A.S. King is the author of Ask The Passengers, Dust of a Hundred Dogs (ALA Best Book for Young Adults), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book and Edgar Award Nominee) and Everybody Sees the Ants (Andre Norton Award finalist). Her latest book, the upcoming Reality Boy, is slated for Fall 2013. She has also published a collection of short stories entitled Monica Never Shuts Up. Find out more information about A.S. King at http://www.as-king.com.
Ask the Passengers: An Interview with A.S. King
by Stephanie Cieplinski
Stephanie Cieplinski: So, I wanted to start off by thanking you for joining me today, Amy. I was going through all of your books when I started this one, Ask the Passengers. I went through all of the parental situations and this was the first one where the parents are both present, correct?
A.S. King: I can’t believe you are bringing this up today because I want to write a blog about something [related] later today. One thing I find in publishing when it comes to the actual business is what is pre-publication, and then what’s post-publication. What’s post-publication is basically review. One thing I find really disturbing about some…well, not disturbing…disheartening about the way that many reviewers will look at books… is that they’re very cynical. They use their critical brain, but sometimes they forget [to use] their human brain. Earlier this year a good friend of mine lost her husband and she has two kids. And, just this weekend, another friend of mine lost her husband and she has a 16 year-old son and I wrote a very short blog when I lost my first friend back in June that said “I’m sick and tired of people just flipping off books that have a missing parent”…and they always call it “the Disney thing” because Disney [stories] always [feature a plot device of] missing a parent. And it’s like, oh, roll your eyes [there are] missing parents. But you know what? That week I was dealing with two children who had just lost their father and it’s an incredibly real thing. There’s this idea that there are unspoken rules. Now they say that you have to have all these rules in young adult [fiction]…rules in any genre. I’ve always said this thing where I don’t do rules. But one of the unspoken rules, the eye rolling, you’re going to get made fun of and [reviewers will] say you’re a trite writer if you make one of the parents dead. That’s what happened to me when I wrote Please Ignore Vera Dietz. “Oh wasn’t it convenient that one of the parents was gone?” Or “Oh, it’s just another dead friend book.” You can roll your eyes all you want except I lost a friend as a teenager and there are teenagers that lose their parents everyday. I need books without parents so that I can better understand kids without parents. My main message that I think over and over again is about freedom and self-reliance. And so I think that not having competent parents or not having present parents is very helpful to push my characters into that self-reliance.
SC: That makes sense and it’s a much more logical reasoning to making a decision in your writing. It’s not a crutch.
ASK: It’s just funny that that was the first question. Cause I had read it again in the last week, “oh here’s another book where there aren’t any parents, isn’t that convenient?” No, actually it’s not very convenient at all. How about that? And the book I’m writing at the moment, the mother commits suicide when the child is four and that’s what she says, “This isn’t some Disney convenience. There’s nothing convenient about your mother committing suicide when you’re four.” And it haunts you your whole life and that’s how it works. So, while these reviewers can be very cynical they lose their human side. So that’s one reason why I don’t read reviews. Whether they’re my books or other people’s books, I really don’t read reviews.
SC: Because you put it perfectly, “It’s a real thing.” There are kids out there dealing with these real things. I was sort of generalizing because you’re right in Everybody Sees the Ants the dad is not gone…
ASK: You know I had two parents who stayed together. They’re still married over fifty years. They came to basketball games, they went to parent conferences, they…no, they didn’t check my homework. Why should they? Yeah, I did crappy in school. Not their fault. My fault. I didn’t care, but when I look at it, what child truly has the parents that they really think are great when they’re fifteen, sixteen, eighteen? Nah…none of us really. It is real. It is what it is.
SC: It’s true if you’re writing first person from a teenaged point of view. They’re going to come off imperfect no matter what and it’s probably because they are imperfect. Ya know? There is no perfect parent.
