Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Author Interview: John Elder Robison, author of "Look Me in the Eye"

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

John Elder Robison
author of Look Me in the Eye

I have long been a fan of Augusten Burroughs and have read all of his books. I can vividly remember reading about his elder brother, John Elder Robison, and his struggles throughout life that eventually resulted in a diagnosis of Asperger's. I wanted to know more.

In Look Me in the Eye John Elder Robison offers another look at the childhood of he and his brother Augusten Burroughs. Robison details the birth of his brother, the beginning of his family's interactions with Doctor Finch and his family, who later came to be a major force in Augusten Burroughs' life and a significant part of his memoir Running with Scissors.

Robison has written a thoughtful book full of stories from his sometimes difficult childhood. He writes about the beginning of his mother's madness and the gradual increase of his father's alcoholic tendencies. One cannot help but feel for Robison, a big brother who loved his younger brother but yearned for freedom. Robison details his young adulthood and all of the chaos that ensued and his successful adulthood in which the skill he has learned have payed off.

Robison is intelligent, capable of almost anything he undertakes. The headline of his web page list him as an author, photographer, and machine aficionado but I honestly get the feeling that his is being modest. Perhaps more importantly, Robison is an excellent spokesman for his disorder. He has striven to give Asperger's a face and to educate the world about it. Robison is an attentive writer, focused and dedicated to the stories he tells and to representing Asperger's.

I would certainly recommend this book for the sometimes hillarious and other times devestation stories and for the courage that writing Look Me in the Eye took.

Kelly Hewitt: Augusten Burroughs, your brother, writes in the prologue about his suggesting that you write a book of your own. He said that it was a very short time before you returned to him with a chapter. What were your immediate thoughts when he brought up the idea? Had you already thought about writing a book?

John Elder Robison: I had been pondering the idea for a while, and when my father's death unlocked many childhood memories I just resolved to do it, and Look Me in the Eye is the result.

Some folks have expressed surprise that I could write it so smoothly and quickly, but to those people I'd point out that I had no bad habits to unlearn and no preconceived notion of what writing is like to hold me back. And if you read my brother's books, he always says he learned the craft of storytelling from me, so it should not surprise people that I can still tell stories at age 50.

In fact, I like to think I can do it better today - with my greater life experience - than I could when I was 21, back when my brother listened to my stories of the road.

Kelly: In Look Me in the Eye you write about Doctor Finch and his family and the fact that you and your father stopped visiting him many years before your mother or the events your brother writes about in Running with Scissors. Was there any hesitation to mention The Finch family, especially after all the trouble you brother has had in the last few years?

John: The doctor and his family played only a peripheral role in Look Me in the Eye, but they certainly deserve mention, and I did not hesitate to do so. After what's already been written about the Finches my treatment of them is - in my opinion - very mild but still true and fair in the context of my own story.

Kelly: You write about going to visit Dr. Finch's office and about having therapy sessions with your mother, father, and Dr. Finch. What was the relationship like early on between your parents and the doctor?

John: It started like the other shrink-family relationships I'd experienced but then after a few years it got weird. That was when my father and later I backed out. Remember, in the early days, he accomplished things for me that no one before ever could. Like getting my father to stop hitting me.

Kelly: Reading your book is in some ways like reading a prequel to your brother's works. You spent time with Hope, Dr. Finch, and Neil Bookman. How do you feel about your brother's later depiction of them?

John: Well, with respect to Bookman . . . he tried all the same diddling stuff on me and the first I knew of him and my brother was reading about it in RWS. That was pretty shocking to me.

Hope was always nice to me as I say in my story, but my brother had a lot more experience with her and some of his memories are obviously different.

With respect to the doctor . . . he started out as a brilliant psychiatrist, but the events in my brother's book really chronicle the doctor's own descent into madness, in my opinion.

Kelly: There are quite a few fun and light-hearted chapters in this book. But there are certainly darker stories of alcohol, mental illness, and abuse. Did those chapters take longer to write? Did you find writing them to be therapeutic?

John: I found the dark chapters troubling to write, and I did not reread them again. They did not take any longer to write. The process in general could be described as therapeutic but I think that would refer to the whole writing effort, not just to the writing of dark material.

Kelly: In the book you often discuss the kinds of differences you have noticed over the years between the feelings and thoughts of most people and those experienced by Aspergians. You write about adapting and learning to say what other might expect of you, expressing sympathy for the death of a stranger, for instance. Are there other situations where you have learned to adapt and therefore react in a manner that is not natural to you?

John: Many of the behaviors I display today, like looking people in the eye, are not natural or automatic. I had to learn them by a processes of concentration and hard work. I do them because they allow me to fit in better and they cause other people to feel more comfortable around me.

It's important to point out that my internal thoughts and my overall actions are not changed one bit as a result of subtle behavioral changes like looking people in the eye.

Kelly: Were you happy to have been largely left out of Running with Scissors? What was your initial reaction to the book?

I wasn't happy or sad. I was not there at the times my brother wrote about, and I had no place in those particular stories. My initial reaction was of sadness and then anger as I remembered how bad our childhood really was.

Then, when people started to read it, I got worried. Every time a friend said, "I'm gonna read your brother's book!" I thought, they'll never speak to me again when they read that!

But the reverse happened. The warm and supportive response of readers to RWS is really what gave me courage to tell my own story, which had been a shameful secret in my mind for so long.

Kelly: Look Me in the Eye hasn't even been officially released yet and it is already a best-seller, showing up in Amazon.com's Top 100. Does that shock you? How does it feel to have a successful book before it even releases?

John: Well, as soon as I started my blog moms began to write me, and then Aspergian people started to write. I realized that autistic spectrum conditions affect millions of people, and when you add the friends, families, teachers, and counselors . . . it's a story that could speak to a huge number of people. I had no idea of that when I wrote it.

However, that fact became apparent to me some months ago.

Then I did my first public appearance, with several other authors. The other writers were novelists who'd made up Aspergian figures, or moms who wrote about their kids. There was a dramatic difference in how that writing was received, as compared to mine. Especially among the autistic people in the crowd. That showed me there was a real hunger for stories from the horse's mouth, as it were, instead of someone watching the horse from outside the pasture.

As to how I feel . . . the whole process is just amazing. It's gone so smoothly, and so fast. . . so different from what I'd read about the process of producing a book. And everyone has been really wonderful. Crown put the best people in the business to work on my book, and then booksellers loved it, then critics, and now readers. So I just hope it stays like it is - remarkable and fresh and exciting.

Kelly: I think that you have done a great job discussing Asperger's and shedding light on a disorder that makes some things different for you but nothing impossible. What do you hope to accomplish by speaking out about Asperger's?

John: I hope to show the world at large that people aren't so different after all.

I hope to inspire young people who struggle to find their way and fit in.

I hope to show parents and people who work with Aspergians what it's like to be one.

I hope to increase the level of tolerance and understanding in the world by a little bit.


piglet said...

good interview! i have all of augusten's books too and was lucky enough to meet him in charlotte, nc last year. he came for a lecture/talk and signed his books afterwards.

i've always been interested in john by how augusten describes him. i am also very excited to read john's book. i pre-ordered it just in case the run out :)

Anonymous said...

I think it's great that you got to meet Burroughs, piglet. Like I said in the interview piece, I too had been interested in the story of John Elder Robison from the mentions of him in his brother's books.

You'll have to write me after you finish the book to let me know what you think.

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