Friday, September 11, 2015

A. S. KING talks about her extraordinary new novel I CRAWL THROUGH IT, how technology messes up our communication skills, why it's a relief when a book doesn't suck, and so much more

"A. S. King is one of the best Y.A. writers working today."--The New York Times
. They also should have added that she's also one of the coolest, warmest, funniest people on the planet and I'm both astonished and blessed that she is my friend. A. S. King is the author of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, Ask the Passengers, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner, Everybody Sees the Ants, and the Edgar Award nominated, Michael L. Printz Honor book, Please Ignore Vera Dietz. But honestly, she is so much more than that. I am absolutely honored to consider myself her friend, to run into her in the bathroom at a book festival was the high point of my whole time there! She’s real. She’s honest. She has a heart the size of Jupiter, and the books she writes can change your life. They matter—not just to young adults but to old adults, as well.  I Crawl Through It is about not just surviving, but about being more than you can be—believing that and making it so, even if it means “crawling through’ the bad times.

So much of this extraordinary novel is about what is real, what isn’t real, what is surreal, and how we can best navigate through our lives. Do you think technology has it so wrong? Instead of bringing people closer, iPhones and computers seem to be pushing them apart. What can we do about that?

It’s so interesting that you brought up technology first. I guess the role of technology in the book doesn’t much go beyond television, the 24/7 news cycle, and the reach of social media and how it can complicate already-awful things. I have a feeling it’s damaging our culture because A. So many people are glued to the TV watching the latest story and B. A lot of reported news isn’t accurate, and it’s massively politicized. It’s ripping us apart—as a populace, as families who keep the TV on during dinner, and as individuals when we choose to get sucked in rather than go out and interact with real things.

Social media is pulling people away from human interaction while at the same time giving us the feeling of human interaction. I think it can be both bad and great. On one hand, I’ve met many wonderful people through the Internet, you included, but I’ve also become someone who can’t watch a movie at home with my kids and not check my phone at least once in those 90 minutes. So I’m not sure what this means in relation to the book—maybe that information and this Internet human interaction allows us to take less seriously the real humans with whom we’re spending time. They become less real somehow. Maybe life become less real right alongside of that.

Mixing these two paragraphs together, then, what we have is a sensational living environment. You and I both lived before the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle. I reckon those were better times, Caroline. I reckon I spent more time watching the swallows fly in from Africa to nest in my barn on the farm in Ireland. I reckon I walked to my neighbors’ houses and had a small drink in the evening. I reckon we talked about real news, then. Things we could trust that were well-researched and reported. I think we went off half-cocked far less often back then. It’s harder to do face-to-face, that’s for sure.

Which brings me to the dangerous bush man in I Crawl Through It. Some readers will see this man as a dangerous man. He is also sometimes naked, true. But he is a mythical beast. He’s the guy we blame everything on when he’s really just an innocent to whom people come for answers because he’s there and he’s listening. He’s real. He’s different. He isn’t distracted by technology because he doesn’t have any. But he’s easy to blame, and our culture doesn’t take to weird types, so he becomes the problem—an assumed perpetrator—when, in fact, in every high school and college and boardroom there are perpetrators and they are not seen as dangerous—even when we catch them. So who’s the real danger? (If we believe our culture which is reflected in our media, apparently teenage girls who wear shorts that are an inch shorter than fingertip length are to blame for many things.) We are spending so much time talking about dress codes and mythical beasts. Fake stories abound when real stories happen every day. And so: technology is often distracting us from real human issues that need to be solved right now.

This question has brought me to a lyric in a Kate Tempest song. “True never meant nothing more than it means right now, when everything's fake.”

What I also thought was crucially important was the feeling that you believe in your feelings, emotions, inklings—they all matter much more than facts, and we should be paying attention to them because of the things that they can tell us.  How can the average young person, and old person, get there?

Oh yes yes yes. We have somehow lost touch with our collective gut. Emotions are such a hassle in our new world. Emotions and reality and trauma and healing—these are things we leave for the weak. To be strong is to have no problems. Right?

