‘The Porcupine of Truth’ by Bill Konigsberg

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The Porcupine of Truth follows the story of Carson Smith who is living with his estranged dad over the summer.

When he meets Aisha Stinson, the two connect right away.

After the two find a box of recent cards from Carson’s grandfather, who had disappeared thirty years ago, they decide to go on a journey to find him.

This delightful, inspiring, hilarious trip transforms both Carson and Aisha’s lives.

VOICEOVER: And now, an Eight original production. “Books & Co." is made possible by the Department of English at Arizona State University. And by the friends of Eight, members of Eight, Arizona PBS, who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to "Books & Co." Bienvenidos todos. I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by Bill Konigsberg, talking about his latest young adult novel, "The Porcupine of Truth." I can't wait to talk about that. Welcome.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.

ALBERTO RIOS: This book, it is -- is it okay, and I'm going to ask you about the term young adult literature.


ALBERTO RIOS: Can you tell bus what that might mean?

BILL KONIGSBERG: Sure. Basically young adult literature means one thing and one thing only as far as I'm concerned. It manes that the protagonist is a teenager. I had no idea when I was -- because I was in the masters of fiction program at ASU, I had no idea what young adult fiction was, or that I would go anywhere near that genre. And I don't think I knew what it was.

ALBERTO RIOS: But it came to you.

BILL KONIGSBERG: It came to me. In fact --

ALBERTO RIOSL how do you write about teenage protagonists? I guess you were a teenager.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I was at a time. Once upon a time.

ALBERTO RIOS: I wonder how any of us, is it an active -- an act of the imagination?

BILL KONIGSBERG: I think it helps to be really immature. When I wrote my first young adult novel I was 32, and I was probably in a lot of ways a pretty immature 32 and that voice was so in my head. It's changing now, now I really have to be around younger people in order to get those voices.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's not an act of the imagination it's an act of behavior. It's actually the truth.


ALBERTO RIOS: Okay. In this particular book, you talk about the protagonist who I think might fairly be said that there's a most -- almost two protagonists. And they form a partnership and there's a quest, and a variety of things happening. Which we'll get into. One of the things that struck me as I was reading through this, just as text, as a book, is -- and it has to do with young adults. You hit on some universal truths that stood out. It stood out beyond the story. And one of my favorites was something the main character says, I'm about 3,000% better in my brain than out of it.


ALBERTO RIOS: Isn't that adolescence?

BILL KONIGSBERG: It certainly was my adolescence. I very much relate to Carson. It's interesting, because with these two protagonists, my first two books "Out of the Pocket" and "Openly Straight," both had gay male protagonists. I'm a gay male. With this book I have a straight male, straight white male and a gay black female. So with both of these characters I'm writing across a barrier. And really, the straight gay barrier is real. That's different. But I feel like Carson is the character who's probably the most like me.

ALBERTO RIOS: You do a very interesting thing to us as readers. You've got these two different sexual orientations, but they're the two protagonists, they're in this great adventure, it's a series of adventures together. We start rooting for them to get together.


ALBERTO RIOS: You don't have to tell us what happens. But you've put us in a complex situation.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, my hope is that you fall in love with both of them for different reasons. And by the way, the reactions to Aisha are across the board. Everybody falls in love with Aisha. Carson is half and half. A lot of people find him grating because he uses humor to mask his emotions, especially in the beginning of the book. So he can be a little frustrating.

ALBERTO RIOS: He's aware of it though.

BILL KONIGSBERG: He's aware. And he comes by it naturally.

ALBERTO RIOS: It turns out. Why don't you give us a synopsis of the book.

BILL KONIGSBERG: "The Porcupine of Truth" is about Carson and Aisha, two teenagers, who meet one summer in billings, Montana.

ALBERTO RIOS: Billings, Montana!

