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Thanks to all who made this year’s conference a success!

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Deborah will be a panelist on the historical fiction panel. The interview was conducted by Wendy Vowell.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

When I was a kid, definitely. It just felt like a natural extension of reading.

What’s your writing process like?

Fairly structured. I get up, head to a coffee shop, and do my best to write for five hours (five pages when I’m drafting, whatever comes first). Research is a favorite part of the process for me and can over-absorb me, so I’m finding I have to schedule it. Sometimes I set my alarm.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

A big question! I can only answer it one book at a time, and each has a different trajectory, a different destination.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

I think it was Jane Yolen who prescribed somewhere, “butt in chair.” A variation on “you can’t ‘find’ time to write; you have to make it and then guard it.”

What are you working on now?

A book of linked short stories about P.T. Barnum (or some of the people whose lives he touched) for a YA/crossover audience.

You’ll be a part of the Historical Fiction panel this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

I think one focus will be the way I try to reach back with all five senses . . . and some strategies for doing that.

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We can accept pre-registrations for Saturday’s conference up to and including Friday, Nov. 17. However, you will need to pay with Paypal if you register in the last couple of days before the conference since there will not be time to receive checks.

We will also welcome walk-ins on the day of the conference, though we can only accept payment by check or cash at that time. There will be a $10 surcharge for walk-in registrations.

We are expecting a wonderful day that will recharge everyone’s writing energies! See you there!

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John Robison will be participating in the Memoir panel. He was interviewed by Kate Hartford, who has edited the interview for length. For more about his book SWITCHED ON: A MEMOIR OF BRAIN CHANGE AND EMOTIONAL AWAKENING, see excerpts from NPR’s Fresh Air interview of John and Alvaro Pascual-Leone by Terry Gross on the research in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that formed the basis for the book.

 

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

I don’t think that I would say that the writing bug bit me. I have always communicated my ideas through written words. As an autistic person, I have often been disabled in my ability to engage people face to face because of my limitations [in] reading body language [or] expressions and my unexpected responses to other people’s language. But in the area of written communications, having practiced it for a long time, my ability is the opposite of disabled. It’s far better than the average person’s. For me, communicating in written form is simply maximizing what you’re good at, and minimizing your disabilities, not a bug at all.

When I was in my thirties, I began to feel like I should try and give something back for younger people who were coming along, like me, who had had bad childhoods. At first, I started talking to young people about growing up in bad circumstances. Then when I learned that I was autistic, which was when I was forty years old, for the first time in my life I had a nonjudgmental explanation for why I was this way. I realized there were millions of other young people just like me. And I began talking about that. So that generated such a tremendous response, that I thought well there must be people that would be benefiting from this message all over, not just in Western Massachusetts. My brother [Augusten Burroughs] had written a story about our lives, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, that had turned out to be a fairly big hit, and I would go to events when my brother was around here, and a great many of the questions were people asking what about the autistic brother – who was, of course, me. I decided that I should write my story in book form, rather than just telling the people in local elementary schools and such. LOOK ME IN THE EYE was the first effort I ever made to write a book. That’s what it sprang from, it was just a realization that there were a great many people who would be likely to benefit from the story about an autistic person who grew up and did okay because so many of the books about autism are frankly really bleak and clinical and depressing. And I thought that an autistic person should be able to tell a better story than that.

LOOK ME IN THE EYE was really meant as an entertaining life story that illustrated the life of an autistic person, but people very quickly took it to be a book about autism, to be like a guide about autism, not a memoir – and it really was never that. And that’s what prompted me to write BE DIFFERENT, which is a guide for autism. I never tried to write books before doing those, so that was something I came to late in life, but I had been practicing writing in the context of my cars and such for quite a long time before that.

What’s your writing process like?

I just write things when they need to be written. There’s a constant demand on me to write things. Today I’m writing accounts of the automotive projects that are in our shop. I have an idea that I should write an article about how they might change ADA therapy for autism, because I saw that that was a very contentious topic at the federal autism meeting last week, and people have been commenting on it still on Twitter and such to me. So, I see things that need writing, whether for work or for autism advocacy or whatever, and I write them.

That’s not all I’m engaged in. I’m engaged in photographic art and discussions of photography, and in history and genealogy and other things, and [on] those things, I do communicate with all those people through writing. I also communicate with photographic imagery, but most of the communication is in written words.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Well, I started out trying to be successful creating things that would be useful to people, whether those were musical instruments, or restored or repaired cars, or pictures put on billboards or walls, or books that people would read and take some benefit from. I wrote things that were viewed as doing those things successfully.

