In Atlantic City, Amy and I discovered that we both enjoy whiskey, have an affinity for Ireland and things Irish, and should really play a game of H.O.R.S.E. against each other at some future point.
When I read A.S. King's latest book I was truly blown away. Not often do you read a novel that can successfully test the limits of genre, bend reality, or deliver a true and powerful emotional payoff. Amy manages all three and much more. Check out the starred reviews below--they're well deserved. You should be reading her work.
Synopsis followed by the interview:
Lucky didn't ask for his life. He didn't ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn't ask for a father who never got over it. He didn't ask for a mother who keeps pretending their dysfunctional family is fine. And he didn't ask to be the target of Nader McMillan's relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.
But Lucky has a secret - one that helps him wade through the daily mundane torture of his life. In his dreams, Lucky escapes to the war-ridden jungles of Laos - the prison his grandfather couldn't escape - where Lucky can be a real man, an adventurer, and a hero. It's dangerous and wild, and it's a place where his life might just be worth living.
But how long can Lucky keep hiding in his dreams before reality forces its way inside?
Michael L. Printz Honor recipient A.S. King's smart, funny, and boldly original writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you and taking a stand against it.
“Blending magic and realism, this is a subtly written, profoundly honest novel."—Booklist (starred)
“King remarkably channels fifteen-year-old Lucky, creating one of the most believable teen male characters in young adult fiction.”—VOYA (starred)
“It’s a smart, funny, and passionate novel that embodies the idea that “It Gets Better”—when you take action.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“King's heartfelt tale easily blends realism and fantasy.... A haunting but at times funny tale about what it means to want to take one's life, but rising above it so that living becomes the better option.”—School Library Journal (starred)
Q: The ants in your book serve as a very imaginative and effective Greek chorus. They are hilarious—great comic relief—and steal many scenes. But I must ask, why ants? Did you ever consider EVERYBODY SEES THE LADYBUGS? Or EVERYBODY SEES THE MOSQUITOES? Or EVERYBODY SEES THE THREE-CENTIMETER HIGH PEOPLE? Were ants your first choice? Why ants?
A.S.K.: The ants showed up in that first scene naturally—at the pool next to the men’s bathroom while Lucky Linderman has his face down on the concrete—so they were the obvious choice. I spend quite a bit of time at my community swimming pool because I volunteer to help run it. And while there are no ants running around menacing picnickers on a regular basis, if you drop the tiniest bit of food and visit it thirty minutes later, you will find ants. They do wander over by the water fountain, too, which is where Lucky sees them that first time. So, like a lot of things in my books, the ants chose me, not the other way around.
Q: Lucky is physically bullied by his peers, but he is also bullied in less obvious ways. Many of the characters—both teens and adults—experience various forms of bullying. Why did you feel the need to write about bullying? What led to your taking on the subject matter?
A.S.K.: I’m a terribly frustrating interviewee at times like this, because I write without any knowledge of what’s going to happen next in my books. So, what leads me to “take on” any subject matter is the simple fact that my character has arrived there without me doing much thinking about it at all. That’s not to say I don’t stop and think about it when it happens. I do. So, more directly to your question, I never felt the need to write about bullying. I wrote my first two pages--which are now somewhere later in the book--about Lucky’s father and his grandfather and how the dynamic of Granddad Harry’s missing status affects his family, especially his grandson, over 40 years later. The dreams were then born. I wasn’t sure how they were going to work for the story or why Lucky was having them...but then, as I started to write about Lucky’s everyday life in school and at home, I realized that he was dreaming to escape the bullying and subsequent neglect, and to be the person he couldn’t be in real life. So, in that way, the bullying itself was secondary because when I write, I write about the character and I don’t have my eye on issues.
That said, once the first draft was finished, I realized that the book had a strong anti-torture/anti-bullying feel to it. I wanted to embrace that because the older I get, the more these things irk me. Why do we have bullying, torture, rape, abuse, neglect? Why do we, as a culture, allow these things to exist? Why to we condone them by doing nothing? By pretending we can’t do more? We can do more. We can do a lot more.
Q: Your use of the Vietnam War as the psychological backdrop for Lucky was particularly well done. Readers can’t help but draw comparisons between POWs and abused kids—two subjects that not enough people discuss. What led you to write about Vietnam?
A.S.K.: I grew up in the 1970’s, and I remember the homecoming parades for soldiers and the end of the war—from a child’s perspective. I was also always interested in the draft because my father was drafted in the early 60’s and I could never really wrap my head around why my parents had to stop their lives and move to Fort This or Fort That. I asked them a lot about it, but I never really understood it until recently. For some reason, having these early memories and having these questions about the draft made me fascinated with the Vietnam War and I’ve read a lot about it in the last two decades. I guess all that fascination came out in this book.
Q: You discuss the Vietnam draft in the book, which was based on date of birth. Many Vietnam veterans simply had the wrong birthday. Being in Vietnam was like winning a bad lottery for which they hadn’t even bought a ticket. Your main character Lucky seems to have won a different sort of bad lottery, which gives his name a heightened symbolic (and ironic) value. Can you talk a little about randomness and bullying? Why did you choose to name your protagonist Lucky?
