Today I am delighted to welcome authors Heidi Cullinan and K. Ancrum to the blog. Heidi is here as part of her Interview series where she chats with authors about their books. Her guest today is author K. Ancrum. Please join me in welcoming both authors!
Hi, everyone! Heidi Cullinan here, with the next installment of my monthly column talking about books and authors I’ve discovered I think you might enjoy. As much as possible, I’ll be talking to those authors in an in-depth interview. We’ll dish about their projects current and future, the books they love, and any and everything that comes up along the way.
Today I’m talking to K. Ancrum. K. Ancrum grew up in Chicago Illinois. She attended Dominican University to study Fashion Merchandising, but was lured into getting an English degree after spending too many nights experimenting with hard literary criticism and hanging out with unsavory types, like poetry students. Currently, she lives in Andersonville and writes books at work when no one is looking.
We’ll be talking about her two novels, The Wicker King andThe Weight of the Stars.
About The Wicker King:
Jack once saved August’s life…now can August save him?
August is a misfit with a pyro streak and Jack is a golden boy on the varsity rugby team?but their intense friendship goes way back. Jack begins to see increasingly vivid hallucinations that take the form of an elaborate fantasy kingdom creeping into the edges of the real world. With their parents’ unreliable behavior, August decides to help Jack the way he always has?on his own. He accepts the visions as reality, even when Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy.
August and Jack alienate everyone around them as they struggle with their sanity, free falling into the surreal fantasy world that feels made for them. In the end, each one must choose his own truth.
Written in vivid micro-fiction with a stream-of-consciousness feel and multimedia elements, K. Ancrum’s The Wicker King touches on themes of mental health and explores a codependent relationship fraught with tension, madness and love.
About The Weight of the Stars:
Ryann Bird dreams of traveling across the stars. But a career in space isn’t an option for a girl who lives in a trailer park on the “wrong” side of town. So Ryann becomes her circumstances and settles for acting out and skipping school to hang out with her delinquent friends.
One day she meets Alexandria: a furious loner who spurns Ryann’s offer of friendship. After a horrific accident leaves Alexandria with a broken arm, the girls are brought together despite themselves?and Ryann learns her secret: Alexandria’s mother is an astronaut who volunteered for a one-way trip to the edge of the solar system.
Every night without fail, Alexandria waits to catch radio signals from her mother. And now it’s up to Ryann to lift her onto the roof day after day until the silence between them grows into friendship, and eventually something more.
The Weight of the Stars is the new LGBT young adult romance from K. Ancrum, written with the same style of short, micro-fiction chapters and immediacy that garnered acclaim for her debut, The Wicker King.
I discovered K. Ancrum online, gave The Wicker King a meander, and the next thing I knew I was enveloped in a whole new world. Ancrum’s books are very much like peeling back a curtain and discovering a new country, one you’ll be very reluctant to leave. I’m so excited for you to get to know her a little more here.
Ancrum: Thank you so much for having me!
Heidi: Your books are somehow both incredibly grounded in some of the most real stuff teens deal with and also set apart in a place exclusively yours all at the same time. While both are contemporary and set in the real world or a potentially real world, they have this fantasy feel to them. Did you set out to write this way, or was that something that just happened?
Ancrum: Yes! I love magical realism. Writing a book that has no magic but feels like it really does is such a peculiar skill and I’ve only saw it a few times while growing up, but I fell so deep in love with it that it’s always been my focus for my own writing. Building a world that feels like falling into a rabbit hole is kind of simple, but the cognitive dissonance of reading something that feels like fantasy and then realizing that everything in it is realistic or really exists is as disconcerting as Deja Vu. That weirdness is where I like to live.
Heidi: Talk to me about the mirco chapters. For those readers who haven’t encountered Ancrum before, both her books have very short chapters, not numbered but with very brief summaries or guides in The Wicker King, and numeric countdowns in The Weight of the Stars. What made you want to set up the story this way–for both books? It works for both, but I’m curious how you got there.
Ancrum: It’s actually an accessibility reading/writing thing. I have ADHD and this way of writing feels way more natural to me than any other style. Rather than forcing something that feels inherently unnatural, my publisher and agent at the time Amy Tipton really encouraged me to write in the way I liked best. I also tend to choose topics that suit the format as opposed to picking subjects that require textual density to get the point across. The amount of people who have reached out to tell me that they have ADHD and that this is the first book they’ve been able to finish in months or years definitely made sticking to my format worth it.
Heidi: I love that! What an excellent layer for these stories and your voice.
