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Although there’s probably some contractual brand-management thing going on, I like to think that A.S. King, the author of such deeply weird YA novels as Everybody Sees the Ants, Still Life with Tornado, and I Crawl Through It, has written her first middle-grade novel under her full name because she has decided to show us more of herself. Despite the presence of the titular character, a made-up animal whose diet is plastics, Me and Marvin Gardens has its roots in Amy’s own childhood by the banks of southeastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River.
Roger Sutton: Do you live near the Schuylkill River now? It’s also in Maniac Magee, and Beth Kephart and Lisa Scottoline write about it a lot.
Amy Sarig King: No, I live in a little town closer to my favorite river, which is the Susquehanna. It’s a beautiful river. But I grew up right on that stretch of land where Obe lives. The Schuylkill River was not even a quarter-mile down the road. When Hurricane Agnes hit in ’72, the Schuylkill took out the bridge and came almost up to our house. Whenever they built houses closer and closer to the river, we all marveled at how silly that was. Even when I drive through now, they have houses right on the floodplain on the other side of the river, and it amazes me. I hope the owners have sump pumps, at least.
RS: This is your first middle-grade novel. Did you decide first that you were going to write a middle-grade novel, or did you have a story in your head that became a middle-grade novel?
ASK: I’d say the latter. I definitely had the story in my head. I’d tried to write the story of the developers developing the land around my childhood home many times. When that happened, it wrecked me. I think it demoralized our family in a strange, unspoken way. I tried to write it, actually, for younger readers, about four years prior to starting this book. I was going to use a pen name, Putrid Annie. (She actually shows up in Me and Marvin Gardens.) But as an author, I started with adult novels and ended up in young adult novels. Jumping straight into chapter books just didn’t work for me. I put that aside. I hadn’t planned on writing a middle-grade book at all, but what happened was [editor] Cheryl Klein contacted my agent. She had read a young adult novel of mine, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, and she said she was interested in having me write a middle-grade novel. She said, “I have this weird idea, and I think you might be someone who could write it.” And I said, “Okay, what’s your weird idea?” She said, “I’d love a story about an animal who eats plastic.” I said, “Anything else?” She said, “No.” I said, “So I can put anything in there? You don’t care about the family?” She’s like, “Nope!” I said, “Okay, let me think about that.” I set to work inside the hour, and all the cornfield stuff came out — finally, after thirty years of trying to figure out how to tell that story.
RS: What an interesting way to pull that out of you. Cheryl didn’t know what she was looking for.
ASK: No. She didn’t know what she was going to get, either, let me tell you. I sent a draft back to her, and I think the sample had one of the one-hundred-years-ago parts, and this great-grandfather who drank. And I’m thinking, well, you know what? People drank. If you want me to tone it down, okay, but you know who I am.
RS: You asked me, lady!
ASK: You knew what you were getting into. She enjoyed those parts, and I enjoyed writing them. Again, that mimics my family’s truth. So it was extremely cathartic for me to write about that and to write about my love of nature and science, which is something I don’t usually get to write about in such a pure way. I think that’s the nice thing about middle grade. Educational is not the right word, because I never want to be didactic. At the same time, Obe himself is a dedicated, didactic environmentalist. It was nice to write about him and his passion.
RS: When I think of your young adult books, the fantastic events happen completely naturally. I never have the sense that you’re trying to force something, or showing off. And I just learned to take those wacko events — like building the invisible helicopter in I Crawl Through It — as they come. So when Marvin Gardens — he’s the animal who eats the plastic — shows up in this book, it didn’t occur to me that he wasn’t real.
RS: I just assumed he was real. But I was talking with the reviewer of the book, and she said she really loved how you, the author, kept us off balance as to whether Marvin was real or not real.
ASK: It’s funny. I have people say that about pretty much everything I write. I think it’s an accurate description of how I feel every day. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. I think that’s what makes art.
RS: Why do you live in a little town?
ASK: It was an accident. I wouldn’t usually live somewhere where I have neighbors. I moved here four years ago. When we moved back from Ireland, we rented a house on fifty acres in the middle of woods, which you’ll see in a book in the future.
RS: That would scare the crap out of me.
ASK: Oh, it was great. Only scary during ice storms. And the black walnut trees. We bought this house because my daughter was going to school down here, and my husband was in college at the time, and it was closer to the university. It’s very strange to be living in a small town, but I do like it. It’s so convenient. Everything is five minutes away. I’ve never lived like this. I’ve always lived in the country. When we lived in Ireland we were an hour and a half from a fast-food place. Not that I like fast food. I don’t, actually. But here the doctor’s five minutes away. I can walk to the school. My kids can walk home from school. That kind of stuff. When I leave here, I probably won’t go to a place with neighbors. I like people, but I hardly go outside, so my neighbors never recognize me. They probably think we’re getting robbed when I come out of my house. Who’s that stranger? We’ve lived here four years; you just don’t see me much. I do like it here. I always loved Amish country, so I love the sound of horses and buggies. There’s nothing like sitting out front on a Sunday and just watching a horse and buggy go by. That’s just how they drive, but for me it is pretty damn quaint.
RS: And does it seem like this is a town where its rural character will hold on, or are you facing again the chop-chop-chop of the construction?
ASK: Yeah, the construction is getting closer every day. Luckily I’m in the old town, so nothing can be built up around me. I’m looking out my window now, and I can see seven houses. They’re all a hundred years old. But it is encroaching, on all sides. People have to live somewhere, right?
