Last year, writer and Disability in Kidlit co-founder Corinne Duyvis reviewed You Look Different in Real Life, a contemporary YA novel by Jennifer Castle featuring an important secondary character with autism. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Jennifer to the blog to discuss the book.
To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed copy of You Look Different in Real Life! Details at the end of the post.
Jennifer Castle: You Look Different in Real Life is the story of five teenagers who are the subjects of a documentary film series that checks in on their lives every five years, beginning when they were six years old. Now they’re sixteen, and the film crew is coming back at a time when they’re struggling with who they really are, what they mean to one another, and how to reconcile the past with the present and future. Rory is one of these teens. She was diagnosed with autism sometime after the second film (shot when the kids were eleven). As a film subject, she’s gold, because she’s honest and un-self-conscious. She has the strongest self-identity of the group, but she has other battles to try and win…and now she has to do it in front of a camera. Juicy stuff happens.
Corinne: How did Rory come into being? Was her autism an integral part of her character from the start, or did that aspect develop later on?
Jennifer: I knew from the beginning, even before the idea for this book came together, that I wanted to write about a teenage girl with autism. There are quite a few kids and teens in my life who are on the spectrum, and watching them overcome challenges big and small has always affected me. I’d also just come off ten years of producing a website for tweens on PBS Kids called “It’s My Life” which had a robust online community, and many of our regulars were kids who talked openly about their autism. One of them kept referring to it as “my blessing and my curse.” That stayed with me. I wanted to explore that blessing/curse dichotomy in my writing somehow.
After a lot of thought, I realized the thing I was most interested in was not necessarily the journey of an autistic protagonist (and honestly, I didn’t feel I was qualified to pull that off), but the story of a friendship between a neurotypical protagonist and her childhood bestie whose autism created problems that drove them apart. Because that’s a story you don’t see often in literature, but one I think many readers can relate to. So as the premise of You Look Different took shape and I had to come up with five very different characters who would fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces, Rory came into being. In the book, Rory and the main character, Justine, are inseparable at age six, but by eleven, Rory’s quirks are beginning to wear on Justine. I think that happens normally among girls around that age, autism or no autism — in general, their tolerance level for anything they see as “weird” goes way down. Peer pressure goes way up. Many kids who are stuck in the middle get socially crushed by that collision.
The autism factor felt like an intriguing prism to look at how friendships change as we grow up. Now sixteen and more mature, Justine feels intense regret and guilt about the way she cut Rory out of her life, but doesn’t know how to fix it. The fact that the filmmakers have returned, pushing them into situations together, makes it better and worse at the same time. (Which of course is not-so-fun for Justine, but excellent for me as a storyteller.) What Justine has to learn is that she can’t make amends until she can see Rory as a person, and not an autistic person. I don’t like to put “messages” in my work, but I did see an opportunity to give readers a look at that process in the hopes that they can apply it to their own lives and people around them.
Once I got deeper into the book, Rory herself took on more dimension and I figured out what her personal journey was going to be. The plot puts her in some challenging situations. I love the way she gets through them, and the surprising new connections she forges as a result.
Corinne: In a world full of stereotypical portrayals of autism, Rory’s portrayal struck me as delightfully realistic. I recognized many of her symptoms and enjoyed details like her love of navigation, which I totally share, or the way she’ll make brief eye contact before looking away again. How did you go about your research?
Jennifer: It means a great deal to me, that Rory felt real and not stereotypical. Thank you! (And phew.) Because it’s freaking scary to write a character who people will be examining more closely for accuracy and dimension. I got dead serious about research, and did a lot of reading — but not endless reading, because I believe there’s such a thing as too much research. There’s a great book called “Asperger’s and Girls” which I found particularly useful. I also found a wonderful documentary called “Billy the Kid,” which is a portrait of a teenage boy who happens to be autistic (but terrifically, his autism is not mentioned at all in the film). Then I really lucked out, because I met a mom in my community who has both a daughter and a son with autism, so she was able to give me very specific insight as to how the experience is different for girls and boys. I had an early draft at that point and I just kept asking her, “Rory does this. Does that seem organic to you? Do you buy it?” She read a later draft and gave me line notes, both positive and critical, on everything Rory. When she said she really loved the book and how Rory was portrayed, I felt confident about putting the character and her story out into the world.
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 Rory’s autism, or where you unthinkingly used certain tropes?
Jennifer: For me, writing the backstory of how Justine ditched Rory as a friend was surprisingly difficult. Because as Justine is telling it, she has retrospective awareness of Rory’s issues. But the Justine in the flashbacks does not, and the Justine in the flashbacks found her friend annoying and high maintenance. I had to portray Rory at eleven not just as Justine sees her now, but as she saw her then, and it was a delicate balance. I cringed as I was writing some of those memories, because I didn’t want to seem insensitive or paint too negative a picture of Rory. I concentrated on making Rory as likable as possible, accepting Justine’s “dumping” and gracefully letting her go.
But then my autism-mom expert called me out on it. She said Rory would not give up the friendship so easily. She would be persistent. She would not get the social cues and yes, she would be totally irritating about it. It felt so uncomfortable to rewrite that section, even though I knew it was truer to Rory’s character. I was worried what readers would think.
And that’s one of the big dangers, when it comes to writing disabled characters. It’s sort of the opposite problem of stereotypes or one-note characters, which is obviously an issue too. But I think many authors are so focused on sensitivity and creating sympathy that they forget who their characters actually are, flaws and all. Sometimes these flaws are somehow related to the disability, and sometimes they’re just part of who a character is, just like flaws should be part of any character you’re writing. Perfect, saintly characters may not piss anyone off, but they also feel totally inauthentic. Once I stopped handling Rory with kid gloves, she truly leapt off the page. I don’t regret taking on that challenge of awareness and thought, as you beautifully put it; I think I’m a better writer now as a result of that challenge.
Thank you, Jennifer!
Jennifer has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–copy of You Look Different in Real Life 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 the book. This giveaway is open to international addresses!
The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!