Everyone needs heroes, I once wrote. And in an age when there’s so much sameness, I enjoy hearing true and different voices about topics I find important, like reading, education and culture and tolerance, and having an open mind. This openness is something I have found in the books of A.S. King, so I have no reservations confessing that she’s sorta my hero. I am so glad when she wanted to share a little bit more of her awesomeness and was willing to answer my questions.
Staying true to yourself
You’ve mentioned in interviews that it took you a long time to get published. Can you talk a bit about your road to publication? Have you noticed any changes (in the publishing business) between the time when your first book was published and Reality Boy?
This answer could go on forever. It took me 15 years to get a novel published. I wrote 8 of them that never made it. I started writing before computers or the Internet, and I really didn’t think about getting published. Writing was a way to get my thoughts out clearly and to deal with emotions. Publishing back then didn’t even have email. I was living in Ireland and writing American stories, so I had very little chance of finding publication due to my situation. Plus, those early books sucked. Writing novels isn’t easy although 99% of people say they want to write a book. Writing novels is like learning to play an instrument. It takes years of practice to get good at it. And in some cases, like me and the cello, the talent isn’t there. As for the publishing business—it changes constantly. There is no way for me to get into all the ways it changed between 20 years ago and now. It’s a strange beast.
Who do you respect in your own line of work? What book do you wish you had written?
Because I’m a generally respectful person, I pretty much respect everyone in my line of work. How could I not? Even if they don’t respect me, I respect them. It’s how I operate. See also: Ask the Passengers. I wish I would have written Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. I think he’s one of the best writers working today.
Despite the bad stuff that happens to almost all of the protagonists in your books, none of your books is down and out depressing, and they (and the characters) all exude this … hope. Where does this hope come from?
Hope, I got it. I don’t know why I have it. The human race kinda sucks, pretty much. Look at what we’ve done to each other! I dare you to read a comment section under any article on the Internet. 🙂 But I have hope because I think there are good people doing good things out there (and probably not wasting time in the comment sections on the Internet.) I know there are people out there trying to make the world a better place. Teachers are proof that we should all have hope.
How do you stay true to yourself as a writer? Do you feel any pressure to write about a certain thing or in a certain way?
I still write as if I’m on the farm in Ireland, writing for myself. I don’t take pressure from anyone and the market or trends within it are of no use to me because it’s a little like comparing an unbaked pie to a pie somebody else ate, but you never got to taste. Does that make any sense? I stay true to myself by letting the words and stories come out without questioning them. If my character does something weird, then I’m forced to write more to find out why vs. erase the weird thing. Writing is exploration. You can’t explore if you’re trying too hard.
When you do school visits, have you ever had to deal with an unresponsive audience?
Not yet. I tend to do very energetic school visits. I have heard more than once that my assembly “wasn’t as boring as I thought it would be.” When I ask why past assemblies were boring, the answer usually has something to do with the fact that the last author showed up and talked only about themselves and their books as if they were selling something. I don’t sell books at my school visits. I just come to be real with teenagers. Honesty seems to win every time.
Is there anything you regret in your own creative career?
Not a thing. It took me a long time. I failed a lot. And I don’t regret a thing.
Finding a connection
It means finding a connection in a book that lights the path a little brighter.
Did you read a lot as a child? Are there any books that you fondly remember?
I read like crazy as a child. As a little kid, I love Where the Wild Things Are and Harold and the Purple Crayon. As a older child, I loved mysteries. Once I hit teen years, I found Paul Zindel and reread his books over and over again. I am rereading Confessions of a Teenage Baboon right now and I am in awe of what he was doing with YA lit back in 1977. We tend to forget that writing for teens was always around in one form or another. We read how many articles in a week that say so-and-so invented YA lit, or so-and-so started this trend in YA lit. But all of that is rubbish. Paul Zindel was doing, in 1977, what I and many of us do now. (And people were doing it before him, too.) His books have fully formed adult characters who interact with teen characters and his content had its share of Wild Turkey whiskey and skinny-dipping.
Once I hit high school, my reading dropped. I was very busy. I read what I had to for school and that was all. I still loved reading, but I never found the time. Then, in college, I started reading again for fun and I’ve never stopped.
What book(s) do you want your own children to cherish?
Good ones. I don’t care which ones. As long as they can hold a well-written book that lights their own path to their heart and say, “This book changed my life” then I’m a happy parent.
What is the best book (YA or other) that you have read in a long time? What are you reading at the moment?
