An Interview with A.S. King
- By Drew Gallagher
- February 11, 2020
The YA writer talks surrealism, transcending genres, and the thrill of a second Printz Award.
I have known author A.S. King for nearly 40 years. We’d both vehemently deny that either of us is old enough to have a friendship that spans so many decades, but the yearbooks don’t lie. Amy has published 11 critically acclaimed books and was recently awarded the 2020 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature for her novel Dig.
In doing so, she became the first American woman author to win both a gold (Dig) and silver (Please Ignore Vera Dietz) Printz. I spoke with her recently to see how she was handling the news.
First off, congratulations on the Printz Award. Now all your books’ covers will read “Winner of,” and further editions of Dig will sport the Printz medal. That has to make your publisher happy.
Thank you for your congratulations. It’s still hard to grasp. That shiny gold medal certainly makes my publisher happy. It also makes me happy. I took a lot of risks in the novel, and the larger subject matter of polite, middle-class racism can make some people uncomfortable. I am proud to live in a time when a committee could agree on Dig as a winner. I’m humbled.
We’ve spoken before about your work being harder to market due to its literary and experimental nature. Do you think this award will change that?
Marketing is not my field, but when it comes to selling books, they must first be in bookstores for people to buy them. I am a passionate supporter of independent bookstores for this reason. For more than a decade, it’s largely been independent booksellers who press my books into readers’ hands. My work is experimental, emotional, and different. I understand that it must be difficult to market in the larger book realm, where “children’s” and “adult” publishing rarely overlap. Am I hoping a medal helps? Of course. But, really, I want to make art. Let the publishing salespeople do what they do. Just let me make art.
Some say your books don’t fit squarely in the YA realm because they are sophisticated and contain mature themes. Does winning the Printz, an award for YA literature, help you navigate this analysis? And could you argue that Dig might be the most surreal and “adult” of your titles?
My readers have always been a mix of teens and adults. Dig has been no different. I set out on the journey in eighth grade, while I was standing in our baby-blue-tiled lunch line. I wrote in my journal, “I want to write books that help adults understand teenagers and help teenagers understand adults.” So, while the work firmly lives in young-adult literature because it is about teenagers and their relationships with those around them, it’s also for adults because adults, in my mind, should know what it’s like to be a teenager in the here and now — which is definitely more “mature” than it was when I was a teenager.
Is Dig my most surreal novel? No. But I’m a surrealist, so I try not to apply strata to that. Is Dig for adult readers? Oh, yes. The subject matter is urgent for them. They are the spaces between the letters of this novel. My hope is, by reading it, adults can move from those spaces and start important conversations with their own letters.
How difficult is it to make a living as a writer? Do you think that we, as a society, appreciate our authors and artists?
I have maintained several jobs throughout this journey. I will continue to. Artists don’t make a lot of money, and I knew that coming in. I pay my own health insurance and I don’t have a pension. I plan to work until I die. But the work keeps me sane, so that’s probably a good thing. Our society has changed a great deal and will continue to. When it comes to art and artists, reading great books, and being a nation of wide thinkers who can openly discuss new ideas without needing to argue our own narrow view? I do not think we are there. We probably need more art.
In Dig, you reveal love by offering up some very unlikable people as cautionary tales. Can we close this interview with a group hug while listening to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” or is your perception that the world is irredeemably broken?
I collect things as I write books. While writing Dig, I collected a fortune that reads, “Even as the cell is the unit of the organic body, so the family is the unit of society.” I think that’s true. I think [in Dig that] the Hemmings family has fallen to pieces. I think a lot of families have fallen to pieces. I think, then, that our society is shaken from this. Love is what families do.
Judgmentalism has become the order of the day. Healthy competition has given way to an uglier thing — likes and clicks and popularity and the dopamine that comes with it makes for an isolated and yet very public life. This used to be limited to celebrities. Now, it’s available to 10-year-olds. I do not think this will land us in a place of self-love, love for others, or love of our communities.
I’d never claim that the world is broken. My hope and love for human beings is too large. I only know this: Our teenagers need us, and we need to remember to be compassionate, loving, and protective of them, versus offering the eye-rolling they usually get. This is where we find family again. We care for people that society has told us to bully. If we can do that, there will always be hope, and we can always imagine.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.