I see things a bit differently. I think to be strong is to have emotions and to trust them. Hunches, inklings, red flags. If we don’t trust our guts both individually and collectively, then we’re just blindly following something that our culture has whipped up for us. We will become zombies, Caroline. If we get too sucked into others’ stories on the news or the Internet, we forget that we ever had anything to say for ourselves.

I’ve been in situations where my gut told me to be afraid when there was no obvious reason to be afraid, and yet my gut was right. I’ll tell you a story. I was working in an antique store in Philadelphia in 1994. A man buzzed to come in and I let him in. He seemed a nice man—looked around, got to the glass cabinet that held our small but somewhat valuable collection of trinkets, some of them made of ivory. He asked, “Is that ivory?” And I answered, “Nah, that’s all bone.” I was so honest-sounding about it right off the cuff. It was so weird. I remember thinking: Why did I just lie to that nice man? He left the shop. Five minutes later he came back, pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of a duffel bag, held it to my head, and told me to give him all the money in the register.

Gut feelings.   So important.

How do we get them? We listen. We stop blowing ourselves off. Geez. How many times a day do we blow off our own feelings, you know? I think the inclination to do this starts in childhood. There’s the solution. Stop teaching kids to blow off emotions. Anxiety and depression are fueled by this behavior. Our mental health issues are not going to get any better if we keep doing this. And what helps make it worse? The TV segments that use cynical sentiments when talking about victims of crime or advocates of change—people with feelings and valid reasons for those feelings. It all goes together. It’s a cultural problem, really.

The way to take the power back is to talk openly about what we feel and teach our children to do the same. Feelings are a body part like any other. If we want to be healthy, we need to treat them well and take them seriously. And for the love of the gods, we need to stop telling teenagers that what they feel and think doesn’t matter. I’m so tired of the eye-rolling. They are still young enough to have feelings and trust them. Why dull that?

You’ve been called the most original YA writer today and you’ve got so many starred reviews, you really could start your own galaxy.  (This title alone has FIVE, count them, FIVE starred reviews).  So I want to ask two things-do all those stars make you feel pressured or do they allow you to branch out? Was writing this particular book different than the last?

I’m always surprised when my books are well-received. Part of my process is to loathe a book for quite some time after I finish it, so it’s just always a relief to find out that my book doesn’t suck.

To answer your questions: The stars don’t make me feel pressured, I don’t think. I’m just always surprised. They don’t mess with my writing process. I write what I write and I hope for the best like I always did. They do help me branch out, though. No doubt about it. I Crawl Through It is a book I never thought I’d be able to publish due to its surrealism. But I wrote it anyway and look what happened. I am being allowed to stretch as a writer and that’s the nicest feeling.

Writing this book was different to writing all my books. I’d quit writing. I got fed up with the Heller-like world of publishing where nothing makes sense. I’d written 18 novels by this time. I figured number 19 would show up one day if it felt like it. It wasn’t a dramatic quitting. It was very quiet. I didn’t tell anyone but my husband. Anyway, two days after I quit, the book started to write itself. Those first paragraphs about Gustav building the helicopter—an invisible helicopter—came out. So I kept writing it and really doubted anyone would buy it and I didn’t care, either. Number 19 would be for me and me only. But then my editor bought it after reading about 70 pages. This next part was the biggest and best difference when writing this book. I said to my editor, “Look, I can’t write the rest of this book if we talk about it now. Can you trust me to just finish it and we can go from there?”

I write all my books by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline and this book, being surrealist, was particularly interesting because I really had to trust myself all the way to the end—which is why I asked my editor to trust me. And in the end, it worked. She was thrilled. I was thrilled and now it’s out in the world.

You’ve said to me that in writing this book, you had this gut feeling,  that “this is important. This is the book that is going to reach those who need to be reached.” I absolutely agree and was so moved toward the end that I was near tears—and I also had this yearning for this book to have been around when I was a teen. It really would have helped me. Can you talk about that please?

