The Overheard Conversation

Writers love to eavesdrop. There’s no better grist for the mill than the conversation of strangers, not intended for your ears. On a craft level, eavesdropping is a wonderful exercise in learning to write authentic dialogue. The overheard do not explain what or whom they are talking about for the benefit of Nosey in the seat behind them, and yet Nosey gets the gist of it along with the frisson of stolen pleasure. That’s what you want from dialogue! The eavesdropper has to try to make sense of what’s being said and in so doing becomes a truly engaged listener. Aren’t those exactly the kind of readers we crave?
Eavesdropping, after all, is what literature is all about. The reader is the proverbial fly on the wall, vicariously delighted or horrified at what is taking place. And so it’s not surprising that the overheard conversation is a mainstay of literature, especially for young readers. How many dastardly plans have been heard through keyholes, in the pages of a book? It’s a popular conceit that can easily backfire and strain the reader’s suspension of critical doubt. There’s the gratuitous just-happened-by nature of it all. Unless of course it’s the coincidence that starts the book. (The only coincidence we can ever really get away with).
The young protagonist who is actively attempting to overhear something he’s not meant to hear is more believable but you have to be careful that what he hears really sounds like conversation and not simply a convenient platter of plot point. The worst example of this is the conversation ostensibly already in progress that still manages, somehow, to provide all the pertinent information the character needed to hear.
When we write from a limited viewpoint, either in first or second person, there is much that must happen off-stage. For that matter, even in a novel of Dickensian omniscience, not every scene that happens can be recorded. That would have to be renamed the excruciatingly boring omniscient point of view.

But here’s something to think about. I’ve just written a scene that will definitely not be in my new middle grade novel. Moth has just confessed something dreadful to his mother in the hope that she will come clean about her own big secret. He goes off to his room, disgruntled, fuming. Dad comes home and mom knows she has to tell him what just transpired and, in so doing, has to reveal to her husband at least some of her guilty secret. I understood this scene would have to happen the moment I’d finished the scene between Moth and his mother. But even if it occurred to Moth to try to overhear what his parents might need to talk about, there would be no way on earth mom would let that happen.
The thing is, this author had to know what went down between mom and dad; just how much mom would confess; how angry or understanding dad would be; how unsettled they both would be, when next Moth saw them. I gave Dad a beer and wrote the scene like dialogue in a play, since it would never appear in print.
Little did I know that in overhearing that mom-dad scene the whole story would shift, inescapably, in a way that I had not foreseen. I had no idea what Dad was up to. Neither had mom!


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Writing, Encouragement, and “Poetry”

When I do my “What’s in Your Suitcase?” school presentation in high schools, I talk about unpacking your personal suitcase so negative events and energy from your past don’t follow you around and screw up your everyday life. I talk about how most of us are lugging along bags that we’ve never even looked at.

I then talk about repacking the suitcase and what frame of mind one must be in to repack a suitcase that one has unpacked. One of my favorite parts about the repacking spiel is: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

I get a good few laughs when I talk about this. I tell the audience about how I’ve met students in classrooms whose life plan is to be in the NBA…but they don’t play on the school’s basketball team. I tell them to think back to American Idol contestants who couldn’t sing one note but based their life’s dreams on making it onto the show. I say, “You have to know what you’re actually good at. You don’t want to seem delusional, do you?”

I tell them to look at me. I say, “I cannot be a ballet dancer. I am a big-boned woman, five foot ten with size eleven feet. I probably couldn’t have been an Olympic gymnast either. I don’t think they make leotards in my size.” I tell them that I was a good basketball player, but not even close to WNBA…though WNBA didn’t exist when I was in high school. Maybe had the WNBA existed for me as a child, I would have felt a deeper reason to play better basketball. Would I have worked harder knowing that an opportunity could come out of that particular talent? Maybe. I’ll never know. Look for opportunity, I tell students. Real opportunity.

In schools, I meet a lot of to-be rappers. Most of them will not rap for me. I tell the audience that’s okay, not everyone can show their strengths on the spot like that.

But then I tell them about the time I met a student who said he was going to be a famous rapper and actually rapped.

I said, “Get out. You can rap?”
He said, “You care about rap?”
I said, “First concert I went to by myself was Public Enemy. 1987.”
He said, “Conscious rap. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
I said, “Show me.”

He looked around, nervous. It was a small class. He was on the spot and there was no way he was going to rap for me.

I said, “So you want to be a famous rapper?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “But you can’t rap for me?”
He said, “Nah.”

I wasn’t going to push him. I know the feeling of being uncomfortable and feeling like my dreams are stupid. Boy do I know that feeling.

