Interview with K. Ancrum, Author of The Wicker King

K. Ancrum grew up in Chicago, Illinois, under the illusory rigor of the Chicago public school system. She attended Dominican University to study fashion merchandizing, 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.

K. Ancrum

Who or what inspired you to write The Wicker King? Is there a special story behind it?

I actually began this story after I found the specific medical issue that Jack has: Peduncular Halluncinosis.  The book truly wouldn’t exist without me having stumbled upon a case study for PH, which is one of the few hallucinatory disorders that isn’t accompanied by psychosis.  As someone with mental illness that was partially ignored by most adults I grew up with (family excepted of course), I thought it would be fascinating to write a book about the decent of a character into full blown mental illness (August), alongside another character that has a physical illness (Jack) with unusual symptoms.  While one character (Jack) is nearly unchanged from the physical circumstances beyond his visions (blindness, irritability, frustration/acceptance), the MC (August) has a full blown breakdown and rapid personality change, physical symptoms of severe anxiety and depression in the form of anorexia, rocking, periods of catatonia accompanied by destructive behavior (arson) and very mild psychosis. 

Looking back, its really interesting (and disturbing) how many people didn’t see August as the character struggling  with mental illness. That some readers saw Jack “going blind with visions sure is annoying and scary” Rossi as a figure whose “mental illness was being romanticized”  and completely ignored and neglected August “crying on the floor, his friends have to remind him to eat, he sits for hours just staring at flames” Bateman, just like all of the adults and care takers in the book did. Even with the presence of a mentally ill parent who mirrors some of the symptoms August has. ?

Aside from that, I also really wanted to include a love story that was a soft and gentle as the plot was gritty and stressful. There aren’t a huge amount of books about bisexuals questioning their orientation and floating slowly towards love— much less poly-amorous love so I wanted to use my chance at publishing to toss that representation (representation that I experienced) into the ring. Jack and August’s love story is so fluffy and tender at its core. The delivery is so gritty, but the soft “I’ve known you since I was a kid, I don’t know what i’d be without you” love is almost Nicholas Sparks saccharine. They do their own version of carving their names in a tree with their tattoos, they sleep next to each other while yearning desperately, the amount of times they almost kiss but don’t makes me want to die,  Jack even writes August poetry and shows up at the end like a knight in shining armor to bring August home. Even the inclusion of Rina for both of them fits the mold. Jack and Rina’s library meet cute, he brought her cupcakes, they sweetly hold hands and he begs August to visit her often. August and Rina’s poetry-slam meet cute, their tentative respectful courtship, August considering her his princess, the letter he receives from her while he’s away. The whole thing is such a classic heterosexual love story formula and I wanted young bi readers to have that.

 The whole book is just different flavors of “I wish I could make someone understand this concept that impacted my life and how meaningful it is to me”.

Which character from TWK did you “meet” in your head first and what significance did they have for you at that time? 

Ages ago, I used to do a lot of sketching of my characters. I remember drawing the character that eventually turned into Jack and just holding on to the drawing and looking at it over and over and adding small details until I felt like he could be real. It was this picture of a smirking boy with a buzz-cut and a cocky jut to his chin, but with deep sad eyes and I remember looking at it and thinking “he looks like he’s been through the ringer, I wonder I could make someone who matches him.” So, I started drawing August. I kept their eyes the same–traced them to make sure they matched perfectly–and then drew a character who outwardly displayed the look in Jack’s eyes. Sullen, tired, worn down in his own way. The combination of the two drawings next to each other was this incredible visual chemistry of two people deeply suffering in the same way–one who seemed to be handling it and the other who was being eaten alive by it.  I had already built a rough idea of the plot of The Wicker King in my head, but at that early point Jack and August were kind of just placeholders: Boy 1 and Boy 2. After drawing them and seeing their faces before my eyes, the core of their personalities just seemed so much more real. That “two sides of the same coin” aspect of their roles was always meant to be a part of them, but the vulnerability and the softness of their quiet love story that really breathed this story to life didn’t begin until I had them both on paper. 

The Wicker King is a YA novel, but what would you say to encourage adults to read it?

I think its a book that is designed to be consumed by two audiences:

  1. Teens who are suffering similar experiences/ young adults who just finished suffering similar experiences.
  2. Adults who are responsible for children and teens’ well being.

There is huge movement in the YA community to create books that smother isolation. Meaning, of course: writing books that teens who do not feel seen, or are alone, or yearning for something can find themselves immortalized on paper. The Wicker King is a part of that insomuch as it showcases many large and small identities and circumstances that don’t usually make it to the page: mixed race children, south asian children, children of single parent homes, white poverty, children of divorce, children of parents with debilitating mental illness, children who are financially responsible for their family, children suffering mental illness themselves, children of neglect, LGBT children, children with exposure to law enforcement and institutionalization, etc.

