John Elder Robison is the author of the memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.
SB: As a writer, I’ve always viewed memoir as a challenging genre. This is partly because of the unreliability of memory and partly because of the possibility that individuals featured in the memoir might find their portrayal unfair. As a writer, your task seems even more difficult, since you’ve moved from being a character in your brother Augusten Burroughs’ nonfiction to being the author. Part of this challenge seems to be reintroducing readers to individuals they had already met in Running With Scissors. What would you consider to be your greatest challenges as you wrote this memoir?
JER: There was no challenge to reintroducing readers to individuals. I just told the story the way I’d tell it if we were sitting in the living room. My book is a somewhat continuous narrative, but really, it’s made up of a bunch of small pieces, and each of them reads the way I’d tell the story, just sitting around.
Editors tell me that’s a rare ability, though it seems natural to me. But what do I know?
The challenge really came when we edited the book for publication. My editor, Rachel Klayman, sent the first chapter back to me with two thirds of it crossed out and red marks every three words. Or so it seemed. Can I really do this, I wondered? If it’s that bad, why did they agree to publish it?
But it wasn’t that bad. I did do it, and the result worked. And that’s just what editors do. In some places, I hear they pay them by the red mark, half a cent a mark. So you can imagine how much marking up they have to do, food prices being what they are today. Random House is a big place. I’m pretty sure they pay their editors a salary. But old habits die hard, I guess. Most of the Random House editors arrived there after years of toil in the sweatshops.
I cannot emphasize enough the contribution a good editor makes to a book. And another challenge came from the missing stuff. Rachel was full of difficult questions about the book’s content. Things like, “Here, you’re happily married. Two pages later, you’re divorced. You need to explain what happened.”
I do? And I did. And that too made it better.
SB: What was the best, or most rewarding, part of writing Look Me In The Eye?
JER: The most rewarding part is the response from readers, the way people tell me my story has touched their lives in a positive way. I’ve even seen that response from some of the characters in the book, to my surprise. Bob Jeffway, an engineer friend who appears mid-book, has been quite profoundly affected by the story. I didn’t expect that.
SB: The impression I received from the author’s note of Look Me In The Eye was that you wrote this with a willingness to become a spokesperson for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. Is this accurate, and if so, what doors has the publication of your memoir opened for you?
JER: I don’t know if it’s right to say I’m a spokesman for others . . . people with Asperger’s are such a diverse group. I don’t know that any one person could speak for all, nor do I think all Aspergians want to be “spoken for.”
That said, I can certainly show many people what my own life is like, and many see parallels in their own lives. Really, I’d say, my talks are more about how we’re all the same deep down – Aspergian or not.
It’s hard to say what doors the publication of my book has opened. It might be more correct to say that I’ve seen new paths to follow after publishing the book. “Doors opened” implies the doors were closed to me before, and my previous experience in life has been that I can do whatever I set my mind to. I don’t have a life history of encountering “closed doors,” as you say.
SB: Look Me In The Eye, seemed to me, to not only be an account of growing up with Asperger’s, but a story of what it means to be a son and a father. You describe your parents as damaged individuals who did the best they could. While you and your brother were both injured by being raised by damaged individuals, you both grew up to be emotionally healthy and successful adults. What advantages did you and your brother have that your parents either did not have or did not take advantage of?
JER: I really don’t know, because I was not around when my parents were small. Speaking for myself, I am very lucky to be largely self-motivated and self-directed. My brother is pretty much that way, too.
SB: Your son, Cubby, was able to inherit the best of your characteristics – brilliance and a talent for pranks – and grow up free of the neglect and abuse that you and your brother experienced as children. How did your upbringing and experiences prepare you to be a parent?
JER: I don’t know that it did prepare me. My own parents certainly did not provide good examples. When faced with a newly acquired kid, you just figure things out as best you can. And you learn to improvise, like the way I used laundry hampers for nests when he was small. Also, you take the kid places and show him things you like, and you hope he’ll like the same things as he gets bigger. Kid management is both challenging and rewarding.
And the thing is . . . no matter what you do, when they get to be about sixteen, they turn on you.
SB: I enjoyed reading about the seventies music scene, especially about your job creating smoking guitars for KISS. How did your experience with music and with musicians shape your life?
JER: My time in the music business was one of the most fun times of my life. Musicians accepted me into their tribe on the basis of my skills, and they never made fun of me. One day, I may return to music again in some capacity.