ASK: No, and it’s funny because when you say it that way, “it’s the first person” that’s the one thing that I find with first person. When you’re writing from a teenager’s point of view, people sometimes forget that you’re locked in…it’s actually quite confining. You are locked into that person’s point of view. So, while…with Vera Dietz people were like…”Ken Dietz is such a jerk…because he’s this and that” but the reason they thought that was because they were conned by Vera. Because Vera is the one telling you this. That’s why I had to give Ken a voice. I had to give Ken a voice so that he could go, “look this is what my childhood was like. And this is what my upbringing was like and this is what it was like to be an alcoholic, and this is what it was like losing my wife, and this is what it was like doing all this. And this is what parenting Vera is like. It’s scary.” That’s how that book ended up having more than one narrator because Vera was just so tight. She was just so tight of a first person that I couldn’t get out of her brain.
SC: Well, yeah, alcoholism is an issue in that story. Whose vodka is it under the seat?
ASK: Oh, hers. And I didn’t know that till the day I wrote it. And when I wrote it I remember she reaches under her seat and I’m like “wow, is she going to pull out a bag of weed? Nah. Is she going to…what could she pull out?” and then my little fingers wrote “bottle of vodka” or I might have put “Smirnoff,” but I had to stop and look at my computer and be like “what?” Because Vera is so smart, like why would she be drinking? Why would Vera do something so stupid? And then I stopped and went, “well, I guess this is why I’m going to finish the rest of this book.” Because that was page 11 or 20 or something and then I found out why she was doing that and why she was being so…irresponsible.
SC: Ask the Passengers is dealing with a different issue, but Vera still holds that place in my heart with that tough subject matter of a teen dealing with death. Because of the gravity of that, do people ever assume that you are your characters?
ASK: The funny part is a lot of people think I’m Vera. Now, mind you, I did deliver pizza and you used to get pizza delivered by me. So we got that but I didn’t drink and drive. I dedicated the book to my parents and then said, “sorry that the mom ends up a stripper, Mom.” Ya know? Because my mother’s like the opposite of a stripper…whatever that is. But my dad was an accountant and my dad does have a lot of the practicality that Ken would have, but [Ken’s] past of alcoholism or any of that…nothing would reflect my parents. What really motivated me was I had to live through a funeral of a friend of mine who died quite young in his thirties…after we never connected again. [We were] very tight. I regret not calling him in the two years [in] between. Maybe I wanted to a few times, and then he died. So that’s where that book came from and that was also just me dealing with his death and because he was the first one. He was the first [death] that I had to make some sort of sense and that’s why I [wrote] that when you die you find out the truth. That made me feel better about the fact that when he died he realized he got lied to and was kicking himself or where ever he ended up. You know? Or at least that’s what I hope happens. I hope we all find out the truth when we die. That’d be good.
SC: Hence the Charlie ghost…sort of knowing everything that’s going on with Vera now that he’s gone and talking to her still from the beyond.
ASK: Yeah, I mean he’s…the ghost part is really in her head in that way. Ya know she’s being haunted by him the way we’re haunted by things like that.
SC: It’s hard to explain to people that pull from real life. Sort of like how you were dealing with your friend’s death…that you were dealing with emotions, but that your book wasn’t necessarily about your friend. It’s the same feeling. You’re taking feelings and making it up.
ASK: That’s exactly it. What I tend to do is I make a blanketed statement which goes like this, “I don’t ever write about anything real. I’ll never write about someone I know. I’ll never write about any true story that’s ever happened.” Not completely true, in a way, but if it’s mine, it’s mine. Like, in Please Ignore Vera Dietz, I did get dropped on my head by a Skin Head. I still have a huge lump on my head to prove it. I did deliver pizza to a guy with no pants on once. Now those were two true stories and then the little true stories like what it’s like to deliver pizza. You know? Those little banal things. [It’s the] same as catering in Ask the Passengers I did used to devein shrimp every Sunday morning at like 5:30 in the morning and it was horrific but I just tend to tell people, “no, it’s fiction.” I also tell them that all of my characters are me so if you’re going to think that the one main character because she’s a girl, is me…no, Fred Livingstone is me and the POW grandfather is me and the tiger is me and the ants are me and the pagota is me…they’re all me. Otherwise, how could I create them? They’re all coming from our emotions if you can truly connect with them. Which is why I think the most honest people make the best writers. I mean, how can you create a letch of a character? You have to know how a letch thinks. Therefore, you have to contact your inner letch. And then go “ok this is what this horrible letch man would be thinking.” And then it grosses you out but you write it and you laugh. I mean Fred Livingstone is still one of my favorite characters. I mean people think he is a sick dude but that’s because he is a sick, sick dude, which means I nailed it. It’s weird but that’s how I do it. All my characters are me. Then that’s it. I go from there. I find it funny that in Ask the Passengers no one has assumed that’s me, and what I find interesting about that is that there are aspects of Ask the Passengers that are very similar to my teenage years. I’ve had a few people criticize it because, “the author is bi-blind because she didn’t bring up bisexuality” and I think that’s really pretty ironic considering…and that’s how we’re leaving that quote.
