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Five questions for A.S. King

as king_240x300A.S. King’s books are one of a kind: strange, sometimes surrealistic, but always grounded in truth. Her latest YA novel — Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (Little, Brown, 14 years and up) — is most likely the only children’s book you’ll ever read in which a protagonist ingests desiccated bat remains — and then sees herself leading a revolution in the future. This is one author whose brain demands to be picked.

1. Glory begins seeing visions (especially of an extremely misogynistic future) after she and her friend Ellie ingest mummified bat remains. So…did you choose a bat because bats are commonly associated with witches, who are historically unconventional women persecuted in a patriarchal world? Or did the bat just come to you in a dream?

ASK: I chose the mummified bat because I found one in the eaves of my porch in 2004 when I was writing an adult novel called Why People Take Pictures. (If that title sounds familiar it’s because it’s also the title of Glory’s mother’s sketchbook.) It was beautiful, and at the same time it represented some sort of trick between life and death — a mirage in this little furry package. Something about its deadness taught me so much about life. As for a misogynistic future, I see those visions all the time when I read the news.

2. Glory is frustrated with Ellie and others who misunderstand feminism. When you visit schools, do you find more young feminists like Glory or more misinformed teens like Ellie?

ASK: I visit a lot of schools in a year, but I don’t tend to talk about feminism. I talk about baggage and how to face it and deal with it much like any of my characters do. But I don’t think Ellie is misinformed, really. She just hasn’t gone into the outside world yet enough to notice that women are still denied equal rights. I do think the word feminism has been twisted and muddied and that some people are misinformed about it, but Ellie isn’t one of them. She has Glory as a best friend, for one thing, and she will figure it out in time like many young women do.

king_glory o'brien3. You studied photography in art school, and it plays a key role in this story. Robert Mapplethorpe said he went into photography “because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence.” Would you say you went into writing for young adults for this same reason?

ASK: Yes! Whether I’m writing poetry or short stories or novels for young adults, I need to express how much madness I see in order to not go mad. I did that through my photographs as well.

4. There’s a whole lot of train imagery in the novel. Do you like trains or is it just a damn good metaphor for the coming-of-age journey?

ASK: I write with no roadmap. Because of this, themes or imagery in my books tend to accidentally pop up. So in the prologue, which I wrote during a school visit in 2011, the first train metaphor arrived. Then as I worked on the book more trains appeared. I do see it as a damn good metaphor for life, really. I am still on the train. I can’t stop it. Some days I wish I could, but we’re all heading toward the end of the journey the minute we start. Sounds somewhat depressing when I put it that way, but that was where the bat came into it for me. When I found that bat, I realized that the train doesn’t really stop even when something dies. The bat changed my perspective on my own life, and therefore is still on a train even though it’s dead. This connects very much to Glory’s mother, Darla, because though Darla is dead, she is still affecting Glory’s life through what she left behind. I also love trains, but only if I can get off about three hours after I get on.

5. In an interview you did recently you said you wished people would ask about your decade teaching adult literacy and how that affects your writing and worldview. Do tell.

ASK: I worked in adult literacy in Ireland for about ten years. At the time, a quarter of the country was without basic literacy skills. Until the day you meet a fifty-year-old man who doesn’t know the alphabet you somehow take everything for granted. Not just reading, but everything. In that literacy center were some of the greatest minds I ever knew. My students were the bravest people. They changed me completely.

How does this affect my writing? I think when one’s worldview changes, everything changes along with it. Before, the issues I’d fought my whole life were always at an arm’s length, and if I wrote about them they were distant. My job and those students brought me so much closer to the world. To real people. To reality. To wanting to talk about the truth all the time. My job was to teach skills, yes, but it was also to make students understand that there was no shame in what they were doing. Only pride.

From the January 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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About Jennifer M. Brabander

Jennifer M. Brabander is former senior editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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