With a reputation for ambitious prose and surreal storytelling, A.S. King is one of the most critically acclaimed YA writers working today, as well as an accomplished author of middle grade novels published under the name Amy Sarig King. She wrote her new YA novel, Switch, after suffering an unthinkable loss and trying to find a way to “soften to life.” The book takes place in a world where time has stopped—it’s been June 23, 2020, for nine months. While working on a school project, teen javelin prodigy Truda stumbles onto a way to repair time.
Your acknowledgments reveal that this book started when you were asked to give a speech about time. Can you tell us about that speech and what exactly is going on with time at the beginning of the book?
In writing the keynote for the launch of the 2018 edition of the Johnson County, Kansas, Library’s teen literary magazine, Elementia, I invented a clock based on psychologist Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel. I hadn’t thought about stopped time at all for that speech—just about the concept of the clock and how we spend our time on Earth ignoring emotions, especially as we get older. I wanted to give everyone in the venue a new way to think about how to spend their time. A new way to look at emotions.
As for what’s happened to time at the beginning of Switch: It has mysteriously stopped. Or the clocks have, anyway. Seems like someone needed a break and just turned the world off. It seemed natural, in that situation, that adults would have to distract children from the whole mess with something lackluster, like a school project or an essay. This is where Plutchik’s Clock walked back through the saloon doors in the hands of our narrator, Truda Becker, and said, “Howdy, Amy.”
When did you first learn about Plutchik, and what drew you to incorporating his ideas into Switch?
I love Plutchik and his work. I’m unsure of exactly when I came across him, but I have read every one of his textbooks. I found him during a time in my life when I needed to be reminded that emotions are real, important and natural after a lifetime of having mine denied.
When humans slow down, they can usually see all the parts of their lives they are running from.
One of my favorite things to do in my books is share cool random knowledge in order to help readers make sense of their world, so in Switch, Tru explores psychology, from developmental to psychoevolutionary, in school. I was so excited when I wrote that speech for the library’s keynote, to introduce a few hundred people to this concept of the Plutchik’s Clock. Now I am even more excited to share the idea more broadly. Heck yes! This is what Robert Plutchik did for me. He made me want to spread the word about how smart he was—and in doing so, he has helped me help other people, which is why I was born.
Tell us about Tru. How did you develop her character and find her voice?
Tru wanted to be written. I know this because she migrated from two other books I’d been writing. She and her talent for javelin seemed to want to talk, so I let them.
I wrote Switch during the hardest time in my life. My teenage daughter Gracie died in 2018, about five months after I made that speech in Kansas, and I wasn’t able to finish the book I was writing. I wasn’t able to do anything, really. I didn’t think I’d ever write another book, to be honest. But four months later, I wrote a poem about a switch, and it wouldn’t end. I sat down at the desk, threw away Tru’s original introduction and pages, and dove into this poem about her home life to see what it might yield.
I think all of my characters find their voices through experiences I have in my own life. In Switch, I wanted to explore how the world treats girls with skill. How their entire environment eats them without them knowing it. I wanted her to walk through that with her head up. Her confidence is what I’m most proud of. She may not be super confident, but she has the confidence to know what she is walking through and name it. That’s a huge step in healing.
Can you describe Tru’s home? Why did you choose this setting for the story?
It was the choice of the book, not me. Though I do start out telling the reader about the switch. In the house, there is a switch, but Daddy says no one is allowed to touch it. He builds boxes, often out of plywood, around the switch as a safety measure, and then he builds more and more boxes that take over rooms and hallways. As the story develops, it twists and turns and feels a bit like a tilt-a-whirl. So the house and its series of boxes become one, too.
We need to teach young humans how to nourish themselves and give them ample time to do it. Now.
How to describe it? Chaos, I guess. The chaos of four different people coming to terms with the same realization but on different levels and timelines. Isn’t that how every family deals with traumatic things that happen to the family unit? In Switch, life imitates each family member’s psychological wrestling. So their house becomes a plywood carnival. It looks great from the outside, though. Of course. Doesn’t it always?
Although Switch doesn’t take place in our current moment, the ways its characters’ lives have been reconfigured are going to feel familiar and perhaps even a bit prescient for readers. Is Switch a different book because of the COVID-19 pandemic? How has your thinking about the book changed, knowing that readers will bring their experiences of the past year or so to the book?
I am a cosmic sort of person; I have a brain of granola and believe in astrology. So to me, this is all kismet in a very personal way. It was me who needed time to stop. When I lost Gracie, I was unable to do anything normal. I couldn’t even talk or think right for months, even years. I still can’t some days.
Once I could try to work, I started writing a book that made me stop time for eight hours a workday. Like Daddy in the book, I needed a reset. A deep breath. Anything. Like Daddy in the book, I needed to somehow access my emotions again and soften to life.
The kismet happens when a pandemic comes along, and suddenly everyone else is living in a world where they don’t know what day or month it is either, and they are suddenly forced to live entirely different lives. That’s just weird. The books come from personal realities. The surrealism comes from trauma. The cosmic stuff gives me a joyous shrug because it feels like a bigger puzzle, and I love puzzles; that’s why I’m a writer.
But yes, I think readers who have just experienced this series of quarantines and shutdowns will relate in several ways. When humans slow down, they can usually see all the parts of their lives they are running from. That is essentially the cold open of Switch.
How did writing Switch change the way you think about time?
The reason I was invited to speak about time at Johnson County Library was because my work pretty much always deals with or plays with time. So it’s what I’m thinking about most days—it’s my lens. In the case of Switch, what you give your time and attention to is important. Growth is what the switch is.
I wager we should be flicking switches all day—finding new ways to see old things. Finding new things. Growing. That is what time is for. For a decade of my life, I grew all my food from seed in my greenhouse to harvest in the field. I know that every centimeter of growth counts. When we mistake ignoring emotionally teachable moments as valiantly “getting over it,” we skip vital cogs in the machine. The machine turns out people whose clocks are set to eat themselves. The imbalance between personal emotional learning and book or social learning is always going to show in the crop. We need to teach young humans how to nourish themselves and give them ample time to do it. Now.
I firmly believe that we need to center the mental and emotional health of children. And ourselves. If we all don’t take or make time to learn how to rest and heal, we are going to continue to pass down intergenerational trauma that is only going to get worse. We need a giant reset. If I ran the world, I’d give us all a plump vacation with a Plutchik’s Clock and a ton of mental health care. And some of Daddy’s cooking.
Author photo courtesy of Krista Schumow Photography, 2011.