The latest novel from award-winning writer A.S. King, Dig (Dutton, Mar.), is about a lot of things: racism, poverty, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, and the tragic death of a teenager.
Though there are multiple narrators, when King began writing Dig she had only one: a teenage boy whose distinguishing characteristic was an ever-present snow shovel. In the novel, he is called The Shoveler.
“I wanted to write about whiteness,” said King, a Pennsylvania native who married an Irishman and spent a decade in Ireland before returning to the U.S. “I grew up in a place where the only thing that was considered racism was extremism and I saw a deeper problem in how we accidentally pass on normalized racism to our children.”
Still, all she had at first was one teenager and a snow shovel. “He kept shoveling for 70 pages and got me nowhere.” So she put the idea away and started a story about a girl, named CanIHelpYou?, who sells drugs alongside the roast beef sandwiches at an Arby’s drive-through window. CanIHelpYou? would rather chance arrest than take money from her affluent but racist parents, who don’t approve of their daughter’s best friend because he is black.
“Next thing I knew, CanIHelpYou? was in a park and there’s this boy with a shovel there but there was no snow,” King said. “Suddenly I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is an A.S. King book!’”
Each “A.S. King book” has a few distinctive traits. There will be elements of surrealism. In Still Life with Tornado (Dutton, 2016) the main character skips school to walk the streets of Philadelphia, encountering both past and future versions of herself. An A.S. King book is not interested in making you comfortable. The two teens at the center of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (Little, Brown, 2014) swirl the ashes of a mummified bat into their beers. An A.S. King book will challenge assumptions and force the reader to think. In I Crawl Through It (Little, Brown, 2015) one character is building a helicopter no one can see until it helps him and a friend escape from standardized testing. Is everybody cracking under the pressure of AP exams and college applications, bomb threats and intruder drills, or can an invisible helicopter really spirit two kids away from someplace they really don’t want to be?
King’s envelope-pushing style has drawn notice and accolades. In the decade since she began publishing YA novels, her books have received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Printz Honor, and more than 50 starred reviews, including four so far for Dig. Impressive for any author but especially for one who admits to writing “by the seat of my pants.”
“I am not in control of my writing process,” King said. “I am held hostage until my characters tell me what’s going on. There is no outline. I never know what’s going to happen until it does.”
In Dig, a third narrator, named The Freak, surprised King 350 pages into a 400-page novel. The Freak has the ability to “flicker” in and out of the lives of The Shoveler, CanIHelpYou?, and two other teens: Malcolm, whose father is dying, and Loretta, whose father is abusive. King teases out the connection between these five but it has something to do with an elderly couple named Marla and Gottfried Hemmings. Gottfried inherited a potato farm but sold the land to housing developers for millions. Though some of the Hemmings’s adult children are in deep trouble, they—or maybe just Marla—have made the decision not to help them financially because they want them to be independent.
Marla is the character under King’s most intense scrutiny. She enjoys the spoils her husband inherited while looking down at everyone else. Malcolm is her grandson and he occasionally is forced to stay with the Hemmingses because his father is dying of cancer. To Malcolm, Marla is the human embodiment of “unwoke.”
“I’ve tried so many times to get Marla to see things from a 21st-century point of view, but she doesn’t want to see anything,” Malcolm confides to the reader. “She just keeps the perks—her smartphone, her remote-start BMW, cable TV, and those plastic bags that steam vegetables in the microwave—that is all this century is to her. She will never wake up.”
About a year into writing the book, King had a conversation with a new friend, Pam Margolis, over dinner at a sports bar in Wichita, where both women were attending KidLitCon in 2016. “We were talking but everybody else in the bar was watching TV and something happened, someone scored a goal or a touchdown and these people, these white people, made so much noise that... well, I just rolled my eyes and Pam gave me a look and said, “Those are your people.”
An epiphany of sorts ensued. “I realized that because of all the work I do, a lot of time in underserved areas, I had pretty much separated myself from what I thought about white people, despite the fact that I am a white person, “ King said. “But Pam was right. White people are my people.”
When she returned to her work-in-progress, she used Marla to show how racism might begin and how destructive it can be to a family. The fact that so many white women voted for Donald Trump for president factored into her thinking. She wanted a story that challenged readers to think about how racism might unwittingly be their default.
“I wanted to figure out a way to somehow give them an alternative to this quiet, normalized racism,” she said, but “I wanted to wake them up with compassion.”
Dig by A.S. King. Dutton, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-101-99491-6