In February, authors Corinne Duyvis and s.e. smith reviewed Viral Nation, a YA dystopian by Shaunta Grimes. We invited everyone back to the blog to discuss Viral Nation, its sequel Rebel Nation–which released last week!–and the series’ autistic main character, Clover Donovan. (Note that this interview contains some spoilers for the first book.)
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away shiny copies of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation! Details at the end of the post.
Shaunta: At its core, the Viral Nation series is about a bunch of kids who accidentally find the cracks in their Utopian post-post apocalyptic society, and end up starting a second American Revolution. This is basically a story about kids who are forced to deal with the bad choices made by generations of adults. I wrote the bulk of Viral Nation in 2008, when the American economy was collapsing and the news was full of stories of war, global warming, and fear of epidemic flus. I started to read about sustainable living and how to get through worst case scenarios. Viral Nation was basically born out of my overactive imagination wondering what would happen if even one of the things happening at that time actually did meet that worst case scenario ending.
Lots of dystopian books focus on the time right after an apocalypse, and I’ve noticed that in most of them people turn against each other. When I really thought about it, I realized I didn’t think that’s what would happen if something globally devastating took place. I think that people would ban together. There wouldn’t be a shortage of resources, at least not right away, and people would be terrified—the fight and the flight would be scared out of them. At least, that was my hypothesis. I also really believe that in a case like that, someone would find a way to monetize the situation or use it to leverage themselves into a position of power.
s.e.: You’ve mentioned on Twitter that my and Corinne’s discussion of Viral Nation helped you with book two, Rebel Nation. Can you share a little bit about how it affected the sequel?
Shaunta: I remember seeing you Tweet something about the back copy of Viral Nation calling Clover brilliant, but autistic. I didn’t write the back cover copy, and those aren’t the words that I’d use, but when I saw that called out I thought about how important it was for me, going forward, to make sure I didn’t write Clover as brilliant, but autistic.
I wrote Viral Nation, at least in part, because I wanted my son (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) to have a story with a character like him in it where that character had adventures and did really cool things, without the story itself being about autism. I didn’t want Viral Nation to be an autism issue book. I wanted to write an adventure story with a character who had autism.
I was inspired, by your conversation with Corinne about Viral Nation, to include characters in Rebel Nation who have more severe forms of autism than Clover does. That will carry through more strongly in the third book in the series, but the foundation was set in Rebel Nation. I was also inspired to think about the trope of the magic disabled person. I hadn’t considered the idea that only autistic people being able to travel through the time portal as fitting into that trope. Thinking about that let me really deepen the idea behind the time travel in my series. It doesn’t come out much in Rebel Nation, but it will in the third book.
I also was much more conscious, when I was writing Rebel Nation, about how Clover manages physical touch. I tried hard not to fall into every touch but Jude’s making her uncomfortable.
s.e.: Since Viral Nation has a strong science fiction aspect, what are your thoughts on the erasure of disability from science fiction and the absence of disability in all but dystopian visions of ‘the future’?
Shaunta: When I was writing Viral Nation, I thought a lot about demographics. If almost everyone was gone from a non-discriminating global catastrophe, who would be left? I thought about how statisticians can extrapolate a slice of society into a pretty good approximation of the whole, and realized it would kind of work backwards from that. That slice would be all that was left.
Since my book is set in Reno, and the people who live in Reno are the people left alive in the state of Nevada, I looked at the demographics for the state and tried to make the people in the book representative of the people I thought would be left after the Virus. That included people on the autism spectrum.
I love science fiction, but I don’t want to live in a world devoid of diversity. In my family we make a pretty big deal out of celebrating difference. One of the reasons I wrote Viral Nation was because I wanted to write a story where my son could find someone like him. I really believe that being able to find yourself in popular culture is important.
This question makes me think of the whole ‘debate’ about vaccinations and how there are still people who believe that vaccines cause autism. Here’s the thing: even if they did (and they so do not), the suggestion that it would be better to die of whooping cough or wind up in an iron lung thanks to polio than to be on the autism spectrum is, in itself, kind of a terrifying dystopian idea to me.
s.e.: I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy in the disability community over Autism Speaks and who is allowed to speak for disabled people, along with the saying ‘nothing about us, without us.’ How do you, as the parent of an autistic child and author working to increase diversity in children’s literature, feel like you fit into this paradigm?
Shaunta: As the parent of a child who has autism, one line I’ve had to walk for a long time is the line between advocating for my son and just taking over for him. Making sure that he’s been involved in decisions regarding his education, for example, rather than just going in and taking charge. That meant, in our family, sometimes homeschooling Nick when that was what he felt was best for him.