I write about it, and I see musicians all the time. So just watch and see what happens.
SB: Throughout your memoir, humans frequently took on animal-like qualities. You use names such as “Little Bear” and “Cubby.” You describe hands as paws in several places. You refer to your son’s peers as “little animals.” Most interestingly, you mention your own habit of incorporating the word “Woof” into conversation. Does this interest in animals spring from Aspergian traits? Or is it simply a John Robison trait?
JER: Well, humans have many animal like qualities. Many traits and behaviors – like loyalty, friendship, empathy, cooperation – they come from our animal past. To me, that’s a lot of what’s real. Lots of learned social behavior just seems fake to me.
As to my own behavior, many traits that I would have described (a few years ago) as “John Robison eccentricities” seem to be shared by others with Asperger’s. I continue to be surprised by this as I meet more and more people. Maybe if you look at a big enough sample, nothing is unique.
SB: Your prologue suggests that your book’s title comes from misunderstandings people have about Aspergian behavior. While failure to look people in the eye is a common Aspergian trait, you mention that, while growing up, this trait caused people to believe you were a secretive or even deviant child. What advice would you give to the families, teachers, or classmates of Aspergians about understanding Aspergian behavior? What advice would you give to fellow Aspergians?
JER: Generally speaking, the two attributes the world needs more of are compassion and understanding. When a kid does not respond the way you expect, consider that he may be in a totally different world from you. Rather than jumping to conclusions like, “he’s just lazy,” or “he just prefers to be alone,” try and watch and decipher what’s really going on; what the child may be thinking and feeling.
The other suggestion for Aspergians is to join your local Asperger or autism support group. Many of the groups I’ve seen are really great. In my area – New England – we have the Asperger’s Association. GRASP (Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership) has chapters all around the country, too.
SB: One of the things I enjoyed most about your memoir was the record of your pranks and tall tales. My favorite chapter was where you and your brother were staying in Cleveland while you were on tour with KISS, and you convinced him that Cleveland was anti-retail for religious reasons, and he would need to take a ferry to Detroit in order to go shopping. When you were creating your stories and pranks, were you aware that you had the creativity of a writer?
JER: “The creativity of a writer?” Is there such a thing? I have known for a long time that I am creative, and I know some people believe creativity is different in, say, scientists, writers, or painters. I don’t really believe that. I think, if you look at my story, I have demonstrated creativity in many of the things I did. Writing just happens to be one outlet.
And lots that may be obvious to you is unknowable and invisible to me, because I am a bit autistic. So I see or perceive some things that are revelations to you, but things that may be totally obvious to you are completely invisible to me. For example, I did not know parts of my book were funny until other people said so. And the only way I know which parts are funny is by reader feedback.
SB: How did you balance running your business with memoir writing?
JER: I did the original writing of the book at home in the evenings, and at work in my corner during the day. I’ve had managers working there right along, but in the past year, I have turned over more of the day-to-day responsibility as my book work takes more of my time.
I like writing at work because I sort of stay connected with the world with people coming in and out, and things to see. I’m sure it would be a major problem as an employee, but as an owner, it’s just fine.
I guess I’m not well suited to being an employee. I’ve never done well submitting to authority. I’m glad I’m not in the military, or in school, or in jail. I probably would not thrive in any of those places.
SB: Do you have any advice for new writers?
JER: Don’t believe everything you read in terms of odds of success, etc. I began my writing career by writing one book. I showed it one agent, and all the major houses wanted to publish it. Writing does not have to be a game of collecting 500 rejection slips.
That said, you need a compelling story. It’s got to be well written. And you’ve got to be able to sell yourself, if it’s a major release. The days of writing a book, turning it over to the publisher, and having them do the rest are long gone. If indeed they ever existed. Be prepared to promote yourself and your book.
You know, I’ve worked harder talking about Look Me in the Eye than I did writing it, and that’s a problem when I have a business to run and more books to write. It’s getting hard to do it all.
Think twice when people tell you what you “have” to do to get published. I’ve not gone to college. I’ve never taken a writing class. I’ve never attended a writer’s workshop. I never did most of the things people suggest, and I found my own way anyhow.
You can too.
SB: What is next for you?
JER: More books and cars, I guess. Unless some other opportunity presents itself.
Thank you, John, for taking the time to talk to us at Halfway Down the Stairs.
Stacy Wennstrom is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2008, Stacy Wennstrom