There have been an increasing number of books for young people with characters on the autism spectrum. ROGUE is written by an author who knows what it’s like from the inside because she has Asperger’s herself. She is also a teacher, book reviewer, DJ and world traveler! I asked Lyn to tell us a little about herself and ROGUE. (With photos, too!) Enjoy!
Can you tell us how this book, or any of your books, came to be published?
I started out with a non-profit small press, Curbstone Press, that was known for literary, politically progressive, and multicultural/international fiction and poetry. Curbstone published three of my books, including my award winning YA novel, Gringolandia, before closing as a result of the sudden passing of its founder and editorial director, Alexander Taylor. Gringolandia was set in Chile and among Chilean exiles in the United States in the 1980s. When my editor passed away, I was working on a sequel. I knew I would have to find another publisher—Curbstone folded four months after Gringolandia came out in 2009, and the novel was sold to Northwestern University Press, which doesn’t publish YA—so I looked for an agent. The agent I found loved the sequel but couldn’t sell it.
In the meantime, I enrolled in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. With the encouragement of my first advisor, An Na, I began to write a novel about the subject I have most avoided—my own troubled childhood and adolescence as a person on the autism spectrum (though I was not officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until adulthood, when it became a separate diagnosis). Because of the success of Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World and your own Mockingbird, there was mainstream interest in novels about this subject, fueled also at the time by the debate over eliminating Asperger’s as a separate diagnosis in the psychiatry manual. I had a letter published in the New York Times on this subject, and shortly afterward, my agent sold my novel to Nancy Paulsen at Penguin. My editor was very interested in a novel from the perspective of a character with Asperger’s that was written by a person with Asperger’s.
What were some of the challenges you faced, writing such an autobiographical novel?
My principal challenge was creating a character who readers would find likable and sympathetic, when no one found me particularly likable and sympathetic when I was growing up. I wrote a guest post for Canadian writer and blogger Melianie Fishbane on that subject.
Getting Rogue published raised additional dilemmas, such as how public I should go with my place on the autism spectrum. Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, many employers still don’t understand that persons with neurological differences have much to contribute because of our unique way of seeing the world. Writing careers, though, are precarious, and I’m obviously concerned that my very public disclosure will affect my future employability if things don’t work out. Thus, I’m grateful for your support and the support of readers, because I really want young people on the spectrum to see that if writing stories is their dream and their special power, they should go for it. And to know that they are not alone, and they are valued for who they are.
Besides the protagonist having Asperger’s, how much of Rogue is autobiographical?
The opening scene, in which Kiara tries to sit at the popular girls’ table because she believes that will make her popular, actually happened to me. One of the popular girls pushed my tray to the floor, but, unlike Kiara, I didn’t pick it up and smack her in the face with it. I just cried and all the kids laughed at me.
Kiara’s unwitting involvement in the drug business of Chad’s family is also autobiographical, though with different drugs. When popular kids started showing up at the community radio station where I volunteered in high school and asked me to drive them places and introduce me to people, I thought I had finally made it. Little did I know I had become their drug courier. I was crushed to find out the popular kids didn’t like me but were only using me, and it taught me an important lesson about how far I would go to have friends.
How did you come up with Kiara’s attraction to X-Men characters?
When I was growing up, I became aware of the X-Men, mutants who didn’t fit into society but had special powers that could help society and in this way create understanding of those who are different. Rogue didn’t exist at that time—she first appeared in the early 1980s—but I was drawn to Professor X, who I saw as a kind of mentor. He used a wheelchair and appealed more to me as a girl than the physically powerful superheroes like Wolverine, and I wished I had someone like that who would take me in and find me a place where I belonged.
Rogue is a natural for Kiara because she cannot touch or be touched. And she quickly identifies Chad as Gambit. In the X-Men, Gambit has a complex and close relationship with Rogue because they share roots in the Mississippi Delta (which parallels Kiara and Chad’s life in the poor town next to the wealthy college town) and because both have been pulled to the dark side.
Where did the character of Chad come from?
In elementary and middle school, I tended to be attracted to the bad boys who, even though they were often mean to me, were outsiders like me. And they became less mean once I hit my growth spurt around fifth and sixth grade and beat one of them up. The kid I beat up, an undersized boy who along with his twin brother had flunked a grade and was therefore older than me, is the closest model for Chad. People said the twins came from a bad family situation, which I guessed made sense because they were always getting in trouble.
Why do you think Kiara is able to deal with something as disturbing as a meth lab or child abuse, both very adult issues, if she is supposedly prone to meltdowns and lack of understanding?
Kiara doesn’t understand the emotional gravity of Chad’s situation, which allows her to stay involved with him in the way that she does. She believes Chad when he says his parents’ associates will hurt her and her father if she tells anyone, because she tends to believe everything she’s told and she doesn’t have the understanding to know otherwise. At the same time, she wants Chad to be her friend, and if she tells someone he’s in a bad situation, he’ll stop being her friend or he’ll go away and she’ll be alone again.
Kiara’s meltdowns usually have to do with her being frustrated in what she wants, and often over what appear to others to be minor things, like having the same take-out dinner several nights in a row. She doesn’t melt down over things that happen to other people. One might consider it a lack of empathy that can be attributed to having Asperger’s, but Kiara is quite capable of empathy. She has trouble understanding situations where empathy is called for or expressing it. Through the kindness shown to her by several other characters in the novel—most notably the family friend Mrs. Mac and her brother’s friend Antonio—she learns how to recognize the suffering of others and communicate the empathy she feels.
It seems to me that Kiara is a better friend to Chad than anyone else could be. Why is that?
Like Kiara, Chad is a rejected child. He’s failing in school, and Kiara thinks his parents don’t like him very much. Kiara may not understand much, but she understands rejection. While she reaches out to Chad initially in order have a friend, she ends up with the kind of fundamental connection that may save both of them. That said, she doesn’t think that she’s doing a good enough job of being Chad’s friend because she can’t keep him from getting hurt. But she doesn’t stop trying. I think that her persistence—a common trait of people with Asperger’s—is what ultimately makes a better friend to Chad than anyone else can be.
Is there a sequel to Rogue?
I have an idea for one but am waiting to see if Kiara makes enough friends who want to know what happens next. I have quite a few other projects to keep me busy.
What are you working on now?
After finishing Rogue, I wrote a YA novel titled ANTS GO MARCHING. It’s about an academically gifted boy, the only person from his mobile home park in the elite accelerated-honors program at his suburban school. When a trio of well-to-do bullies attacks him following a verbal provocation, he sustains a severe concussion that leads to him flunking out of the program. The novel portrays his struggle to find a new place for himself, and to avoid the one he seems fated to occupy because of the circumstances of his birth.
Now that my agent is starting to submit ANTS, I’m working on a humorous middle grade novel with a 13-year-old nerd-boy who tries to find a new wife for his eccentric widowed grandfather.
Can you write humor?
Only by accident. But I keep trying anyway.
Is it true that you organized a book launch party with Lego minifigures as a way to encourage attendance? (Great idea, by the way!)
Yes. Actually, the book launch party that got 100% non-attendance was for my novel for adult readers that came out in 2006. This time, I decided to organize an event where I would have more control over my attendees.
And here are the promised photos:
Thank you, Lyn, for this interview! To learn more about Lyn, please visit her website. Looking forward to reading more of your work, Lyn!