Writers Talk About Writing
After reading author John Elder Robison's inspiring Backstory about his memoir Look Me in the Eye, we wanted to learn more about what makes this particular writer tick. How did he go from touring with KISS to repairing luxury cars to writing his acclaimed book about living with Asperger's syndrome? So we called him and had a fascinating conversation about writing, storytelling, and touching readers' lives though a memoir:
VT: It sounds like you're a self-taught writer.
John: I'm an entirely self-taught person. I never took any kind of writing course beyond 10th grade English, which I failed. Actually, I failed the entirety of 10th grade, not just English. But I did grow up in a family of college professors in a college town, so I was certainly raised in an educated environment. I struggled as a misfit when I was young. Other kids didn't like me and wouldn't play with me. I learned that if I could play pranks on my teachers at school, kids would laugh and accept me. So I became the class clown, and felt good about that because I was being accepted. From there, I learned that if I told people stories and made them laugh, they'd like me. Which is, I would say, what started me as a storyteller.
VT: How did you go from telling these stories to actually putting them down on paper?
John: I don't know if I can answer that. When I was talking to publishers about "Look Me in the Eye," one of the things they said to me was, "your book reads just the way you sound." I thought that almost any book would read the way the author sounds. But as one publisher replied, "No, that's not the case at all, it's very rare." I asked, why? Don't you simply take a good story and transcribe it into words? I actually didn't know that's not how it works at the time I sold my book, which I had already written. When I recorded the audio version, I realized that I had written words that felt to me like I would have said them, but there were many, many subtle changes when I read the words in my audio book. That surprised me. It's that subtlety that makes it a real reflection of the author -- or not, I suppose.
VT: Can you give us an example of that sense of subtlety?
John: For example, this crops up when you're reciting a conversation. I could tell you, "Well, I opened the door and I shot the snake six times. And then I called the front desk and I told the manager that I'd shot this snake and he needed to send someone to clean it up." And the guy was apoplectic and he said this and this and this. That's how I would recount this story to you in person. If you read the story in the book, though, this particular passage is written as dialogue, like a movie script. I don't talk to you like that in real life. But when you read it in the book and you've heard me tell the story, you say, yeah, that's just like John told me when I heard him speak. In fact, it isn't like that. When I told it to you in person, I used a whole different organization. My paragraphs were different. My sentence structure was different. I didn't say, "he said," "she said" in the same places. Even though, in essence, the story is the same and many of the words are the same, that subtlety and arrangement sets apart the spoken story from the written story.
VT: What is it that you think that drew readers to your memoir?
John: One of the principal threads in, "Look Me in the Eye," is how I grew up with Asperger's, which is a mild form of autism. When my brother wrote Running with Scissors, he talked about my life in his book. To my brother's and my great surprise, with all of the strange topics he's written about, I have always been the single biggest source of questions from the audience at his appearances.
When my father died, I wrote a story of his last months. I showed it to my brother and he posted it on his website, Augusten.com. You can read it there today, if you click on "other projects" on the right side and then click "essay by my brother," it's still there. To our surprise, that became the most downloaded thing on the site. People began asking, "Where's the rest of the book?" So I resolved that I was going to try and write a book about growing up with Asperger's. But the thing was, I'm not any kind of medical professional. I'm a high school dropout that went out on his own. I said to my brother, "How will I write a book about Asperger's, I don't know anything about it?" And he answered, "You don't have to know anything about it, just write your crazy stories that you told to me when I was little and everyone will see what's wrong with you." And that is, in essence, what has happened.
When people read, "Look Me in the Eye," they read what I thought when I did certain things. They read, for example, what my thinking was when I shot this snake in my hotel or when I was playing by myself in the sandbox as a five-year-old. And as it turns out, those illustrations of my thinking made Asperger's real and alive for people in a way than more clinical and factual books have not.
Now when I do speaking engagements, I meet thousands of people whose lives have been touched by differences like Asperger's. These people see my book as a celebration of diversity. For so long, people perceived a condition like Asperger's as having only debilitating characteristics. If you had Asperger's, you were handicapped, and you certainly didn't brag about it to your neighbors.
