Every time I read one of A.S. King’s novels, I think she can’t possibly top it. Especially with the brilliant ways she’s been able to answer interview questions here on three different occasions: specifically here, here, and here. She is the epitome of what makes every wonderful writer–she keeps getting better.
This is definitely apparent in her newest novel, STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO. It was also one of my picks from this year’s NCIBA conference.
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”
Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.
But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.
“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”
In our last interview, you said, “I meet many students who ask me what the answers are to my books—as if there are clear answers to any piece of fiction. They need the answers. It’s for the test. This is a great way to learn about many things. As a math nerd, I fully support trying to find the right answers. But in fiction, which is art, “right” answers are often fleeting, varied, or just not there.” In what ways, if any, does STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO explore uncertainty within a world without clear answers?
Wow. Great question. In Still Life with Tornado we meet Sarah, who is the picture of uncertainty. She’s stopped going to school, stopped making art, stopped caring about pretty much everything except the idea of originality. So in her day-to-day life, she is exploring uncertainty constantly. But underneath her life lies even more uncertainty. The book is about domestic violence and how it creeps into families who often don’t notice it after a while because the abuse becomes normal. So Sarah has also come to a place in her life where she is remembering things that she blocked out in order to survive. More uncertainty. Luckily Sarah has her past and future selves to rely on for information, strength, balance, and sanity…although walking around Philadelphia with your ten-year-old self can in its own way feel uncertain. In her search for an original idea, Sarah remembers what her family is really like and realizes that she’s not entirely certain what that means and in turn, defines it herself. Or so we hope. I don’t think life is ever meant to be certain. Too many bumps in the road, you know?
Certainty is definitely an illusion, and it also takes away the humanity you’ve so beautifully portrayed in Sarah’s story. One of my favorite lines in STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO is “He didn’t hear the spaces between words.” How do you feel about the spaces between words, and when do you feel they are widest?
The spaces between words are very important. Some people don’t hear them. Some people do. But usually, in a speaker’s tone, one can hear the spaces. In the case of that line, Sarah’s father was telling her to do something productive with her days—and in the spaces between those words is the assumption that Sarah isn’t doing anything productive with her days, that her father doesn’t accept her way of life…which can lead to Sarah simply thinking her father doesn’t like her at all.
I think spaces between words are the widest when they are not meant to be there. In her father’s case with the line you quote for example, he was just saying that. He probably didn’t mean to make her feel anything bad at all. Except her father wants everyone to feel rotten most of the time and is in a constant state of control and anger so whether he wants it to or not, it comes out. There’s a saying: A drunk man says what a sober man thinks. I think the spaces between words are widest when a person is lying—to themselves or to the listener. I hear those spaces more than I’d like in life.
Me too–and they’re often filled with the weight of perception, like you’ve said. You’ve written so many great books, with such unique creative twists. What is something you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to experiment with?
I’ve been writing in script form for about a year and I’d love to experiment with a novel told that way. I’d also love to go back to one of my first loves—science fiction. Oh. And a graphic memoir I have started on my computer but haven’t finished. The book I’m working on now is turning out to be pretty creative as well but I don’t know what it is quite yet.
Sounds like we can look forward to plenty of wonderful surprises from you! In what ways do your readers continue to surprise you?
My readers surprise me when they write me letters. I know that sounds weird—I get letters a lot. But I’m still always surprised that someone has taken the time to write and tell me that they liked a book or what they liked about it.
I’m also surprised and pretty excited when my adult readers write to me. Yesterday I got a letter from a 72 year old guy who loves my books and thinks they should be in the adult section of the library because he wouldn’t have found them in the YA section. It doesn’t surprise me that he likes the books—I write them for everyone over the age of 14. But it’s great to hear from my adult readers because it means I’m still reaching all the people I want to reach. (I told him he was intrepid for venturing into the YA section for me!)
Most of all, my readers surprise me by trying new things. I mean, look at last year. I released I Crawl Through It and while most critics liked the book, I got some flak (from adult readers mostly) for the book being a Surrealist book—too weird or too hard to follow. But my core teenage readers ate that book up, followed it just fine, and loved that it was weird. Many adult readers felt the same way—and that book was hardcore Surrealism. That’s a heck of a jump to take for an author and I appreciate it. This year, the jump isn’t as insane, but it’s still mind-bending for a reader who, say, likes things a bit more straightforward. What amazes me is the trust my readers have in me. It’s mutual, this trust. It allows me to write the books I do and for that I’m grateful.
STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO
I CRAWL THROUGH IT
GLORY O’ BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE
For A.S. King’s other books, you can visit her website.