Monday, April 18, 2011

Event - A.S. King at Hooray for Books!

A.S. King and me. She's the pretty one.
Here's what I did last Friday: I went to Alexandria to see the incredibly awesome A.S. King at Hooray for Books. (For the record, the full name of the store is "Hooray for Books!" with an exclamation point, but including that piece of punctuation every time makes the text look weird, so just imagine its there). For anyone who has been living under a rock, A.S. King is the author of Please Ignore Vera Dietz (read review) which I have read, and Dust of 100 Dogs, which I have not (an oversight I ope to correct soon), and the forthcoming Everybody Sees the Ants (which I am anxiously awaiting).

Anyone who knows me knows what it takes to get me to go to Alexandria, which is deceptively far from where I actually live. Looking at a map it looks like a short jaunt, but since this is D.C., the straight route is a traffic nightmare, and the roundabout route is only slightly better. Plus, since I don't go to Alexandria very often, I have to rely on Google maps or Mapquest to figure out where I am going and, well, I ended up in Maryland this time. So, after crossing and recrossing the Woodrow Wilson bridge we finally made it into Alexandria, found the right street and actually located a parking spot. From there it was a short walk to Hooray for Books, an independent children's bookstore tucked into the bottom floor of a cute brick building on King Street. And we were only about a half hour late. (And by we, I mean me, my son, and my daughter. Yep, I dragged them all along with me).

So we walked over to the back of the store and there she was, sitting with a circle of rapt listeners holding court talking about Vera Dietz, writing, living in Ireland, the long years of writing before she got published, her personal path to publication, the dangers of the Border's bankruptcy, and where her book titles came from. And I immediately began regretting that we had not made it on time because in addition to being a superlative author who wrote the best book I read in 2010, she is an incredibly interesting and funny speaker. Among the things I found most interesting was a discussion about the process of selecting a publisher for Vera Dietz (if I remember correctly, she said that no fewer than seven publishers expressed interest), and the many different alterations that their respective editors requested. This led to commentary about the conventional wisdom of Young Adult book publishing - conventional wisdom that Vera Dietz gleefully and repeatedly flouts: Teens only want to read about teens, having a Pagoda as a character is a bad idea, and putting flowcharts in your book won't work. Well, okay, those last two are conventional wisdom only in the sense that Vera Dietz included them and editors thought that was weird. To that I'd add my pet peeve nugget of conventional wisdom: boys will only read books with male protagonists (which Vera Dietz also flouts). And she also talked about how Dust of 100 Dogs, with its math based structure, and Everybody Sees the Ants, which includes the protagonist's grandfather as a significant character, also violate those "rules".

And what becomes clear when listening to A.S. King (and talking with her later), is that she is all about breaking rules, and that's what makes her stories so very compelling. As she stated, she wrote seven novels over fifteen years before she got one published, and the one that was the first one published was one she had given up on as too strange to ever see print. But it turns out she has even more deliciously weird novels completed, including one in which chunks of the novel are told via crossword puzzles and cryptograms (and even though she is probably right that it is nigh unpublishable, how I want to get my hands on that book). And she talked about the serious topics that fill her books: Teen suicide, abuse, alcoholism, the draft lottery, and so on. And she talked about the dangers of having most of our reading selections dictated by a single entity such as Barnes & Noble. I could probably sit and listen to her talk for hours about anything. And she could probably write the phone book and make it interesting.*

Mrs. King's stories about her travails in settling into an office dedicated to allowing her to write was both funny, and demonstrated the reality of writing as a profession at the same time. Apparently, she has fixed up a room to be a beautiful office for her on more than one occasion, and each time she has completed the work and has the office set just the way she wants it, she gets pregnant and the child ends up taking over the room intended to be her office. She now works in a basement with a ceiling so low that she has to hunch over to walk to her desk. First, I'd like to say I hope that if she has another child they build an addition on to the house rather than giving the new baby her current office space, because otherwise that child will resent Mrs. King and probably demand therapy. Second, this highlights the truth about writing - it is a solitary experience that requires a willingness to sit down in a basement by yourself and keep pounding on the keys until you have several tens of thousands of words. Which you will then edit. And edit again. Of which you will throw away huge chunks. And then you will rewrite some more. And then you have at least a couple books that are unsalable, so you go back and start a new one. By yourself. In your basement. And keep at it until you have something that can be published. And I, for one, am supremely glad that Mrs. King is just the sort of stubborn person who will endure this misery and enjoy it enough to turn out books that are so very worth reading.

After the more or less "formal" discussion was done, Mrs. King announced that she was going to sign some books, and then made my day by hopping up to give me a hug, recognizing me from my blog and letting me know she stops by to read it now and again (by the way "Hi! Hope you like this article. If I got anything wrong, let me know. Love your writing!"). She met my daughter, who immediately asked if Mrs. King was a famous person (my answer "Yes", Mrs. King's answer "Not really"). She even laughed at my bad "Shetland people" joke, and later offered to scrunch down for a picture (note to Mrs. King: Almost everyone is taller than me, that's why I am a Shetland person, I expected to take a picture with your head higher than mine). In short, she showed over and over again that not only is she brilliant, insightful, funny, and a fantastic writer, she is also incredibly cool and nice. The only down note of the entire evening wasn't her fault: Hooray for Books ran out of copies of Dust of 100 Dogs before I could buy one, so my personal library is still sadly lacking this book. That was a small hiccup in what was otherwise a fantastic evening.

If you have not gone out and gotten and read a copy of a book by A.S. King, you should go out and rectify this situation immediately. If you ever have the opportunity to go to one of her appearances, you should cancel all other plans and go. In the meantime, you can check out her website, find her on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

*And now she's probably going to try to incorporate a phone listing into one of her future books. If she does, you can blame me for putting this idea into her head. I apologize in advance.

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  1. That's my pet peeve too! My biggest one! (The boys won't/shouldn't read books with female protags part.) (I have a great interview somewhere where I go off on that if you're interested!)

    It was SO SO SO cool of you to come out to see me, Aaron. Thank you so much for doing it. It was great to meet you and actually, your Shetland People joke is really funny.

    I will now make sure to put some sort of telephone listing into a book for you.

    Thank you for all your support. It means the world!

  2. @A.S. King: I'd love to see that interview! It irks me no end to see a publisher talking about how boys won't read books with female protagonists, especially when I know I did it all the time when I was a pre-teen.

    I wouldn't have missed coming to see you for anything. It was so great to meet you and listen to everything you had to say. I had to cut myself short in this post or in trying to cover all of the interesting and insightful things you had to say it would have been four times as long.

    I'll look forward to your phone book based fiction. Heck, I'd read the phone book if you wrote it. You'd figure out a way to make it interesting.