A.S. King and I Crawl Through It: Twisting Reality to Let Truth Drip Out – Interview by Kim McCollum-Clark
The best books are impossible to “blurb.” They contain multitudes and up-end our expectations of what will happen between the covers. A.S. King’s new book, I Crawl Through It, is one of these. In it, four teenagers try to cope with family life, high school, and invisible helicopters while being mothered by Hawkeye Pierce, assisted by the naked man who lives in the bushes, and assaulted by standardized tests and intruder drills. They have lost their protective coatings and filters, describe their fractured lives in surrealistic detail. Here is our highly edited talk.
K: I am always interested to hear what kinds of things “trigger” new writing projects for writers of all kinds. Do you remember what happened in the world, your life, or your thinking that crystallized the idea of I Crawl through It for you?
ASK: I remember the very moment I started writing this book. There was suffering right up to its departure from my brain and onto paper. A dramatic start to this interview, but I’d be lying if I said otherwise and lying makes poor reading, so I’ll start here.
The day after the Sandy Hook massacre, I had my second full-blown panic attack. I woke up to the sound of semi-automatic gunfire thanks to my neighbors-over-the-hill-who-liked-to-fire-their-wide-array-of-weapons-after-media-speculation-about-any-sort-of-new-gun-laws. After I finally convinced myself I wasn’t going to die on the spot, I fought every urge to take my kids into the basement and hide there forever. I shook all over. You need to understand this was PTSD. I didn’t know that then; I know it now. I’ve had some stuff happen in my life. Most relevant stuff to this: I’d been robbed somewhat violently at gunpoint at age 24 and promptly blew it off. Fact: blowing off being robbed at gunpoint is not really the way to go. So, by the time I started writing I Crawl Through It, I was in the midst of figuring out my PTSD.
But the actual day I sat down to write this book, many months after that scene, something else was traumatizing me. I’d quit the idea of publishing books or even writing any more of them. This business is a hard one—this mix of art and commercialism. I knew it was hurting me. I decided to take a job anywhere, really—a library, preferably. Two days after this decision, I started to write I Crawl Through It. I remember crying while I wrote it. I remember knowing something good was happening. I never thought the book would be published. I just knew that I needed to twist reality around on paper so the truth could drip out.
K: The “line” between dreams and “reality” is part of Surrealist art, and your novel makes great use of this tension. Stanzi’s dreams and daydream preoccupations are much more revealing of her inner life, for example. This is an awkward way to put this, but this tension feels like it freed you in some important way.
ASK: I dream a lot. I put dreams in my work because dreams have been a huge part of my existence. Half the time I get déjà vu, it’s from a dream, not real life. I have prescient dreams. I have recurring dreams and have since I was a child. Surrealism speaks to me because I live a lot of my life in that space.
This release of a character who lives so closely to her dream state was hugely cathartic for me. My inner life is on the page here—my fears, my dreams, my experiences—and that’s a very dicey and scary thing to do. But at the same time, what was freeing was the fact that I knew, while writing it, that I wasn’t alone. So many teenagers experience what I did. So many adults could hook into this feeling, too—this realness. This book is a book for humans who live on Earth. I have often said I am a Vulcan. But I have come to face the fact that I am a human of Earth. Before this book, I hadn’t cried in many years. Now I cry. That is freeing, without a doubt.
K: I love how China, Gustav, Lansdale, and Stanzi hold open an empathetic space for each other. They don’t fully understand each other, but they keep that space open. I don’t see that in lots of YA books.
ASK: I think this happened by accident. I remember when it showed its face the first time—that part where China says something about how she always thought Stanzi was fat, but now she realized she’s just big-boned. “Before I swallowed myself I was a lot more judgmental.” I remember stopping at that point and realizing that this girl—stuck inside her own self—was more forgiving and intelligent about human beings than many adults I know.
Only while I wrote this answer did I see that the word pathetic is part of the word empathetic. I find that ironic. I know adults who think being empathetic is pathetic. I wonder where they lost their ability to believe in other people’s goodness and struggle. I guess that might be a major question within this book.
K: Can you talk a bit about the adults in Crawl? They keep surprising me, but they are not as involved (for good or for ill) in the lives of the main characters as they are in other A.S. King titles.
ASK: I think it’s a decent mirror to the reality of teenhood. On one hand, teens’ lives are controlled by adults, but on the other hand, if those adults are not helpful, they mean very little.
Teen life is changing. When I was a kid, we did fire drills. I never once saw a school fire on the news. The threat wasn’t as real as today’s threat. Teens now can see news stories about school massacres actually happening. I believe that those kids, every time they do an intruder drill, are being served a little slice of trauma onto their life plate. And as adults, we aren’t asking: What is that like? Is this harming you? How can I help?
I talked about I Crawl Through It to teens this summer and I asked those questions. I asked if anyone at school—counselors or teachers—were asking kids if they were okay after intruder drills. I will never forget the look in the eyes of one young woman. She said, “It feels so awful to make yourself small against a wall and pretend that you could get murdered if you don’t make yourself small enough. No one ever talks to us about this.” Later that day, a quiet young man approached me and said, “Thanks for talking about the drills. They scare me.” So what, as adults, are we going to say to this? Are we going to go with our usual “suck it up, kids” reaction or are we finally going to look straight at contemporary teen life and take it seriously? If we do the former, then we aren’t going to play a big role in teens’ lives—which is exactly what’s happening in I Crawl Through It.
I think, as adults and parents and educators, we have a responsibility to think about this closely. We need to do something—ask students to write a personal essay or a poem or express themselves in some way in order to allow them a release from the trauma. None of this will happen if we don’t start taking teens seriously on a whole. Change will only occur if we start talking openly about their reality. If it’s just you and me today, Kim, then that’s a start.
A.S. King is a novelist. Find her at: www.as-king.com. Kim McCollum-Clark is associate professor of English Education at Millersville University of PA.