I view [my books or my writing] as having a purpose; they’re not really just to be entertaining. I thought LOOK ME IN THE EYE would be an entertaining story of my life, but specifically to people who were affected by autism. I felt that those people were likely in need of an entertaining story because the stories they had before were very bleak and depressing, and I thought somebody should paint a different picture of life for autism. And that was a very definite purpose; it wasn’t just for fun.

I’m not really an artist with these written words; I’m much more of a tradesman. I think that you have people at these writing conferences, those people [who] are aware of subtleties and language and turns of phrase, and so forth. I don’t really have a sense of that, I just think that you have to be able to explain things in a language that people understand. That means that you have to be adept at using common words. Because sometimes I am in government meetings (you know I’m on the autism committee in Washington) and I listen to scientists and government bureaucrats using these complex terms, and I think to myself: I’m an educated person, and I don’t understand what they’re saying. And I’m supposed to be a specialist in this. What is the average person on the street going to make of it? I think they’re going to make of it that it’s gobbledygook.

You have to be able to explain any issue that you want to communicate about in a language that will be understandable for 6th graders – if you haven’t done that, I think that you’ve failed in your job as a communicator. A lot of college faculty, a lot of educated people lose sight of that basic truth, that when you use words that people don’t understand, or you use them in ways that people don’t expect, they are not impressed with your language skills; they think you’re a fool, or they just turn away from you. I’ve always had that in mind in communicating, and I think for that reason my stories are simple and direct and easy to understand. Because I’m autistic, there’s not perhaps a lot of subterfuge or fine art in them. I think that some people appreciate that. Other people probably think it’s simplistic and stupid, and that’s okay. But I think that’s the essence of communicating stuff successfully, more than the art of it. It’s got to be told in a straightforward way that anyone understands.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not really sure what to say to that. My mother [also a writer] and my brother would both say to me: show things with illustrations in writing, not just tell them. So I learned to describe things in scenes, as opposed to just stating the facts. I think that that contributes to storytelling as opposed to logical recital of facts. And it makes it more interesting.

You might be asking if there’s some kind of one-line bit of wisdom that people could take away. And I just don’t know that there is.

I don’t really think of myself as a writer. I think being a writer is an ability I have that I have to have to practice my trades: I’m a restorer of cars, and an artist with photography, and I’m an advocate for autistic people and people with developmental differences, and I’m successful at doing those things to a significant degree because I can communicate the written words about what I believe in.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story about autism in the southwest Pacific, and whether the original navigators who colonized Tahiti, Hawaii, and the other islands were enabled by being autistic, and therefore autism was a key human ability in the colonization of the southwest Pacific. So Hawaiians and Tahitians today owe their ancestry on those islands to the ancestors of the autistic kids that we now see.

And I’m working on a story about autism and life in the 17th century in the establishment of British North America.

I’m working with a screenwriter at Focus Films on a film adaptation of the SWITCHED ON book.

I always have things that I’m writing; I write some thousands of words of stuff of all kinds every week. I don’t at this moment have another book in mind, but my agent and publisher think I’m certainly capable of writing more books. I guess that’s probably true.

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Michele Barker, who publishes under the name M. P. Barker, will participate in the historical fiction panel. She was interviewed by Wendy Vowell.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

When I was a kid, I wrote stories to entertain myself and my siblings. I loved to read, and it seemed very romantic to write novels and get them published. Then I put aside fiction writing for many, many years, thinking how unlikely it was that I’d ever get published. (Besides, I was very good at beginning stories, but not at ending them!) But all of my jobs since college have required some sort of non-fiction writing, so I kept on writing—not always exciting stuff, but it was still writing.

I didn’t return to writing fiction until I was in my thirties, when I was working as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. That job allowed lots of time for musing in between talking to visitors and working on projects, so I began to get story ideas and write them down. This time, I wasn’t thinking so much about getting published as just writing as a hobby. I took some classes and joined a writing group just for the fun of it. Then a combination of the social history I’d learned at Sturbridge Village and an 18th-century document I discovered while working in the Springfield History Museum archives inspired my historical novel A DIFFICULT BOY. With lots of encouragement from friends and family, I turned my unwieldy (and very scary!) 700-page manuscript into a manageable—and eventually publishable—novel.

What’s your writing process like?

It’s pretty random. I’ve been in various free-writing groups that used Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers & Artists technique. I often use the free-writing exercises to play with characters and situations—that’s how my first novel evolved. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. I don’t really know where a story is going (or even if there’s a story at all!) until I have several dozen pages stacked up. I don’t write in a linear way, but tend to hop around a lot from one part of a story to another as I go. My characters tend to lead me, rather than the other way around, so I have to follow them for quite a bit before I know what they’re going to do!