Both books are very much a descent into a mental state, a decision, an outcome, and in the paperback version at least each book physically walks you through this by the darkening of the pages, the cross hatches on the sides. That’s such a wild technique! Did you come up with that, your editor, or someone else entirely?
Ancrum: Actually, the Imprint design department came up with that. The manuscript came with the mixed media elements when they bought it, but they really took the opportunity to add more visual richness to the book itself. They let me know that they had a surprise for me–but that they would reconsider it if I hated it–and sent me a digital arc with the pages darkened and I completely lost it. It just looks so incredible and fits the story so perfectly. I’m so so lucky to be able to work with an publisher that completely gets my vision and supports my weirdness by expanding on it instead of suppressing it. This is going to sound sentimental, but I really hope I can continue to work with Imprint, not just to sell books, but because I really do love everyone I’ve spoken to that works there.
Heidi: I love the letters you have in the back of each of the books, speaking directly to teen readers, encouraging them to see themselves in whole or part in the characters, validating their experiences and encouraging them through. You strike me as someone who came to this author gig deeply aware of the power of the right story. Did you have such stories for you, or where you making something you couldn’t find for your own teen self? A bit of both?
Ancrum: Thank you! I definitely feel that way about my work and the gift of distribution that I’ve been given. It’s important to me to speak directly to the teenagers who are reading my work. Less to “explain” what they just read, and more to validate any lessons or morals that I feel its important to discuss. A lot of author’s notes go in the front of the book as an intro, but I really like mine at the back because I want them to feel like I’m tucking my reader into bed for the night after a long day–emotionally speaking. So I try to word them carefully to feel that way. I’ll always have one of these letters at the end of any of my YA books (though I’ll drop them for the Adult ones haha).
To answer your question though, I think that when I was growing up it was such a different time for children’s literature. It was largely “easy reader” books for older children, and then middle grade (Harry Potter, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl) and “issues” books for troubled teens. So, the books that gave me the same feelings that I hope my books give teens are probably not what you would expect, simply because the genre didn’t exist in the way it does today. That said, I felt incredibly Seen by Ender’s Game and its discussion of cruelty and its unique relationship with intelligence. I loved the magical realism in Holesand the richness interwoven into the simplicity of the book. I also loved A Wrinkle in Time and its focus on love and tenderness as an incredible power. In particular, the scenes with Aunt Beast and what an incredible creature that was. There was such a pointed focus on understanding instinctive comforts and human weaknesses in that book. Even though those books didn’t have letters in them or anything like that, they very much felt like love letters as a whole. Built very carefully by someone wanting children to understand something.
Heidi: Let’s talk for a minute just about The Wicker King. First, can I just say this is one of the most beautiful portrayals of a relationship I’ve ever seen? Healthy, unhealthy, supportive, suffocating–it’s so raw and real. This had to have been an incredible journey.
Ancrum: haha thank you! I actually spent a long time designing their relationship and making sure things were well researched and well balanced. There is so much going on with them that really deserved heavy consideration. Designing them so that neither one was really “at fault” and neither one was 100% controling the other. That their damage was mutual and even. That they passed power back and forth instead of one lording it over the other. That when the book ended they had effectively switch cared for/caretaker roles. The individual relationships they had with Rina, and the relationship they had together with her, all of it was weighed until the scale was perfectly even–textually speaking.
Heidi: For me the thing that really resonated was this inability–for both the boys–to have a clear sense of what was real, outside of one another. My own adolescence, while turbulent and chaotic and really unhealthy when I look back, had me so isolated. I would have clutched at this book with both hands. But I love how while you gave them each other in this beautiful way, you showed all their flaws too, where their connection was bad as much as good.
Ancrum: Yeah. They’re very much victims of their circumstances. So much so that when those circumstances are resolved or removed, you only have the best parts of them left. I think the loveliest part of their relationship was the understanding of the need for care they both had for each other. The way August cares for Jack and the way Jack cares for August is completely–violently– different. But they are always very focused on what the other needs and there is beauty in that. I also think that its good to show environments where teenagers are falling apart, but trying really really hard. So many portrayals of teens showcase their lives falling apart because they’re being rebellious, or because they just don’t care. But my experience being a teen, and of teenagers now that I’m an adult, is that when things are going wrong they definitely notice and definitely Act in some way to help or cope. Just because things go incredibly poorly doesn’t mean that the desire for resolution isn’t there. Particularly in the case of Peter and Roger, who are just outside of August and Jack’s world, worrying and panicking and trying to figure out how to navigate what is clearly becoming a tragedy.
