When she returned to the grid after a decade spent in rural Ireland raising chickens and teaching adult literacy, Amy King found herself in her native Pennsylvania, living with her husband, Topher, in a rented house in Berks County that had at least one feature their Irish farmhouse had lacked: cable TV.
King recalls, “We hadn’t watched television in something like 15 years—no news, no anything. So when we realized we had this magical free cable for about three weeks, we thought, ‘Let’s see what it’s like now.’ ” Flabbergasted would severely understate their reaction. “It was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. Even the news shows were not really news shows anymore. They were something like newsertainment.”
This was 2004, when reality programming had begun to hit its stride with shows like American Idol and Survivor, spawning imitators that subsequently stretched the genre to astonishing dimensions. (Whisker Wars, anyone?) When the free period ended, the Kings did not re-up.
But an impression had been made on King’s psyche. A few years later, when Jon & Kate Plus 8—filmed in nearby Lancaster County—became a hit, it caught her attention.
“You couldn’t escape knowing about them if you lived around here, and what I was reading about the show online made me really sad,” King says. “It’s one thing if you, an adult, want to be on Survivor, but these children who never signed up to have their childhoods filmed? It made me wonder how many kids could be suffering for the sake of other people’s entertainment.”
That was the moment that Reality Boy (Little, Brown, Oct.), King’s fifth YA novel, took root in her imagination. In what would become the book’s prologue, King wrote in the voice of Gerald Faust, whose mother bargains away her children’s privacy in exchange for the money offered by the producers of Network Nanny, a reality show that installs a faux child specialist into a household to “fix” a family’s dysfunction. Gerald was just five years old when the TV cameras showed up. He is 16 when the novel’s main storyline unfolds, and he still can’t escape the international notoriety he earned from the way he objected to not–Mary Poppins and her camera crew: by defecating in a closet; in a dressing room at Sears; and, once, right in his (evil) older sister’s bed. The bullies at school call Gerald by the nickname that the TV-watching world gave him: the Crapper.
King is clearly on a roll: she won this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Ask the Passengers and was a finalist last year for the Andre Norton Award for Everybody Sees the Ants, and she took home a 2011 Printz Honor for Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Reality Boy has attracted film interest months before its October release—the first of King’s novels to catch Hollywood’s eye.
“Who knows?” she asks with a wry humor that will sound familiar to her readers. “If this keeps up, one day I may even drive a car that has air-conditioning.”
Like Gerald, King’s main characters are struggling to survive the hands they’ve been dealt. King admits her own teen years were hard (though she’s quick to point out that her parents are nothing like the parents in her novels). Her stories, however, leave their characters in better places; they come to understand that though their childhoods may have been miserable, they have some control over their future. “I love that time in teenagers’ lives when they’re approaching a big change and you see a kid go for it,” King says.
A good student herself, King spent a semester and a half at a state college before realizing she’d chosen the wrong school. She switched to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where she majored in photography, specializing in archival printing. “Digital photography made my skills obsolete within three years of graduating,” she says. Oops.
By that time she’d moved to Ireland with Topher, whom she married in 1992. The two met when she was 17 and he was 19; he was employed as an “exchange counselor” from Ireland at the same camp where King had gotten a summer job. Work is one way King adds depth to her characters, and it’s the authentically mind-numbing kind that most teens have to settle for—refilling the condiments at a concession stand, deveining shrimp for a caterer, delivering pizza. What stands out about her characters and their jobs is how each sees work almost as a refuge—a sanctioned way of getting out of the house or away from the nonsense at school, earning the bit of freedom that comes from having one’s own money. King knows this terrain well. Work, she says, is what people in Pennsylvania Dutch country do. “We can’t stop working,” she says.
After college, King herself took on four jobs to save for plane fare to Ireland, where she fell in love again—this time, with the country. She and Topher renovated a run-down farm in Tipperary. “We grew lettuce and potatoes and raised chickens,” King recalls. “If we were hungry, it was chop, chop, to something we’d grown ourselves.”
She didn’t initially qualify for a work permit, but, unable to be idle, she kept busy, reading a book a day during the six months she had to wait until she could apply for a job. “Ireland is a great place for used books,” she says. “Between the library and book sales, I collected a lot of classics—the books I thought I would have read had I gone to college for writing: all the great English writers, all the Booker Prize winners, some philosophy, Kafka, Burroughs, lots of surrealistic fiction, Camus, Tom Wolfe, John Irving, Kerouac. I could go on.”
It was Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses that got her to the typewriter (a secondhand model that had been manufactured for the Swedish market). “I’d throw in a letter with an umlaut just for the heck of it,” she says. Her first stories were “all about women and how upset they were to be trapped in a moldy room, which is exactly what I was.” She did not consider that she was writing for teens.
“Being in Ireland, I was not aware there even was something called ‘YA,’ but looking back now at the seven novels in my drawer, the majority of them started in the character’s childhood or teen years,” King says. “What I was always doing was trying to help teenagers better understand the adults in their lives, and vice versa—where the whole eye-roll thing might come from.”
After two daughters arrived in the 1990s, the family returned to the United States. King got an agent but her work was hard to categorize and, thus, difficult to place. “Finally, out of the blue, an editor asked my agent, ‘Do you have anything weird?’ ” The agent sent him The Dust of 100 Dogs, a dark novel about a pirate who lived 100 lifetimes in various incarnations. The editor, Andrew Karre, published it in 2009 while he was at Flux. He also gave King a reading list, which included Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson, both of which became favorites and helped her understand why he thought her stories would work for young adults.
There was already an Amy King writing novels so she published as A.S. King (her maiden name is Sarig), which she liked because it spelled out “asking,” and “I’m always asking questions,” she says.
Her next novel, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, went to auction, with seven houses bidding. She chose Knopf because editor Michelle Frey had “a fantastic vision for the book.” King notes, “There were other editors who wanted me to take all the adults out, and that wouldn’t have worked. Teenagers have to deal with adults all the time. There needed to be adults in the book.”
Vera Dietz was King’s breakthrough, winning a Printz Honor and being named a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. Reality Boy is her fifth YA novel, and, like its predecessors, it has a surreal strand running through it. In 2012’s Ask the Passengers, the main character, Astrid, conjures up Socrates—and gives him a first name: Frank—when she needs advice. Gerald Faust frequently finds himself in the company of Snow White.
“I tend to go odd; I know that,” says King, who feels very grateful for the home she’s found at Little, Brown—her last three books have been edited by Andrea Spooner, and the directions her writing and her life have taken, despite the fact that she didn’t see “YA writer” coming when she was holed up in her farmhouse, pecking out stories she thought were for adults.
“Even though I still think I’m writing for teens and adults, if my books had been published for adults, they never would have been read by teachers and librarians and parents,” she says, adding, “Teens never would have found them.”