Asta in the Wings is a poignant and often darkly funny story narrated by Asta Hewitt, a resourceful seven-year-old growing up in an isolated house in Bond Brook, Maine. Shut off from the outside world and restricted to the company of a delusional mother and a bookish older brother, Asta is content to be part of a "society of three," constructing fanciful, theatrical worlds of their own. When circumstances push her into a strange outside world—with all of its discontents—Asta must find a way to assimilate while remaining true to herself and her fractured family.
“With this, her excellent debut novel, Watson makes quick work of a setup that could prove challenging for even seasoned authors. Seven-year-old Asta grows up in rural Maine in the late 1970s, where she and her sickly nine-year-old brother, Orion, are kept locked in their house by their crazy mother, who fills their heads with tales of the plague-ravaged wasteland waiting outside their door. Equipped with little beyond what their mother provides, the children are wildly creative, surprisingly intelligent and share a deep bond with each other. But when their mother disappears and the two venture outside, they face the real world and real people for the first time. As Asta processes what’s going on and is separated from her brother, she’s reluctant to recognize what was wrong with her previous life. Asta’s narration is full of the wonderment and matter-of-factness of youth, and her eye-opening trip into reality is flawlessly executed by Watson.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"In this extraordinary debut novel, seven-year-old Asta and her malnourished nine-year-old brother, Orion, who live in a small town in Maine, have long been isolated from the outside world. Told by their mother that a plague has devastated the world, they have not set foot outside the house in years, although the two have formed a deep bond based on their richly imaginative play. Then their mother fails to come home from work, and the siblings set out to look for her. Watson vividly renders their first contact with others, including a surly store clerk, a pack of mean-spirited schoolchildren, and a kindly bus driver, from Asta’s awestruck perspective as she slowly comes to grips with the fact that everything her mother told her was a lie. She is unwilling to acknowledge, at first, that there was anything amiss in her family life, although she is quick to perceive that people do not treat her with nearly the same careful attentiveness as her brother does. Sensitive and intelligent, Asta struggles to reconcile her familial loyalty with her new reality. A cleverly constructed, beautifully written first novel from a gifted new writer."
—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist, Starred Review
"This debut is a story of what happens when the outside world discovers that a widowed mother in Maine has removed her two children, seven-year-old Asta and her nine-year-old brother, Orion, from any contact with the outside world. Unaware that their mother is delusional, the two children do not feel deprived under her care, appreciating her for what she is able to provide. When their isolated living situation is discovered, the children find themselves at the mercy of kind yet sometimes misguided adults. Asta emerges as the stronger, more communicative child. Bright and sometimes wily, she remains steadfastly devoted to her gifted yet now mute brother. This she somehow manages while attempting to adjust to both home and school by herself, as the two children now live apart. The narrative is told from Asta's perspective, and initially the tone is eerie and unsettling. As the story unfolds, the situation feels less threatening and even incorporates elements of humor. An unusual novel; recommended for larger public libraries."
—Library Journal, Feb. 15, 2009, Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ
"Watson hasn't set herself an easy task for her debut. The success of the novel rests entirely on her main character's sparrow-sized shoulders. Fortunately, Asta has reserves of intelligence and resourcefulness to spare and her voice is unforgettable."
—Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
"...remarkably imaginative and heartbreaking...Seeing the world through Asta's eyes is delight enough in itself."
—Jasper Lepak, Rain Taxi
"Like Alice after tumbling down the rabbit hole, Asta takes us on a journey through a confounding world filled with remarkable characters. A compassionate tale mixed with hope and sorrow, Asta in the Wingsevokes both the tenderness and the danger of one child's struggle to find a place for herself in a world she is only beginning to understand. It's a gem of a book."
— Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals
"In Asta in the Wings Jan Elizabeth Watson has created one of the most appealing fictional heroines I've encountered in a long time. Asta is brave, resourceful, intelligent, and loyal. She also happens to be seven years old, which means she's at the mercy of the unreliable adults who rule her world. The result is a vivid and suspenseful narrative where, over and over again, Asta shows us the world from her own very particular angle. A highly original debut."
