Friday, October 01, 2010
Interview with DJ Kirkby
I'm delighted that DJ Kirkby has agreed to be interviewed here to celebrate the official launch of her debut novel, Without Alice which I found to be a compelling read, written by a true storyteller. The interview is long, but please bear with us, as it covers subjects close to both our hearts.
You make no secret of the fact that you were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, dyspraxia and dyslexia as an adult. Asperger’s Syndrome is a disorder on the autistic spectrum and people with autism generally have the ‘triad of impairments’ which means that they have difficulty with ‘social communication, social interaction and social imagination’ (National Autistic Society). Do you think that the self-understanding which must have followed the diagnosis has impacted on your writing in any way and do you find writing therapeutic?
I think that my diagnosis was one of the most life enhancing things to have happened to me, and yes it did have a huge impact on my writing. Once I realised just how well I had been coping for my whole life I realised that I could go on to write that novel I had been dreaming of. If I could function in a predominantly neurotypical world so well (as opposed to so badly as I’d thought for many years) then there was no reason why I couldn't write a novel and do a good job of that too. Writing has always helped me make sense of the chaos I see the neurotypical world. Maintaining a neurotypical facade for the entire workday is like performing a play in a language that I have a working knowledge of, but one which is not my first language. So whilst I might come across as outwardly believable, inside I am double guessing myself, questioning my every move and having to interpret the response I get into my ‘language’ to try and establish what, exactly, the person I am interacting with actually meant.
As the parent of a severely autistic young person I've read a number of books written by people with autism, but they were all non-fiction or memoirs (including your own amazing From Zaftig to Aspie). Do you think you are unique in being a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who has had a novel published?
I think every human is unique but as far as I know I am the only openly autistic person who has had a novel published, although there are many talented published autistic authors such as Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Claire Sainsbury and Wendy Lawson to name just a few.
Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from severe anxiety, but I'm always impressed by your energy, enthusiasm and promotional ability. You don’t appear to suffer from the self-doubt which troubles so many new writers. You had setbacks on the road to getting Without Alice published, but do you feel that it was your confidence which got the result in the end?
I am not obviously self doubtful ( it is very easy to hide emotions on the internet) because I have been told by a few successful authors whom I trust that if a writer wishes their work to be taken seriously, then they first, must appear as if they believe it worthy of that. I think the fact that I have always behaved professionally while on the internet has helped me overcome the setbacks I endured with getting my novel published. The writing/ publishing world is very small and most of us have heard of one another to some degree. What my readers don’t see and perhaps do need to know, is that I am as fretful and anxious as the ‘average’ autistic person, and not a day goes by where I don’t suffer sensory overload and question whether I have what it takes to carry on promoting myself as an author. To carry on means that I have to keep putting myself in the spot light, and under scrutiny. Fairly easy to do on the internet where I can take my time and write out my responses – run them past my husband for a social acceptableness check - much more difficult to do in real time during non internet public appearances. For particularly challenging ones such as book launch parties where sensory overload is guaranteed I have my husband or another carer with me and make sure I’ve booked the following day off work but for things like book signings I have to go to them alone and just ensure that I identify a quiet room where I can spend time when it becomes necessary. Usually it is the staff toilet!
I find that people with autism either follow rules to the letter or tend to disregard them totally. Do you follow the so-called ‘rules’ ( e.g. ‘show not tell’) when you are writing and editing, or do you prefer to write more freely?
I think that I am good at showing the reader the scenes simply because I am an outsider in the world about which I write. My characters are neurotypical non autistic people so when I write from my perspective I am showing my readers what I see as an autistic person which works wonderfully in terms of getting a novel written the right way. The areas I struggle with are portraying communication believably, and I tend to use less dialogue than other novelists. If the lack of dialogue is significant from a neurotypical aspect then this is picked up in editing (I paid to have Without Alice professionally edited before submitting it to my publisher), and I then expand the dialogue in the identified areas.