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, yes. I lived in billings for a very, very long year. The longest year of my life. Sorry, Billings. But basically Carson comes from New York, with his mother to take care of his ailing, estranged father. He hasn't seen his father in 14 years. And he doesn't want to be there. And he meets Aisha, who is currently as it turns out sleeping at the zoo because her very religious father has kicked her out of the house for being a lesbian. And the two of them become fast friends, Carson is -- falls immediately in love but it's an unrequited love. What they wind --

ALBERTO RIOS: A version of love.

BILL KONIGSBERG: It is. They are a version of a couple in a way by the end of the book. They are really connected.

ALBERTO RIOS: They do fall in love with each other.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I think so. There are all sorts of different love. And I feel that way. But they wind up on this quest -- they're on two quests. One has to do with family. As I said, about Aisha, she's lost her family. So there's a quest for family going on. But the other one is that Carson's family has fallen apart, his father is dying, and is an alcoholic and he finds out his father's father disappeared from the family 30 years ago and nobody knows where he went. And he finds some interesting letters that begin to point to the fact that his grandfather may in fact be alive. And so they go on this cross-country road trip to solve this mystery.

ALBERTO RIOS: And adventures ensue.


ALBERTO RIOS: All sorts of things happen.


ALBERTO RIOS: As I'm going through this, one of the things that strikes me, you were mentioning Carson using humor. But he has an underlying reason for it. That I think is very strong. And he says really to himself, "I'm afraid of what it would do to her if I said half the things I think," referring to his mother. That's another version of adolescence. You're thinking things, you just don't know what to do with them.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Absolutely. And he has a special situation with his mother, and there's a motif going on with his mother --

ALBERTO RIOS: Who is a therapist.

BILL KONIGSBERG: And who speaks in therapy speak, which is --

ALBERTO RIOS: Very funny by the way.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I'm glad you think so. It wasn't funny for me growing up that way. My mother is also a therapist. She definitely used words like "I want you to locate yourself." And all of this kind of stuff.

ALBERTO RIOS: Which is really very funny to the reader I think.


ALBERTO RIOS: Not as you say probably not to you.

BILL KONIGSBERG: No. I hope it's funny. But Carson has this motif where he feels like he could melt his mother.

ALBERTO RIOS: By his thoughts.

BILL KONIGSBERG: By his thoughts and his feelings. He feels like he has to control and manage her. And that's a really terrible way to go about living for him.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's a great irony. Because she is a therapist and should be able to handle that.

BILL KONIGSBERG: And probably could.

ALBERTO RIOS: But he also has the sense to know that whether she could or she couldn't, it might not be a great idea.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, he -- he's a kind kid. I think he's a sweet kid.

ALBERTO RIOS: He is. That comes through.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Oh, good, I'm glad.

ALBERTO RIOS: She's trying so hard to be a mom that that is a little bit difficult for a while. She undergoes a change as well, but she's trying so hard, she's overcompensating with this language.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I think there's so much tension and control issue going on in this book, where both people are trying to control the emotions of the other person and make sure nothing explodes. And really, what has to happen is an explosion. They really sort of race there, and by the end they're just simply needs to be something where they say at least something about what's really going on for both of them.

ALBERTO RIOS: And one of the ways they arrive at that, it's such a big part of this book, is improvisation. The first thing that comes to mind. Which is a kind of therapy. But also a kind of comedy. But what they come to see is it's also a real life. Right?


ALBERTO RIOS: So maybe you can talk about the role of improvisation? Because it's multifaceted.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Yeah. I hope this isn't a digression, but I'll tell you where the improv came from. This book, I had -- when I was starting to write this book hi no idea what I was writing. I was searching for a voice, and one day a phrase came to me, and I just sat down and I knew hi to write it. And the phrase was "we are hooligan do-gooders." Which is a weird phrase. It didn't even make the book, but it started to get me into this character of a kid who, it's so important to help to be creative and to come up with things nobody has come up with before. The best vehicle I could find for that was improvisation. So he spends a lot of time in his brain, as you said, about being 300% better in his brain. He spends a lot of time there, he's more -- he feels more safe there.

