Interview with A.S. King for Reading Matters 2017
A.S. King has been called ‘one of the best YA writers working today’ by the New York Times Book Review. King is the award-winning author of many acclaimed YA books, including Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Ask the Passengers and Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Her most recent novel is Still Life with Tornado. A.S. King will be appearing at the Reading Matters conference from 1-7 of June, including two events at the Reading Matters public day on Sunday 4 June: ‘Contemporary YA’ with Lili Wilkinson and Jennifer Niven, and a free writing workshop for under 20s, ‘Writing Strange’. She will also be part of the Reading Matters tour to South Australia with Shivaun Plozza.
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Inky: What do you love most about writing for young adults?
AK: I love that the YA world – both its readers and its publishers – allows me to write what I want to write. I tend to write very odd books and during my 15-year-long path to publication, I was turned down by many an adult publisher because my work was ‘too weird’. In the YA world, they embrace the weird. I tend to dig deep into difficult subject matter that I wouldn’t be able to write about without using surreal elements. In short, in writing for young adults I get to be myself. And I also get to encourage readers to be themselves, no matter their age.
Inky: Are there YA novels you’ve read as an adult that you think would’ve been a vital read for you or your peers when you were a teen?
AK: I went to my (very large) school library in 1985 in search of any LGBTQ books. There was one – Patience and Sarah. I wish we’d have had hundreds of them.
Inky: What are you currently reading, loving and recommending?
AK: I’ve been reading mostly adult books lately. I highly recommend The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest. (And if you like conscious poetry, pick up Let Them Eat Chaos by Tempest as well. And listen to her music.)
Inky: You mentioned in an interview how you chose Knopf because other publishers wanted you to take the adults out of Please Ignore Vera Dietz. What are your thoughts on the absent parents trope and why is it important to you to write complex parent characters in your YA books?
AK: I could go on for ages with this answer. Look. Adults in YA books aren’t new. My favourite book from my youth was Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (1977) by Paul Zindel and it’s littered with fully formed (and flawed) adult characters. That’s what made it so relatable to me as a reader. Why? Because teenagers’ lives are controlled by adults. Mine was, anyway.
I’m a rebel by nature and the minute someone told me that YA books weren’t ‘allowed’ to have adult characters or points of view, I decided that was a dumb rule and I was going to break it. The actual thing said to me was: ‘Teens only want to read about teens’. Isn’t that crazy? That was a publishing professional in NYC. And I beg to differ. As for tropes, I believe anything can work if done well, so I don’t really comment on those. But the absent parents in YA books? I just always wonder where the adults went, I guess. (I also wonder this in middle grade books, but that’s for another day.)
Inky: Your pen name spells out ‘asking’ and you mention how this is appropriate because you’re always asking questions. What are the questions you are currently asking and will you explore these further in any future writing projects?
AK: I’m presently working on YA novel and its main questions are: How do potatoes inform history? And how do grandparents affect the mental and emotional health of their grandchildren—both directly and through their relationships with the generation in the middle—the parents? (Which brings us back to that last question!) Also: what’s the meaning of life?
Inky: What do you love the most about writing ‘weird’ stories?
AK: I get to unload my head onto paper and make puzzles for myself and then solve those puzzles. This is the most exciting (and challenging) work I’ve ever done. The weirder, the better. Mostly, I love that while I may not be a bestseller because I tend to write odd stories, I do have a dedicated fan base who loves exactly what I do and they’re as wild and weird as I am. And they write me letters and say nice things about how I help them to wave their freak flags. That makes me happy. It makes me equally happy when those same readers write to me about their trauma. If I can help one person feel less alone in the world, then I feel my time on Earth is being used well.
Inky: What are some of the best questions or statements a reader has had in regards to clarifying the magical or surreal elements in your books?
AK: I get all sorts of questions about the things that happen in my books. Usually, my most frustrated readers are linear thinkers. They want all the answers! All the storylines tied in neat bows! But I write books in order to encourage free thinking and so there are often no clear answers to many questions posed within the book. I guess the biggest questions I get are: Why did Glory O’Brien drink bat remains? Were the items Lucky Linderman brought home from his dreams real? And: Are all four Sarahs really there in real time in Still Life With Tornado? The answer to all three is: Yes, I think so. :)
Inky: What are you most looking forward to about coming to Australia?
AK: I don’t know if there’s one thing. I lived in Ireland for about 15 years and many of my friends have been to Australia to visit relatives, etc. so I’ve always wondered what it’s like, generally. I’m a lover of stars, so I’m looking forward to looking at the night sky in the Southern hemisphere, so I’m hoping to get to a dark enough place to do so. I’m a lover of people, so I’m looking forward to meeting new people. I’m a fan of several Australian comedians, so I’m expecting a good laugh because the Irish and Australian sense of humour is similar and I get the jokes. I really can’t pick one thing. I think as usual, I’m most looking forward to the thing I can’t list yet – it’s always something I didn’t think of that wows me, you know?
Inky: Thanks for chatting with us A.S. King! We can’t wait to see you in June!