But this book also was specifically designed for adults to see a reflection of the behavior that children in need unfortunately receive from the people who should be looking out for them. The bank teller who doesn’t question why a 17 year old is handling his family’s finances for years, the dean who chooses to behave as a disciplinarian instead of looking into August’s background, the teachers who watch August descend rapidly from a well behaved, high achieving scholar into an erratic behaving student with performance issues and just repeatedly sent him to detention, the coach who doesn’t question Jack’s declining sports performance and lets him drop out of team activities with no discussion, All adults watching August losing a dangerous amount of weight and not doing anything about it–but in particular any nurses or social workers that must have been on school grounds. The police who took August and Jack to jail instead of the hospital, August’s attorney, etc. It’s just a mess! 

So many adults have left reviews specifically commenting on this aspect of the book: whether its to say that its unrealistic that Jack and August were failed so many times by adults around them, or to say that they saw or experienced that exact neglect in their own lives and how wrong it is.  In my opinion, both reviews are positive because: If this is unrealistic to them, then I know that the teens around them are in a safe environment where the entire concept of an experience that is all to common to me and people I grew up with, is so scandalous that it doesn’t seem real. And I am so so so happy and relieved to hear that those teens are safe and cared for. On the other hand, if they relate to it, then I know that they are the type of adults who can recognize teens going through structural neglect and be able to step in to help them. 

In particular, there is a character who is the last in a long line of psychologists August sees and she’s the first to really truly care for him. She gives him the space to explain himself without judgement, and really opens up his heart to receiving the care he desperately needs. She respects his defensiveness and doesn’t pry into him until she has figured out a way to prove to him– a child surrounded his entire life by adults who neglect him–that she cares and values his trust. Even at her own risk. Its a short relationship, but a really important one that was a stand in for the concept that: of course the damage control is higher when you reach out too late, but even in the worst moments of self destruction teens just want to be seen and heard and loved.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene from the book?

Ugh. The kiss scene. Not just because its the catharsis of the love story, but because of how it ties a thousand little moments that August shared with Jack into this one blissful understanding that August receives all at once. August being an unreliable narrator is such a subtle part of this book, but this scene really blows that wide open. Particularly because the reader has spent all of this time kind of gasping at the intensity of these tiny moments that August was living through as some chaotic friendship. So when August is finally like, “this is love? this??? this is love, that I can have? that’s what that moment meant? oh. oh!” there is an innocence to this tenderness, alongside a deep chasm of sorrow at the time lost in which August didn’t recognize the love he could have had all along.  That by itself is such an incredible LGBT experience that resonated very sharply with a lot of the readers–especially much older readers (50-70) who had gone through their own unique-to-the-era LGBT experience of bosom companions, and permanent roommates, and friendships that had softer edges that they were afraid to use heavy words to describe.

 “It was the same face that Jack had made on the roof, in the middle of the night, when they rolled in the grass, when he sat back with August’s blood and ink on his hands, when his face was lit orange with flames, when he’d opened the door to Rina’s room, when he stared across the gym at the homecoming dance, when he pulled him from the river and breathed him back to life.

Jack had been waiting. He’d been trying. He was scared. There were tears in his eyes and it took August’s breath away.”

It’s certainly not the most evocative prose in the entire book, but its definitely one of the most powerful scenes. 

Is there a message that you’d like your readers to take from the book?

For teens: August and Jack deserved more, and you deserve more. You deserve family–wherever you can find it. You deserve your health being taken seriously. You deserve to have people in positions of power over you handling that responsibility with grace and gravity. You deserve to come home to a warm house, filled with love and food and light. You deserve the resources you need to thrive. You deserve to be surrounded by people who understand you, or who are at least willing to try. If you don’t have these things: its not your fault, its not your fault, its not your fault. If  you are in a position to give or do these things, you must–lives are at stake. And if you have these things, please understand how lucky you are. Rely on them when you need help, turn to them when you need advice, things may not be perfect but don’t forget you have these resources. I love you, I’m proud of you and I see you. 

For adults: Children are our greatest resource. We can’t continue to fail them like this. 

Do you have any advice for people who are close to someone battling mental illness or are battling their own?

As someone who struggles with mental illness, this is less of a situation where I feel comfortable giving helpful advice– because everyone’s situations are so diverse–and more a situation where I would like to speak truth back into the community.

For people who are battling mental illness: You’re not alone. Keep trying your best. No matter what, your best is always enough. 

For people who are close to someone battling mental illness: Thank you for being close. Thank you for staying. There aren’t words to describe how much this means to us. 

What have been your top 3 books of 2019?

Red White and Royal Blue:  Casey McQuiston

Only Mostly Devastated: Sophie Gonzales

Cemetery Boys: Aiden Thomas


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