Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

John Elder Robison, author of "Look Me in the Eye"

I'm often asked how I came to write Look Me in the Eye. This is the story.

As my readers know, I've had an unusual life. It began with a crazy home environment, which I left behind at age sixteen when I joined a local band. Within a few years, I found myself on the road with the biggest tour of the decade -- KISS. Having reached the top of the world in music, I quit to work as an engineer in a toy company. But a few years later, I left that behind, too, when I quit electronics to repair cars in my driveway. And over the next decade I built that business into the largest independent Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Bentley specialty shop in New England. In the midst of that, I discovered photography, with my photos landing in galleries, museums, on record jackets and on billboards. And to top it all off, I began writing articles for car magazines.

With all those things going on, there wasn't much time for book writing. And what would I write about, anyway? I'd become a husband, a father, a businessman, a restorer of classic cars, a conservative figure in a small New England town. What could be more ordinary?

Sure, my earlier life was unusual, but to tell the truth, I was ashamed of it. Being a high school dropout, and doing all those weird things ... what would people think of me if they knew?

So I went on, restoring cars, leaving my past safely buried.

And then my brother wrote a book. He called it Running With Scissors.

Being a loyal brother, I put his book on the counter at Robison Service. Customers would come in and say, "What's that book doing there?" "It's by my brother," I answered. After a moment's hesitation, I continued with, "It's about our childhood."

I was proud of my brother, but I cringed every time someone bought his book. They'll never speak to me again, when they find out what we're really like, I thought. But the opposite happened. "I can't believe you've done so well after what you went through," people said. Far from being horrified, readers were inspired. I began to see that my story was not shameful at all. I started speaking to groups of troubled young people, at Brightside, and the jail, and in halfway houses.

With the success of my brother's book and people's response to our youth, my shame and fear of my past slipped away.

Meanwhile, my brother continued to write one bestseller after another. I'd go with him to book signings, and to our surprise, I remained the one constant topic of questions from the audience. "You should write your own story," he'd say, and I began to believe he was right.

Then my father got sick.

Somehow, I knew he was going to die. And I was angry, because I did not have a single happy memory of my childhood with him. I drove to the hospital, determined to confront him.

"Can you tell me about any fun times we had when I was little?" I was afraid to ask. What if the answer was, "No." What would I do then?

But it wasn't "no." He was full of memories, and as he talked, the memories began coming back to me, too. Flying a kite at Valley Forge Park. Seeing the Old Faithful geyser. Camping among the redwood forest. Seeing the glaciers, and playing in the snow. I remembered it all.

After my father died, I wrote an essay. I showed it to my brother, and he put it on his web site. It's still there, at www.augusten.com (see "special projects" then "essay by my brother"). To our surprise, it became the most downloaded content on the site. Book editors and reporters began calling his agent. I resolved to write a book, and I knew -- from the questions at my brother's appearances -- that it had to talk about Asperger's and how it's affected me.

"How will I do that?" I asked my brother. "I'm not a shrink. What do I know?"

"It's easy," he said. "Just write your bizarre stories like you told them to me when I was small. Everyone will see what's wrong with you. It will be obvious." And that's what I did.

The result astounded me. The biggest publishers in the world wanted to produce my book, and when I chose the Crown imprint of Random House, they put the best people in the business on my project. The book was acclaimed by advance reviewers, and it became an instant NY Times bestseller. A few days later, it went on sale in Australia, and it was an instant hit there, too. Two months after my debut, Look Me in the Eye has been reprinted eight times on two continents, with 150,000 copies in print.

Today, my book is on display in the Random House lobby. It's any writer's dream come true. There it is, next to the fall bestsellers from Bill Clinton, Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, Jonathan Kellerman, Ann Coulter, Barack Obama, Alan Alda, and Cesar Millan.

The response to my book is just amazing. I thought I'd written a book that showed how different Aspergians are. But thousands of letters from readers told the opposite story. They said Look Me in the Eye shows how, deep down, people are all the same. However people see it, I'm proud to have written my story, and I'm hard at work on the sequel.

And that is the story behind the story.

Learn more about John Elder Robison's work by visiting his website.


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Comments from our users:

Friday December 28th 2007, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Guillermo H.
Inspiring of course! Will print and study article with my highschool students who still enjoy KISS.
Perhaps no life is a waste...
Sunday February 3rd 2008, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Michele W.
What a much needed awareness piece! I am glad you used your experiences to help others. When someone has 'been there, done that' as you have, credibility comes along with the experience.

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