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Being a Teenager is Surreal: An Interview with A. S. King

Assigning books in the youth department at Booklist can sometimes prove to be a tense process, since we’re all passionate readers and love some of the same authors. But the atmosphere is never stormier than when a new A. S. King novel arrives. When Still Life with Tornado appeared on the mail cart, my colleague Julia and I, both huge fans of King’s work, nearly came to blows over who’d get to review it—well, insofar as two bookish women can nearly come to blows, anyway.

still-lifeAdding fuel to an already fiery competition was this complication: the book is dedicated to someone named Julia (point for Julia!), but the main character’s name is Sarah (point for me!). After some polite but decidedly strained conversations, I prevailed (though Julia gets dibs on the next one). I’m glad I did, because Still Life with Tornado was just my kind of book. While following the trials of a mixed-up teenager who meets her past and future selves—a story told through Sarah’s narration and her mother, Helen’s—King doles out trenchant wisdom about art, self-acceptance, and facing trauma in a tone that never condescends to her readers. Check out my enthusiastically starred review.

If that isn’t enough to convince you pick up Still Life with Tornado (out today!), then take a peek at what King has to say about it herself. Over a series of emails and phone conversations, King and I chatted about her new book, her writing process, and the importance of empathy when writing YA.

What inspired Still Life with Tornado

I don’t remember writing most of this book. I remember being in Mexico and starting the novel. I remember the one clue Sarah, the main character, gave me in those early words. She told me she wasn’t an only child. She told me she had a brother. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out who her brother was, or why he wasn’t around. While I was waiting, her mother started to talk to me, so I wrote it down and then the book just took on a life of its own.

The subject matter of the book was accidental, but at the same time, I’d just had an experience in the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant with my then-six year old daughter. We were in the stall taking turns peeing, and a woman came into the bathroom briefly to scold and then hit her child. Only at the end, maybe only ten seconds after she came in, did I hear that the girl was quite young—non-verbal—and then the two left the bathroom area. I did hear the mother call her by name. Her name is Julia. That’s who I dedicated the book to, even though I do not know the girl . . . I reckon there are a million Julias out there experiencing the same thing.

A. S. KingThe other piece of inspiration came from a VCFA graduate lecture I attended where attendees were asked to write a scene at a bus stop where they met their future self. . . I had no idea at the time that a book would come out of it, but I loved the idea of being able to meet past and future selves. Maybe I’ve been in therapy too long, but the inner child is an important part of life, I think.

While I don’t remember the actual writing moments of the book, I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t a highly personal part of me on the page. In many ways, Sarah, her mother, and I were discovering the same thing at the same time. . . but in different degrees. Sarah and Helen inspired me to change my life as I wrote them, and in turn I got to do them the same favor.

So how do you write? 

My process is pure seat-of-the-pants. I don’t outline or plot, [but] I do start out with a clear idea of character. . . The main character’s voice shows up when I’m not expecting it, and I write in their voice until the main idea of what’s happening to them is on paper. Inside of five or ten pages, the character gives me clues about their life. They give me questions to ask about why they might be feeling a certain way or doing a certain thing that oftentimes seems unacceptable in our society.

Please Ignore Vera’s Dietzs Vera, for example, is a practical young woman who is very smart, and yet she drinks while she drives. Why? That’s the best kind of character for me—one that seems to contradict herself and my own moral code.

In the case of Still Life with Tornado, Sarah has given up on school and art because she can’t draw anymore. She is [stuck] on an idea her art teacher shared, that there is no such thing as an original idea. This renders her useless as an artist. As a writer, I ask why?

There’s a scene very early on where she gives me this clue: “At the top of the stairs there is a decorative mirror on the wall and a trio of pictures of my parents and me. I am not an only child.” She has a brother but he doesn’t come around anymore. My writer brain says: why doesn’t he come around anymore? And I follow the clues. In the case of Sarah, her 10-year-old self gave me a lot of clues, and I knew I was onto something once she showed up and started to talk to Sarah. Then my process relies on faith. I usually don’t know what I’m going to write on any given day ,and I don’t know how a book is going to end until I get to the end. I just trust my characters will take me there.

Visual art is important in so many of your books. How does art inform your writing?

I’ve always been a visual person, a visual learner, and I live some of my richest moments in colorful dreams while I sleep, many of which show up in my books. Emotion brought on by a certain musical key or a certain painting or image is the cornerstone of character for me.

The closest thing I ever had to a mentor was a very wonderful man and genius abstract painter named Tony O’Malley. He was a friend and a neighbor in Ireland while I lived there, and he taught me how to be an artist. On his tombstone it reads, “Never be swayed by anything but by your own work and vision.” It is my favorite quote of his, though he always said wise things about art.

It’s because of him that I don’t separate writing and visual art—to me these are the same thing. In painting, one expresses story and emotion in color and form; in writing, one expresses story and emotion in words that shape visual ideas. Metaphors are essentially paintings: ideas that an artist can’t just say, but must imply through the medium with which they work.

