suffered a lifetime of being recognized everywhere in his town, being goaded and bullied by his teachers, peers, and even his family. He is angry about everything that was once aired on TV–and beyond angry at the things that weren’t aired on TV. He’s very close to snapping until he meets the girl who works at register #1 while he works register #7 at the food stand at the local ice hockey arena. She’s the first person who treats him with any sort of respect and he’s not quite sure what to do with it.
I wrote Reality Boy after a years-long discussion with my husband about reality TV and the effect it must have on children who do not have control over whether or not their childhood becomes public property. My eventual question was: If the statistics we know regarding abuse (of any sort) of children are accurate, then isn’t it likely that at least one child we’ve seen on TV is actually being victimized as we watch them? And if so, what does that say about us?
You’ve given us a glimpse into the genesis of Reality Boy, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to do the same with your forthcoming novel, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future?
Glory O’Brien’s genesis is an odd one. I wrote a novel for adults back in 2006 entitled Why People Take Pictures about a woman who was neurotic about death and was going somewhat crazy as she tried to raise her three-year-old daughter and look after her ailing mother. As I started writing Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, I realized that certain things were similar and that this was the story of that three-year-old girl who had grown into a high school senior.
The real genesis was a writing workshop I was doing with three classes of Bryan High School students in Omaha, NE. We were working on revision, but I had no piece written to revise, so while they wrote, I wrote the first page of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. When I read it back to them, they told me that I had to write the rest of the book. So I did.
Just Can’t Get Enough
This question comes from Maggie Stiefvater: “You are, in fact, a critical darling. You may bluster, if you like, but we both know that critics find your novels both delightful and well-written. Quirky and profound. I’d like to know what effect that critical acclaim has on your literary choices. Do you feel it gives you freedom–a comfortable knowledge that readers will pick up your next book no matter how peculiar it might be? Or does it feel restrictive–like you can’t whip out a series of fun, pulpy thrillers under ‘A.S. King.’ Do you feel pressured by it? The hot breath of reviewers playing round the back of your neck as you type?”
The short answer to this is: no. Maybe that makes me a weirdo, but I think it has more to do with how I started this whole journey. My first six novels were written in a vacuum–on a farm in Ireland, living off the land, not caring all that much about this life I lead now–publishers, agents, critics, awards. It sounds a bit naive perhaps, but I found and needed writing as an escape from real life. I was struggling and I didn’t know what to do with it. So one day I sat down at a typewriter and the release was most important. Not therapy, but a need to express myself without anyone butting in and telling me how I felt or how I should feel or how my feelings were wrong, etc. Those novels (along with others) live in a drawer as a reminder of that time, and as physical proof that I am writing for myself and not for others, which is how I want to keep it.
I am modest to a fault and I was raised in an environment that constantly reminded me that I was no one special. I think that helps me stay grounded. When it comes to critics, I am, every time, honored and surprised (and relieved) that they might like what I have produced but never have those critics been allowed in my writing space. I have no idea how I do this or why. I think it’s a mix of things. 1. My very first trade review is probably the worst I’ve ever read. 2. I do not go to online writing sites to read reviews of my own books because, as my fortune cookie said once, “People are not persuaded by what we say but rather by what they understand.” 3. I do not write for other people, but rather to release characters from my head. So far, none of those characters have come out in a way that screams ‘fun pulpy thriller’ but if one day this should happen, then I would just write it.
I reckon we get one chance to do this ride. The waiting line is long. (Or for me it was.) Now that I am on the ride, I will enjoy it and work hard. Although I may need help in the ‘enjoy it’ department. My practical side takes over and I am sometimes not very quick to recognize that I have achieved something. I don’t take much credit for my books, personally. They come to me rather than the other way around. They are gifted to me. This may sound like cosmic mumbo jumbo, but it’s how I see things. The published critical darling, as you call me, is really the part of the iceberg one can see above the surface. But I can see what’s under the water, and it’s that chunk of ice that matters most when I write.
A.S. King is the award-winning author of acclaimed young adult books including Reality Boy, the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner, Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and the upcoming Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (October 2014.) She has been an Edgar Allen Poe Award nominee, a Nebula nominee, a Lambda Literary Award nominee and a YALSA Top Ten pick. King’s short fiction for adults has been widely published and nominated for Best New American Voices. After fifteen years living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and children, and teaches in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Art.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick and Doll Bones (again) by Holly Black