ALBERTO RIOS: And largely us Bates he doesn't want to be regular, even if he doesn't articulate it quite that way. And it's this inventiveness that helps him become in every moment of his waking life, different.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Absolutely. But that --

ALBERTO RIOS: But that's also the problem.

BILL KONIGSBERG: It is a problem, because that difference keeps him disconnected from everybody. And this book for me, if it's about anything, it's about connection. It's about connection to other people, it's connection to the world, and in a big sense, it's about spiritual connection. Which by the way, if there was an award for the person who was least likely 20 years ago to write a book that was about god, I think I might have been that person.

ALBERTO RIOS: And that brings us to the title. "The Porcupine of Truth." Which is an improvised way of speaking about god, really, or faith, or the actions that should derive therefrom.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Yeah. The basic -- the story behind "The Porcupine of Truth," it should just be said at the beginning of this book both characters are strongly atheist. Aisha -- and they come by it honestly. Aisha has been kicked out of her house by her very religious father, so she is done with the idea of God. And Carson really, it's a little more complex but it's about the fact his first two gods, his parents, split when he was 3. And he has lost faith. So they are talking about religion fairly early in the book, and about how they don't believe in God, and Carson in a moment of improvisation says that he believes in the porcupine of truth And the porcupine of truth, when you die, you go up to the gates of Des Moines and you -- so you go to the gates of Des Moines, which is a beautiful place, and there is the porcupine of truth, who is a game show host. And she asks you embarrassing questions about your life. And if you answer them correctly, you get to go to Des Moines, which is lovely. And if you lie you wind up in Paramus Mall in Jersey before Christmas.

ALBERTO RIOS: And they bring that up, it becomes a light motif in the novel and yet there's a moment at which it's not that gets shattered, but it gets supplanted by something. And it's a dog park.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Thank you for bringing that up.

ALBERTO RIOS: It's this whole idea of heaven, or religion, what happens is taken out of them and they see it somewhere. And I thought that was a very moving part of the book.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I will be honest with you, the book, I've only gotten initial responses, people seem to like the book and I'm glad about that. But nobody has brought up the dog park. And I love that scene. I was one day at a dog park, and I really had this idea of a motif as a dog park as heaven. And I began to think, how is that? Why is it? And it had to do with the way the dogs -- it's embarrassing, but how they sniff each other was the first thing. They're curious about each other and they want to connect with each other.

ALBERTO RIOS: They sniff anywhere they want.

BILL KONIGSBERG: That's right, they do. And so --

ALBERTO RIOS: that sense of abandon, of being able to do what you want in the moment.


ALBERTO RIOS: That uber-friendship, that amazing moment.


ALBERTO RIOS: You write it well.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Thank you. It's a lack of judgment. And even in the midst of being in heaven, Carson has a little bit of trouble. And I hope in some ways the reader goes along with him and has the same judgments. Because I feel like judgment is just something that we live with. But it would be better of course if we could suspend.

ALBERTO RIOS: And let that be heaven.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Wouldn't that be nice.

ALBERTO RIOS: I would like to take a moment to remind our viewers, you're watching "Books & Co." I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we're joined today by Bill Konigsberg, talking about his latest young adult novel, "The Porcupine of Truth." I love saying that. Every time I was thinking it, it made me laugh, because it gave new language to something that felt like a tired discourse. Kids talking about God. Well, there's -- that's not tired. But "The Porcupine of Truth" gives it a whole other spin. And that brings me to my next question. Language for young adults, where does it come from? What are you compelled to use? How do you create a language that's going to be believable to them that isn't a sermon, that isn't regular, you know, novel writing?

BILL KONIGSBERG: You know, in some ways it really is just normal novel writing, because teens have such a sensor of when it's garbage. They know. They sense authenticity.

ALBERTO RIOS: You're not writing down to them at all.