A girl in the class said, “How about a battle?”
He shook his head.
She said, “Come on. You’re good. I’ll do it if you do it.”

Inside of a minute, there was a rap battle. She started. He responded. They went two or three rounds and were amazing. I got a video of it on my phone.

Why was this student able to rap for me? In the end, it was encouragement. It took one person from his class to say, “Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.” Encouragement is a big deal. Not just for kids or teenagers. Encouragement is something everyone needs all through life. Encouragement is just a damn nice thing to do for another person.

I’m a published poet. I started publishing in poetry. I’ve known a lot of great poets. I know super-famous poets. I know poets you’ve never heard of but their poetry is just as fantastic. As a writer, I’ve known good poems and bad poems, just like any writer. We can’t be perfect all the time. I’ve known better poets than me and I’ve known better poets than you. And that’s okay as long as poetry is being written.

At some point in the last few years, I met a person who used air quotes on me in regard to my poetry. She said that my “poetry” was _________. You fill in the blank. I can’t remember what she said because I was too perplexed by the air quotes.



“Poetry” is very different to Poetry.
Air quotes are not very encouraging.

I didn’t write a poem for a year or so. I’m not sure why. Maybe for the same reason as those future rappers I meet who just can’t throw down a rap for me while I’m in the class—too embarrassed, been teased by their classmates, been made to feel like they were “rappers” and not just working on rap the way every “real” rapper works on rap in a day.

I was lacking encouragement.
Or worse, fighting discouragement.

I think it’s good to remember that no matter how long we’ve been in a thing, no matter how hard we’ve worked, no matter how many things we sell or know or how many things we write, there is a person who can out-write us. Our job is to encourage that writer. Our job is to remember that as a community of writers, we are all in this together. We are laying down the times we live inside of words that will, all going well, outlive us.

Last night I found the first poem I wrote since I was air-quoted. I’m going to paste it at the end of this blog. It’s not 100% done. I don’t care. The teenagers who rap battled for me did so with raps off the tops of their heads—not revised, not practiced. That’s guts. Not “guts,” but guts.

Maybe you, reading this, don’t like rap.
But was this post about rap?

I have spent my life empowering and encouraging people to find their guts. This takes a balance of tough love and soft love. It takes being able to see that everything anyone creates is real, even if I don’t like it. I am not the sun. I do not get to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Luckily I was grown with my feet planted in dirt. I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.

I can’t wait to see my next high school rap battle. I can’t wait to see one of my high school student writers sell a novel. I hope it’s better than anything I ever wrote. I hope they keep their feet in the dirt, too. I hope more than anything that they never get so near the sun that they choose to burn a fellow writer rather than encourage them.

Fellow writers, hear me: Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.

Ground Naked (Unfinished)
by A.S. King

The beast took my friend.
Ate him up
from the center of his brain.
The beast took my friend
because the beast
was hungry.

Lurks everywhere, this
ugly thing with teeth
dull teeth so they hurt
gnaw slowly. The beast
grinds and expels and
grinds and expels.
My friend was ground.
My friend was expelled.

The world pretends.
The world pretends
we’re imagining things.
It’s happier with naked
celebrity photos or war.

My friend was naked in war.
My friend was ground naked by war.
My friend was expelled naked
by war but the police report
gives no account of
the real killer.

My beast.
My gorgeous beast.
Gets no attention.
Every time they say
he took his
own life
the beast grows hungrier.



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On Spending Money I Don’t Have.

What the cat is reading

What the cat is reading

Right now, I am waiting to hear from an editor about a manuscript I have already revised at least four times. The editor I am waiting to hear from isn’t even the editor who bought my book.   That editor has gone off to start her own imprint and I am starting over with someone I don’t know. To say that the waiting makes me anxious isn’t exactly true. My unease comes more from the sense that whatever I thought I knew is about to change.

I find myself cleaning the floors a lot, swearing in the car in traffic (easy to do in DC), and reading more than usual. What I need, whenever life is scary, sad, annoying, or full of waiting, is to read. This fall, I have been on a tear, spending money I don’t have on hardcovers, new paperback editions of old favorites, and short story collections. A few years ago, one of my students said that I should have a better grasp of contemporary children’s literature. I guess she hadn’t like my suggested diet of George MacDonald, P.L. Travers, E.B. White, and Hodgson Burnett. I thought at the time how lucky it was that I hadn’t sent her in the direction of Henry James (I am not a huge fan of his, but Turn of the Screw is the best ghost story ever). Now I wish I had converted that student to my belief that reading beyond what you know is the only legal activity which can transform how you think.

