Be Different: An Interview with John Elder Robison

As much bad news as there is, I cling to the belief that we are evolving, that we are winning–sometimes just barely–in the war against limited beliefs and hatred, and I believe that writers of memoir are doing some of the crucial footwork in expanding people’s consciousness.  Someone once said, “If you’re nostalgic for the 50’s, you’re probably not a woman or a person of color,” and I would add to that: BLGTQ,  people whose spiritual beliefs lie outside of Christianity, and those in any way neuro-atypical.  Memoirs about personal experiences of leaving a patriarchical religion like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism or questioning one’s sexual orientation like Candace Walsh’s collection Dear John, I Love Jane or coming of age as a person of color like Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father compel us towards inclusivity, the place where we long to be–whether we are aware of that longing or not.

John Elder Robison is another memoirist whose stories push us towards pluralism. John’s bestseller Look Me in the Eye, documented his experience of growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s. John’s new book (available for pre-order now on Amazon, in bookstores in March), be different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergians follows up Look Me in the Eye with “Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families and Teachers.” Here’s a little taste from the book’s introduction:

Repressed memoirs of tougher times and the emotions associated with them may still come flooding back unexpectedly, spurred by an episode or event. That’s exactly what happened a few years ago as I watched Billy the Kid, a documentary about an undiagnosed Aspergian sixteen-year-old in a small-town Maine high school.

In one scene, Billy moves warily among his classmates. As he walks the halls, you see his eyes dart from side to side. Constantly.  Looking for threats. Like a lone deer in a forest filled with wolves. With a pang, I recognized his look the moment I saw it. That was me, in tenth grade, at Amherst High.  Seeing his face, I experienced all the worry and anxiety of that time in my life in an instant.  I knew exactly how he felt. Alone, scared. Sure no one around him understood him; not even sure if he understood himself.

I’m delighted to have had this chance to talk to John about his writing process. I think you’ll enjoy this interview:

Theo: What did you hope to accomplish in writing Be Different?

John: Many of the people who read Look Me in the Eye have a personal stake in Asperger’s or autism.  Those folks often ask for more.  They ask me how I did this, or what helped me unravel that.  Hearing those comments, I realized a different kind of book was needed – one that was still entertaining but more informative, when it comes to Asperger’s or autism.  Be Different speaks to those people.

Some writers write to entertain. I am writing to enlighten or inspire.  To do that, I have to be entertaining, but entertainment is not my larger goal.  I hope readers find Be Different genuinely useful.

In Be Different, I present most of the traits of Asperger’s through stories from my life.  I show how each trait helped or hindered me, and how I made my best life because or in spite of my differences.  I hope readers can draw parallels between my stories and their own lives, or the lives of people around them with Asperger’s or other differences.

That’s really what the book is about – making a good quality of life using the brain you were born with, shaped by life experience, desire, and education.

Theo: Sometimes I hear things like “The second book is hard” or authors referencing a “sophomore slump.”  Was that the case for you?  Why or why not?

John: I had a long period deciding what to do next, in terms of books.  One day, I picked up a book called A Beginner’s Guide to the World Economy.  I was struck with the realization that’s what was needed for Asperger’s . . . a Beginner’s Guide.  Over the space of a week or so, I clarified the idea and set out writing what you see today as Be Different.

Theo: Did the success of the first book, Look Me in the Eye—a New York Times bestseller—affect your writing of this book?   I think it could make it easier to write (people like me, people like my writing: here’s more) or harder to write (people like me, people like my writing—or did they just like the first book?), but I’m curious what the process was like for you.

Look Me in the Eye represented my first attempt at book writing.  It’s been my experience that I get better at something the more I do it, and that is probably the case for book writing.  I remembered what I learned in the editing process, and tried to incorporate those ideas into the initial formation of Be Different.

The idea that readers liked me (or my first book) did not really have an impact on writing the second book.  I do feel I have to live up to reader expectations; I hope readers think Be Different is a quality piece of work.  However, I am not too worried about that simply because I’ve gotten better at everything else with practice and writing should (hopefully) be the same.  We’ll see soon enough, when it goes on sale.

Theo: In your acknowledgements, you say of your brother, Augusten Burroughs, “I would never have learned the art of storytelling if I had not had him as my very own captive audience long ago when we were children.” I’d love to hear a little more about this. Do you have a quick story about this you’d like to share?

John: Some publishing professionals suggested, “no one reads acknowledgements anymore.”  Your question proves at least some people do!  As to my brother . . . he was eight when I first began traveling with bands.  I’d come home (to whatever home he was in at the time) and tell him about my travels.  There were the times we played for outlaw bikers in Boston, spending Easter Sunday in jail in the Caribbean, turning 21 on an ocean ferry to Newfoundland, and all the other stuff I did.  I think he enjoyed my stories, and perhaps they inspired him to begin telling his own, when he got bigger.

Theo: If I like a book, I always read the acknowledgements.  I feel like they give me a closer look at the author’s world.

When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? Did your brother contribute to your finding your way from oral storytelling to the page?

John: I first thought of myself as a writer after Look Me in the Eye achieved success in the marketplace.  My brother certainly inspired me to try writing my stories.  Without him, I’d never have tried book writing at all.

I had previously written articles about Land Rover and Rolls Royce cars, but writing technical stories is totally different from writing a memoir or a book about how we think.  I would never have made that leap if he had not paved the way.

I was really ashamed of my bad childhood, and leaving home to travel with bands.  When I started the car company I was careful to keep my past buried because I did not want to shock the business people who brought their cars in for service.

It was the publication of Running With Scissors that helped me see how my own story might be inspirational, not shameful, and that started me on the path to speaking to disadvantaged people, and ultimately writing my first book.

Theo: What does your writing time look like?  Do you have a routine? Rituals?

John: I write at work (at Robison Service, my car company) and at home.  I don’t have a specific time to write, nor do I have any rituals.  I just write things when I feel like it.  Once I get going, I can write pretty fast, but there can be long periods of inactivity.

Theo: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?  Least favorite?

My favorite part is when a project is far enough along that I can envision its final form.  My least favorite time is those weeks before a book goes on sale, as I worry how it will be received and if it will be popular.

Theo: What are you working on now?

John: I am writing Raising Cubby, a memoir of non standard parenting.  I am also considering stories about TMS (the neuroscience research I’ve gotten involved with) and a book about love, betrayal, and redemption.

Theo: Where can readers buy your book and find you online?

John: My books should be available at most bookstores, and ay most online retailers.  They are also available at Costco, Target, and other such outlets.  Signed copies are available from my website, www.johnrobison.com

People can find me at JohnElderRobison on Facebook, @johnrobison on Twitter, and on blogs on Blogger and at Psychology Today.

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4 Responses to Be Different: An Interview with John Elder Robison

  1. Such a thought-provoking interview. I love the “free-range” of the book’s title! off to track down a copy right now…

  2. I hadn’t heard of this book or this writer until reading your blog. Thanks for this interview. Like Gretchen, I’m eager to check out the book.

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for this great review. Just bought the Nook version. Really looking forward to reading it.

  4. Pingback: Author Gossip: Who’s Doing What Now | Writing is My Drink

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