—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
"Jan Elizabeth Watson's debut, Asta in the Wings, follows two mavens of make-believe—seven-year-old Asta and her nine-year-old brother, Orion—as they reckon with the brutal realities of the adult world in the wilds of rural Maine."
"The mysteries and ambiguities that Watson creates, raising questions and not trying to answer them—is what powers the novel."
—Nina MacLaughlin, The Portland Phoenix
"...a heartbreaking examination of otherness and normality...an expressive, authentic rendering of childhood through a child's eyes..."
—Sheila Ashdown, Powell's Review-a-Day
"Through Asta's unique voice and perspective we are reminded of the resilience of children. Through her ordeal of finding her way in a new life, we are reminded of the goodness of people, and through her constant search for Mother, we are reminded of the powerful mother-child bond of love. An early review called Asta in the Wings 'a gem of a book' and I would agree."
"Asta is precocious, innocent, curious, vulnerable, loyal, remarkably evenhanded and self-assured. She is the type of character that keeps you reading... Asta in the Wings succeeds because of Watson’s skill in creating a character like Asta and in giving her a voice that somehow captures and illuminates childhood."
—Kevin Holtsberry, CollectedMiscellany.com
"Asta Hewitt is a seven-year-old growing up in an isolated house in Maine. Her mother reads Shakespeare aloud from the bathtub, conjures up imaginary illnesses, burns toys for no good reason. She is fanciful, vindictive and deeply loved. When she doesn't come home one night, Asta and her older brother, Orion, decide they must head out into the wider world. "We took turns tugging on the door latch; our hands overlapped at one point, and we pulled with all our might until the heavy old door opened wide and the snow flew straight into my eyes and open mouth. It was time to begin our search for Mother." Asta in the Wings, Jan Elizabeth Watson's debut novel, is published by Portland's Tin House Books."
"Superbly imagined...a book that is ultimately about the power of memory and imagination to restore the broken past."
—The Somerville Journal
"Told from the point-of-view of an adult Asta, the book captures a childlike sense of wonder at the everyday, informed by an adult’s understanding, and Watson’s intricate language deftly balances the two."
—Meeting House (meetinghousemag.com)
"Asta in the Wings is a remarkable...The first published novel by Jan Elizabeth Watson, Asta in the Wingstakes on a complicated world of isolation and separation from Asta’s young point of view."
"Jan Elizabeth Watson’s debut novel, Asta in the Wings (Tin House, 2009), captures the peculiar insightfulness of childhood through her fearless seven-year-old narrator, Asta. To say that the book is pitch perfect doesn’t begin to capture the gorgeous ways Watson reveals the predicament of Asta and her nine-year-old brother, Orion: their magical, theatrical mother, Loretta, has serious problems that endanger her children...Watson makes it difficult to part with Asta, and impossible to forget her."
"Watson's story sends her young heroine from an extraordinary existence into the incredible, ordinary world, and her novel reaches unexpected heights in the process."
—Molly Templeton, Eugene Weekly
"Watson's novel beguiles because of Asta's compelling voice and Watson's tight writing."
—Debra Spark, Down East
THE THEORY OF MOVIES
On the last day, the day before everything changed, my mother told me her theory about the movies. It could have been a theory about anything else . . . Mother was always bursting with ideas. A few weeks earlier, she had expressed her thoughts on evolution, which included her conjecture that the towering dinosaur remains in the Museum of Natural History were not dinosaurs at all, but a hoax—a man-made likeness built from human bones.
On this day, however, the subject was movies. I was guilty, I think, of not listening closely enough; I was only seven years old, and greater things beckoned to me. I was busy awaiting the arrival of an insect, concentrating on the sodden strip of bathroom tile—the one just alongside the tub's foremost clawfoot— from which earwigs or silverfish might emerge. Balanced on my haunches, head lowered till my face grazed the floor, I whispered this urgent enticement into the cracks:
"Come out, you big bug."
