The PEN Ten with Ash Parsons
In this week’s PEN Ten interview, we speak to 2016 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellow Ash Parsons, whose book-in-progress, “A Chemical Distance,” is a young-adult novel that explores loss and trauma in a fresh format, bouncing between prose and script in a way that keeps readers engaged. With an award of $5,000, the fellowship was created to assist a writer of children’s or young-adult fiction at a crucial moment in his or her career.
From the judges: “Brimming with heartbreak and humor, a palpable voice and a creativity rarely shown when tackling such a weighted plot line, ‘A Chemical Distance’ somehow makes the darkest of darknesses shine bright.”
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I started attempting to write stories in elementary school, but it wasn’t until high school that it became central to my identity. As is often the case with transformative moments, the realization that I was a writer came about because of a dedicated teacher. Thank you, Mrs. Guerin. Thank you for seeing me as I was and as I wanted (and needed) to be seen.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
How wonderful; it’s an opportunity to write a love letter! What I really like is the idea of stealing significant-to-me works and then making myself into a Frankenstein’s Monster Author, with this shocking range—geniuses all stitched together. Stumbling forward, for arts and letters!
I’d start with Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. Then I’d steal Jim Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet. I’d try to limit myself to one or two Burke books by Andrew Vachss, so let’s say Blue Belle and Sacrifice. M.T. Anderson, you have just winked out of existence as I have stolen all of your work. I should feel bad about that.
Speaking as a former teacher who loved teaching these, I must steal The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
I’m starting to feel like that hoarder Muppet in Labyrinth now, but I can’t stop. I will definitely be stealing A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara although that is really a loss for everyone because I won’t be able to contribute to the conversation around it, just appreciative flailing here.
Wait. I knew I was forgetting something. Harry Potter! What a gift those books are—to children, to children-becoming-adults, to adults-who-remember-being-children.
The best thing about words and writing: every book I would steal, I have stolen already. Those words, characters, and stories are already in me.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I am obsessed with the idea of access. Access to resources and the barriers between needs and resources. I’m fascinated by the magnified, unmet needs from childhood, the wounds we seek to salve, and the wounds from which we must one day accept the scar.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
It wasn’t something I wrote, but forms we filled out. A legal commitment to be a family, to adopt. That moment of promising, it puts you before all your inadequacies as a parent in a legalistic, hard-nosed way that I didn’t experience as a parent of my biological children. I suppose because there is never a question of familial bond or obligation as a biological parent (unless you are deemed unfit) so there’s this feeling of “this family-making has already happened.” And although we had been a family for over a year when we adopted out of foster care, and although we were deliriously happy to “make it official,” something about the machinery of that—the forms, the reports, the legalese—it was terrifying. Not because you don’t want it, but because you don’t feel safe about it. It doesn’t feel rest-your-weight-on-it real, at first. And you feel, or I felt, like the worst person in the world, a fraud, because I wanted it so much and was also freaked out by it.
There’s also a grief attached to the family of origin—as a parent you can’t escape that there is a very real loss connected to your joy. So it’s this daunting mix. And in a way you feel like you’re promising this thing that is beyond you, this love, you already feel it, you’ve already acted on it, and now you’re acting on it again. It’s the biggest leap in the world to love and to promise to love. But it’s also a leap over a pillow pile. Even if you fail or you fall, you’re going to be all right. The trick is to remember that part. In the back of your mind you have this ugly voice whispering all of your inadequacies, and you just have to counter that voice every time with, “Love wins. Love always wins.”
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
Although I don’t think this is the intent of this question, I would like to direct my remarks on this subject to censorship in schools and libraries. As a former educator, child advocate, author, and parent, I abhor censorship of materials. When you ban books or censor topics, you teach children and youth that there are topics of which they cannot speak. When you ban books or language, you teach children silence. You teach a child or young adult a fear of conversation and of exchange, or that adults aren’t to be trusted with their darkness, their struggles, their fears, or their needs.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
This question is a palpable presence when you write for children and youth. The whole question of gatekeepers, the previous question of censorship, of building fences around topics to keep children and young people away from them…what is too much? What is too dark? Does the genre of Young Adult in particular have to have hope? There’s a beautiful quote from the movie Auntie Mame. When talking about her nephew, Mame says to the repressive, legalistic trustee, “Did it ever occur to you that this little one might be hungry for something you never even dreamed of?” I thrilled to that, as a child. It sounded in me like a bell. I think that is the responsibility of the writer, to not anticipate, to not question or second guess it—don’t assume that what you have to say isn’t needed. Similarly, don’t assume that what you have to say is needed by everyone.
Because I was always a voracious reader, I was fortunate to find the books I needed. I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier was consoling to nihilistic, frightened teenage me. I remember thinking, “Finally! Someone is telling the whole truth!” I needed that dark book, I needed it like air, and oddly, light.
Too much light burns, too much darkness smothers. I needed both; I needed the contrast. As a writer for young adults it is my responsibility to tell the truth about the things I know and which I remember. Sometimes that means shining a light in the darkness. Sometimes it means extinguishing the light and revealing the darkness.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Collectively, no. Purpose is one of those words that sounds like it means the same thing to everyone, but it does not. Purpose is philosophy. It seems to me that the writers I know all write for different reasons, different needs or philosophies driving them forward. But perhaps it’s all like droplets of water in a pan, individual until you tip the pan and they run together.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I have never been arrested, but I was caught sneaking out as a kid. I used to sneak out and run around the island where we were stationed. It was a missile range in the South Pacific, very small, and therefore had this “bubble” feeling of promised safety.
My sleepover friends and I would wait for the MP patrol to go by, and then we’d go have a ball. We’d go to the school, play on the swing sets in the dark, swing on the flagpole, and climb on the school roof. There was a house that had sea turtles in their homemade fountain, hard to believe but true, we would go and pet the sea turtles.
I was caught by my dad, and what I most remember was this feeling of guilt at how upset he was combined with the sudden understanding that what I had been doing was potentially dangerous. In a way, it showed how well my parents sheltered me until then, because I did feel absolutely safe in my little world. I didn’t understand that there could be danger from the people around me.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I don’t know that I could give a book to that person. I don’t know that it would change them at that point, if they would read it. But how powerful is hope? What I’d want to do is go back, find the leader in their childhood. I’d take a chest of books or my time-travel machine would be a library inside, and I would give that child books—books about vanquishing dragons, books about caring for wounded dragons, books about when you are yourself a dragon. I would read that child stories and poems. I would try to armor them in words and instill the empathy that it sometimes seems stories uniquely provide. I would give them stories about fantastic children, gifted children, chosen-one-children. And then I would read even more stories about lonely children, stories about unloved children, poems about abuse and loss and selfishness and above all: redemption.
I would read that child the stories and poems of A.A. Milne, I would read that child Mildred Taylor, Judy Blume, and Beverly Cleary. Roald Dahl, Jaqueline Woodson, and C.S. Lewis. The Little Prince and The Velveteen Rabbit; Where the Wild Things Are; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; The Story of Ferdinand; and Shiloh. I would read that child Another Chance to Get It Right. I would saturate that child with words and a love of words. I would capture their heart and mind before they ever thought to try to imprison anyone.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Who wants to know?