A.S. King’s “Still Life With Tornado” + How I Met Her That One Time

If you want to know if you should read the newest A.S. King book, the short answer is: ALWAYS.

Still Life With Tornado (out today from Dutton Books for Young Readers) has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, Buzzfeed, et al. They’ll back me up. They speak in glowing tones to the merits of the story, her writing, her use of magic surrealism. All of this is true.

And it’s all been said. I thought I’d tell you about when I met Amy King at the Burien Public Library (WA), and perhaps provide some context as to how I approached SLWT as a reader and writer.

This was back in April 2015. I Crawl Through It was scheduled to come out that September. I was zeroing in on a final draft of my first book, a speculative YA novel. I hadn’t yet noticed I was reading mostly contemporary fiction.

The Monday night crowd was a bit light — the event was not well publicized (I found out about it through King’s Twitter feed, which is worth following for the humor alone). “Well, this is going to be an intimate evening,” King said, and invited us to come forward. She talked about her books, and how I Crawl Through It would be different from her previous work (no joke). And then she said something that made my heart skip a beat.

“At one point, I almost stopped writing.” She talked about the importance of the work, how she had been writing for years, back when she was living in Ireland, raising a family. “But publishing is not writing,” King said, and talked about the difficulties of navigating the industry. It wasn’t any one person or thing, just that writing is one type of work, and publishing is another, and you have to get straight with both if you’re going to put your books into the world.

That the industry can be challenging is not new information to anyone who has tried to publish. But it was the first time I had heard a successful author, someone whose books were important to me, talk about the serious personal impact on her writing. Was there ever a chance that there wouldn’t be a new A.S. King book? The thought made me nervous, and ensured that I would always buy her books immediately, and also any missing from the back catalog (Hm, perhaps a genius marketing move? Well played, Amy King).

King then talked about working with her editorial team on ICTI, and the support that had encouraged her to keep writing, especially from her editor Andrew Karre (who she mentioned by name twice). My understanding of what it means to write expanded as I realized writerly solitude becomes a partner effort with your critique partners, your agent, then a team effort with your publishers, then a covenant with readers of the world. That’s some rapid human expansion from “I have an idea!” to publication.

King’s honesty has stayed with me since that night. After the talk, I spoke with a teen writer who was inspired to go home and finish her novel. A librarian wanted to recommend some new books to her readers. I wanted to look at all the moving parts between me and the reader, and also examine my motivations for turning to fiction. Knowing the truth — and looking harder at our own truths — already felt like winning. Everyone crawled through.

When I read the ARC for Still Life With Tornado, I couldn’t help but think of the struggle it takes to bring a book into the world, the number of people involved, and specifically the work and optimism in this book, the unyielding faith that King’s voice matters. It does matter, not just to me and the starred reviewers, but to her many readers, young and old, but especially young. I always wish I had been able to read her books when I was a teen. Her characters and their struggles are not identical to my own experience, but impart identical truths at the core. SLWT is about an artist who can’t draw, who searches for originality, questions what is original. This is not just an artist’s struggle, but speaks to anyone attempting to discover who they are. And aren’t we always?

That’s why I read A.S. King. ALWAYS.

A line from the book: “Tornadoes are so old that the sky made them before we were even here. Carmen said that the sketch was not of a tornado, but everything it contained.” It’s right not to accept the tornado for what it is, but to look at what lies beneath. King did this for us that night in the library. She does this in her books. The importance of a modern truth teller cannot be underestimated, especially now. We owe Amy King a debt of gratitude for her work, both on the page, and off.


Back cover copy from Still Life With Tornado:

Sarah can’t draw. This is a problem, because as long as she can remember, she has “done the art.” She thinks she’s having an existential crisis. And she might be right; she does keep running into past and future versions of herself as she explores the urban ruins of Philadelphia. Or maybe she’s finally waking up to the tornado that is her family, the tornado that six years ago sent her once-beloved older brother flying across the country for a reason she can’t quite recall. After decades of staying together “for the kids” and building a family on a foundation of lies and violence, Sarah’s parents have reached the end. Now Sarah must come to grips with years spent sleepwalking in the ruins of their toxic marriage. As Sarah herself often observes, nothing about her pain is remotely original —and yet it still hurts. Insightful, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful, this is a vivid portrait of everyday abuse and survival that will linger with readers long after the last page.

More about A.S. King:

A.S. King is the award-winning author of eight acclaimed YA novels. Her novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz earned a 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor and Ask The Passengers won the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The New York Times called her “one of the best YA writers working today.” King lives with her family in Pennsylvania, where she returned after living on a farm and teaching adult literacy in Ireland for more than a decade. www.as-king.com