My recent bests are: We Were Here by Matt de la Peña, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson (okay, that’s an old one for me, but I can’t NOT mention it. It’s so brilliant.) At the moment, I am rereading Zindel, as I said, and I’m reading two adult titles. Last January, I read a book called Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?by Johan Harstad and it really rocked my world.
Tools for the real world
There are certain colleges and universities whose administrations have urged their teachers and lecturers not to send messages to their students that are longer than 3 sentences… because they say that students simply don’t have the attention span or the ability to read more than that. (Course)books etc. in secondary schools are being screened to make them more accessible, something which – unfortunately – often translates into dumbing them down. E.g. sentences longer than 10 words, passive constructions, so-called ‘big’ words have to be avoided…
How should we deal with this as educators, writers, parents…?
I think administrators whose goal it is to dumb down future adults is scary. Have they not thought this out fully? Do they really want the nurse who may tend to them in the hospital to be only capable of three-sentence-long instructions? I think that’s ridiculous. I dislike that society in general dismisses teenagers and belittles them with eye-rolls every chance they get. But limiting their education so as to not challenge them is a huge mistake. I used to play basketball. Even when I was little—seven or eight—when my arms didn’t have the strength to get the ball into a 10 foot hoop, we never ever lowered the hoop. I repeat: we never ever lowered the hoop. And by age 9, I was making free throws like a pro. I will never understand anyone who thinks that reducing challenge will grow competent adults. It’s insane. Should you react? Yes. Say no. Over and over again. Say no.
In your experience as a person who works with/for teens, who or what do you think influences teens most these days?
I will say that we recently had a discussion with a young teen who was sad because so many of her friends have been “eaten by technology.” When I asked what technology specifically, she mentioned all the usual suspects. Instagram, texting, online games, social media in general. That said, she is not influenced by these things because she doesn’t have them. She reads. She plays music. She draws and doodles and makes the most amazing crafts out of just about anything. But I think we can’t put teens in a box and answer this question fully. All teens are different.
I think one of the more universal things I’ve learned, though, while working with teens is this: Teens are very aware that adults are keeping things from them and yet they already know the things we are keeping from them. And so, why are we keeping things from them? They’re teens, not children. They need to know that bad shit is happening. If we keep them from a news story, why do we think they won’t hear about it at school? I reckon I’d like to be the one who tells my kid about awful things that happen. I’d rather have that responsibility. And books sure help. When my daughter was sad about society today, I gave her Maus. Depressing read? Heck yes. But did it show her that reality today is just as awful as reality in the 1930’s and 40’s was? Yes. And then I try to give her hope. Because she is the picture of hope. As a parent, that’s how I want to influence my kids. I hope other parents have this same idea: that they should be the ones most influencing their teens. These are the vital years to give them to tools for the real world and the humans who inhabit it. And you already know how I feel about humans.
Go get it.
Over here (in Belgium) – especially in the cities – the social and cultural gap between the haves and the have nots is getting wider by the year. The kids from the privileged families do have access to the ‘world’, but the group of people who don’t have those means is getting bigger and bigger. In my 10 years as a teacher, I also see how hard it has become to get these kids out of their comfort zone, out of their own (small) world which they think is so big (because they do have access to all sorts of social media). And education doesn’t seem enough anymore because we’re dealing with an obsolete 19th century educational system that needs to solve 21st century problems. Is American education any different? Do you have any thoughts on how schools can help to narrow that gap?
The gap is getting wider an wider here, too. And because of the media saturation and the strangely at-odds-with-itself “news,” what we have is a bunch of talking heads trying to figure out whose fault everything is versus just facts. And that argument is responsible for the state of just about everything. And it drowns out the reality that the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening at an alarming pace.
Politics irk me. And when politicians get in the way of education, it irks me even more because where would those politicians be without the teachers who taught them how to read? How to debate? How to write? So, for me, this is more a political issue because public (most) schools here are state funded and those very politicians are the ones who are wasting all the time arguing while the gap gets bigger and bigger and I’m guessing they don’t care much about the public education system because they are making a lot of campaign money by doing what the highest paying lobbyists are telling them what to do. The only way I can see it changing is for government to ask the professionals—the teachers—how to improve things. I can’t see that happening here, but I sure wish it would.
