A. S. King’s books are available from the festival book stalls run by The Women’s Bookshop and Unity Books Auckland, and all good booksellers.
This review is written from the Wednesday morning session at AWF Schools Fest.
I don’t think that there were many people who left the theatre after this powerful presentation, who didn’t feel in awe of Amy Sarig King. She spoke more truth than I’ve heard spoken to teens in a long time, which I ought to have expected after reading most of her books!
Amy began by saying a can of succotash began her as a writer. The thread of this didn’t become clear until later in the presentation, something that frequently happens with the threads of plot in her books.
She self-identifies as a nerd. In fourth grade, she got the components to build an Apple Plus computer – this was in 1979, when computers weren’t common, but she and her dad shared this passion. She also loved mathematics. In seventh grade, age 13, she was told by an old teacher in the final year of his teaching career that girls shouldn’t bother putting their hand up in maths because they don’t need it. Of course she put her hand up every class for the rest of the year, but her grades tanked because of the lack of confidence this attitude gave her. And the bullying.
This was not a traditional ‘author get up and talk about their books’ talk. While her books have a lot in common with her talk, she was talking ‘real talk’ to teens.
She was bullied at school – she was different – she was tall, dressed in man’s clothes because those made for girls didn’t fit her, played basketball. She says ‘Rumours don’t stop. But you are in control of them. They can come in your ear but not out of your mouth.’
The first author who inspired her to wish to be a writer was Paul Zindel, whom she read in 8th grade. ‘I wanted to make books that helped adults understand teens better, and that helped teens understand adults better.’ She has achieved this – this is something that is particularly clear in Still Life with Tornadoes, which is about domestic violence. It was the first time, possibly ever, that I had seen a parents’ perspective (a Mother’s perspective) put forward in a YA title.
She began writing in earnest aged 24, and had written eight novels by the time she was 40, which was when she finally began being published. She speaks of receiving rejections – she had 500 by the time she was published – and said she had flipped it around by the end. She saw them as invitations to submit to other places, rather than as rejections. Her first book was ultimately published when a publisher rang her agent and said ‘Have you got anything weird?’
Age 15, she was given a review assignment, which she chose to write from the first-person point of view of a can of succotash – the last one left on a shelf during a blizzard. Her teacher didn’t ask her to re-write it more normally. She also did a journaling assignment about that time, and continued this practice until she was 23, just writing about her life.
‘The idea that you should be happy all the time is unreasonable.’ She is a parent of teens now, and is confronted with this daily. It’s hard as a parent, she says, not to say ‘it will be better tomorrow.’ It might not, too! When in Ireland she worked in adult literacy, with a lot of people who had been scarred by their experiences in the education system of the 1960’s and 70’s – when corporal punishment was the norm. She learned in this time that anything that you are hiding from yourself – about yourself – will trip you up later in life. ‘If we can’t talk about the tough things, it is hard to set the world to rights.’
Amy then talked about the importance of packing your own luggage for your life, and choosing carefully the things that stay in it. Then repack it, with the good things not the bad. You will fail in life at times – you will make mistakes, and she likes to say ‘If I’m not making 10 mistakes a day, I’m not living.’ She has learned to enjoy rejections – even submitting at least a couple of short stories a year to The New Yorker, to ensure she is never short of at least one a year.
Back to the succotash. She hates succotash. Writing from the point of view of a lonely can of succotash was just a way of stating ‘I am lonely. I hate myself.’ And here’s the thing – and something I’ve never heard said or seen written by any counsellor anywhere – that is Normal.
While the teenagers in the audience were slow to start asking questions in this session – understandably so, they were probably still processing the truth bombs – the questions were very high quality. Amy answered each of them considerately and with compassion.
During this session, the whole time she was on stage, Chris Riddell drew as Amy spoke, and as she answered her questions he showed some of his sketches. She had talked about wanting one day to do a graphic memoir, and Chris was interested – watch this space.
While I think that those who go to A. S. King’s adult session may hear quite different things, I’d absolutely recommend it for both adults and teens. She has a unique perspective on the world, and her books show it. Buy them, get them out from the library, recommend them to the young people in your life.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Still Life with Tornado
Please Ignore Vera Dietz
postscript: I met her and she was lovely and signed my book and it was awesome! Thanks, Amy!