A.S.K.: Call me an optimist, but I think Lucky finds out by the end of the book that he’s actually quite lucky. There are several conversations he has with Granddad Harry, while they’re in the jungle, where Granddad looks at him with utter confusion because Granddad can’t understand why Lucky would think he’s as unlucky as Granddad is. Granddad didn’t choose his fate. Lucky can. That said, bullying is often random. Many victims are just the next person through the door. In Lucky’s case, he gets no help from the adults around him—to the point of absurd. And that’s also a realistic picture of what happens to bullying victims. It’s random. It’s unfair. It seems hopeless. But it’s not. It’s not hopeless. And that’s what Lucky finds out. Sadly, he has to take care of things himself. But he takes care of them, which is what makes him lucky.
Q: The word “vagina” appears a lot in the book. Also playing a role: THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, which, of course, is about empowerment. Lucky seems to have a hard time getting people to understand his needs, especially his parents, which is maybe why he sees talking ants and lives part-time in a world of magical realism. Were you trying to make a point about the extremes to which unheard people must go in order to be acknowledged? Will you talk a little about that?
A.S.K.: We’ll get this out of the way (frustrating interviewee alert): I never try to make a point. When Lucky got into the car with Ginny Clemens and her friends, I had no idea where they were going. But at the time, I was working with my local V-Day and we were putting on THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES. I’m always so excited about how many young people the show draws, and I think they influenced this part of the book. I reckon it must be an amazing experience for them, and it’s always nice to meet their parents in the lobby and say, “You totally rock for encouraging your daughter (or son—we have them too) to be a part of this show.” Last year, we ran I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE, which is a show just for teens and it was completely inspiring to see so many teenagers involved in their own empowerment. While some people may think the V-Day movement is just for middle-aged women, I’m happy to report that idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
I can’t say I see the show as an extreme, though. There’s a truck parked outside my kid’s preschool every day that has a bumper sticker that says, “My Other Toy Has Tits” so I can’t see, in a world where that bumper sticker exists, how we can call THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES extreme, and I can’t figure out who makes the rules of what extremes are “acceptable” and what extremes aren’t “acceptable.” But the short answer to your question is…your question is the first time I ever thought about the extremes people must go to in order to be heard. But when writing the book, I did see a connection between injustice of war, injustice of bullying and the injustice of the overlooked one in three epidemic of violence against girls and women.
Q: I know you love Kurt Vonnegut’s work. This book felt Vonnegut-esque, and this Vonnegut fan means that in the best possible way. (High praise!) Did Vonnegut inspire ESTA? If so, which KV novels influenced the writing and how? If not, what are your top three Vonnegut novels and why?
A.S.K.: High praise indeed! I do love KV. More than a lot of things. He probably inspires everything I do, including how I brush my teeth. I can’t say KV inspired this book directly, but his love of humanism did. I share that love of humanism and it comes out in most of my work—and I can see it quite vividly in ANTS. I’ll stick SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE over on the “books that probably influenced ANTS” shelf alongside CATCH-22. My top three KV books, in order are: GOD BLESS YOU MR. ROSEWATER, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and DEADEYE DICK.
Q: You publish under the initials A.S. instead of using your first name. Why?
A.S.K.: It really just happened that way. A.S. stands for my full name: Amy Sarig. So, I married a guy with a really common last name and by the time I got to America seven years ago, there was already an Amy King writer or two around. I figured I shouldn’t take their names. So I went with A.S. Also, it spells “asking” and I’m a nerd.
Q: When I read ESTA I kept thinking it’s an important book. I would have loved to put in my students’ hands back when I was teaching high school English. It’s the type of read that promotes discussion. It’s good brain food. Do you think of your books as mental health vegetables? Do you take on issues like bullying hoping to improve the lives of teens, or do you simply try to tell a good story?
A.S.K.: I’m so glad you think it’s an important book. Thank you! I just try to tell a good story. (I bet you knew I’d say that.) The other stuff comes from somewhere I can’t really explain. But I do think that once a book is out and shaped and polished, it can certainly be used as a helpful tool when it comes to mental health. I’ve had a lot of teenagers talk to me about what’s happened to them already in their lives, and I like to reach out and say hi once a year with something honest.
Q: Best writing advice you ever received?
A.S.K.: Never be swayed by anything but by your own work and vision—Tony O’Malley, my old friend and one hell of an abstract painter.
Q: Wise advice. What’s next for A.S. King?
A.S.K.: ASK THE PASSENGERS comes in Fall 2012. It’s about Astrid Jones, high school senior, who sends her love to the passengers in the airplanes flying overhead. It’s a book about small town gossip, affectionless families and love. And maybe Socrates too.
Q: Thanks so much for stopping by the blog!
A.S.K.: Thank you so much for having me! I am so stoked about BOY21 next year. Can’t wait to tell everyone I know to read it.
Q: You rock!
You can find A.S. King on Twitter, Facebook and at http://www.as-king.com/
Readers, you really want to buy A. S. King's books: Aaron's Books - Indiebound
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