Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Q&A with Rachel Robertson

We interview Rachel Robertson about her first book Reaching One Thousand: A story of love, motherhood and autism.

Can you tell us a little about your memoir Reaching One Thousand?

Reaching One Thousand is a story about an unusual boy, his mother, our everyday life and how I learned to be a parent. My son, Ben, is autistic and so the book is about difference, about learning about autism, and about change. For example, at four years old Ben loved numbers and all he wanted to do was walk around the local streets reading the numbers on the letterboxes. I expected him to play with toys and other kids, to want to do all the things I saw typically developing children do. But he had his own ideas! So the story is about me confronting my own expectations, adapting and rethinking my role as a parent. Some of that was hard, some was fun and most of it interesting, and that’s the story I tell in Reaching One Thousand.

Where does the title come from?

The title is from something that Ben said. One morning he decided to arrange one thousand objects in his room in ten rows of one hundred things. We had to go to school before he could finish, but he said he wanted to come back after school and ‘reach one thousand’. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

When Ben was first diagnosed with autism I read lots of books about autism, including some written by parents. I felt that most of them represented autism as something negative and as parenting a child with autism as a terrible experience.  I guess I wanted to counter that view – to show the joys and humour of parenting an autistic child as well as the challenges. 

I think I also wrote the book as a way of trying to understand my own son and how to best relate to him. Over the years, I have changed my views about lots of things because of the research I have done for the book and because of writing about my experiences. For example, I see the value of very focused narrow interests now (what is often called obsession) where I didn’t before.

How is Reaching One Thousand different from other books about autism?

I think the main difference is that this book is more of a snapshot of our lives and less about therapy and outcomes than most books about autism. As I said above, it’s more positive as well.  Instead of a chronological story, I have written each chapter about a different theme. And in each chapter are a number of threads: stories about my life with Ben, stories about my own childhood, and some more theoretical or research material that I think sheds a different light on the topic. Some of the themes I cover are: the senses, numbers, social understanding, belonging, school and confronting differences.

This is your first book – can you tell us a little about the writing process?

I started off writing bits of this book in cafes while my son was doing speech therapy. Then, when he was about five, I took the decision to write a book and started working on it. The process involved a lot of research, not just about autism but about lots of other things like memory, sensory issues, child development, identity and language. I found writing it difficult but also rewarding – it feels good to have created something about our lives together.

What books and writers have influenced your work?

I’ve always been a book worm, ever since I learned to read at four years old. In the last few years, I have read lots of memoir and narrative non-fiction. I love writers who use language in powerful and unexpected ways.

I think I have been most influenced by books about memoir writing, such as Patricia Hampl’s book I Could Tell You Stories, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick, and Timepieces by Drusilla Modjeska. And my son and I still have a fondness for Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books and for The Wind in the Willows.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I once read that Annie Dillard (a writer I love) said that it takes about four years to write a book.  I find it reassuring that such an accomplished writer said this, and I think it is worth remembering when you start out.  The work is half-hidden from you for a long time and only gradually emerges and grows into its final form after much thought, rewriting, heart ache and many blank days.  Reading books that inspire you is good, even if they are nothing like your own project.  It is also useful to have two or three really good readers who can provide you with supportive feedback and say to you, ‘that’s interesting, what happened next?’ or ‘tell me more about this’.  On a very practical note, I often remind people that most fiction and much non-fiction is really a series of scenes. If you are stuck, just find another scene and write it down.  Eventually, you can use these scenes like beads and thread them onto a string. Add a little summary, some reflections and you have a necklace – or rather, your first draft!

Reaching One Thousand is available now from all good bookstores. It is also available as an ebook from all good ebook retailers. For more information, please visit our website.

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