Above my head but below the lip of the tub, my mother's hand agitated the water. She had a habit of spreading her fingers and raking through the bubbles as if they were in her way.
"Turn the page for me, Asta," my mother said. "I'm about to reach the ‘All the world's a stage' speech. Try saying it with me."
I hopped up to stretch my arm over the rim, to reach over the white crop of bubbles that foamed to my mother's shoulders. She kept a tea tray perched on her knees and had positioned her book (a compact Shakespeare that morning—it had been compact Shakespeares for more mornings than I could count) atop the tray with one dry hand.
As was customary, I'd been enlisted to provide the second hand. This task was not bothersome to me. I liked to be in the bathroom at that hour, for the bugs most often emerged just after dawn; I also liked the simmering sound of the bubbles, the sticky presence of steam and vapor in that enclosed space. I even had a fondness for the pages of As You Like It, yellowed and softened to the exact texture of muslin. I knew that my touch—my turning—had contributed to that.
"Smooth it down, I can't quite read it," Mother instructed once I'd flipped the page in question. I smoothed it, and she shifted in the water, placed her limbs in better alignment—better to PROJECT THE VOICE, she'd often told me—and began to read aloud.
"‘All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,'" she quoted with a piquant trilling of Rs. "Go ahead, Pork Chop, try saying it with me."
I didn't respond. Instead, I lowered myself till I lay flat on my stomach and peered aggressively into the rotted tile; I poked at one corner and found it pliable, claylike.
"Is it just me, Asta, or does that line contain a falsehood? Something a little bit off? What word in this line sounds phonybaloney to you? ‘All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players?'"
That got my attention. I turned my head in her direction, liking a challenge, as well as the wordbaloney (I was hungry), and found myself wishing I had a smart-sounding answer to give.
"Stage?" I hazarded.
"No, merely," she said. "Do you know what merely means, Asta? It means nothing more than. You are merely seven years old, and that is one way of looking at it, a correct way to use it in a sentence. But in this context, doesn't it seem fallacious? It is no mere thing to be a player in these hard times. I know that Mr. Shakespeare had no good reason to anticipate the coming of movies, but still, it seems awfully shortsighted, writing a thing like that."
From the corner of my eye I saw something stirring under the crack: first two pincers and then a long and shining body. Something resembling a shell.
Something resembling EARWIG.
I lay my finger before it and hoped that this creature would take to me, as I'd once seen a caterpillar take to a stalk—on TV.
"Wiggy!" I hissed between my teeth.
"What's that?" My mother's head surged over the edge of the tub; within a split second she spotted my visitor, dipped her fingers into the suds, and sprayed him in one efficient wrist flick. He twitched once, twice, before scuttling back into the tile.
"Foolish things crawl in your ears and eat the insides of your head," Mother said. "You don't want to be courting those."
I considered her words. "They eat heads?" I asked.
"They're not as bad as termites, but still pretty darned pesky," she went on meditatively, as if I hadn't spoken. "What use are earwigs to anyone? It'd be more useful to be a—a fly. Not to court flies, mind you, but actually be a fly! A fly on the cellular wall of somebody's brain! The pest, and not the one to whom the pestilence comes! Now wouldn't that be a switch?"
She placed the book flat on the tray, raised both tremulous hands above the water, and clasped them enthusiastically at her bosom. "It is exactly the thing I wish for you to understand about the movies. This is something my own mother used to tell me. Of course, the world's concerns are different than they were during her time—the Silent Era—but our overriding choices remain the same. And there are only two—there have never been more than two.
"Are you listening, Asta? You can conduct yourself as if you are watching a movie—with darkness closing in on all sides—or, choice number two, you can conduct yourself as if you are acting in a movie, with your inner light guiding you all the way. Given those two choices, and knowing that these are the only two you will ever, ever have, which would you deem the better one?"
"Acting in a movie?"
