Tinyletter 9: People?! What on earth do I know about people?


It’s funny how things wash up on the shore several weeks after the event. For my part, I never know what I feel about anything in the moment; it’s only afterwards – and sometimes a long time afterwards – the my feelings surface.

That means that my reactions are often all wrong in the here-and-now. Take, for example, my experience with the psychiatrist who began my diagnostic process. At the end of our interview, he said that he thought my experiences certainly seemed to indicate a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, but that one thing puzzled him: he couldn’t see how I could possibly write fiction if what I’d said was true. ‘You’re unlikely to have the social imagination to write convincing characters,’ he said.

I should have told him that I knew he was wrong. But I didn’t. Instead, I pretended that it had made me think, and said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ and scuttled off home as quickly as I could to put the whole experience on ice. It was only a couple of weeks later that it began to worm into my mind. The implication, I felt, was that I was either autistic or a writer; I couldn’t be both.

What was particularly disturbing about this information was that I was in the middle of writing a novel – a commercial fiction novel, based on a cast of female characters – for a major publisher. There I was, sitting down every day to add another 2,000 words to my manuscript, and apparently I was kidding myself. It was terrifying. Soon, apparently, the emperor’s clothes would fall off entirely, and I would be revealed for what I am: an empty shell, for whom the external world of emotions and motivations is a complete mystery.

One of the good things about me is that I’m incapable of missing a deadline. So I submitted the book, and braced myself for the feedback. It was unlikely to be any good. I would have to face the music sooner or later.

In the event, the feedback was great. There were, of course, a few adjustments to make, and some characters to flesh out a little more. My editor said that it made her cry, and not – I checked – in frustration. Still scared, I emailed her specifically to ask whether the characters seemed real enough, telling her what the psychiatrist had said. ‘I cannot put into words how wrong that guy was,’ she said.

Do you want to know why I can write convincing characters? A lifetime of commitment to studying them. I know I read people badly; I know I’m often confused by other people’s reactions and choices. That’s the whole reason I write: I watch, I make notes, and I funnel all that observation into characters that help me to make sense of the world around me. Can I pull off neurotypical characters? Hell yes. Those people have been my ‘special interest’ for as long as I can remember.

But look a little closer, and you’ll notice that all my characters are slightly at odds with the world. Maybe – and I don’t know the answer myself – some of them are a little bit like me. And I think that means that they’ll be a bit like most of my audience, too. I can no longer believe that I’m writing for an imaginary group of ‘normal’ people.

If you’d like to take a look for yourself, Part 1 is out on Kindle at the end of August, and you can pre-order it on Amazon.

Me? Plugging my book? It’s almost like I’m human after all…

See you soon

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