Sunday, October 9, 2016

An Interview with Author A.S. King [Contributor: Megan Mann]

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Several years ago in a college course that I took on a whim, I was introduced to a genre I generally scoffed at and a collection of authors that I was utterly unfamiliar with. It was a course dedicated to YA and middle grade literature, covering topics ranging from private schools to eating disorders to dystopian futures and everything in between. Of all the books I read, one truly stood out: Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King.

It was a book about a girl whose best friend had recently passed away. She drinks heavily, pretends she’s fine, but she’s seeing him. She’s seeing him in the front seat of her car or in multiples in the bathroom. Throughout the book -- and multiple perspectives including a talking pagoda -- we learn of all the secrets Vera is holding about his death and all of the secrets she was holding before it. The book was addicting, and I was sad when it ended.

It wasn’t long before I needed to read everything that King had put out up to that point and then impatiently await the next book’s release. I devoured Ask the Passengers and wouldn’t rest until all of my friends had read it. I was terrified through most of Reality Boy, was riveted by Everybody Sees the Ants, contemplative during Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future and utterly transfixed while reading last year’s I Crawl Through It.

I loved those books because they were different. They took something universal and added something special, something magical that added another layer to the story. And I wasn’t alone. Whenever I would discuss her work with someone else, I discovered that they, too, were as obsessed as I was and would talk with such sincere reverence.

That’s why I totally lost my mind when I discovered her newest title, Still Life with Tornado, was coming out on October 11th. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to ask A.S. King a few questions about her work last week, get a little bit of insight into what the book is about, why she chooses to write YA, and more!

Your new book Still Life Tornado is coming out on October 11th. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

A.S. King: My books can be hard to explain in short, so I’ll say that Still Life with Tornado is an exploration of the effect domestic abuse can have on the children of those abusive partnerships. But it’s also about art and existential crises. And the inner child.

Why is writing young adult literature important to you? What is it about the genre that you're drawn to?

King: Young adults are intelligent, savvy about a lot more than we give them credit for, and they tend to like things that are different or weird. I’d been writing odd books for 15 years before I got published and I learned in that time that adult publishers are a bit more reticent to publish weird books -- especially when it comes to Surrealism, as the genre is pretty dominated by men.

So with a book like I Crawl Through It I feel very fortunate to be in an area of publishing that allowed me to write and publish a pure Surrealist novel. I don’t think that would have happened had I been in adult publishing. Really, young adult literature allows me to write what I want to write while exploring characters during the core of their self-discovery. We like to think that adults have already achieved self-discovery, but the reality is that self-discovery never stops. That’s why I write a lot of adult characters into my books about young adults -- so they see we aren’t perfect either.

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What I really gravitate toward in your work is your elements of magical realism. Talk about why magical realism is important in your writing.

King: I love reading Surrealist literature and books that use magical realism. I think my work is a strange mix of the two. I think it’s important to approach hard or heavy topics with a touch of humor or Surrealism because otherwise, all you’re left with is the stuff that happens to you and not the magical internal workings of the human brain while those things are happening. I’ve experienced several out-of-body experiences for example, and those happened because my brain was trying to deal with what was happening in the moment. Those moments hold much more than just the pain of surviving something life-threatening; those moments hold bizarre and life-saving techniques our brains automatically do in order to help us. It’s very like dreaming. Dreaming also saves us from our daily lives by giving our brains an outlet. So in order to properly explore the human condition, I can’t leave out the dreamy, life-saving brainwork that comes with our baggage.

Related to that question, something I really love about your work is that you always manage to ground your work in something relatable (i.e. someone's confusion of their sexuality, a friend's death, an identity crisis or even someone dealing with the preconceived notions people have of us). Are you conscious of that when you're writing? And if so, how difficult is it to balance the fantastical elements with the more human elements of story?

King: I’m not conscious of much when I’m writing fiction. The character arrives and starts talking to me. I write it down. I trust them. They guide me completely. They bring that relatable material to me but they also bring their coping mechanisms. In so doing, they hand me the magic they use to overcome, and I simply follow orders. Believe me, when this started happening, I wasn’t so sure my characters were sane. When a pagoda starts talking to you, it’s a moment of, “okay, I’ll write this down but I’m not sure it will fit into the book.” But then it talks to you again, and then it clearly belongs, so you keep it. The balance is achieved for me by trusting my characters and their journey.

Banned Books Week just happened. Although none of your titles seem to pop up on these lists (I researched extensively to make sure), how would you react if one of them did?

King: I’ve been soft censored and uninvited from pre-arranged school visits. It’s never a nice feeling. I suppose if one of my books got officially challenged, I’d do what most others do: I’d write a letter to the board who has to make the decision. I’d offer to come to the area to talk about why I write what I do. I’ve dealt with book banners as a library board member and I know how their brains work. I suppose I’d ask them why they find me so dangerous. Hmm. Good question. I really don’t know what I’d do.

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With Hollywood looking to bookstores for inspiration, which of your books would you like to see made into a movie? 

King: I get this question a lot. I never know how to answer it. I’d love to see what a kickass screenwriter and director could do with my books. Any of my books, really. I wonder how difficult it is to take those layers in a novel and transfer them into script.

What do you want readers to take away from reading one of your books?

King: Fiction is art. That’s how I see it anyway. So I feel like it’s none of my business what readers take away from art because art does many different things to a person. But my favorite kind of art — visual, musical, or written word — is the kind that makes me think. So I hope my books make my readers think. Outside the box. Outside of themselves. Thinking is the goal. Putting the puzzle of an artist’s ideas into your own form and allowing it to change you is a wonderful feeling. That’s what I hope I can give to those thinkers.

And think you will. The work of A.S. King will have you wrapped up in a thick blanket of words that you won’t want to come out of until everything is said and done. You want to read and read and read to know how it ends, to see how the characters fare. You see yourself somewhere in the binding and hope to find some sort of truth and hope splattered on the pages.

To find something like that at a time when there are always so many new titles coming out every month has been truly special to me. Very seldom do I find an author that I gravitate toward in this way and who puts out stunning work each and every time.

Getting the chance to talk to A.S. King was a really amazing experience for me and one that I hope will encourage many of you to pick up one of her books. As a person who will always recommend her work, I highly recommend that you get to the store this week and pick up Still Life with Tornado or any other titles (I was serious about Ask the Passengers) with her name on the cover. I promise you will not regret it.


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