"Yes! The better one. We can't afford to reduce ourselves to being mere witnesses. There are times when we must take actions that are entirely of our own making." My mother's eyes fixed on the overhead light above the bathtub. The light wasn't on, but she seemed pleased by whatever she saw up there—as if that dull glass circle had nodded its assent.
"Time flies, but I cannot," my mother murmured, staring at the light. She let both arms slump below the fading bubbles, and the tea tray toppled dangerously to one side. I steadied it, and that seemed to revive her a bit.
The wall-eyed look that sometimes overtook her was replaced by a penetrating one.
"Take that away, would you? And hand me my towel, yes, there's a good girl," she said. "Remind me to take a look at you this morning. Your face is almost as peaked as your brother's. I don't like seeing my children looking so pinched." She pressed the drain lever with her foot, and the pipes gave a great belch as the water hurtled toward the eye of the drain. I leaned forward to watch it disappear.
"For heaven's sake, don't let that water touch you," Mother scolded, prodding at my chest with a dripping toe.
Once Mother had toweled off and slipped into her robe, she took me downstairs to the kitchen, and the daily business commenced.
"Really, Asta," my mother said, giving my skirt a yank. "Your dress. Would it kill you to pull it up?" Though I didn't protest, I always disliked the way her fingers went from the lymph nodes under my jaw and armpits to the even more tender ones around my pelvic bones. I'd developed the practice of avoiding her gaze during such probes; I usually stared at the windows, studying the black drapes that were parted to reveal the tar paper on the opposite side of the glass.
The fingers traced and retraced the same circle around my hip bone. "What?" I asked once their motion stopped. "What is it?"
"A lump. You've got a lump here."
Her eyes shone with something like satisfaction. Or was it impudence? It made me think of the nature show my brother, Orion, and I had watched the week before. The show had featured seagulls, and the plummy-voiced narrator had said that gulls sometimes liked to pluck the eyes right out of dead things, as if extracting pearls from oysters.
Mother touched my cheek with her silky, sallow hand.
"I knew you looked peaked. What did I tell you? This time I knew it."
I released the hem of my dress. The wool fabric swatted my ankles with the force of an indictment.
"Can you imagine how such a sickness comes into my house when I've done everything in my power to keep you safe? It isn't right." Her voice had a musing quality, and aggrieved softness. She stood and disappeared for a moment into the pantry, returning with her fingers looped in the handles of pinking shears. "I guess I should take care of your hair before work, if nothing else."
I looked at her uncomprehendingly. True, I was used to Mother's brushing my hair in the morning before she left for work; she raked over tangles until my loosened hair fattened the brush and my head jerked backward with the vigor of her strokes. Pain aside, I rather enjoyed this. With my neck so angled, I could study the ceiling and the cumulous cloudshapes (which sometimes transformed into man-shapes or tree-shapes, as clouds often will) that had collected where the paint had peeled away.
But the scissors were unfamiliar.
I felt something cold and solid against the nape of my neck— a crisp snip. My hair fell free, tumbling over my dress front and around my feet; I blinked as wisps caught in my eyelashes, then shut my eyes completely as the scissors edged closer and closer toward my scalp.
My mother stepped back. "There, that's a help," she said. "Hair is the worst hive of germ activity."
I felt my affronted hair, or what was left; it had become spare and bristly in a matter of minutes. I wanted to ask if she'd hold me up to the mirror so I could see the results but thought better of it. Don't be vain, Asta—this is hygiene, not beautification, my mother would be inclined to say. Besides, you had scraggly little witch's hair. Now you're a pixie, neat and trim.
My mother turned her back to me and crossed the kitchen floor, trailing bits of my hair behind her, bits that clung to the soles of her feet. She stroked her own hair—dark, lank hair that hung to the small of her back—until the touch became an absent caress.
As soon as she was gone I pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and clambered up on it. There, in the dusty mirror framed by silver embossed roses, a truculent little boy—my brother's face—looked back at me. Although I was a skinny child, my cheeks had remained obstinately moonchild-round, exactly as his were. And now I had his short hair to boot. I watched my expression change from truculent to grave to amused, till at last a small smile ghosted the corners of my mouth.