ALBERTO RIOS: That's not what I mean by that.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I understand the question. That's the most important thing for me, that I'm focusing on trying to simply write to them as if they are people. But it is a little bit different. Like I've written one to this point unpublished literary novel, and it is a little bit different. I do get to write with a little bit more abandoned in that situation. And it should be said by the way, that there are young adult novels where all sorts of language is used, and motifs and themes that you would support you perhaps. But it is still somewhat different I think.

ALBERTO RIOS: You're sometimes saying that's the language young adults hear, but you can't generalize about any group. Any book is a risk. And any language that you adopt is going to -- you're going to live or die by that. So the answer is these characters you create, and that you give them something that makes them the focus, not what they're saying, what they're doing. But something bigger.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I want to make sure in all moments there's something -- kids will put that book down. It has to be real.

ALBERTO RIOS: In terms of that, what I think is interesting as well is you take some very hot button issues perhaps and maybe this is a function of being wonderfully alive in the 21st century and being a young adult in that new century. You have race and racism, and LGBTQ issues, gayness generally. Here they are big players in the text, but they're not the text. They're part of it. That's a different --

BILL KONIGSBERG: That's different. That's my intention. My intention is to --

ALBERTO RIOS: Aisha is African-American.


ALBERTO RIOS: Along with being lesbian and whatever else -- but it's not the issue of the book.

BILL KONIGSBERG: No. If there is an issue of the book that is related, it is feeling separate. And poor Aisha was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and has constantly lived in places that are overwhelmingly caucasian. So that's just part of who she is. And I by the way, we talk about writing across barriers, I have to admit I had concerns about writing across the barrier of race, I wanted to make sure I did it well, it was by no -- it was not a coincidence I chose to write about a character who is from a Midwest middle class background. Because I feel more comfortable there, so I felt like writing across in some ways class might have been more difficult for me. So I feel like I have a frame of reference with Aisha. I hope she comes off very naturally.

ALBERTO RIOS: I think she does. And I think that idea of alienation, it may be race-based, but it is the much bigger issue is that adolescence, and things that are going on in her family, and it's not a one-trick pony. It's not just one thing. And I think that's -- that's due to your writing.


ALBERTO RIOS: In this particular piece.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, I think that also part of this has to do with this generation of teenagers. And the issue -- LGBT issues are just different for them. So Carson is a straight boy who isn't particularly homophobic. He has grown up with not even "Will and Grace," he's grown up with "Glee" and all of the stuff that tells him some people are gay and some people are straight, and some are trans, and some are bi’s, and so what.

ALBERTO RIOS: He has the eternal optimism she's going to fall in love with him. That's just regular adolescence. And I think you do a good job of bringing those ideas together.


ALBERTO RIOS: You have a lot of humor throughout this beyond Carson. And I think that is the mother speak, for example, in therapy language, there are different things going on. Other characters respond to Carson's humor with their own version of humor. I think sometimes that's a great exchange. But there are some things like the three silent rodents, little thing. Can you talk about where that might have come from? And maybe repeat it?

BILL KONIGSBERG: Sure. My father was a great -- I shouldn't say what, he still is, but growing up he was a punster. Everything was a pun and everything was a joke. And I loved it. I still love it. I have a great love, deep love and fondness for my father. Three sightless rodents was something he told me about when I was very little and he recited thusly. Three sightless rodents, three sightless rodents, see how they perambulate, see how they perambulate. She cut off their lower extremities with something for the -- utensil used for a section of meat. Have you ever seen such a spectacle as three sightless rodents.

ALBERTO RIOS: That's very funny. When I was reading that it took me a moment to get what it was -- just a moment. And then it got very funny when you think about how you can deconstruct anything that way. But that was just well done.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Thank you. And really was a joy for me to use a lot of my -- I actually thank him at the end of the book because I used with his permission some of his puns.

ALBERTO RIOS: You didn't just use some of his puns, you've already mentioned you lived in billings, your mom was a therapist, your dad was a punster. It sounds a lot like this character might be on some level, you.