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Good question! I think mostly I’m just trying to figure out who my characters are and how their stories end. I don’t sit down at the beginning of a story with a plan to explore a theme or teach a lesson—I just kind of throw things against the wall and see what sticks.

As a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy exploring the lives of ordinary people in daily life situations, rather than major historical figures and events. I like learning about both the differences and similarities between past and present and sharing what I find, so that the past doesn’t feel like such a foreign and distant place to readers. I hope readers will come away from my books feeling they’ve lived in and can better understand the era they’ve visited in the story.

I hope readers will be able to identify with my characters while seeing that those characters aren’t just modern people wearing funny clothes and living without indoor plumbing. While my character’s thoughts and beliefs might be very different from ours, they grapple with many of the same problems and cherish many of the same things that we do today.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Persistence pays off—sometimes even more than talent!–whether it comes to research, writing, revising, or getting published.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a historical novel that involves a sea captain’s wife and daughter during the 1840s and 1850s, after the captain is lost at sea. In the wife and daughter’s journey to self-sufficiency, they blossom as artists and question their roles as women in Victorian society.

You’ll be a part of the historical fiction panel this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

I’m intrigued by the idea of “alternative truth”—not in the sense that there are conflicting “truths,” but in the sense that there are a lot of levels or facets to the truth that we rarely get to see. For me, exploring alternative truths is a good way to describe the sort of stories I write. When studying history, we may forget or ignore the stories of ordinary people, whose experience can be quite different from that of the famous people who star in our history books. Those ordinary, daily-life stories—those “truths”—deserve to be told and can show us how “big-picture” historical events affected folks who were much like us, and can make it easier for us to picture what our own life might have been like in the past.

Also, the idea of “alternative truth” kind of captures the way we sometimes think history is fixed and unchanging, but in reality what we know (or think we know) about the past constantly changes as new research unearths new information. Think, for example, about the way King Richard III has been reassessed, thanks to the efforts of persistent researchers and also of historical novels like Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME and Sharon Kay Penman’s THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR. So many of the things we once thought were “truths” about the past have been supplanted—and will continue to be–by newer, (hopefully!) more accurate truths

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If you register now there is still time to arrange a meeting with a literary agent or with the representative from Levellers Press. But don’t delay!

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Richard will be a panelist on the memoir panel. He has provided the following text of this exchange with a long-ago student of his; the questions and responses pertain to his first memoir, HALF THE HOUSE. Additionally, Richard was interviewed by Amy Grier about both HALF THE HOUSE and his later memoir, LOVE & FURY, for Solstice Literary Magazine.

Where did the impetus come from for you to write your memoir? What motivated you?

For me, it was, or at least it seemed to me to be, a do or die call to understand the roots of my own profound unhappiness. All I had ever wanted was to write, and now I knew what it was for: to help me re-member what had been dismembered by trauma and grief and miseducation and silence. I am not afraid of the word “therapeutic” and do not see it as a slur: telling stories has always been the way human beings make meaning. It took me 17 years to write HALF THE HOUSE, mainly because I wanted to turn painful experience into art, not just ink, but also because any first person account honestly told requires the piecing together of what shards you discover. It is an excavation and must be done delicately.

While you were writing, did you worry about others’ feelings?

Yes, yes, of course. That comes with the territory. But a writer cannot owe silence to anyone. You use your best judgment, try to treat people honestly and with empathy, and the rest is the demand to get at the truth of how things were, how they worked, the interplay of character, culture, and history as it shaped your own life.

How did you maintain your courage as you progressed?

I had two other writers with whom I shared drafts. Mostly they were to assure me I wasn’t being merely narcissistic, or insane to think that this would be of interest to anyone but me.

What did you do to nurture yourself through the pain of writing?

I quit boozing and went into intensive therapy.

When you finished, did you feel different?

I felt very proud of it, frankly. It had been a long hard labor.

How did you feel about publishing your story?

I wrote it to publish it. I think writers, storytellers, poets, etc. are an organic vocation found in every culture, like healers and teachers and hunters and farmers. A teller without an audience is one hand clapping.

How did you feel after your work was published?

Exhilarated. Reviews were good. And the people in my family who I cared about were all proud of the book. Even if they didn’t always come off as saintly in it.

Did you feel it was worth it?

I didn’t have a choice except to give up. As I said all I ever wanted to do was write. I couldn’t write much of anything else until this book was in the world.

And then, of course, there is the book’s history. As you no doubt know, it became a notorious book because it resulted in the arrest of a serial predator in my hometown.

And any other thoughts regarding what you went through and how you kept going?

I’d refer you to the two essays that stand as Afterwords to the New Rivers Press edition.

And also to my essay “Backtalk”.

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