I could hear them—Mother and Orion—going through their usual Morning Recitation.
"Anne Bradstreet, ‘The Flesh and the Spirit.' ‘Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope to dwell there soon?'"
And then Orion's echo, weak but obedient: "Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope . . . to dwell there soon?'"
And Mother, prodding: "Vachel Lindsay, ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.' ‘And who will bring . . . '"
"‘And who will bring . . . '" Orion began. He coughed then. My expression in the mirror faltered. Unconsciously, my hand went to the hollow in my throat.
"PROJECT THE VOICE," Mother warned.
"‘And who will bring white peace,'" I whispered, for this line was my favorite. "‘And who will bring white peace, that he may sleep upon his hill again?'" my brother asked. There was silence. I suppose she kissed him in that silence. I smiled again, greatly relieved, and moved my hand from my throat to the nape of my neck, to feel the new stubble there.
By the time Mother returned to the kitchen, I'd hopped down and tucked myself into the table. She now wore a blue cleaningwoman's smock over a pale green dirndl skirt. And work shoes, of course. "Asta," she said. "I have to be at work in fifteen minutes so I'll only say this once. You're not to do any homework today. Well—" she amended, seeing my disappointment, "you can do your Bible readings, but there's no need to bother with any of the other books."
"Not even the primer?" I asked.
The primer was the same one my mother had used in her girlhood, with The Assumption Girls' School stamped on the flyleaf and her first name, Loretta, indelibly lettered in pencil. I could read from it only a little, but I liked the pictures of children who wore proper-looking hats and were always giving tips on how to avoid unpardonable breaches of manners, such as never to take the largest slice of cake off a platter. To do so would be greedy.
"No primer," my mother said. "You need to focus on getting well. I'd prefer you stay in bed and rest."
"Orion and me both," I said after a thoughtful pause.
"Yes, Orion and you both, in your own little beds."
She put on her fox-collar coat and her red rubber zip-up boots (I loved those boots, loved their unabashed cherry-redness) and stuffed a pair of rubber gloves into her coat pocket. While she was distracted, I groped under my dress to feel this accursed lump. I felt a tender pang by the jut of the pelvic bone and then the swollen gland responsible for the pang. A mere kernel of a thing!
"Mother," I said, "what would you say are my chances of getting better? Would you say they're not very high?"
She paused at the front door, one slim hand on the knob. "Silly," she scoffed. Her serpentine neck craned against the fox collar. "Come here."
I pushed away from the table and stood before her, under the shadow of her breasts.
"Give me your cheek, Pork Chop," she said, and I did. Her lips brushed my face; they were chapped, dry from the aridity of the house, but her breath was moist. I wanted nothing more than to burrow into such moist warmth and live there like an earwig hidden under the tile. I put my arms around her waist and buried my head against her rib cage, but she extricated me, gently.
"Have a healthy lunch. Orion can help you make it. I'll bring you both something nice for supper later on, all right?"
"And who will bring white peace?" I said, expecting a smile. None came. Mother reached around and adjusted the clip in her hair—an unnecessary gesture, for the clip was already deadcentered as far as I could tell—and with that she was out the door, closing it before I could get so much as a whiff of air.
I must have waited for the rattle of the bolts she'd put on the outside of the door. When the rattling stopped, I probably jiggled the knob. I feared a day when Mother might fail to lock us in properly.
But our condition was assured. We were safe within the walls that protected us from the inscrutable outside world.
Asta in the Wings is your first published novel. Is it the first novel you wrote?
A: When I was about twenty years old, I wrote a twelve hundred page novel called Tresunder Manor, which was sort of a cross between a Victorian “cozy” mystery and a novel of psychological suspense. (I think I was reading a lot of Ruth Rendell at the time.) My writing in this early novel was earnest but mostly turgid—unreadable, really—and the files on which the manuscript was kept were lost long ago, which is no great loss, all things considered. But it was useful to attempt a sustained narrative and to learn from all its mistakes.
