An Interview with YA Author A.S. King

A.S. King and Glory O'Brien
Despite the questioning nature of the name “A.S. King,” the author’s evocative, unique, magical-realism-inflected works are often the answer—whether you’re looking for a thoughtfully written work with multiple perspectives (Please Ignore Vera Dietz), or a stellar LGBT addition to your YA shelves (Ask the Passengers). And now, King is back with Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, about a girl who develops the ability to see into people’s futures, and discovers that the future of America itself is a war-riddled one in which women are forbidden to work. So whether the question is “What novel would you recommend that’s thoughtful and touching, well written and feminist?” or simply, “What were your favorite reads of 2014?” you’ll have a brand-new answer come October 14. Until then, we sat down to do some “asking” of our own, and King was gracious enough to provide us with some answers.

It’s clear that your incredible characters are really the ones who lead your books, but in Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, the main character has visions of a second civil war being waged in the U.S. that also feel like a response to current events. What drove that particular narrative of the U.S. being divided along gender lines?

I wrote this book in 2011, so the book has nothing to do with recent events in U.S. (or world) politics. It’s kind of strange to write a book with a near-parody of the future of women’s rights and then have some of those ideas mirrored in the news before the book even comes out, I can tell you that.

You’re right—my characters lead me rather than me leading them, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future is no different. So I’m afraid I can’t answer the specific question you’re asking because there was nothing that drove the narrative other than Glory.

As I wrote Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future I realized early on that the narrator, Glory, was a character I’d written in 2004 in a novel for adults. In the 2004 novel, Glory was just three years old, the daughter of a photographer who was slowly losing her battle with depression. That book’s title was Why People Take Pictures. Since you’ve read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, you might recognize that title because it’s the title of Glory’s mother’s darkroom sketchbook. As for gender lines or the denial of gender equality or any of that, this has been something I’ve always been dealing with. I’m a woman. I got used to it. Glory is getting used to it. It’s not all that different than it was in 1977 when my mother wore her ERA pin to work. In some ways it’s worse, in some ways it’s better. But I don’t write books about politics or recent events. Glory led me through this book like any of my characters led me through other novels. When she started having visions, I wrote them down. This is my process.

Photography figures heavily into Glory O’Brien, in different ways, for and by different characters. What is it for you in your life?

I went to college for photography and I felt very comfortable in a darkroom and worked in many over the years. My favorite part of photography was the solitude in the darkroom, really; I didn’t like taking pictures as much as I liked printing them. Now, with digital photography, I have a love/hate relationship with pictures. On one hand I adore that I can take quality images with my phone and take 100 pictures in the span of five minutes if I want, and then store them on my computer. That’s just cool. On the other hand, I’m tired of seeing people miss out on real life because they are so busy taking pictures of an event that they could just be watching. It seems so sad. When my kid is on stage acting I want to watch her and pay full attention, not see it through my phone. This, in a way, was the idea behind that 2004 novel I mentioned earlier. Why People Take Pictures explores the idea the title implies—why take pictures when life is fleeting? I suppose I’m still struggling with this idea. On one hand, I look back at pictures of my kids as babies or toddlers and I’m so glad to have those pictures, but really I wish I had more time to spend with my kids right now, every day. Life vs. pictures of life. It’s an idea I’ve wrestled with for more than 25 years.

Something that strikes me as recurring in your works is a strong element of distance in the central best friendship, such as between Glory and Ellie, or Vera and Charlie. What do you think makes a deep platonic connection so challenging at that age?

This is a great question. I’m not sure these characters’ relationships relate to each other. In the case of Charlie and Vera, the issue was one friend believing lies from a newer group of friends. In the case of Ellie and Glory, the issue was: they had no one else on their road to hang out with while growing up,so even though they didn’t really match as friends, they hung out anyway. I didn’t find deep friendships difficult at that age, so I have no personal experience with friendships being challenging in the teen years. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but the ones I did have are still with me. In fact, I’d wager that deep friendships might be easier to find in the teen years. The older my friends and I get, the more we need each other because few newer friends understand us as deeply. I believe Glory and Ellie will one day reunite and will have each other for life and will call each other on their birthdays.

I often refer to Ask the Passengers as the book I most wish had been around for people who might’ve needed it when we were teens. Are there YAs you’ve read as Adult Amy that you think would’ve been a vital read for you or your peers when you were a teen?

First, thank you for the kind words about Ask the Passengers. I think on a whole, I really could have used a YA collection like we have in today’s YA stacks—a large selection. I think had I had that selection, I’d have read a lot more books for fun. I feel lucky that Paul Zindel’s books were there; he was the author who made me feel normal in the uncomfortable environment of my teen years. As for modern YA, I would have loved Matt de la Peña’s We Were Here as a teen. And Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. And David Levithan’s Every Day.

It’s one of my favorite phenomena that a huge proportion of YA writers seem to have met their life partners as teens, and you’re no exception, having met your husband at 17. How do you think it affects the way you write romantic relationships between characters, if at all? Were you and your husband any sort of YA trope?

I had no idea that this was a phenomenon. I’m not really up on YA love tropes, but I doubt we were one. My husband and I met while working at a summer camp, and since he was from Ireland he had to go back to Ireland when the summer was over. We didn’t see each other again for five years. During those five years we wrote each other letters on thin airmail paper. He never saw me off the camp’s property; never saw my high school, never passed me a note between classes, never attended a dance with me. We weren’t high school sweethearts. I don’t write romance in my books all that much—probably because I’m shy about it. Many people have asked me to write a book about how my husband and I met, but I never can seem to put it into words. Or I don’t want to. The whole thing is too sacred to me. Kissing and telling has never been my thing.

You lived and wrote in Ireland for ten years before moving back to the States. How different are your writing spaces and styles? And snacks?

I started writing books twenty years ago in my bedroom in a Dublin flat. I had no writing style then, really, though all of my stories did have an element of very vague magic realism/surrealism to them because that’s what I most enjoyed reading. Those first four novels were good ideas but I had no style yet. Then we moved to the farm. I built my first office—I wired it and put a skylight in the sloped ceiling—and then within months of moving myself in, I discovered it was going to become…a nursery. So, I wrote anywhere I could after that. But my style was improving. My fifth and sixth novels had a voice and my style was developing, which was a relief. When I moved back to the States, I had a great office in the log cabin we rented. I settled in and was really making it my own until I discovered…it would be a nursery. At that point, I moved into the basement, which was unfinished, smelly, hundreds of years old, two inches shorter than I was, and was often visited by mice and snakes. In that office I wrote Vera Dietz and Ants and Reality Boy. I think that basement office, for all its faults, might have been the best one. I could lock myself in and it was too cold down there to waste time. Now, I finally have an office that will stay mine. It needs a paint job, but I don’t think I’ll get to that for a while. As for snacks, what an interesting question! I don’t eat while I write. I need my fingers to type.

The deal for your next book, I Crawl Through It, about four teens escaping the world of standardized tests, was recently announced. What can you share about it?

I Crawl Through It is a surrealist novel. I love surrealism and it seems in my twenty years of writing novels, I was always moving in this direction. The teens in the book aren’t just trying to escape standardized testing, they’re also escaping school violence—intruder drills and bomb threats—and their lives, in general. In a standardized society, those who don’t fit into the little ovals feel freakish. Except the ovals are really a lie. No one has a perfect life, no matter how many advertisements seem to want to sell us one.

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future is out October 14 and available now for preorder.

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