Five questions for A.S. King

A.S. King’s Dig. (Dutton, 14 years and up) was the winner of the 2020 Printz Award. The story focuses on five teens with a startling connection that is only gradually revealed. Constantly shifting perspectives — between the unforgettable teens themselves, along with an outsized cast — keep readers off-balance and in thrall to King’s assured storytelling. White supremacy, patriarchy, socioeconomic disparity, sexual violence, addiction and other illness, and above all family: there are no easy answers to the issues King raises and then proceeds to explore in uncommon depth.

1. In this book (and all your books), the story flows in wildly unexpected directions — but everything comes together. How do you keep track?

ASK: At first, I don’t. I let the characters do what they came to do. Sometimes another character comes to me, and another, and then I have what feels like three manuscripts in front of me. It’s like juggling; once I have too many balls in the air, and they’re all about to drop to the floor, I stop and organize. I use character cards, timeline calendars, and, most helpful for me, a stapled-together, linear table of contents. Here’s the final one for Dig (see photo at right). It’s highlighted for each character or story line. I ran out of colors.

2. Which narrative point of view was the easiest to write? Whose did you have to *dig* deepest for? (And did you have to take a shower after some of them? *shudder*)

ASK: They were all easy and all frustrating at certain times. The opening two short introductions of Marla & Gottfried and the Marks brothers came first and seemed to be a sort of roadmap for the book — though I had zero idea of where it was going. The Shoveler was the first real character, and I wrote about eighty pages of him (and The Freak) before I gave up. He wasn’t telling me much — he just kept shoveling snow, and a month went by and I was like, “Forget it, dude. I’m going to go work on another novel.”

I started another book about a young woman named CanIHelpYou? and in one scene early on, she and her friend see a kid shoveling with a snow shovel but there’s no snow. This was clearly an A.S. King novel at that point. So, I pulled the Shoveler book out of storage and realized the larger story. It came out in the same order it’s in now, so all the characters knew where they should be, but each one was complicated in their own way — just like people. The biggest challenge with each character — every one of whom could look awful if you wanted to stop short and judge — was to show their struggle in a compassionate way.

I had to dig deepest for the Marks brothers. While I’ve known a few people like them, it was hard to pinpoint why Bill was the way he was. But that’s why I write characters like Bill — to figure out why. Surprisingly enough, I did not need to shower after some of those scenes. Maybe I felt like it after Loretta’s Arby’s Drive-Thru scene, but instead I had Loretta go home and burn that damn dress.

3. The title punctuation is seemingly intentional — why was that important to you?

ASK: This decision came last and it was certainly intentional. The title took a long time to figure out. Once we all agreed on Dig, Andrew Karre, my genius editor, wrote and asked if the title itself implied the imperative or if we might add the punctuation. I agreed in fewer than three seconds. I think it’s important to me because of The Freak’s final chapter, which is also in the imperative. Like Kate Tempest’s quote in the epigraph, she is pleading with the reader. Why not start on the cover?

4. Although there are supernatural/surrealistic elements, the book is also starkly realistic. How do these elements play together in your mind?

ASK: This is how my mind sees reality — always has. Surrealism, for me, is the way to realism, not the other way around. Being alive is surreal for me. I’ve always felt like maybe I belong on another planet (specifically Jupiter for some reason).

On a deeper level, I have handled a decent amount of trauma in my life and know many others who have as well — trauma experienced usually when we were children or teenagers. Trauma is surreal and it means you know shock, and shock is a surreal state. Add to this: Being a teen is surreal because everyone is pinning their hopes on you, but you can’t figure out why they have this idea while you’re manning the cash register at Arby’s and getting yelled at and eye-rolled by adults all the time. It’s a massive, surreal contradiction.

But really, our world, our society, has never fit me. And in having to reject poufy skirts, ringlets, and shiny shoes at age five, I simply flipped the construct of “reality” on its back. Props to my parents for that, too. What people expected of me as a girl or woman was not what I was producing — not in style, language, thought, or art. I am sure I am not alone in thinking that the reality the white patriarchy dished out to me was so unreasonable I had to invent another way of living and seeing the world. Also: I have really messed-up dreams. Since I was little; they helped form me.

5. You say at the end: “How do you put up with this crap?” What have been teens’ reactions to the book?

ASK: Well, that message is a continuation of a note to teens in my acknowledgements from I Crawl Through It (Little, Brown, 14 years and up). So in context, it’s a more personal question than what we’re dealing with here. Dig. has been an interesting book when it comes to feedback. I often get letters from teens and adults that may say similar things, but with Dig., it’s been a free-for-all of the same question: “How did you know so much about my family?” Seventy-year-olds to seventeen-year-olds, all with the same question. Good.

Teens have been excited about the book, and the feedback I’ve gotten is thoughtful. I’m relieved so many people understand the need for change. Toward the end of the book, the narrative implies that the teens are coming for us. I hope they are. I hope they take over the world in style and save us from this mess. That said, I’ve also gotten letters that point out the obvious: “Why do you think we can save you? What kind of saving is even possible and why would you trust us to do it?” I think these are valid questions. I hear a lot of talk about how the teens will save us now. Maybe it’s time we saved them or helped them…considering most of them can’t vote yet.


Photo: Krista Schumow Photography.

From the February 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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