Interestingly, that mindset has spilled over to the way I parent my non-autistic children. Specifically, being Nick’s mom has taught me that traditional schooling isn’t always the best choice. It’s never been mandatory in our family. Nick’s sister, Adrienne, was homeschooled for eighth grade when she needed a break from the classroom. My youngest daughter, Ruby, has always chosen regular school, but I think the idea that in our family school is not mandatory has not only helped Nick get the best, least stressful education possible—it’s done the same for his sisters.
Part of my job, though, as Nick’s mom, has been advocacy. I feel like it’s been really important to not only be a voice for Nick, but to help make sure that his own voice is heard. That’s meant standing by his decisions about his education and, now, his place in the workforce, even when they aren’t the decisions I would make. And, I think, that in many ways writing Viral Nation, and especially Clover, has been a way to reach out to other people in the spirit of advocacy and in support of self-determination.
Corinne: Writing disabled characters requires awareness and thought. Rather than letting authors use that as an excuse to not write disabled characters at all, we want to acknowledge the potential complications and show ways to navigate these. Can you perhaps share an example of where you had to re-think a scene to account for Clover’s autism, or where you unthinkingly used certain tropes?
Shaunta: The one trope I definitely used without realizing that I was doing it was the idea of disabilities as magical. I wanted autism to be the portal to adventure in Viral Nation, and I can see now how that fell into a trope that I wouldn’t have consciously used.
I’ll be honest. Writing diversity is kind of scary. It’s particularly scary when the author is not a very diverse person herself. Obviously, I can write about women with some authority. I’ve lived in deep poverty, so that’s something that came up in the Viral Nation series, and that is a focus of my next non-Viral Nation project. But, basically I’m white, straight, healthy physically and mentally, non-disabled, from a Christian background, educated, middle class—I have a lot of privilege and there is not very much about my personal life that is particularly diverse. Just about any diversity I put into my books comes from research, rather than personal experience, and it’s scary to think about all the ways I can get it wrong.
I kind of think of it like rings. My personal experience with diversity involves being female, having lived with deep poverty, and being a fat woman. The next ring includes raising a son who has autism, a daughter who struggles with anxiety, having parents and siblings who live with addiction. Those are—for lack of a better term—my comfortable diversities. Those are the things that I feel like I can write about, to add diversity to my stories, and draw on my own experiences to inform them.
Completely outside my range of personal experience are things like being a person of color, physical disability, coming from a non-Western culture, having a non-Christian belief system, being part of the LGBTQ community. In the Viral Nation series, there are characters who are not white, but I hope, as I grow as a writer, that I can incorporate even more diversity into my stories.
Corinne: Can you share some of the research you did to write Clover?
Shaunta: Although I switched their genders, Clover and West were very much inspired by my son Nick and my daughter Adrienne. I wanted to write about the sibling relationship where disability is involved. I wanted to write a character who has autism, but I also wanted to write a character in the position of supporting that character. I wanted Nick to be able to find himself in Clover, but I also wanted Adrienne to find herself in West. One of the most gratifying things that has happened since Viral Nation published has been hearing from readers who have a sibling who has a disability, telling me how they felt connected to West.
So, I guess most of the research I did involved spending twenty years raising Adrienne and Nick. I’ve also done a lot of training in learning to advocate for people with disabilities, including how to support them in advocating for themselves. I’ve worked in the school system with kids who have a wide range of disabilities. I read books, I watched videos, I asked Nick and Adrienne a lot of questions.
Some of the coolest research I did was for Mango, actually. Believe it or not, Mango was inspired by a cat! Nick had a little white cat named Angel, from the time he was nine years old. The two of them were so bonded. I actually thought about giving Clover a cat instead of a dog, but in the end, obviously, decided not to. Autism service dogs are pretty incredible. I’ve been really happy to be able to draw some attention to them programs that train and provide them.
Corinne: What’s next for you? Will we see more of Clover in the future, or are you working on something different?
Shaunta: I’ll write one more book in the Viral Nation series. I’ve got a novella-length prequel coming out in the next few weeks that I’m really excited about. It’s about Leanne, who is Clover’s trainer in Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and takes place when she’s a teenager. Leanne is an amputee, and the story takes place during the time she loses her leg.
Thanks so much for your time!
Shaunta and her publisher, Penguin, have generously donated copies of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation to be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win both books. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.
The giveaway has ended, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!