One of the coolest things about writing fiction for all ages but having it come through a young adult publisher is that teenagers read my books and write me letters. And adults write me letters, too. I get very lovely letters. I get very painful letters, too. I take these letters very seriously. There is so much pain out there, Caroline. There is suffering that everyone blows off and when a human being can read a book and feel understood, and they write to you to say “You are the first person I’ve ever said this to, but your character is me and this book changed my life” it’s a pretty amazing thing. I go to schools and libraries and I meet a lot of teenagers and adult readers in my travels. I hear about their pain. I think that if we talked openly about our pain, the world would be a safer place because then we would all realize that everyone has pain. Maybe we would treat each other better. Maybe we would just believe in other people’s pain and not mock them or ask them to keep it to themselves as if it’s something they should be ashamed of. I could have really used books like this when I was a teen, too. But as an adult, this book changed my life and that’s weird because I know I’m the one who wrote it. Something in it freed me to just bleed on paper. (Probably the structure. Something about having a surreal structure allowed the real truth to come forward or something.) Something in me changed after I read it—even after the 100th revision. I don’t know. How do I explain a gut feeling to you? It’s just a gut feeling. I still don’t know why I lied about the ivory to the guy who robbed me with the shotgun, you know? This book has something for me—it’s the book that made me say “If I never wrote another book after this, I can die happy.”

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I am presently obsessed by Kate Tempest’s album, Everybody Down. I found it about a month ago and can’t stop listening to it. Her poetry is phenomenal and her delivery in that South London accent and slang connects me to myself somehow. It’s raw, it’s heavy, and it’s real. The album is about several characters and carries a story with a beginning and an end and it’s just the best album I’ve heard in a long, long time. I’m completely obsessed by it.

It helps that so much of it feels like I Crawl Through It to me. There’s even a line in “The Beigeness” that talks about how we pickle ourselves in jars because it’s safer. Sound familiar? So so good.

I love the line, “We could have been so much more but no one would let us fly.”  How can people be aware of those forces that don’t let us fly, and fly through them?

I think everyone has a thing. My thing is writing. I knew I wanted to do it when I was about 14 for sure, but I’d been holing myself up in my closet for years before then reading and writing thoughts and poems down when I could. I moved on to dedicated journal-writing as an older teenager. But in the outside world, so many realities work against a writer. The impossibility of it all, you know? I wrote my fist novel when I was 24. I wrote 8 novels over 15 years before I ever got published. In those 15 years, what did I have that made me keep doing it? Even when people started to avoid eye-contact and stop asking “Are you published yet?” because they were embarrassed for me? I have no idea. Determination? (Probably a little.) A habit I can’t break? (More likely.) A level of self-knowledge or worth that I couldn’t ignore? (Yes.) Self worth is important. Self worth allows us to do the things we love even if we don’t think we’re very good at them at first. It’s not ego. I’m still a simple country girl who says please and thank you. I’m no one special. But I have self worth because I allowed myself to fly and I sure liked the feeling of flying. It’s hard to stop once you’ve started.

As for the characters in this book—modern teenagers—their flight is greatly inhibited by this farce of standardized testing and curriculum designed only to pass those tests. Those test scores are then tied to that student and their teachers and their schools forever. Can you think of a worse environment for flight? I can’t. I come from a family of educators. I understand the need for classroom assessment. But there are ways to do this without putting students in a jar and labeling it before that student even reaches high school. It’s gross. It’s negligible. And it’s no way to build a future as a society. It undermines talented teachers. It undermines students’ things. It’s skewed toward the students who have families at home to help them study and three square meals a day. It leaves behind some of the greatest minds we could ever tap—the bored kids, the kids who work jobs, the kids who come from difficult backgrounds, the kids in pain—who couldn’t care less about standardized tests. Not caring about school? That’s flying. I did that. I graduated in the lowest third of my class. That’s where so many of our thinkers are.

We’re allowing this zombification to happen to our country—dueling media causing massive conflict between people who are being used by those media outlets as game pieces. We need thinkers. We need people who aren’t afraid to say no to the games. We need people to protest what’s wrong. Where have we historically found those people? Usually in the younger demographic. And we are testing them to death [while blowing off everything real in their lives.]

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You asked all the right questions. You made me think and I thank you for that, Caroline. You know how much I treasure you and your work and I’m so proud to call you my friend. I can’t wait to bump into you in the ladies room again. Thank you so much for having me to the blog. xo

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