I was in a writing group in Dublin, and [the other writers] were all older than me. . . I had written this poem, because I started really reading about Irish history and I got real pissed off, as you would. And it was a horrible poem, one of the worst poems ever. It was an anger poem, really. I brought it to the group, and I started reading the poem aloud, and within 2 lines I’m like, “Forget it.” And they’re like, “Nope, you have to read it.” I thought that because I said, “This is horrible I’m sorry,” that they weren’t going to critique it, and I was wrong. Anya Miller, a poet who still knocks me back, she turned to me and said, “Poetry isn’t about explaining your feelings. Poetry is about making pictures in people’s minds.”

I have a visual example of Still Life with Tornado. This photograph was taken in the Philadelphia Museum of Art the day my daughter turned 11:

A. S. King

This picture represents much of the book to me. If I see her as 10-year-old Sarah and I see how she’s moving away from the painting, moving toward more important things—toward the truth that 16-year-old Sarah needs to see—then I can see myself behind her, picking up her clues. Also, this is obviously Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl,” and it represents many things to do with the book. If 10-year-old Sarah is moving away from the sleeping muse and taking 16-year-old Sarah to a place of more important pursuits, then she is doing her job.

That said, I wasn’t writing the book during this visit to the museum. I only found the picture as I was writing the book and realized that much of my process revolves around cosmic and psychic trust between myself and my subconscious.

Surrealism isn’t something I see often in YA novels, but the way you deploy it makes it seem like such a natural fit. Do you think there’s something in teenage experiences or books for teens that’s inherently surreal?

I suppose surrealism and teen life are a natural fit. Being a teenager in a culture so openly disrespectful toward the teen experience isn’t easy and it’s pretty surreal. I hear plenty of adults say: Teenagers are full of angst and drama! I can’t stand them! But to me, that’s an angsty and dramatic statement. Who’s really being angsty here? Teenagers for simply growing older and sussing out their own worlds or adults who could have a better understanding of those years because they once lived it themselves?

As a writer, surrealism is a fantastic lens with which to explore tough truths in our lives. We live in a society that seems perfectly fine with statistics that should shock every one of us. Rape, violence, and sexual abuse are rampant. Physical abuse, neglect, verbal and emotional abuse are also rampant. And we’re supposed to ignore it. I never forget these statistics. I never forget either that many people experience these things before they are eighteen years old and are ignoring it because the world tells them to. That in itself is some pretty surreal shit, right there. It’s like living a half-life or something. When I speak to students in schools, that’s what I see: about a third of them living half-lives because they don’t feel allowed to talk about what happened to them already.

Adults live the same half-lives. Sometimes they send me letters about how my book opened them up to talking about that taboo thing that they’ve never really gotten over . . . from 20 or 30 years prior. I have no idea why we encourage teenagers to shut up about what’s happened to them. I assume it’s because since most adults are also living half-lives, they simply want to keep things light and easy when really, light and easy only comes, I think, once one faces one’s own demons.

When I visit schools, I talk openly about how we all have issues. I also tell teenagers that I am well aware of the fact that they have problems and have experienced traumatic things that people don’t want to hear about or that adults downplay. I simply explain that those secrets will trip them up later in life—that secrets cause shame and guilt and this will weigh heavy on their lives and potential as human beings. When it comes to literature about teens, I find it vexing that some believe that real and “heavy” subject matter shouldn’t be explored—as if teenagers haven’t already lived some of those heavy things, as if they don’t have friends who are experiencing them. If critics of YA literature continue to moan about “dark” subject matter, will writers stop writing it? No. I don’t think they will. But why are they moaning in the first place? Do they live in some utopia I don’t know about?

I was in a junior high school in Iowa last week and I asked students to write about their half-lives. The other half. The half no one knows about. I always stress that they never have to show the piece to anyone if they don’t want to, but oftentimes they give it to me on their way out of a session. Sometimes they even share it aloud.

We need to step up as adults and give teenagers their voices back.

I can’t tell you how insanely heavy some of the things I heard and read were last week. From the devastation of divorce, the death of a parent, coming from neglectful or abusive homes to the effects of mental illness or addiction in their own lives or their guardians’ lives to extreme bullying and suicide attempts ignored, as if all this is just some teenage rite of passage. We need to step up as adults and give teenagers their voices back. We’ve spent decades dismantling them as consumer-driven, dramatic know-it-alls with our eye rolls and the kissing of teeth. It’s about time we gave them some credit for being humans—the same as we are—who experience many things.

I think it’s important to make that connection between childhood and adulthood. The first time I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I was standing in the lunch line in eighth grade, and I had a legal tablet, and I wrote down this line that said, “I want to write books that help adults understand teenagers better, and teenagers understand adults better.” Only after writing four books, three of them published, did I realize that by putting adult characters and giving them a true voice in these books that are marketed toward young adults, meant that I actually achieved the dream I had in eighth grade.

One of the things I find particularly infuriating about YA literature narrative is that books for and about teens are just fun, fluffy junk that don’t matter in the long run.

I am a firm believer that YA is about teenagers, not specifically for them. That helps me in a way, because yes it’s for them, but yes it’s for my mom too, and it’s for me, and it’s for parents, especially. For anybody who is dealing with teenagers, I think YA could really open their eyes to reality.

About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as editor of the Books for Youth and Graphic Novels sections at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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