A.S. King is the author of The Dust of 100 Dogs–a high-concept YA novel that explodes the box on that particular genre. Even though this marks her first novel, A.S. is no stranger to the world of fiction. She was a top-runner in the Washington Square fiction contest as well as for the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, and she’s been nominated for inclusion in the Best New American Voices 2010 anthology. Her work has appeared in the Dublin edition of the Sunday Times magazine and literary journals like Quality Women’s Fiction. In short, she knows more than a thing or two about stringing a sentence together.
I was excited to read about A.S. King’s novel through Publisher’s Marketplace, many months ago, and hugely intrigued by its premise: This was a modern-day pirate story, about a girl who’d been killed in the 17th century and then–through a little voodoo magic–lived 100 lives as a dog before returning to a human body…but with every awareness of where she’d left that treasure. How cool a concept is that? The book was not a disappointment, though it was a surprise. It was darker than I thought it would be, but it was also richer–full of layers that make you think and a storyline that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the cover.
I was thrilled when she agreed to this Q&A. Enjoy!
Interview with A.S. King: Part 1
Q: The Dust of 100 Dogs is a clever high-concept novel. What sparked the idea, and how did it evolve for you?
ASK: Thank you! The idea was sparked by my realization that Oliver Cromwell’s army might have used the road I lived on [in Ireland] during their 1649/50 invasion. The rest evolved over time – usually while I walked my dogs. I started to write both storylines at the same time, but I had no idea how they would link. The connection finally came when I read a bit more about the white slavery trade from Europe to the Caribbean during the mid 1600s.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your journey to publication. How long did you work on The Dust of 100 Dogs? How did you find an agent? How did you find an editor?
ASK: I don’t think we have time for the long version here, but the short version is: I wrote seven novels over twelve years before I found my agent. It was another two years before we sold The Dust of 100 Dogs to Flux. I never thought it would come back out of my filing cabinet after I’d tried on two continents to find representation for it and failed. When I was querying my seventh novel, one agent had a bit of interest in it, and when we talked, I mentioned that I had older novels. He asked to read them, and he took me on for The Dust of 100 Dogs as well. Finding Andrew Karre at Flux was his genius entirely. I’d been writing in a vacuum for nearly fifteen years. I had no idea what the US markets were like – and had never heard of the YA genre.
Relating to how long it actually took me to write the book – I got the idea first around 1999 and started writing it in 2001. I had to take a break for most of 2002 because my brain doesn’t like working on novel-length fiction while pregnant. I started work again in 2003, and finished that year. It’s been rewritten/revised about a trillion times since.
Q: You tell the story from several POV’s, weaving narratives of the past and present with interesting bits of dog psychology. Which storyline came first to you? Did any particular storyline want to take over? How did you manage the storylines so that they’d merge in the proper places?
ASK: Emer and Cromwell came first, but I did know Saffron was going to be a part of the story. I think I wrote maybe two chapters of Emer first, then a chapter or two of Saffron. Most of my books follow this same sort of POV switch, and one of the reasons I enjoy that is because if I get bored or stumped with one POV, I can keep working on the other. Very rarely do both stump me at once. I remember having to separate the Emer & Saffron storylines to check continuity during revisions. And because I wanted things to read smoothly, I resisted my math-geek urge to have chapters mathematically structured and switched POV when it came most naturally.
Q: I thought the outtakes of dog psychology really enhanced the storyline. What can you tell us to help illuminate the notion of the dust of 100 dogs? Are there ways to view it as more than a voodoo trick?
ASK: Yes. There are several ways to interpret that. Personally, I have heard of several tribes who save and treasure the dust of their ancestors. I see much symbolism in this custom – a nod to the passage of time as well as the unchanging human condition.
Q: Let’s talk about your characters-Emer, the strong-willed pirate; Saffron, the unhappy modern-day teen who once lived as Emer; Fred, the self-loathing control freak. Each carries a large chunk of the story, and each represents a different place on the controlled-to-freewill spectrum. How did they evolve for you? Which were the hardest to solidify? Did Fred give you trouble?
