Tamara Ellis Smith interviews A.S.King about Ask the Passengers
A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to review A.S. King's Ask the Passengers for BookBrowse. I loved the book, or to be more exact, I think the words I used when I described it are "madly in love." And this is true. My heart was especially tugged at by the refrain throughout the story of Astrid sending her love to the passengers in the planes that fly above her, and their responses to her. (No, they don't actually hear her and thus they don't actually respond to her, but Amy gives them monologues and they are dynamic and specific and even magical in the ways that they connect. Trust me. You just have to read the book.) Ask the Passengers is a heartbreaking and heartful story; and while there is no doubt that its characters leave their mark on the reader, for me the landscape did too. Small town PA makes itself heard loud and clear. But so does the air and wind and miles between Astrid down on her picnic table and those passengers up in the sky.
I hoped Amy would be interested in doing an interview here, and she was! It was a complete joy to connect with her. And I have to say it was extra exciting to connect because I have the deep honor of being in an upcoming anthology for teens with her! Break These Rules, edited by (and the brain child of) the wonderful Luke Reynolds, will be out in Fall 2013, published by Chicago Review Press.
I am thrilled and honored to have A.S. King here today. Welcome Amy!
KTE: I want to just jump right in and ask about landscape. Ask the Passengers is set in small-town PA. How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?
ASK: I tend to be sparse when it comes to location details in my writing. My townsfolk will often illuminate a town more than the scenery.
KTE: That is so clear in your writing. Your characters shine. They jump off the page. But it felt like you knew this small town...
ASK: I grew up in Pennsylvania and though I grew up out a ways, a neighbor to cornfields and gun clubs, I know small-town life from friends and family who live in real neighborhoods. It may seem like I have a very one-sided and negative view of small-town PA when one reads Ask the Passengers but for Astrid, a girl growing up different in such a place, this is what it looks like. An example: I know a Jewish man who still collects pennies off his porch in small-town PA regularly. Some things are sad, but true.
I grew up in Berks County and lived here for a year after I got married as well. After over a decade in Ireland, I never thought I'd move back here. I am very glad I did. I forgot how much I fit into the Pennsylvania Dutch lifestyle. (Translation: I can still stretch a sale chicken three days with broth left over.)
I grew up surrounded by an enormous cornfield. When I was 14, the field was sold to a developer and by the time I was 18, there were about 100 houses there as well as several new roads and neighbors. (The neighbors often had barking dogs.) The destruction of that cornfield was devastating for me. I still haven't brought myself to write about it.
I love where I live nowin the middle of 50 acres of forest. It creates a great cushion and looks very pretty in winter, but it also blocks any decent view of stars.
KTE: What does landscape, in general, mean for you?
ASK: This is a trick question for me.
KTE: I didn't mean to trick you, I promise!
ASK: On one hand, I could live anywhere. I adapt quickly and easily to most environments and I love different cultures and scenery. On the other hand, I am a self-admitted homebody and hermit. I love being in my comfort zone, no matter what landscape is outside my door. So, this comes down to people again. As much as I know landscape is not characters but setting, I guess I have realized, by answering these questions, that setting is not what makes one happy. People are.
KTE: You're making me think of landscape in a whole new way. (I love that. I just love it.) Can landscape be separated from the people who inhabit it? Is a riverbank with Astrid sitting on it different than a riverbank with me sitting on it? Is the actual riverbank different as a result? I'm not sure I know the answer to that hmmmm how about back to Ask the Passengers
What does landscape mean for Astrid?
ASK: I think landscape means a lot to Astrid. I think fitting into gossip-town USA is no fun for her. I think she'd prefer to move back to New York City. The one part of the landscape that's particularly essential for Astrid, though, is the sky and the stars
KTE: Yes! This is sort of what I mean! Is Astrid a different person out in those sky and stars? Are the sky and stars different because of her?
ASK: Without these, she would not have much to look at when she sends her love to the random passengers in overhead airplanes. And maybe she wouldn't even feel the need to do this had she stayed in NYC.
ASK: Again though, landscape has more to do with the people in Unity Valley for Astrid. Their gossip makes up the air she breathes. Again, we have character as landscape. I think no matter where we are as humans, and no matter what age, if we are stuck with unbearable humans, then it doesn't really matter what it looks like outside the windows.
KTE: Agreed. Although maybe you feel compelled to get to the other side of the window and if the landscape suits you, then there's all the more reason to get out there
You told me that, for you, your sense of landscape changed tremendously as a result of moving away...specifically, of moving to Ireland and seeing your home-landscape through the eyes of the Irish people you knew. In a way they brought into relief some things that you hadn't, perhaps, seen before. Can you explain that a bit here? Why is this so?
ASK: Being American in Ireland wasn't always easy. There are a lot of chips and not quite enough shoulders. I grew up taking slags and could handle most of the ribbing I got thanks to the thick skin of a last-born. That said, realizing that the rest of the world watched Jerry Springer and thought that this is what all Americans were like was a bit of a downer. People talked down to me a lot. It got old after a while. So, I took to being myself and letting those with open minds decide.
My favorite conversations about home often involved the weirder things about America. Between Jerry Springer and other sensational "news" type programs, many were confused about the KKK, or gun culture for example. I told them about my experiences in school knowing about cross burnings and knowing people who owned a lot of guns, or my experience of being robbed at gunpoint. I found many people were fascinated by the Klan in particular. I hadn't realized that most people think the Klan is a strictly Southern thing. I even get that herefrom New Englanders or urbanites. They say, "But I thought you live in Pennsylvania!" I do. Oh, I do. But to hide the truth of where I live and the people who live here would be disingenuous. They are not ashamed to be part of that group and I am not ashamed to tell outsiders that their group is alive and well and living in my community.