SC: You can’t please everybody.
ASK: I’m not here to please anybody. I learned that a long time ago. I’m here to please myself when I sit down and write. That’s it. And you. [Points to SC.] In this book I wanted to talk about [sexuality]. But most of those people who complain are bisexual, so it’s very sad to them if [I] left something out for them, which made them think that I’d forgotten about bisexuals but I assure you I don’t forget about them.
SC: [Smiles] We were talking about first person earlier and how you can feel trapped…would it have helped to write anyone else in Ask the Passengers like you said you had to write Ken into Please Ignore Vera Dietz?
ASK: Oh yeah, I had to…I had to. He’s the first one that came out, too. I was writing and writing and writing and Ken started to talk and I said, “oh he needs to have his own POV here. He does.” The spirit of Charlie started talking after that. I kind of put it aside…and was like “no.” I realized what I needed was that Ken was still so much in his own head, the boy was so much in his own head and Vera was too. They were all so much in their own experience and the idea of the pagota is: here is an omniscient character that has seen people fuck up in this town for over a hundred years. So much happens in 100 years so I had to stick him in there. He was perfect. The book I’m writing now…it’s called Max Black. That might be a working title right now, but I think it’s Max Black. The thing with Max Black is that I’ve finally gone to past tense. So it’s first person but past tense. Present tense is incredibly immediate and it’s great and everything but I mean, Dust of a Hundred Dogs was written so long before I published it. That was in third person and I miss that and all of my first novels were written in third person. But once I hit present tense… it is an eddy. You get stuck in present tense. It’s hard to get out of it. So, when I started writing Max Black, I started writing in first person past so I could at least get out of the present tense, but I’m dying to write in third person.
SC: That is something I wanted to discuss with you because that’s something that I struggle with and I noticed that Ask the Passengers was first person.
ASK: And so is Reality Boy. That’s the one coming out after this although there are chunks of past in Reality Boy.
SC: But that’s what the pagota helped you with in Please Ignore Vera Dietz.
ASK: Big time. Everything was going great but for some reason that book required an omniscient point of view. I don’t know why but it did… Honestly, the answer is similar in Everybody Sees the Ants in that strange way that they’re seeing it from the outside. In Ask the Passengers it’s not in that way. The passengers aren’t commenting on what’s happening but we’re seeing what’s happening on the outside and the effect of what our lives can have on other people’s lives and then in Reality Boy is none of the above. I don’t even know what happens in Reality Boy. There’s parts of a book that I’m writing at the moment that has second person. I’ve been juggling books but I love that. The book I wrote in between the adult book Why People Take Pictures and Reality Boy had a huge second person point of view and they were yelling at you, just yelling at you. I liked that and I thought that was great. Editors did not think the same thing and that’s ok. Actually some of them liked it, but there were too many crossword puzzles and crypt-o-grams in the book and you had to actually do the crossword puzzles and the clues in the crossword puzzles advanced the plot and they just thought that was too gimmicky. You didn’t really have to complete the crossword puzzle — but if you read the clues — that would advance the plot. The crypt-o-grams were just for fun but I could totally take them out…But this is the funny thing with the publishing business, “oh well, it was only 57,000 words”…and that’s funny because you go back to your favorite books. You go back to Catcher in the Rye or to Hemingway or to Fitzgerald…any of them [could be] under 60,000 words. But now, no… serious adult fiction is only over a certain number of words. They were touchy about my word count. That just seems to be how things went.
SC: So, with your work being classified as young adult, was that intentional?