RS: I love the way you ended the book, so we don’t know what will happen.
ASK: You mean to Marvin? Or to anybody?
RS: To anybody. And the discovery of Marvin is such a paradigm shift for the world, even though we’re only seeing it at a local level.
ASK: Right. I like to allow young readers to keep writing in their heads after they’ve finished reading. Not to leave the ending too open, but enough so they can imagine: What does this mean? I wanted to put that sort of epilogue-y feel at the end for Obe so readers would know he’ll be okay. My young adult books usually end in a far more obscure way.
RS: Why do you think it’s different for middle grade?
ASK: I just think for this book, this character had to be grounded at the end. I don’t think all middle grade should do that. It felt important for readers to know that Obe was in a place where he’s helped his family come back to nature. He’s gotten his parents outside, and readers can see the benefits that the youngest family member can give to the family. I’m the youngest in my family, so it’s nice to dream we can teach. We’re always told, our whole lives, You’re the youngest; you know the least. For Obe to be able to have that agency, to be able to help his whole family appreciate what they have, is empowering.
RS: I thought you were really honest about a young person working things out on his own and knowing when he needs help. We’ve seen both extremes in books for middle grade. Books where everything is solved by the adults — well, that’s no fun. Or books where, unrealistically, the young protagonist is all on his or her own, and is like a superhero. You really examined the border between the child’s own agency — which is a word I don’t allow in Horn Book reviews — and helpful adults.
ASK: I’ve been realizing this as I grow up, really. Some of us are taught to ask for help. Some of us don’t feel comfortable asking for help. Some of us will get into trouble because we don’t want to share things with adults — maybe because we’re used to getting in trouble. I have two daughters, and they’re very different from each other. One will tell me everything. The other barely tells me anything at all. Who do I worry about the most? I worry about the quiet one. But it’s something I wish I had had when I was a child, that feeling of having someone I could ask for help. I didn’t have that. I guess that’s part of writing books or writing characters for yourself. It’s nice to be able to encourage that independent behavior…up until the toxic waste starts to eat through people’s decks. Then you need to talk to the adults.
RS: At the same time as Obe is trying to figure out what he can do, what he can’t do, we’re also thrown this curve with the toxic waste Marvin produces. Here we have what we think is just a sweet new endangered creature. And then we realize — oh, this endangered creature is also a problem, because his poop is poisonous. Good for you, because so often when I think of environmentally themed books, the lines are very clear.
ASK: Right. Well, when you can invent a new species of animal, why not? But you do have to be realistic. I have birds that live on my porch. You know where their poop is? It’s also on my porch, Roger. The poop is on my porch, because they live behind the shutters on my porch. The digestive system can only do so much. I write my books by the seat of my pants, so these things just show up and I have to figure them out. The toxic waste idea came one day, and I went, oh, look at that. Eating plastic does have its consequences. I guess he’s not so perfect after all. And who is?
RS: Are you going to do more middle grade?
ASK: I may have already started. I’m on deadline for a young adult book. I’m working on an adult book. I’m working on a graphic novel — kind of, not really, but trying. And the first thing that popped up into my head recently was a middle-grade book. I never thought I would. If you had asked me that question two months ago, I would have said, eh, I don’t think so.
RS: You live so comfortably at that sort of netherworld of young adult and adult.
ASK: I’ve been quite comfortable there. It could be something as simple as the fact that now I’ve done it. Once I found my groove there, I was okay. And I have a middle grader in my house — I have a teen and a middle-grade reader, a nine-year-old. She read Marvin — I gave her an ARC. That was awesome. There was nothing like it. I’m still going to be talking about real things underneath the magical things or science-y things or whatever seems like the main subject, just like most of my young adult books—and my adult books, which none of you have read because they’re not published. They’re in my attic.
RS: You really like to write about thinkers. I picture you spending your day ruminating as you go about your business.
ASK: Yeah, that’s me. I’m either ruminating or dancing. I’m so glad you said that, actually, because I was just thinking that one character in this book I’m working on thinks too much. And then I thought, “Amy, there’s no such thing as thinking too much. Make it interesting and move on. Get to the dialogue, for crying out loud.” But yeah, I do write about thinkers. And that’s what I love about reading. My favorite books, the ones that made me sit there for days, weeks, months, years, and pop back into my head — they make me think a lot. Now, with the political climate, I cannot stop picturing that scene in Catch-22. Major Major is going out to lunch, and he climbs out the window. There’s a video of me reading a chunk of it on YouTube. Those things come back. I love that. That book drove some people I know crazy — “I can’t read this. This is a crazy book.” Whereas to me, it’s a deep-thinker book. Even though it is satire, it’s not as much satire as we’d hope.
I tend to be serious, so when I talk, I talk about things I think about. I was describing something to an acquaintance recently — I told her I was thinking about whatever thing. It wasn’t anything that deep. Something random. I dial it down, right? I dial it down when I’m outside my office. I said, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about this thing.” And later on she turned to me, and she said, “Are you sure this isn’t menopause? You’re thinking so much.” I have to keep my thoughts to myself. Although, hey, being accused of menopause isn’t so bad when you’re actually close to experiencing it, so that’s fine. But yeah, I’ve always been a thinker, and I write about thinkers. Absolutely.
More on Amy Sarig King from The Horn Book
- “Field Notes: On Propagating Literacy” by A.S. King
- Five Questions for A.S. King
- Horn Book Magazine Starred Review of Me and Marvin Gardens