Nothing Ever Really Happens: A Conversation with A.S. King
Today, Nerdy Book Club member Brian Wyzlic talks with Nerdy Book Club author
A.S. King. Come, join in the conversation!
Hi, Amy! It’s great to be talking with you today about your work, specifically your newest book, Still Life with Tornado. Thanks for joining me!
Thanks so much for having me around, Brian. Your support has always meant the world to me.
Visual art plays a large role in Still Life with Tornado, as it does in many of your books. What is the link you find between visual art and textual art?
My mentor was an abstract painter. If I learned anything about art from him, it was that art is art no matter if it’s on the page in words or on the canvas with form and color. Metaphors are art, for example, because they require the reader to imagine a correlation between two seemingly different ideas. Is that any different from looking at a painting and finding the painter’s meaning through form and color? To me, there is little difference.
The book opens with the line “Nothing ever really happens. Or, more accurately, nothing new ever really happens.” The theme of no ideas being original comes up time and time again to the protagonist, Sarah. I think a lot of teenagers would agree with her on this. What are you hoping your audience takes away from focusing on this theme?
I believe every reader will take something different from a book. With any art, you get from it what you bring to it. So with all my books, I only hope the reader gets from it what they need most.
When it comes to original ideas I do think, as the mother of a teen, that originality is a very sought after quality at that age (and beyond), and as humans we can be originals. But it’s not easy—especially in the age of the Internet—because it often feels like just about everything has been done before. This is very different from when I grew up and thought many of my ideas were original…only to find out far later that they weren’t…but at least in the meantime I got to play with them.
I think the cool thing about books (or movies or paintings, etc.) is that one can revisit them often and get a different thing out of them each time. I read Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions once a year as brain sorbet. Every single year I get something new from it. A new way of seeing things—in the book and in the world.
I think one of the main themes in Still Life with Tornado, domestic abuse, is a great example of nothing new ever really happening. Look at the statistics and tell me something has really changed. It hasn’t. It’s a misunderstood monster. How many other monsters are we really looking at in our culture? How many things aren’t changing at all? This society is the one we give to our kids. If college campuses and the judicial process that follows are still blowing off campus rape, then what makes our kids, eyeing college for themselves, think anything new will ever happen? To quote Bowie, “Where’s’ your shame, you left us up to our necks in it.” In short, I hope readers can relate to these ideas.
Speaking of art, you often write surrealist books. This is a difficult genre of literature as well as a difficult type of art for a lot of people to enter into. How would you help people who aren’t used to the genre approach your books?
I’m not sure how to help people accept or understand any genre. But I do try to ease readers into the more surreal ideas by writing relatable or interesting characters. My favorite books are those where you can tell the author is super interested in the process or the subject. Surrealism is something I’ve always been interested in and I think that shows in my work. Luckily, landing in the young adult arena with a pretty “weird book” as a debut allowed me the freedom to write what I wanted and eventually publish very surrealist books like I Crawl Through It or now Still Life with Tornado.
I never “try” to be weird or surreal, really. I just hear a character and I let them tell me their story. In the case of Still Life with Tornado, I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts and attended a fantastic graduate lecture. She gave us a writing exercise that involved meeting yourself at a bus stop. I did the exercise and couldn’t stop thinking about it. And all the Sarahs were born. I wondered how I’d make it all work, but they (the Sarahs) made sure it worked. So in a way, what I experience as a writer is very similar to what a reader will experience as they read. I need faith in order to finish writing a book. I need to trust the character and the process. I know I ask a lot of my readers when I ask them to trust me though a book—invisible helicopters, four incarnations of Sarah having a conversation in a room—but I hope their trust is rewarded.
This book addresses abuse and PTSD in a way rarely seen in YA. What led you to address these intense topics with such grace and honest perspective?
I’ve lived through it, so I address it. I’m glad you found my approach graceful. I’ve done a lot of reading on how and why abuse happens and seeing it through the abuser’s eyes helped me gain a more intellectual perspective on why and how abusers abuse. Once we stop thinking of domestic violence only as black eyes and broken bones, once we understand the anger and control issues abusers have, I think it’s easier to understand why people stay with abusers and how worn down those people become after many years living like that. So I guess the grace comes from understanding both sides. The honesty comes from experience.
Books often help their readers. But with this coming from your own experiences, I have to wonder: how did you change through the writing of Still Life with Tornado?
This is going to sound dramatic, Brian, but ten-year-old Sarah saved my life and my family. It was as if she showed up to say, “Amy! Open your eyes!” the same way she did to sixteen-year-old Sarah and her mother, Helen. Most of my books do this to me in some way, but this outdid all the others. It’s as if all the others acted to get me here and Still Life with Tornado made me truly see my life and change the situation.
You’ve mentioned teenagers a lot here. Why do you choose to write for teenagers?
In short: I think teenagers are very, very smart. Add to that: fun, open to new ideas, deep, and real. I think they’re up for the challenge of facing ideas head on, seeing reality for what it is, and finding different answers to big questions, and since that’s what my books explore we’re a perfect match. I think teenagers are undervalued in our society. And while they can seem indecisive or less serious to us adults, this underestimation makes them flexible and more open-minded (while many of us are set in stone because our society teaches us that this is what defines adulthood).
If you could say one thing to teenagers in our society today, what would it be?
Keep talking about what you see. Keep talking about how you feel. Adults around you may not listen, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It probably means you’re right.
What should I have asked you that I didn’t?
Not a thing. But my favorite color has recently changed to blue in case that’s important.
Brian Wyzlic lives in Ontario, teaches in Michigan, and tweets at @brianwyzlic. He is under the delusion that Still Life with Tornado is an anniversary gift to him and his wife, who celebrated two years of marriage yesterday. He won’t be convinced otherwise.
A.S. King is the author of 8 critically-acclaimed books for young adults, including the Printz Honor book Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Her latest, Still Life with Tornado, released yesterday and is available at your local bookstore. She also loves corn (of the stoppable and unstoppable varieties) and frequently wears magical writing pants. She tried to convince Brian the release date was a coincidence. He wasn’t hearing anything of it. Please visit A.S. King online at www.as-king.com.