ASK: No, not even a little bit. It was like an accidental awesome thing because I love working with teenagers. There are so many screwed-up adults in the world that I love being able to go into high schools and maybe un-screw-up one kid per high school. When I go into schools, I talk about the truth…really heavy stuff about what you need to do in order to be a responsible adult, how to act towards your future wife, your kids, your family, your mom and dad, how to be respectful to yourself. I call it the personal suitcase…how to look into your personal suitcase and figure out who the hell packed it and then unpack it and then repack it yourself so that you’re in control of your life. So, apparently this helps kids and I’m glad because that means that maybe there’s one less screwed-up adult in the world. I think we all have hard times when we’re teens and our parents aren’t ideal parents because we’re teens and they’re parents of teens and that’s just how it goes. We are on the edge of freedom, we’re right on the edge of it. And being on the edge of freedom and not being allowed to go into that land is a tough time.
SC: So those young adult “rules” you mentioned…what about those?
ASK: One of the basic rules is that your protagonist has to be a teenager. I’ve even been told that if the protagonist is younger, like sixteen and under, that it’s somehow “better.” I don’t like those [rules]. They have a different set. No sex, no swearing…good luck! Have you been in a high school lately? I don’t do a lot of sex scenes. I’m not a kiss and tell person. I’ll do some romantic awkwardness, talks, conversations [about] respect. I like to talk about respect between partners and respect of each other but for me it’s swearing. I grew up in a house where we weren’t allowed to swear at all. I never swore I never heard my parents swear. In fact, one of the first times my parents heard me swear was in one of my books and I was mortified when I realized it. My mom said, “we read your book” and right then my heart went into my throat.
SC: [Laughs] Do you remember when you first realized that you wanted to become a writer?
ASK: When I was in eighth grade going to Exeter Junior High School, I was standing in the lunch line and I decided I wanted to be a writer. And the type of books I wanted to write were books that would connect adults and teenagers, that would help adults understand teenagers better and that would help teenagers understand adults better and that was what my point was. And I only realized about a year and half ago, that’s what I do now. I get letters from parents like “oh my daughter and I read this book and then we got to talk about sex.” Or this one man wrote to me and said, “my son asked me about Vietnam and if I had a draft number and I laughed because I’m your age but I told him that my father did.” So, in a way, [I like to] start discussions with adults and teenagers in a world that is increasingly annoyed by teenagers and increasingly condescending to teenagers. I’m a parent. I dig the whole space thing but parents have to be there and I know that because of my past which I won’t get into but because of my upbringing and how many Hungry Man dinners I ate in front of M.A.S.H. I definitely think kids need parents around and they need to have conversations and they can be blowing each other off — that’s fine. I think it’ll help.
SC: I feel like the young adult fiction genre is not what it used to be.
ASK: It’s changing, the genre’s changing, but there is a stigma. If it’s even a little bit accepted then we’ll get one of the six articles in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times…all of these places about how young adult work is too dark. There goes your dead parents again. “Oh, it’s too dark; oh, they’re doing drugs; oh, they’re having sex…oh my gosh, they’re swearing!” There was a woman from Brigham Young that counted all of the swear words in all of the young adult fiction and then decided that the books were too dark and [vulgar]. So, in a way, it’s a challenging genre for those reasons. On the other hand, it’s great for awards. I didn’t know about the Prince Award — I knew about it before I won an honor — but I didn’t realize that there were so many great awards inside the ALA for young people’s literature. There’s the Rainbow list and the Stonewall Award…I can’t name them all. There’s so many of them and those are brilliant because what they’re doing is trying to get great books into kids’ hands and get kids reading and how could anything be wrong with that?
SC: Why did you choose the pen name A.S. King?
ASK: I did it because I do gender neutral stuff…I think most of my stuff is gender neutral and also because it spells “asking” and I’m just a geek. I was 22 on my way to the courthouse to change my social security card to my married name and I realized that my new initials would be ASK. And I went, “oh good lord, this is good!” and then realized…Asking.
SC: Do you use the same name in writing adult work?
ASK: Yes, I still write under A.S. King for adults. In fact, I just released a collection of short fiction for adults…it’s a dozen stories and I did it through e-books. For years self-publishing was really looked down upon and there was good reason in most cases because people didn’t edit and they didn’t have that experience; they just wanted a published thing. I never wanted a published thing, I just wanted to write better. I mean only five years ago there was no such thing as a Kindle. We’re so used to Kindles. We’re so used to Nooks and all these readers and e-books. Five years ago there was no Kindle. That’s weird isn’t it?
