In honour of the release of her latest novel, I Crawl Through It (available today, and recently reviewed here), A.S. King stops by to chat about the book and much, much more.
With students recently heading back to school, and the many and varied anxieties facing teens today, I Crawl Through It feels especially timely. Could you tell us a little about the book?
This is a difficult book to describe. It always has been. I used to say it was about an invisible helicopter and a walking digestive system. While that’s partially true, it’s about a lot more than that. I think I used that description to make sure people knew the book is written in a surrealist style. So let me try again. Four teenagers live in a random suburban development. At school, they are forced to participate in intruder drills and standardized test preparation and tests. And then, there are daily bomb threats which find the students often taking classes outside. As we follow the lives of these four students in the spring of their senior year, we find each has his or her own genius. Gustav is a physics genius and is building an invisible helicopter in his garage. Stanzi is a biology genius who will not take off her white lab coat. China is inside out—she is a poet and depending on the day she can be any part of the digestive system. (Anus days are awkward.) And Lansdale is a home economics genius with a pathological lying problem. All of these students are suffering from the wounds of their testing/drill environment—as are the adults in the school—but they are also suffering from the everyday trauma that many teenagers face. I’ve left out huge chunks of the book in this description, but for once, I think I did pretty well. I should mention that there is a man who gives alphabet sculptures from behind a bush. Sometimes he’s naked. But he’s generally an okay guy.
As for timeliness, I have a real issue with how far our country is going when it comes to standardized tests. I’m not sure if you saw the recent John Oliver piece about it (so worth the watch—trust me) but it’s staggering just how many tests American students have to take and it’s sad that most of their education is controlled by preparing for these tests. It’s just as sad, if you ask me, that talented and competent teachers are also assessed by these tests…based on how their students perform. It’s outrageous and ridiculous to compare a student who has family support and three square meals a day to students who come from difficult backgrounds or work full time jobs. To then stamp these students, and their teachers, (and their schools) with “ratings” based on student performance is just plain wrong. As a former literacy teacher, I know full well that some of the smartest people I ever knew had limited literacy and numeracy skills. This isn’t about intelligence testing; this is about assimilation testing. This testing seems to forget that we are individual human beings. Which brings me to the money. Follow the money. There are a few companies who are making billions from this testing culture. They don’t care about students or teachers or schools or the state of education. It’s just dollar signs. And so: we’re sending our children through this mill of madness so some people—most of whom are not educators—can make tons of cash. In the meantime, as a culture, we are ignoring what it’s doing to our children.
PREEEEACH. Also, can I have you and John Oliver team up to explain the world to me until the end of time?
How did you cope with your own problems when you were a teen? Did you deal with them in a similar way as any of the characters?
I had an interesting teenhood. I was the youngest of three and my siblings were a bit older than me, so I had a different experience to them—I was the only kid in the house during my teen years. I dealt with my teen problems in both unhealthy and healthy ways. Unhealthy: smoking cigarettes. (Yuck.) Healthy: I wrote in journals. A lot. I have at least 10 full journals from 10th-12th grade. I felt alone often. But I also loved being alone. I still do.
The second question is interesting considering the book. Did I deal with my problems the same as my characters? I’d say: yes, in a way. I’ve turned inside out before. I’ve kept secrets because I was scared not to. I’ve blown off trauma my whole life and it’s now catching up with me. (Readers of this interview: Don’t blow off your trauma. Even if you think it’s trivial or “over.” It will catch up with you. Talk to someone. Anyone.) Maybe my moving to Ireland in my early 20’s can be compared to flying away in an invisible helicopter. Maybe carrying a lucky rock with me everywhere I go could be compared to Stanzi never taking off her lab coat. There’s a lot of metaphor in the book. And I think nearly everyone has dealt with their problems in interesting, and at times, surreal ways.
As a parent and an educator (in addition to being a kickass writer, obvs), how do you think adults can help kids manage their stress?
I think parents and adults must first take teenagers seriously. We live in a culture of rolling our eyes at teenagers. We live in a culture where teen feelings are blown off as hormones or drama and this is really vexing to me—not to mention disrespectful to human beings who happen to be teens. So first step: talk to teenagers. Second and most important step: listen to teenagers. They need a safe place to talk about what hurts them. A safe place has no eye-rolling and has a warm, loving hug. I also think books help—especially reading relevant books together. This all seems so obvious but in the last month I’ve been out in restaurants and I see family after family out to eat and the parents on their smartphones the entire time. I see kids who have to watch movies before the food is served. What ever happened to talking—real interaction between generations? Sure, there are times my kids are hooked into screens at home. I’m by no means perfect. But dammit, there has to be one time per day when an adult asks “How was your day?” and is prepared to sit there and listen long enough to get to know their kid. (And please—if there was an intruder drill at school that day, please ask your child how they felt about it and if they want to talk about it. More on this in a Nerdy Book Club interview up this week.) As for managing stress, I think it depends on the stress. If there is trauma, counseling is available and is covered by many insurance companies these days, which is great compared to when I was a kid. Counseling is not a sign of weakness. The right professional can give a person tools for coping with stress and those tools can help throughout a lifetime.
Teens and future teens in A.S. King's life: y'all are SO, SO lucky to know this wise, compassionate woman.
This book is definitely unlike anything you've done before. Had you always planned to write it as surrealist fiction?
I love surrealist fiction. I think my past books were a staircase to here, maybe. I like inexplicable things. I love metaphors. I love the fact that inside a surrealist framework, I was able to tell the truth better than I ever did before. That’s the beauty of that framework.
Do you plan on revisiting surrealism in the future?
Probably. Who knows when? The books write me, not the other way around.
For readers who are new to surrealist fiction, what would you recommend they try next after reading this book?
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Not surrealist, and yet…very surreal. And about a bizarre subject—the reality of the inner-workings of war. (Not so far off the inner-workings of school administrations under control of private companies raking in tons of cash.)
You recorded the audiobook for I Crawl Through It yourself (!!!). What was that experience like?
Recording the audio for I Crawl Through It was probably one of the coolest things I ever had the pleasure of doing. I loved it. I was nervous as all hell going in there and since I’d listened to other audiobooks in my life and knew I wasn’t an actor, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to pull it off. But I did, I think. We’ll have to see when it comes out. But overall, it was the one book of mine I felt I could record myself. Sometimes actors read teen characters with that dramatic or “teen” voice and in reading this myself I liked that I could make my characters sound like who they really were. Just people. No drama. No acting, really. I don’t know how to explain it. My producer Chrissy said to me on day one, “Just read it as if you are reading a book to a friend.” And that’s what I did. And it was a buzz like no other.
Was it difficult to come up with voices for the characters that match what they sounded like in your head?
That was one of the things I had to practice and really think about before I went into the booth. I realized that Stanzi sounds like me, China sounds like a quiet version of me, and Lansdale was louder and more brash. Outside of that, I winged it.
Which character was your fave to voice?
There’s a scene in the Place of Arrivals where Marvin’s hair impersonates a “hysterical girl.” That line was probably my favorite to speak. Or…more like scream. I had to ask the producers, “Is it okay if I scream this next line or will that mess up the sound?”
As if I didn't already want to get my grabby hands on this audiobook -- I DEFINITELY need to now.
Now that I Crawl Through It is out in the world, what are you working on next?
In fall 2016, Dutton will publish my next YA book. It’s a book about a sixteen-year-old girl who has been living inside a lie her whole life. When she meets three other versions of herself at three other ages, she slowly uncovers the truth of her life and family.
NEED. THIS. ASAP. Your ideas are always so awesome!
I Crawl Through It is available now.