Heidi: In contrast, The Weight of the Stars showcases kids–near adults, honestly, just young–who are a lot more put together, just dealing with a lot. As much as August and Jack were painfully a mess, these guys were painfully competent. And they didn’t just take care of each other–they knew each other well enough to know when to push.
Ancrum: The town they live in is a small community. Generally when large events happen in small communities, it changes the fabric of the environment massively and often irreparably. After the August/Jack crisis, there is a lot more care in the environment as a whole. Their school has teachers who notice kids in crisis. Ahmed ( Jack, August and Rina’s son) clearly grew up in an environment where his parents border on being too involved and Ahmed has clearly spent time in therapy. Jack August and Rina open their doors to the kids in the area so they have a place to hang out while being supervised. There is a slightly stronger police presence. The community as a whole was clearly shook by what happened. And, while it’s not a scandal at the top of everyone’s attention anymore, the ghosts of it are still there.
As for the teens themselves, I felt like if I were going to write about teens dealing with drama again, I should give a shout out to the teens who really grab their problems by the horns. But, notably, the teens in this book have support systems that the teens in The Wicker King really didn’t have: Ryann’s parents died, but before they did she and her brother were well loved and well cared for. They have a basic understanding of house keeping, financial literacy, cooking and respect for academics–someone taught them that. Someone took the time. Ahmed’s parents are not only present but they’re inescapably rooted in his social life. Tomas’s parents support his sexual orientation and financed his rehab stint. Blake has some hobbies that his family financially and emotionally support. Blake’s family is entirely off page, but they raised a straight boy whoes best friend is an uncloseted gay boy, who he is openly protective of and tender to without expressing anxiety about his own orientation and that tells you enough about them. These are children with families who cared about them in an environment that is caring for them. They have more resource to pull from than August and Jack ever did. Teenagers are children still and they need support. As much as The Weight of the Stars shows that teens can be sufficiently competent, and The Wicker King shows that teens can fuck up even if they’re trying their best. They are both inherently criticisms of the environment that adults provide for teens and how it directly impacts their ability to thrive.
Heidi: There are a lot of absent parents in both these books–even when some of the parents are present, they’re not completely there all the time. As someone who has struggled with this herself, I really appreciated this inclusion. Again, though, you really made this real. The strengths that come from being able to raise yourself, consequences both for being too capable and for simply having needs not met.
Ancrum: There are so many ways that parents can be “not there” for their children and I think that a lot of the time only a few ways are discussed. The Wicker King was unique in that it showed many kids without present adults and how that impacted them, rather than orphaning the main characters for convenience. August had a mother who was physically there but emotionally unavailable in a way that wasn’t really her fault. Jack’s parents were physically absent and emotionally absent, but provided for him financially. Roger and Peter’s parents absence was more periodic but they formed a bond between each other that didn’t allow for outsiders very similar to Jack and August’s but less destructive. Rina’s parents straight up moved away to England and left her living in squalor as a barely-adult teenager. She’s perilously lonely and friendless and pushes people away. This book is filled with isolated children trying to make a house into a home: Rina letting August and Jack into her apartment and integrating them into her routine. August and Jack playing house and clawing each other to the bone searching for warmth. Peter and Roger letting August into their world and slowly forming a bond of trust with him. I had a lot of friends in similar situations and a lot of them didn’t make it out okay in the end. It was a bit of a relief to have this make believe space to pretend that there could have been a world where they were okay.
Heidi: What books and authors influenced you growing up?
Ancrum: I was a huge huge Series of Unfortunate Events fan growing up. Much more than Harry Potter at the time. I also was really into Laura Ingalls Wilder books as well. Wayside School series was also one of my favorites. I kind of started creeping towards denser books with Garth Nix, then, I fell into a huge Anne Ricebinge around 14 and read mostly adult books after that.
Heidi: Who are you reading right now?
Ancrum: I’m actually terrible at reading new material while I’m supposed to be writing so I’ve just been into fan fiction lately. I think the last thing I read was Good Omens because I recently watched the mini series.
Heidi: What are you working on for your next project?
Ancrum: I’m working on a Peter Pan redux called DARLING, set in Chicago. It will probably be out in 2020 if things go swimmingly with it. 🙂
Heidi: That sounds excellent! I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you so much for chatting with me today! It was a pleasure having you here.
Ancrum: Thank you so much!
An author of contemporary, historical and paranormal romances featuring LGBT characters, Heidi Cullinan is best known for stories of characters struggling with insurmountable odds on their way to their happily ever afters. Her upcoming release is the final book in the Copper Point: Medical series, THE DOCTOR’S ORDERS.Find out more about Heidi at www.heidicullinan.com and be sure to follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.