I've tried to plan my own fledgling writing career, starting with courses to learn the craft of writing followed by targeted submissions. I know many people with autism like their life to be highly structured, so have you taken a similar approach or have you just taken advantage of opportunities as they have arisen?
I have written for so long that it is part of the structure of my daily life. I feel highly anxious if I don’t get time to write. I use it as a method of stress relief and a way of sorting through the events of the day, a way to learn from my mistakes. However, I have never taken a writing course as that would mean even less downtime than I have now. I work full time and having to take an evening (or weekend) course whether in a class or via distance learning would still mean that I have to do more intensive work after a hectic and stressful work day. All I want to do is spend more time with my family, not less and I know that I couldn’t cope with the extra work involved in taking a writing course. I do read a lot of writing books and blogs and learn a lot of what (and what not) to do in relation to writing as a result. This method seems to have worked for me and Without Alice is a novel that I am proud of.
You have launch parties planned for Without Alice. Do you find the face to face promotional aspects of being a writer particularly daunting?
As I mentioned earlier, I am very anxious about the promotional work for Without Alice. I also know that it is as much a part of being an author as actually writing the novel. If I don’t get myself out there and meet my readers, then how do I engage with them and get to know what they want from me as an author? Additionally, because I am published by an independent (small) publisher, if I don’t do public appearances then word of mouth about me as an author wont happen and I need it to for my book sales to happen. I know that even authors who are published by big publishers (with big marketing budgets) have to get out and promote themselves which means that this has to be done even more intensively for an author published by a small publisher. Writing a good novel is only the first part of the job.I consider myself very lucky to have found a publisher who was willing to read a submission from an openly autistic author in the first place and then for him to believe in my writing enough to take a risk in publishing me. After all, all the work and money involved in making my novel actually physically available for readers to buy has come from my publisher. I feel I owe it to both of us to make sure that I do everything I can to engage with readers and hopefully have them like me enough as an author to tell their friends about me and my novel (s). Having said all that, self promotion is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
First I have to get readers interested enough to come in and see me, then I have to get book shops to agree to let me come in for a signing and once there I also need to approach random people who come into the shop. Once I have done so I then need to engage with them in such a manner that they are willing to buy a copy or two of my novel! I do spend time in my bolt hole freaking out until I calm down enough to get back on the shop floor and carry on.
At the book launch parties I will drink wine and wear ear plugs as both help to smooth out the sensory overload long enough to get me through the event. Having said that, I often appear distracted and sometimes talk nonsense. This is because I am paying attention to the sensory overload instead of the person talking to me. I apologise in advance to anyone that I may do this to. I struggle to hear things sometimes because all I can hear is everything around me due to the fact that my brain doesn’t do a good job of tuning out unnecessary noises, so I can hear all the conversations at once, the phone ringing, the door opening, the cash register working the air conditioning or heating, traffic noise, smell people’s perfumes, colognes, bad breath, hair products, hear their clothes rustle, drinks being poured, scents from the street outside and so on. So if it seems like I am not fully focussed on what you’re saying, it’s not that you’re uninteresting, it’s just me being me.
You not only write prolifically, but hold down a high-powered day job and care for your family. What life advice would you give to a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome?
Don’t be afraid of failure. Think of it as an excuse to go back the way you came until you find a more successful way around the obstacle. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help but never use autism as an excuse. You know it isn’t an excuse, it’s our way of being and that means we have to go about things differently to be able to function in society. We know ourselves best and so it’s up to us to find our own way of coping with functioning in a socially acceptable manner. We are all individuals with unique desires and dreams and with the right support, you can do anything you wish to do. Once you get there you may realise that it isn’t actually what you did want and that’s ok too because you can start over and go get something different. Everything will probably seem like very hard work but that is what life is all about and you’ll find coping strategies along the way if you’re willing to try things out until you find the ones that work best for you. Make sure that you have some things that are easy and make you happy, and treat yourself to these things when you need a break but don’t let yourself obsess on them or you won’t get anything else done.
DJ Kirkby has dedicated Facebook pages for her books Without Alice and From Zaftig to Aspie.