Last year, I wrote a rhapsodic review in the New York Times Book Review of the first novel in a new children’s book series by Caroline Lawrence, author of the best-selling Roman Mysteries series. Here’s my NYT review of THE TALE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS:
The second book in the Western Mysteries series, P. K. PINKERTON AND THE PETRIFIED MAN, has just been published in the US, and my boys and I love it as much as the first one. Caroline and I recently connected via Twitter, she read my memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child, and we decided to do a mutual interview about autism and our respective books.
PRISCILLA INTERVIEWS CAROLINE
PG: What inspired you to create a children’s book series with an autistic protagonist?
CL: Even as a child I felt slightly apart from other children. It helped me to think of myself as an “observer”, watching people’s behavior. For this reason I was – and am – passionate about stories, because they help me figure out the world. When I started teaching art and Latin at my son’s primary school, I became obsessed with the mechanics of learning, especially memory techniques involving the left vs. right brain. Later, I tutored a brilliant but non-verbal autistic boy for a few months. I became captivated by the idea that he might have an incredibly rich interior world.
I love detective stories. I also love misfits (like me) who are skilled in one way but handicapped in another. So I thought I would give my young Western detective aspects of Asperger’s.
PG: What do you hope the series can accomplish as far as educating people about autism?
CL: I don’t really expect to educate people about autism as much as give hope to kids who think of themselves as “misfits”. They didn’t have the words “autism” or “Asperger’s” in the 1860s, when my books are set, and this is good, because I don’t necessarily want to saddle Pinky with a label.
PG: What kind of research did you do in order to develop the character of Pinky? Did you read books, speak to autistic people, therapists, etc?
CL: I’ve been reading books by Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin for over two decades, so apart from a few new books like Born on a Blue Day and films like Adam (2009) and The Horse Boy (2009), I didn’t do much new research. Essentially, I just took my own foibles and “turned up the volume to eleven”. Then I added a few savant characteristics like skill in mathematics and a photographic memory. My hero also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress, prosopagnosia and gender confusion. So the mix is quite complicated. Essentially, P.K. “Pinky” Pinkerton is a misfit who learns he has a very necessary place in the world. But he has to figure out where it is, and with whom!
PG: What were some of the literary and cinematic influences on the Western Mysteries?
After Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes and the historical novels of Mary Renault, my main literary influence on these books is Charles Portis’ masterpiece True Grit. I also adore Western movies like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Eagle’s Wing (1979), The Tin Star (1957) and Little Big Man (1970). Another motive for me writing in this period was to explore the sublime tragedy that was the American Civil War.
PG: What do you make of my 10 year old action-loving son James’ review of your books? (He spontaneously dictated to me tonight.)
The Western Mysteries featuring P.K. Pinkerton is a funny, exciting, and enjoyable series. PK Pinkerton is a boy detective who has what we would today call autism. Because of that, he has strengths in some categories and weaknesses in others. Some of his weaknesses are: he’s not very good at reading people, he’s not very good at detecting whether people are lying, and he’s not good at lying himself. But his strengths are: he has a very watchful eye, he pays attention to the details, he has an excellent memory, and he is able to determine from a large list of suspects which one is the actual criminal.
I highly recommend the series because the books teach you about reading people, detective skills, autism, and the Wild West. Finally, the books are valuable to me because my brother, Benji, is autistic like Pinky, and like Pinky he doesn’t like surprises or being touched but he has a great memory and a good eye for detail. I understand my brother better and appreciate his strengths more after reading these books.
James P., Age 10
CL: I love it! I am especially thrilled that my books help James understand his brother Benj a little better.
CAROLINE INTERVIEWS PRISCILLA
CL: How do you hope your book The Anti-Romantic Child helps readers understand and care for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
PG: I hope that my book will help readers appreciate both the marvelous strengths of the autistic mind and the profound individuality of children on the autism spectrum. I hope that my portrait of ardent, imaginative, tender little Benj explodes some of the more damaging stereotypes about autistic children: that they are not interested in relationships, that they are incapable of connection and love, that they lack empathy, that they are not creative. Finally, I hope that the book encourages its readers to approach children with respect for their uniqueness and with a sense of wonder.
CL: I was so moved to read that you and Benj sing duets almost every evening. It’s a beautiful example of how people with autism can connect and collaborate with others, albeit not always in the most obvious ways. Has this habit changed as he’s grown older?
PG: Sadly now that Benj is in 8th grade and has loads of homework and music practicing to do, we don’t have as much time for our musical excursions on school nights. We do try to sing together every night during the holiday season (Benj has a special affinity for Christmas carols), and on weekend afternoons and evenings. And now that I’m married to a music teacher/guitarist/songwriter, we will often have family sing-alongs!
CL: You tell how your first born son, Benj, took you out of the dry world of academia and into the equally demanding but much more satisfying “real world” of parenthood. Do you miss any aspect of academia?
PG: I miss classroom teaching very much indeed. I always considered myself primarily a teacher, and a scholar or writer second. After leaving academia in 2006, working as a literary agent for five years, and then publishing my own book, I now teach in a more free-lance way, offering seminars on poetry to high school students and non-profits throughout the state of New York via a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities, teaching a class on Growing and Aging to Mt Sinai medical students, working 1:1 with adult learners interested in reading books they never got around to as students, and even teaching poems and novels to groups for parties and gatherings. But I would love to have a regular classroom teaching gig too.
CL: Your book is permeated with the poetry and presence of William Wordsworth. How did your view of this poet change after the birth of your sons?
PG: I think a bit from THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD best summarizes this:
Measuring the space or distance between Wordsworth’s radiant visions of childhood and the reality of my experience with Benjamin initially heightened my “sense of wrong” and my feelings of betrayal and disillusionment . . .But while on the one hand, I felt the loss of what I’d dreamed and hoped for more strongly because of Wordsworth, on the other, I found in Wordsworth a language with which to express both the depth and breadth of my loss and the possibility of its recompense. Wordsworth gave me the thought and the words for the lump in my throat . . . So while my heartbreak may have been greater because of my attachment to the “splendor in the grass,” the romantic dream, my consolation was also stronger because I had Wordsworth to help me recognize and celebrate “what remained behind.”
CL: We often think of Wordsworth as a poet of the “romantic child” (blessed infants and carefree children full of imaginative play) but you show that he occasionally depicts a child with strange obsessions who sees the world in a unique way: an “anti-romantic child”! Can you give us an example from his poetry?
PG: In poem after poem, Wordsworth presents children like Benj: odd children, with strange obsessions, who frustrate adult expectations, who see the world in a unique and uncanny way, who exist in many ways at odds with their culture, who are unusual, vulnerable, and solitary, and who long to escape from the confines of conventional society. I’d point especially to “We Are Seven,” “The Idiot Boy,” the Lucy poems, and passages from Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem, The Prelude. Wordsworth’s poetry argues passionately for the worth and value of society’s forgotten, excluded, or less powerful ones, eccentrics and outcasts, beggars, radicals, old people, butterflies, and children.
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I have two copies of Caroline’s latest, PK PINKERTON AND THE PETRIFIED MAN, to give away! Comment on this interview to be entered into a random drawing; winners will be selected and announced on Friday June 7th!