As part of their discussion, the Autism Book Club sent me a list of questions to answer about the book. Since I was unable to travel down to meet with them at their gathering, I agreed to answer these questions on the blog, in the same way that I would answer them at a Q & A after a reading or during a class visit to discuss my books.
Today, I'm going to answer two questions, because they are very related to each other, and I just can't leave one alone if I start talking about the other one. You can read their first question, and my response, here. My second one is here, and after this set of answers Imaginary Friends will resume.
Q4. Have you ever thought about adapting this into a chapter book? (Someone suggested that it would be a great read for a younger child! With pictures!)
You know, a picture or chapter book version has never really come up before. If I found the right illustrator, I'd probably be willing to give it a try. Recently, I've been talking to Autonomous Press about bringing this book into their listings, and we are looking at aiming it at an adolescent or young adult audience. Having a companion edit with pictures for kids would be really cool, though.
I did think about this in terms of graphics and visualized scenes quite a bit, though. My own background is in script writing (Lol--the autistic writer specialized in scripting--yes, it's true). I have an MFA in playwriting and a screenplay that got a couple honorable mentions in contests, and I spent some time before graduate school as a submissions editor for a startup comic book company. So the idea of collaborating to make writing happen with a visual/performative component is definitely something I'm prepared to do. The main reason I do fiction as my primary format is just because I don't have to coordinate with someone. If the right artist came along, I'd be up to do this book as either a chapter book or a graphic novel, but only if I controlled the text of the adapted version.
Q5. Did you start writing in a similar way as Clay?
Yes and no. I started writing by imagining my own science fictional worlds with my friends and making up stories in them, yes. We had a shared world that we produced a lot of material for--maps, comic books and stories set in the universe, art for the characters--and most of that group went on to play tabletop roleplaying games in high school, or else we collaborated on our own text adventure games, custom maps within game-worlds like Doom and ZZT, or other projects like that when we were kids. I was of the right age to learn BASIC when I was around 9 or 10, and a lot of my early writing experience overlaps with becoming code literate in some very basic children's languages (again, I have to mention ZZT for its ZZT-OOP script) at the same time that I was learning to compose sentences and paragraphs. And then I was also imaginative enough that I was constantly telling myself stories, which provided the impetus for the other projects.
The no part of my answer is because Clay really doesn't start to narrate himself these stories until after he has learned to have friends and social interactions. He replaces them with these stories, and occupies his imaginative faculty with the agented decisions about the world he is creating, to preoccupy himself so that he does not feel as lonely. Before he has friends, he absorbs narratives and interacts with them, but he is more being affected by readings and television shows, treating them as authoritative and taking them in for lessons without trying to shape or interact with the stories in ways that create new meaning.
In my own life, both the absorbing capacity and the creative capacity have been present for as long as I remember. Part of the reason why I treat all of the arts like literature is that my unique combination of synaesthetic tendencies and my ability to enter into the speaker/narrator's point-of-view, to understand what they are saying on their terms in a multi-sensory way. That has been happening for as long as I remember, and the fact that I have tactile sensations and emotions that I know are created wholly by the art or the writing can be incredibly disruptive at times, because if I am having trouble with my processing, I sometimes mistake one sensation for another.
At the same time, though, I have also always felt that sharp, dissociative divide that many critics attribute to the third-person narrative. My storytelling faculty is the one I use to string together understandings of the world, but instead of sorting literal causes and effects, mine rearranges them into new stories for me that tell me about connections and patterns that are less literal. So I can remember being wholly immersed in creating fiction--simple fiction, but fiction--before I had the manual skills to write, which was also before I remember being able to read. I have been told by my father that I had to learn to read twice, though, so I suspect that I was nonverbally literate for a time before I learned to read aloud.
In the narrative, I try to bring out both sides of my way of thinking without being too confusing, so I let Clay transmute the one into the other. In reality, the two lead to me having a memory that is harmfully vivid and accurate, in that it can throw me into a full-sensory reproduction of something I am having emotional trouble with, and if I am not careful about keeping myself regulated then that causes trouble for me.
Q6. If you could give Clay a better childhood – what would that look like?
Clay could not have a better childhood without being a different child. Just like I could not be anything other than Autistic, because it's not a thing that happened to me, Clay can not be a white, working-class child in the Great Lakes region in the Bush I years and have it any better than he does. Even if his parents were better, he'd be stepped on somewhere by someone, and his parents would not even have the vocabulary to talk about why. It did not exist yet. So, with no language explaining him or helping him articulate his needs, it is not only Clay but his entire family that is rendered unable to effectively communicate their needs in ways that bring about effective and predictable results.
His story is the microcosm version of the macro conversation that is currently shaping up around neurodiversity. I wrote him to remind people about what happened before, and to propose a believable scenario about what might still be happening to some of the people who do not have this vocabulary at their disposal yet. That's not to say that I think there's any one set of definitions or answers. No.
Language is a living thing, and now that we are developing this new language, we need to populate it, to make it colorful and textured, so that it is adequate to include everyone who needs to interact with it. That's not a goal, it's a process. It might be one that never ends, but it's the process we have.