We all became writers for different reasons, in that we all fell in love with different books. Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence may not be why you signed up for this life, but even if you couldn’t pay me to revisit Ann Rice or Stephanie Meyers, if they are why you are here, it’s what I most want to know about you. Just today, or sometime this week, read something that’s not for school or work. Read because you want to be the person who changes what you know. You don’t want it to be your editor. Or your floors or your colorful language. Read as if your life and your bank account depend on it.

My most recent bounty

My most recent bounty


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Hey, you.

Yeah, you. The writer who’s reading this right now. There’s something you’ve been avoiding. You’ve been avoiding writing it, or you’ve been shying away from even thinking about it. Could be a scene, a confrontation, a character. Could be a whole book you’re afraid to start.

Chances are also good that it’s something you’ve already written, only you did it halfass. And you know you did. You’ve always had an underlying niggling feeling about it. You’ve done your best to ignore or dismiss that niggling feeling, but it’s never quite gone away.

Whatever you’ve been avoiding, it’s time to quit f*cking around. NOW.

Today, in your thinking and your writing, you’re not going to hide. You’re not going to allow yourself to dance around whatever it is. You’re not going to let yourself be distracted by how pretty you can get your dancing-around to be.

Today you will shut off the worries and fears–because those are about you–and just be about the work. Your work is something only you can do. You’re a writer, dammit. That means you owe your writing your raw and honest best.


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The other day I went to a tapas restaurant with friends. (I know, I know. I should have been home getting my blog post in on time). One of the offerings was Brussels sprouts with crunchy garbanzo beans. This was the winner, the first thing we agreed on as a menu choice and the dish we enjoyed most. Later the extreme weirdness of this hit me. Who could ever have expected the revival of the Brussels sprout? In my childhood the sprout (by which we meant the Brussels sprout and not the alfalfa sprout) was associated with British dreariness, with chilblains and boiled wool and The Two Ronnies. It was the last vegetable I would ever have expected to make a come-back.
So what’s next? Blancmange? Steamed puddings? Vegetable marrow?
More to the point, what is the Brussels sprout of children’s books? What was once a staple and then fell out of favor and disappeared? I think it’s the full-length biography. Back in the days before the Dewey Decimal System abandoned the number 921 the biography section of a children’s library was chock-full of booklength, cradle-to- grave biographies for the middle grade reader. Some of them were in series (I was particularly fond of those orange ones when I was a kid) but many were one-offs, written by somebody who did rigorous biographical research and crafted a version of a life that was likely to resonate with young readers.
What happened? My impression is that we now consign biography almost entirely to picture books or easy reads. I checked this out in the latest Hornbook Guide. There are 58 biographies. Only five of them are longer than 150 pages.
One of the things that was wrong with the Brussels sprouts of my youth was that they were presented as good for you. Maybe that’s what happened to biography. It became good for you. Inspiring. Aspirational. Soaked in adult approval.
What was the secret of the recent Brussels sprout revival? Reviewing current recipes I have come up with the answer. Bacon. It’s time for a full-length biography renaissance. What’s the literary equivalent of bacon? I leave this question with you.


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the writer of faith

Some time ago a friend who is of my faith said to me, without any sort of prompting, “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow your books in my home.” She did not elaborate. We both knew what she was talking about.

Some of my students who love their religion have asked me how I, as a writer, cope with the expectations of people in a faith community. These young writers have no desire to rebel, and yet in an effort to portray the truth, sometimes fiction offends.

When I am writing, it is between me and God. I don’t allow anything, not my parents or my religious leaders or my children or my neighbor whom I am obligated to love, to interfere with what happens when I am putting pen to paper. I find that every book I write demands that I wander in the wilderness for a time. I’ve needed not to be afraid of deserts. You cannot find the promised story without the desert part.

I have found the structure provided by my definition of morality to be as inspiring as a poet finds the structure of a sonnet. However, I must write honestly and truthfully about characters who do not know or understand my faith. They will not live by or be judged by its precepts. I am telling the truth of that character, that homeless boy, that medieval peasant girl, that prostitute. I believe in truth wherever I find it – in scripture or in the chapel at VCFA or in science or in story. I believe every human being searches for her own truth, and I respect and try my best to record that journey.

It is the first skill of the writer, and the life’s work of the faithful, to learn how to live imaginatively in the body of another being and celebrate the beauty and variety found in human souls.

I read a book some time ago called Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic. It was hard slogging at times because she is way too brilliant for the ordinary mind. But I found some beautiful quotes that express things I believe to be true.

“When people have told me that because I am Catholic I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

“It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…”

“If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

Thank you, Ms. O’Connor.


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A Few Notes From A Recent Walk & A Sleepless Night (Mark Karlins)

Carved into the cliff-face: a man, a stalk of corn, a spiral (perhaps a migration symbol). They are faint now and, especially under the New Mexico sun, hard to see. But they are still there, etched maybe 10,000 years ago.