SC: Where can you find the collection? What’s it called?
ASK: Oh, you can find it anywhere. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, my website. It’s called Monica Never Shuts Up.
SC: There is always an element of surrealism in your books. It’s different every time. I don’t want to say it’s fantasy because it’s not. I know people have questioned: are your characters not right in the head? Are they really seeing these things or is it not there? In Ask the Passengers Astrid is sending love to the passengers and they’re realizing things while they’re so far away and then there’s the ants in Everybody Sees the Ants and so on. How does this come about for you? Do you intentionally decide to include elements like that?
ASK: I keep thinking that the one coming out in the fall, Reality Boy, doesn’t have that but it does. It has a small bit of it actually. But only in his head…or is it? Which is the whole point. But it’s funny when I was working on Dust of a Hundred Dogs my editor at the time and he’s still one of my favorite people in the whole business, said to me, “the thing I really love about this novel is that I don’t know if it’s all in her head or if it really happened to her.” And that was the first time I had ever considered that it could be in her head. And then I went, “oh, that’s awesome!” And then I don’t know, it just comes. The pagota just came. The ants came because [the character] was getting beat up and he was getting beat up at the pool and his face is down on the concrete and that the only thing down there are ants. That’s odd but that’s what you see when you’re down there. Ants and little sparkles and then you smell chlorine. When he was getting beat up and he’s in shock and I’m like they’re going to have party hats and martinis and whatever. Passengers was just natural and in Reality Boy too. It just seems to be natural to me. I’m glad you called it surrealism because I think that’s what it is. I’m a big fan of magic realism and I’m a big fan of 100 Years in Solitude. It’s one of my favorite books and Tom Robins. He has a lot of magical realism and in fact, Skinny Legs and All has a can of beans, a spoon and a dirty sock traveling cross-country. That’s why I love that kind of stuff because the books I like to read have it in them. But I’m glad you call it surrealism because that makes a lot more sense than magic realism to me. I mean it’s similar, but when you put it all together I think surrealism fits better. I think anything is possible. Nobody really knows where to stick [my books] and I’m glad for that. It’s good. But the fantasy award I was nominated for sort of had me bent out of shape because it was for Dust of a Hundred Dogs, but I wanted to be fair to the people in the fantasy genre who work hard on world building and all of these awesome things that they do that I can’t do. But the surrealistic elements happen naturally. I get bored. You’ve known me since you were born…I get bored very easily I’m a bit distracted I guess; I just like it when things are a little weird. I like to bring people out of their comfort zones and I mean you can sit there and read a book about a girl who is questioning her sexuality but I started that book out with the prologue where the prologue actually still lives as a prologue and I see her in the backyard on the picnic table sending love to passengers and I’ve done that. I know what that’s like. I’ve sent love to passengers in airplanes for many years and I know why I do that and I thought to myself why would she be doing that? And then I thought about why I really do it is that I really hope that my love gets there. That’s where it came from. I thought — wouldn’t it be fantastic if it affected those people? I look around me and there are people on airplanes who are going to funerals who are going to births and weddings and on vacation or coming back or moving because they’ve just gotten divorced or there’s just…I just feel like the world is getting less and less caring. We don’t care about people anymore and I sit on airplanes and I look around and think all of these people could be suffering and I wanted to make people know that it’s not just all about them. And if you send your love out, wouldn’t that be a fantastic thing to do? Even if it didn’t change their lives, it’ll change yours because you’ll be in more of a positive mental state. I’d rather be positive. And that real stuff comes in. That’s how I start my day. I don’t know if I’m imagining it or if it’s magical. I truly believe that if we all had open enough minds we’ll be able to see the true possibilities of what the world has to offer. But I like sharing that with teens I like sharing it with adults and I like that they can share that with each other. That’s what young adult [fiction] can do. It can bring people together. The most important thing is that the protagonist is a teenager. For an adult it can be a great education and a great connection to their kids who are dealing with their own kids. I think literature always brings people together, but it’s nice with young adult because we’re able to bring it right back to high school. So every time someone comes to me with a complaint about content I think it’s good because they read it and they have an opinion about it and they’re discussing it with their kids. If I can help any teenager realize that the world is full of shit, I’m doing well.