Anne Ursu’s middle grade fantasy The Real Boy was one of Corinne Duyvis’s favorite reads this year—as evidenced by her review earlier today—so we’re delighted to have Anne on the blog for Autism on the Page and dig into the book together.
Corinne Duyvis: How has the reaction been to Oscar, by both autistics and non-autistics?
Anne Ursu: We get very close to our protagonists, and I’m very happy that readers are connecting with Oscar. I saw a couple of negative comments online about my last protagonist, Hazel (“whiny” and “unlikeable”), and it broke my heart. But I haven’t seen comments like that about Oscar. And I’m extremely glad. I very much wanted people to like him.
Oscar isn’t labeled as autistic or having any kind of special needs in the book, and it’s been interesting to see who picks up on his autism. And many readers don’t. I’ve found that it tends to be people who are closely associated with autism in some way or another who see it. Once a woman at a book club asked me, “Has it ever occurred to you that Oscar might be autistic?”
I was very anxious about the reaction from readers with autism—I very much didn’t want to mess this up. And so hearing from autistic people that they connected with Oscar has been wonderful. I’ve been very happy to hear from people whose kids have seen themselves in Oscar, or whose neurotypical children saw a sibling or a friend in him. And I’m happy that neurotypical kids connect with him too—autistic or not, lots of people know what it’s like not to feel like you fit in, like you don’t work quite like other people. I read a blog review recently by someone who said she didn’t really care for the rest of the book but she loved Oscar; while naturally I’d prefer someone liked the whole thing, I feel weirdly happy that she could like Oscar despite, you know, everything else!
I have found that when some readers who don’t have direct experience with autism know Oscar’s unofficial diagnosis going in, they can bring assumptions to their reading based on some of the popular conceptions of autism. Sometimes I’ll read something in a blog review describing Oscar that will list his ASD traits and add something like, “He’s a genius.” Well, no, he’s not. He’s smart and talented—but he’s not supposed to be a genius. He’s Oscar.
Corinne: You published several books before The Real Boy; did you feature autistic characters in any of those? Do you think you’ll write more autistic characters in the future?
Anne: I did not. My son was diagnosed after I was done with Breadcrumbs, so I did not have the personal connection or experience before. But once he was diagnosed, autism was pretty much all I was thinking about.
When I wrote Real Boy I kept thinking I had to get everything on the page because this was my one chance to write about autism. It took me a while to realize how ridiculous an idea this was. So I’m not ruling out doing it again.
Corinne: What kind of research did you do in order to portray Oscar’s autism?
Anne: I read memoirs—I particularly got a lot out of John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye, and Temple Grandin’s work. I found those much more useful than clinical books. My son had a psychologist who knew a great deal about autism and had taught me a lot; her approach was very inside out—based on emotional needs. And she helped me see so much—all of the things I did not know to read as anxiety, all of the ways sensory issues affected him. I feel like she informed Oscar a lot.
I would look up random things on the Internet, like what the physical process might be that could make looking someone in the eye uncomfortable for someone with ASD. I also had a student at Hamline (the MFA program where I teach) who wrote an essay about the portrayal of autistic protagonists that really stuck in my mind. She wrote about how often these characters are portrayed with the use of devices in the voice or narration—like visual cues or ways to mark the voice as stilted– and I didn’t want to do that. Personally, I find that othering and distancing for the reader. And distancing techniques certainly have their place in fiction, but for me I wanted the reader to feel as close to Oscar as possible. Especially Oscar; I’ve noticed that the neurotypical world has an empathy problem when it comes to autism, and it was really important to me that the reader’s connection with Oscar was emotional, not intellectual.
Of course, I have my experience with my son, but I don’t know that Oscar has a lot in common with Dash—Dash is all action and movement and high-speeds (he turned out to be well-named). Dash loves other kids; he just doesn’t know how to be around them. But they both are loving, are easily overwhelmed, and they both feel things very deeply—too deeply, really, to function easily in a world that doesn’t allow for such tremendous empathy.