Asta was your thesis when you were an MFA student at Columbia. What did you gain from pursuing an MFA? Did you receive feedback that helped you bring the novel to its completed state?
A: I submitted a prototype of the first couple of chapters of Asta to my MFA workshops and noticed right away that the story elicited a mixed response; people either loved the writing or were baffled by it. I figured that any novel that draws such polarized responses couldn’t be all bad, so that gave me the impetus to forge ahead and turn it into a thesis-length work, which eventually became a springboard for the novel itself.
How long did it take you to finish the novel?
A: For better or for worse, the novel took a long time to finish, but its progress was impeded many times along the way. I completed the first half of the book in 1998 and then shelved it for awhile. Around 2001 I added a second half, in which the narrative jumped into the future and Asta and Orion were of college age—eighteen and twenty years old, respectively. This newer section didn’t seem to work, though, and I couldn’t pinpoint why it was going wrong. Then 2005 rolled around and it suddenly dawned on me that Asta and Orion needed to remain children from beginning to end—that keeping them in their childhood would solve the book’s structural problems. That, it turned out, gave the book the direction and shape and premise it needed.
Asta and her mother and brother live in rural Maine. You currently live in Maine, but you began writing Asta in New York City. Why did you choose to place Asta in Maine? Could the book exist in any rural setting or is there something particular about Maine that influenced your choice?
A: I grew up in Maine and used to vow that I would not set my stories there because I didn’t want to be pegged as a “Maine writer”; for whatever reason, I was afraid of being thought of as a regionalist. So the early version of Asta was set in a fictitious town in Massachusetts, which is geographically close to Maine and has a lot of the same quaint New England characteristics. But as I progressed further into the manuscript, it became obvious that it was Maine I was really writing about—its isolation, its stoic eccentricties—and that it was my own childhood in Maine that informed Asta’s perspective a great deal.
How about the timing of Asta? The book is set in the 1970s, before seven-year-olds had e-mail accounts and Internet access. Do you think the story would work set in 2008? Or is there an innocence and simplicity necessary to the story that no longer exists in kids’ lives today?
A: I don’t think that today’s children are necessarily less vulnerable or even less innocent because of advances in modern technology; children are always children, which is one of the reasons why the child in literature has always fascinated me—because the concerns and feelings of a child in a 19th century novel are not, deep down, so different from the emotional experiences of a child in the world today. I was a young child in the 1970s and, at the time, thought it was a period of remarkable new inventions. How is a decade that spawns lava lamps and inflatable furniture not magical in the eyes of a child?
Asta in the Wings is a first-person narration. The reader never knows Asta’s current age, where she lives, or what has happened to her and her family. Why did you choose not to assert the older Asta into the narration more?
A: Not asserting the older Asta into the narrative was a conscious choice that I made early on in the writing process. In my own mind I have a clear picture of who Asta is as an adult—what she looks like, what she does for a living, how she acquired the particular diction that she uses and recalls the particular things that she does—but I don’t think it’s essential for the reader to know all this. The writer always has to know more biographical details than the reader; that is the trump card we have. I will say that I always saw Asta as someone who is so captivated by her own memories and, at times, the web of her own narrative that her language sometimes becomes that of a child—she gets so “in the moment” that she fully relives the childhood experience throughout the book. I liked having a narrator who could show flashes of sophistication and wit but still convey a deep and lingering attachment to the childhood self. I relate to this kind of narrator.
Did you ever consider making Asta in the Wings a young adult novel? What were some of the challenges of writing a novel about a seven-year-old girl for adult readers?
A: Some of the first agents who read Asta suggested that it seemed a little Young Adult, which apparently was a marketing concern for them. I really don’t see the connection so much; YA novels today are so hip and topical, so much more worldly than the YA fiction of my youth, which was all about girls getting their periods or buying bras. Asta, on the other hand, has an innocence that I associate more with classic children’s novels that can be enjoyed by adults, like the works of E. Nesbit or Frances Hodgson Burnett, albeit with some modern, ironic twists. I like to think that the book has crossover appeal insofar as bright young people could conceivably like it as much as adults, or vice versa.