BILL KONIGSBERG: There are certainly major connections for me. And with everything I write, I feel like I wind up writing things that are emotionally relevant for me at a time, and sometimes I'm going backwards because I write young adult. That's fine too. But Carson and I have a lot in common. My father was not an alcoholic, so I don't have generations of alcoholism in my family. That was something I had to dial into.

ALBERTO RIOS: Your dad is writing a note right now, thanks a lot, Bill.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Yeah. No. Not quite.

ALBERTO RIOS: You have -- you've mentioned these different geographies. And there is a lot of movement. There's a wonderful moment, though, where you come up with something that I think affects us here in Arizona. Where I'm just going to read this moment where you say, there's nothing remotely like this on the East Coast. Not that I've seen anyway, it makes me feel important like instead of being one of a million people to travel through the Lincoln Tunnel one day, I'm the only one on a lonely stretch of highway. Arizona is big that way. Some place like New York is crowded that way. And they are two different ways of existing in the world.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, I grew newspaper New York City. And I did not belong there. I was misplaced as a child. I love open spaces. So I simply gravitated out west, I have spent time in my life living in Colorado, Arizona, and Montana. And Montana notwithstanding, that was not the right place for me culturally. I just seem to blossom in places like this. So what Carson is feeling, he talks about having these noises of New York City stuck in his head, and I relate to that.

ALBERTO RIOS: It makes sense. I remember the first time I went to New York, and I got off at midnight at a small subway stop, nobody else was there and I thought, oh, my god this, is what being scared in New York is all about. And it's the opposite of Arizona. When nobody is around, everything is okay.


ALBERTO RIOS: And when people gather here, something has happened. Whereas in New York, or a place like that, where people gather, everything is okay, that's how it is.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Absolutely. And I, as much as I love to see people, I feel more comfortable here.

ALBERTO RIOS: And that idea of trying to negotiate, am I one all alone, or am I one as part of many? Because I think a big part of Carson's, and Aisha's struggle --

BILL KONIGSBERG: They both are trying to figure out who they are as people. And how they relate to people, I think both of them have a sense they don't like people at the beginning of this book. And that's a terrible way to live. So what they wind up doing in this book is they couch surf with a lot of families, and meeting all of these strangers in some way restores their faith in humanity.

ALBERTO RIOS: Even if it's rough going.

ALBERTO RIOS: Not a smooth surfing.

BILL KONIGSBERG: But if it was, it would be a book that kids would throw on the ground because they know that's not how life works.

ALBERTO RIOS: One of the things I like to look for in books is a thesis statement moment. Where something comes together in a nice drawstring. And I think you have it, and I think you mentioned it once or twice, it becomes at least twice in the book, you're talking about Laurel lie in Wyoming saying are that whatever people believe about god, is undeniably true. So long as it's followed by the words --




ALBERTO RIOS: That becomes such a big, major motif I think in the book.

BILL KONIGSBERG: It's meant to be. It is -- it may not be a profound statement, but I believe it to be a very true statement. And I believe the world would be a better place if we all simply coexisted with each other and allowed other people to believe what they believe, and allowed ourselves to believe what we do. There's just no reason for all of the anger and hassle.

ALBERTO RIOS: No, there is not. And I would call that pretty profound.

BILL KONIGSBERG: I don't know.

ALBERTO RIOS: Along with, I love this moment, I want to say, it was on page , as we're closing up here, where you say, this is New York, taxicabs word by, mere mustard stains on the Frankfurt that is the upper west side. I think you've said it all.

BILL KONIGSBERG: Well, I'm glad if you could see it.

ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you for joining us today. And I want to thank our viewers for joining us. You've been watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we've been joined today by Bill Konigsberg, talking about his latest novel, "The Porcupine of Truth." Please join us again next time when we'll be bringing you another good book.

VOICEOVER: "Books & Co." is made possible by the Department of English at Arizona State University. And by the friends of Eight, members of Eight, Arizona PBS, who give additional gifts to support original programs. Thank you.

Learn more about Bill Konigsberg.
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