Now, all of a sudden, I wrote this book and said, "I'm proud to be an Aspergian." And I told the world about gifts Asperger's brought me, like the ability to visualize electronic circuits, for example. I talked about how I used those Aspergian gifts to go to the top of the world in music and in game design and in automobiles. That's an inspiring thing for anyone who feels they're a misfit or they're different. I would wager that a large percentage of authors or aspiring authors in the United States find themselves in that group, too. We're all misfits. The more creative we are, the more likely that is to be true.
VT: So your memoir about Asperger's is a touchstone for a more universal human story.
John: It's really much more than just an entertaining book to so many people. If you read my blog and some of the commentary, you see that people are really very moved by the story. What's really great is that they take what they get out of the story and they apply it to their own lives, or their boyfriend's, their wife's, or their children. It's a story that leads people to take action in their own lives.
VT: What advice can you offer to our readers working on their own memoirs?
John: I think that if you want to write a memoir, you've got to consider what element of your story speaks to a larger world. For many people, the answer would be, what is it about me -- me being you, the writer -- that is different? The number of writers who have done something that is truly one-of-a-kind in the world is relatively small. We only have a few people who won the Olympic marathon or became President of General Electric or President of the United States. However, there is a never ending market for stories that celebrate the human condition through the exceptional actions of otherwise ordinary people. Of course, there are also plenty of best-selling books that are terrible tales of misery, horror, depression and depravity. And here's a market for that, too. I, myself, want to write things that are happy and make people feel good. I think that what people get out of my story is a connection to themselves, not so much the things I did. If you want to write a story that speaks to a lot of people, think of what it is in your life that will cause a reader to sit up and say, "Hey, that's me!" Because when people say, "That's me," they're engaged in your story and you've succeeded.
VT: Speaking about this greater truth, what surprised you the most about the reaction to your book?
John: When I started doing appearances, people would start crying telling me how they felt about my book or how it touched their lives. I was shocked at deep emotional reactions my book elicited; the way my story moved people. I was, myself, very moved to see that. I had no idea that I had the ability to reach people in that way.
You see, I had no previous experience writing books. I wrote a story about my father and people said, "Where's the book?" And I was off to write the book, which I showed to my brother's literary agent in the summer of 2006. When he looked at what I wrote, he said, "You have a series of well-crafted stories laid end-to-end, but a series of stories isn't a memoir. You need a thread to tie it together." I listened to what he said, and became kind of depressed because I thought that I had worked quite hard on the book for naught. But as I went through my stories that summer, I was able to see what was missing. I was able to visualize sort of the arc of my experience with Asperger's and I saw how this thread had to be woven in -- and I did it. By Thanksgiving, I had become depressed again, though, because I thought, oh no, I've invested 10 months in writing this thing and nobody's going to read it, nothing's going to happen. I resolved that I would show it to the agent again, even though I felt like he was just going to tell me it needs to have some other thing written into it.
VT: What happened?
John: I showed it to him and he said, "I can't believe that you have totally changed this book into what you have now." He said he had never before encountered a writer who could take his suggestions and implement them in that dramatic and quick a fashion. I thought well, it wasn't that quick to me -- it took me a couple months to accomplish. But I guess that was quick for a book. He said he would show it to publishers. And to my great amazement, all these big houses wanted to publish my book. So I went to New York and I interviewed them all, and selected Crown.
Many authors don't ever get that chance to interview prospective publishers or don't ever ask for it. I say to aspiring writers, though, if you have a chance as an author to actually talk to publishers beforehand, pick somebody who loves your story the best, not necessarily the person who is going to pay you the biggest advance. Because if your book is the success that everyone wants it to be, it's going to live on well beyond the advance. And the thing that will make it live on is the craftsmanship that your editor brings to the project. I think that my editor Rachel Klayman and I achieved a really wonderful result working together. This is something I urge any writer who seeks to publish a memoir to pay attention to.
[Check out John's blog at jerobison.blogspot.com -- Ed]