Farther up the path: ancient pueblo pottery shards with painted designs brought to the surface by heavy rains several days before.

Last night: I couldn’t sleep and looked out the bedroom window of our new home just southeast of Santa Fe. The crescent moon was yellow and low, the sky rich with stars. With my limited knowledge, I couldn’t name many constellations, but I could see patterns and knew that constellations, with their ancient stories, were there.

.     .     .     .     .

Recently, my wife Mary Lee and I began working on a middle grade novel together. It’s an interesting process and one very different from my usual way of writing. Usually I sit in a room by myself and, at least for the first draft, ramble here and there. My mind stays loose, and sometimes its meanderings and improvisations bring me welcome surprises. Not always, though. There are also dead ends, as well as paths, which, if followed, will lead farther and farther from the core of the piece.

Maybe it’s just that I’m not yet the world’s best collaborator, but I find the collaborative exchange doesn’t have as much spontaneity as the private act of creation. Why, I wonder, do I value spontaneity in writing?

There’s certainly some literary precedent for this:


“First thought, best thought,” wrote Ginsberg.

And further back: “Poetry is the overflow of powerful emotions,” wrote Wordsworth.  The Romantic Poets burned brightly. They were the mad ones, as Kerouac might put it, the ones, “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”


Let’s return to two people sitting in a room collaborating. Sure, as we pass ideas back and forth for particular chapters and for the novel as a whole, a yellow roman candle now and then spiders across the room. More often, our collaboration is a patient work. It is leading us toward what we both hope will be a good and enjoyable novel. Somehow, though, it feels too workmanlike, certainly less than the electric outpourings of a Coleridge or Kerouac.

But is the point the pleasure of such outpourings? Are they necessary for the work to have soul or spirit? Collaboration does have its own merits. Two or more people can spark off of each other. They can draw from different sets of skills and insights, which are brought by the different people involved. If one gets stuck, the other can unstick things. As part of all this, there is also less sense of ownership or ego — the story stands further “out there.” Perhaps what I’m experiencing is that collaboration puts inspiration in a backseat and moves craft to the front.

Collaboration versus individual creation raises other interesting issues, including our concept of who we are as artists. Is the writer a self-created Adam springing to life ex nihilo, an American pioneer pushing ever Westward on his or her own? Or can the artist, the craftsperson, be looked at in another way, as someone involved not so much in self expression as in a communal act, an act of communal understanding and insight?

And if we do, for the moment, say it is a communal act just who are the members of the community? Part of the answer lies in how we view time, how far back our community stretches. In writing about the Native American sense of time, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that time is more like a lake than a train moving from station to station and that in this lake what happened 500 years ago is as present as what happened yesterday. If we apply this to literature, what was written 500 years ago or 2,000 years ago is as present as the latest best seller. Every time we step into a library we experience this. The library is a very noisy place, what with all those voices talking to us or getting ready to talk to us if we’ll only pick up and open their books.

So, while I’ve been thinking about my collaboration with Mary Lee, it turns out that I’ve been collaborating all along, in some way with every book I’ve read.


The potter who made the pots whose shards the rain offered up to us, or the woman or man who incised a stalk of corn on the cliff wall were involved in an act larger than themselves, an act which joined them to their community and certain beliefs.

.     .     .     .     .

Last night, while sitting in a snazzy Santa Fe restaurant, I mentioned the petroglyph maker to Mary Lee and she asked how I knew it was a single maker and not several. Now that was a good question, and for all sorts of reasons. One is that it laid bare an assumption that I have about art, that is, that it’s the product of an individual. So much for my proclamations above about art and collaboration!

Our conversation about this, and a few other things, lasted through the first and main courses. It was a good conversation. And that, in a way, is what this reading and writing business is all about — a conversation with William Blake; another conversation with the great 19th century children’s writer, George MacDonald; a few words in Amherst with shy Emily Dickinson; and another conversation, perhaps at the Carnegie Deli, with Maurice Sendak. Pass the pickles and mustard, Mr. Sendak.

There are also our fervent hopes for future conversations with our readers, and even the conversations of those readers with other readers. Finally, we can also join much older conversations and collaborations, for example, with the stories I saw in the night sky: the princess Andromeda, Perseus with his mirroring shield and Gorgon’s head, as well as the stories of the stars in other cultures  — African tales of zebras and lions


and Chinese tales of The Blue Dragon of the East, the White Tiger, The Black Tortoise, and the beautiful Vermillion bird of the South. Now those are stories worth joining and carrying forth to new books and lands.

chinese sky


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