ASK: Oddly, Fred was probably the easiest, because crazy people are fun to write. The biggest challenge with him was controlling his foul, awful mouth and brain. Emer was difficult in ways. Her childhood was hard to convey due to the differences in language (obviously in rural Ireland in 1650, they were not speaking English!) and due to the fact that I didn’t want to openly state that Saffron was the third person narrator. Emer the pirate was very hard for me because I knew little about piracy. However, the logistics of pirating were made much easier by a few of my favorite pirate video games at the time. Above all, Saffron was difficult because she started out as a very flat girl from Pennsylvania. What can I say? I call them like I see them. The world is full of flat (seeming) people and I like to give a realistic view of the world in my work. But as I worked on the book, and fixed the ending about a gazillion times, I realized that for Saffron to leave the book the way I wanted her to, she would need a bit more spark. And so the PFs were born. (PFs = pirate feelings.)
Q: You mentioned researching pirates via video games, which I applaud as innovative and a hell of a lot more fun than pouring over dusty books. What other steps did you take to learn about the world of pirates and the 1600s? Did your research help to direct the plot?
ASK: You know, I read a lot of books I can’t even recall – everything in the local library and a few visual books with photos of period weaponry and boats and things. But none of that really shaped the plot – it was more for added detail in an already drafted narrative.
Q: Some of your 17th century characters had modern-day counterparts but not all of them. Seanie is the most notable main character missing from the modern-day script. Did you have to reign in your story possibilities, or was it always clear that your modern-day story had to be as focused as it was? Why did you make this choice?
ASK: This is going to seem like a cop out answer, but I can’t lie. This book, like most of my books, unfolded without much thought about symbolism at first. And so, I hadn’t intentionally left anyone out. But I have had a few readers assume that Seanie is in the modern day part – but is trapped in a dog’s body.
Q: And would you be okay with that?
ASK: Sure. I’m totally okay with people interpreting the book the way they like. There are a few ways I see it, myself. That isn’t one of them, but I do see how someone could think that.
Q: Saffron definitely carries Emer with her-evidenced by her imagining things like stuffing annoying people’s eye sockets with salted limes-yet she is herself. How did you go about creating Saffron as both Emer, and not Emer. What did you intend for the reader to believe about Saffron-that she’s a reincarnation, that she’s distinct, or that she’s a layered personality?
ASK: I think a lot of Western people have trouble wrapping their heads around reincarnation. For me, reincarnation is about a spirit being reborn into a whole new person, who has their own life. If I was the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix, for example, I wouldn’t necessarily know how to play a guitar. But for Saffron, things are bit more complicated because she was cursed with some weird voodoo, and she has her memories from all 300+ years. (Using the above example, she would then know how to play the guitar, too.) But at the same time, she has her own life as Saffron, like everyone else does. I think we all have layers. Saffron is aware of each of her layers, whereas, most people are not at all aware of theirs.
Q: Speaking of layered personalities, several of your characters hear voices. Talk to us about that choice.
ASK: Really, only Fred hears voices. Emer talks with her dead mother because that’s what some people do. I talk to my dead friends and relatives all the time – especially when I need strength or if I’m driving in snow and I need to feel like someone is looking out for me! But Fred actually hears voices because he’s crazy. Again – I’m not sure that was my choice. Fred just came out one day and he was talking to himself. I do like how it adds to the symbolism of his struggle, though.
Q: What, if anything, do you want your story to make people consider?
ASK: I don’t care what. I just care that it does. My favorite kinds of books are the books that make me think. If I can make a reader think about this book for a day or two afterward, that makes me happy.
Come back next week for part two of my interview with A.S. King, when we’ll discuss the boundaries of Young Adult literature and much, much more. And if you don’t, we’ll pluck out your eyeballs and stuff your skull full of limes. Arrrr.