How Paul Zindel Saved My Life by A.S. King
When you’re an author, people ask you when you knew you wanted to be a writer. When you write for teens, they ask you what you were reading as a teen. Truth is, I’d forgotten the answers to these important questions during my 15-year-long journey to publication.
The answer I’d been giving (awkwardly, believe me) to the “What did you read in high school?” question was: Not much. I was a slacker. We weren’t assigned a lot of books to read. I was too busy doing other things to read books for fun. The only books I remember reading in high school were Lord of the Flies, The Scarlet Letter (I read the Cliffs Notes) and a bit of Plato’s Republic.
To the question When did I want to be a writer? there is the very vivid memory I have from the time I was surviving my first Irish winter by reading a book or more a day. I was catching up a lot: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath, Woolf, Camus, Kafka, Shakespeare. I was re-reading my adult favorites: Vonnegut and Robbins. And I was discovering new-to-me authors. The vivid memory occurred the moment I finished Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I closed the book and said, “I have to do that now.” Then I got up, walked out of the front room of the flat and moved to my bedroom (where a typewriter sat on the desk for letter writing) and I pecked out the first page of my first novel. That was when I wanted to be a writer. Or so I thought.
But nineteen years later, after publishing a few books and answering these questions a dozen more times, I started to remember what originally inspired my writing.
When I was in 7th grade, my grades had begun to plummet. This is not an exaggeration. I had been a straight A student. 7th grade saw my first stream of steady C grades and, if I remember correctly, D grades also. This was not acceptable in my family, and yet, everyone seemed to know what the problem was and seemed equally powerless to change it. I was excruciatingly bored. And rebellious. And stubborn. So began my quest for an F, which finally came in 8th grade. Fun times.
Anyway. Back in 7th grade, we were assigned The Pigman by Paul Zindel in English class. I loved the book and instantly checked every one of Zindel’s others out of the library. Two became fast favorites of mine. Confessions of a Teenage Baboon and Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball. These books were the books that I read so many times, it is impossible to tell you how many times I actually read them.
What struck me about all of Zindel’s books was that they were authentic. Sometimes they were gritty and kinda uncomfortable. The characters were dealing with authentic emotions and they traveled through authentic lives with authentic family members and peers and had very authentic experiences. I felt at one with those characters. They made me feel normal in a place where I was certainly not normal. Also, they seemed to make me a more conscious human being. Those books made me think about who I wanted to be. They made me really consider my options as a person.
Books do that, right?
And so, I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to become a novelist. I was 14 and I’m not sure exactly when the idea hit me (before or after that coveted F) but I remember being in the lunch line surrounded by baby blue tile walls next to the window that looked down into the metal shop (my favorite 8th grade class) holding a yellow legal tablet and jotting down notes. I don’t have the notes anymore, but I remember the gist of what was scribbled on the paper. It said I wanted to write books that (get this) helped adults understand teens better and teens understand adults better.
I really wrote that down.
I think at the time, I might have meant that I wanted my parents to get off my back about all the stupid stuff I was doing. Failing classes. Smoking cigarettes. Slacking in pretty much every way possible.
But what it also meant was: I wanted to write about authentic characters who were living authentic lives—including parents, other teenagers, random adults, kids, people in the community. I wanted to write about life. Just like Paul Zindel did. And I wanted to write stuff that made people think. Just like Paul Zindel made me think. I wanted to bring people together. This wasn’t some race to publication or fame. This was a project to achieve an objective. Objective A.S. King: Write compelling, authentic stories which connect adults and teenagers.
I had an audience member ask my panel today at a festival if we could believe we were “here.” For me—a philosopher at heart, I can’t help ask where is here? I can’t help wonder if I will still be in this same here next year. I feel so lucky to see my career as a series of writing endeavors rather than a series of publication credits. It made this an easy question to answer inside my head. “Here? I will be here, in authentic writing land forever.”
But I explained to the audience member that no, I do not believe that I am here. I do not believe that some C- average bored slacker kid is actually doing what she set out to do in the 8th grade, nearly 30 years ago. I find it weird to talk about acclaim or the awards my books have received. But I do believe that those things—my here—were only made possible by following my gut and writing what I wanted to write, which were authentic stories that at times are gritty and uncomfortable, but always honest.
I kinda believe that my C- average slacker self was just growing into a novelist, the way people can be born with 30-year-old faces and grow into them. And I firmly believe that this wouldn’t have been possible had I not discovered Paul Zindel, thanks to my English teacher, in 1982. Being an avid reader was a different thing—it was a hobby. I’d liked mysteries and anything slightly supernatural. But Paul Zindel hooked me with that truth and I never stopped chasing my own truth from that moment forward.
A.S. King is the author of ASK THE PASSENGERS, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012, EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, a 2012 ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults, and the Edgar Award nominated, 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Book PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ. She is also the author of the ALA BBYA, DUST OF 100 DOGS and the upcoming REALITY BOY. After a decade living self-sufficiently and teaching literacy to adults in Ireland, she now lives deep in the Pennsylvania woods with her husband and children. Find more at www.as-king.com.