The entire subject of what was different between here and there drew so much awe when I told stories of it abroad that I became in awe of it myself. From the Klan to the Amish and Mennonite to the strange Pennsylvania Dutch customs and rituals I grew up with, I seemed to have forgotten how different we are until I was elsewhere and people asked me to describe. So describe I did. The good, the bad and the ugly. And by doing so, I fell in love again with the landscape and the characters of my home.
KTE: And what about the Irish landscape? Did you fall in love with it? What does the landscape of the Irish farm you lived and worked on mean for you?
ASK: We bought that farm derelict, pretty much. It had a great roof. We bought it for cash. Not because we were loaded, but because it was cheap. The landscape of Ireland hugged me.
ASK: Daily. I loved it there. I loved the different climate, the different birds, the different trees, the different culture. I fell in love when I went in 1991 and saw it from the back of an old 1970s motorbike, and I moved there as quickly as I could after getting married.
I've loved the city landscapes in my life, and I've lived in a few. We stayed in Dublin for two years after we moved. Dublin was so different from Philadelphia for me. There was deeper history around each curve in the road and behind each stone wall. I loved those wallsthe labyrinths of stone that one would find in the weirdest places. Nothing in America compared to them for me. They were so old. I loved the skinny roads and the feeling of boundaries everywhere. I was happy in Dublin for a while, but we both knew our goal was to get to the countryside, so we found the farm and moved there with nothing but what we had, which wasn't much.
We lived off that land. I think that's probably the most intimate relationship one can have with land. Your life depends upon it. It is strong and through it, you are strong. It's very hard to explain.
KTE: Oh I think I understand
ASK: It's a deep respect and a deep lovefor dirt. Earth.
ASK: The global location was a novelty sometimes, too. On a few occasions, the Sirocco blew Sahara sand all the way up to us and the sand would leave a layer of red dust on the black tarps with which we used to cover our garden plots.
KTE: Oh wow
I was so stoked that Sahara dust had made it to my little piece of the world that each time this happened I would get the dust and coat my face and arms in it every day until the rain washed the dust away.
KTE: Amazing. You are also a photographer. In fact, you studied photography. How does this kind of eye and skill influence your sense of landscape?
ASK: As a writer I think that my degree and training in photography counts for me and against me. My thoughts are often very visual but I can't draw, so I'm left trying to explain something in words that I can already picture in my head. This can be helpful when it comes to describing a place or person.
On the flip side, already seeing things means I often leave out details. I read some books and I am so drawn in to a writer's description of a placepages and pages of descriptionand I'm forced to realize that I don't even tell readers what my characters look like. I can't tell yet if this adds or detracts from my work. I see it as a shortcoming, though.
KTE: Ummm, you're wrong. Clearly. I felt Astrid's landscape very strongly. It's not the number of descriptors it's the right ones. And the context around them. You've got that down
But back to landscape. It, of course, holds history (rings on a tree indicating drought and mountains and rivers forming over time, etc.) but I also think it holds stories. I wonder what you think about that idea? That landscape holds stories. Do those stories get told? Or are they felt?
ASK: I have often walked past places and know deep within that something bad happened there. Do you know that feeling?
ASK: I think landscape holds stories without a doubt. I think those stories are right there, like fog on the surface. I think we are supposed to see and feel them.
KTE: It seems to me that landscape taps into some ancient part of us, some part that is connected to what has come before us, and as such it grounds us, or stirs us up. When Astrid lies on that picnic table and gazes up into the sky, all those miles up through the air, the wind, the sun, and when she imagines those people in those airplanes, I don't know, there was something that resonated deeply for me in that. Something about all of us having our own stories, but all of us being inside the same landscape, and so all of us sharing those stories... Am I making any sort of sense here? What are your thoughts about that?
ASK: I think we all share the same landscape. I also think we are too distracted by unnatural, unnecessary things. I have not watched TV in over 15 years. I am not up to date with any movie stars or celebrity gossip, nor do I care to be. I can't think of the last time I had a conversation with a random person about something real. Something pressing. Something essential. We love small talk, we do. And I just don't have much small talk to offer.
I think these distractions help us forget everything we know instinctively. We were born with knowledge of how to behave, how to treat ourselveshow to honor this very short time we're given. We are here to mind each other and the land. We are here to be kind. We are here to give warmth like the sun, grow nourishment like the soil and we are here to hug the way the Irish hills hugged me. So often we are too busy competing. Too often. So often we are too busy running to stop and look at what we're running past. Too often. So often we are busy looking for what makes us better than another that we forget that we all came here to achieve the same greatness. I wonder when we'll remember that. I'm afraid I'll be dust by then. But I do have hope.
KTE: Oh there are so many other questions I have for you I could ask you a hundred just about your last thought, about what we humans instinctively know but I will stop here. (Or maybe I will go outside and ask a passing plane, instead.) I can't thank you enough, Amy, for taking the time and energy to talk with us today. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This interview first ran on Kissing The Earth, and is reproduced with the kind permission of KTE co-founder Tamara Ellis Smith. The original interview is well worth viewing as it contains many evocative photos of scenes described by A.S. King.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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