The older I get and the more I read, watch TV, follow media, etc. the more evident it seems to me that people in general don’t really look for things that stand out. They want the obvious, the easily accessible, what is right in front of them. Or at least, they think that is what they want and need. In David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing there’s a passage that struck me:
“This is what you do now to give your day topography – scan the boxes, read the news, see the chain of your friends reporting about themselves, take the 140-character expository bursts and sift through for the information you need. It’s a highly deceptive world, one that constantly asks you to comment but doesn’t really care about what you have to say. The illusion of participation can sometimes lead to participation. But more often than not, it only leads to more illusion, dressed in the guise of reality. […] The headlines on Yahoo don’t require much of Peter’s head.”
But does mainstream media still require anything of us anymore? How would you encourage people, especially young people, to look beyond the obvious? That there is more than what is right in front of them? That it’s OK to disagree.
I don’t watch TV. This is not to say I care that other people do. I know most people enjoy TV and that’s cool. But cutting it out of my own life was what made me see those things—the different, not-obvious things. The stellar things. Because I didn’t have a cell phone until my late 30’s and a smartphone until my 40’s, I spent much of my life enjoying very simple things. I lived self-sufficiently on a farm for a decade. During those years, I enjoyed birds a lot. And the night sky. And dirt—the satisfaction of growing my own food (and chickens) from a seed (or egg)…and then making my own seeds so I could do it for free the next year. All I needed was dirt. And while these things are simple, they are, in their essence, very complicated. The night sky is a huge mystery. The life cycle of plants, the life cycle of chickens, the life cycle of humans is very deep and fascinating.
I was taught to think creatively early on because someone along the way asked: what do you think about that? My opinions weren’t always right or valid, but I did have them. As I grew older, I learned to love research. Research was not only a way to make sure I was right in my own opinions, but a way to learn fascinating new things. What I ended up discovering, as real news became this entertainment-whose-fault-is-it?-news, is that very few things we learn about on TV or a small internet article are the full story. Reality TV is anything but.
Most of the time, the generations who followed mine have been lied to and usually in order for them to want something. They were seen as consumers first. Always. I know a lot of people who bought into that. I mean, having stuff is still a big part of being alive, right? Always was. But the younger generations have the ability to see through it. They have to. They have larger college loans, and they have less money in their pockets. That said, those same generations grew up in the shadow of the generations before them. We all do. And those older generations always say the same stuff. “You’re too young to understand.” “You have it easy.” The issue is: that’s not true nor was it ever. But more importantly, it’s intimidating, not nurturing. It’s selfish, not selfless. It’s more about having power over young people versus realizing that younger generations are the future. When Generation X got its name and they started writing articles about us, they were awful articles. I remember walking around thinking nothing I could ever do or say would matter because everyone thought we were lazy and dumb. This same stigma has been given to the generations who followed and I think that kind of thing shuts people up. It’s like a huge newsprint adult saying, “You don’t deserve opinions, you don’t deserve a debate, what you say is 100% void.” And that’s utter bullshit.
I don’t care what age you are, you should be encouraging people of all ages to dig deeper, say what they think and disagree when they want to. Without that dialogue, we are all robots. Consumers. Gatherers of stuff.
So, how do we encourage younger generations to look deeper and disagree? We tell them: Hey. That stuff they’re writing about you in the media is utter bullshit. You deserve everything the world has to offer. Now go get it.
This or that?
Because I like silly trivia, I also asked Amy to choose between a couple of things… which she did, in her own way, sometimes 🙂
1. Tea or coffee?
I don’t drink caffeine. I used to love coffee. But now I drink chamomile tea with honey and it still wakes me up. So, tea—as long as there’s no caffeine.
2. The Beatles or The Stones?
Hendrix. I don’t mean to be difficult; I dig and respect both the Stones and the Beatles. But seriously. Hendrix.
3. Cats or dogs?
4. Star Wars or Star Trek
Both. Unless you count episodes I, II or III as Star Wars. You’d think “This or that” questions would be easier, but Star Wars gets complicated because they went and made those prequels. So all I’ll say is: I love the original Star Trek series as well as Next Generation, but The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie ever.
5. Slacker or over-achiever?
6. Truth or dare?
7. Ninjas or pirates?
How can you ask me this? I am both a ninja and a pirate. I can’t choose sides.
8. Pippi Longstocking or Matilda?
9. Past tense or present tense.
I like both. I can’t choose.
10. “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The first one. Vonnegut will always have my heart.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future is coming out later this year.
Buy it at Aaron’s Books. She’d love that.