What was the inspiration for Asta in the Wings?
A: At the time when I began writing Asta in the Wings I had been reading a lot of Victorian fairy tales. I found their moralizing overtones fascinating. And I was collecting old primers—school reading books—from various lawn sales and garage sales, and I wanted to incorporate the feeling of those as well, in a contemporary way. The first scene of Asta that popped into my head was the scene where Asta and her brother have that first conversation on Orion’s cot, pushing the can lid back and forth; I saw that very clearly in my mind, overheard their dialogue and wrote it down.
In Asta’s home life with her mother and brother, there is a strong theatrical life. Asta’s mother wanted to be a movie actress, as her mother was. Asta and her mother and brother reenact movies and plays. Were you ever involved in theater or acting?
A: I was always the writer, never the actress. However, I’ve always been fascinated with old movies and cinema history, and I wanted to channel this enthusiasm into the novel somehow. A few of my acquaintances have pointed out that I live my life as though I were a character in a movie or a novel, so maybe it wasn’t such a stretch for me to write a book in which the theatrical life and the day-to-day life are as one.
The character of Leon is simultaneously ominous and comforting. He is Asta’s only friend in her new surroundings and yet the reader is aware of the inappropriateness of a friendship between a college-age man and a young girl. What were some of the challenges of portraying Leon as both a sympathetic and a somewhat disturbing character?
A: The character of Leon was a later addition to the book, but he turned out to be one of my favorites; I developed a little bit of a crush on him because he is the sort of peculiar, lonely boy who I would have loved when I was seventeen or eighteen years old. I thought he would make an unusual yet somehow fitting friend for Asta. The age difference and his morbid inclinations might suggest that there is some underlying deviance at work—a question of intention. But Leon is in his own way as innocent as Asta, and I enjoyed keeping him that way while still raising some doubt or a sense of unease in the readers’ minds. Unease mixed with innocence can be a very powerful combination when executed correctly—like the juxtaposition of the very ugly with the very beautiful.
What’s a book that you have read recently that you would recommend?
A: I like the Canadian author Barbara Gowdy. I just read her books Mister Sandman and Falling Angels.She has such a peculiarity to her writing, and her characters are ones I can truly identify with; to riff off Holden Caulfield (speaking of Ring Lardner), Gowdy is an author who I’d like to call up on the phone. I suspect we would have a lot to talk about.
1. Asta in the Wings is a novel that occasionally draws inspiration from traditional fairy tales. What fairy tale elements do you see in the book?
2. Although Asta Hewitt is relating the experiences she had as a child, she is clearly narrating from an adult vantage point. What do Asta’s voice and her way of telling her story suggest about the kind of adult she has become?
3. Discuss the role of sickness in the novel. What is Asta and Orion’s attitude toward being “sick”? Why do they feel this way?
4. How would you describe Asta’s childhood relationship with her brother, Orion? If Orion were telling the story instead of Asta, do you think he might characterize their relationship differently? How?
5. Is Loretta Hewitt a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
6. In Book Two, Asta transitions from the magical inside world of her mother’s house to the more pedestrian outside world. Do you think Asta is too critical of the grown-ups in the outside world, or do you think her assessments are fair?
7. In what ways does Asta represent a typical seven-year-old girl? In what ways is her personality unusual for a seven-year-old?
8. What do you think are Leon’s motivations for befriending Asta? In your opinion, are his intentions good or bad?
9. Asta the narrator never reveals anything but affection for her mother despite the fact that the children, by most standards, were neglected and abused. How do you feel about this lack of resentment in Asta’s tone? What might have been the author’s purpose in leaving resentment or reproachfulness out of the novel?
10. If you were to write an epilogue to this story, what do you think would happen to Asta and her family next?