And I don’t know that my experience with my son would be a good way to build a character, because that’s outside-in. On some level I will never really understand what’s it’s like to be Dash—to feel, process, and perceive in the particular way he feels, processes, and perceives. And I learn more all the time, but I make so many mistakes. While there were one or two reactions Oscar had that reminded me of something Dash would do, most of it came from trying to read things written by other people with autism.
Anne: I would give it to adult readers with autism. I didn’t do that, and it wasn’t until last year’s diversity discussions on Twitter that I realized how important that was and how easily I could have messed up. That’s a mistake I don’t plan to make again. You’re writing to take care of kids—all kids—and with something like this you don’t want to end up doing something harmful. I’m still mad at myself.
Corinne: We’ve spoken briefly about how you worried about writing this book, as the parent of an autistic child, knowing the way parents often speak on behalf of their autistic children to disastrous results. How did that affect your writing of the book?
Anne: I have to say I wasn’t very aware of this problem until after the book was out, and John Elder Robison resigned from Autism Speaks. I didn’t know until then how oddly parents could perceive their autistic kids, and, as you say, how disastrously some parents spoke for their children.
Last summer, Professor Sarah Park Dahlen spoke at Hamline—her particular area of interest is in portrayals of adoption. She said that so much of the popular conception of what it’s like to be adopted has been created by books written by parents, not the adoptees themselves, and she called on parents to use hesitation before adding more to that existing literature. This got me thinking about the ways parents can see things through their own lenses and experiences, and how easy it would be to interpret autism that way.
And so, I realized again that I could have been projecting a parental gaze on Oscar, and that’s a problem I want to be much more aware of in the future.
But I did very much want to get it right and I was very aware that I was writing this character as an outsider. Because my child never fit the profile of everything I knew about autism before he was diagnosed, I was aware of how wrong so much of the popular conception of autism is. The first time I heard the phrase, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” it was a revelation to me—it made so much sense. So I’d learned how much of what everyone knows about autism (including me until 2011) isn’t right, and so I tried very hard to work beyond everything I’ve absorbed from living in a society that paints autism in very broad (and often harmfully inaccurate) strokes.
Corinne: Certain elements were left unexplored in The Real Boy, including Oscar’s past, which was—between the flashbacks and his unexplained ability to read—hinted at a couple of times. Do you plan to explore the world or character further?
Anne: Not at this point, but I don’t want to say never. I wanted Oscar’s past to be murky to him—I knew his backstory but I wanted him to feel disconnected from it. In my head, he’d been in an orphanage all of his life, but the experience was so bad he’d really repressed it. I also thought he would have taught himself to read at some point without really realizing he was doing it.
Corinne: How did the idea for the book—and particularly Oscar and his autism—develop?
Anne: I wanted to write a fantasy about autism that wasn’t about autism—which is very vague, and doesn’t really even make sense. But that’s writing for you.
I couldn’t figure out a way to do it; all of my ideas about a real-life kid going into a fantasy world felt too contrived. It wasn’t until the idea for the high fantasy (a fantasy set in its own world) unfurled that it began to fall into place. And the fantasy world and concept was really inextricable from autism—the whole world and plot stemmed from this initial idea, and I don’t think this book would exist without it.
I think it really had to be a high fantasy—I thought I could look at the autism more indirectly if there were no such diagnosis in the world. I also hoped to create a world that would make a neurotypical reader feel, on some level, what it might be like to be autistic in a neurotypical world—I’d get some reviews where people would say, “I don’t understand all of the rules of the world and I find that frustrating,” and I’m like, “YES!”
It was also really important to me that while Oscar’s autism is part of who he is, it wasn’t essential to the plot—that is, that he never ends up becoming a hero because of or despite his autism, but because he’s a brave and very empathetic boy.
Corinne: Oscar’s lack of self-understanding played a big role in the book. The way I read Oscar, simply having a diagnosis and being told, “You are not alone” would have made an immeasurable difference. What was it like, writing an autistic character in a setting where no such label exists?
Anne: I love this question. And I think you’re right. He lives in such a small world that his differences feel very acute and there’s no one to tell him that it’s all okay, he’s not broken. Without being too specific for people who haven’t read the book, I think his journey would have been a lot easier for him if he’d known there was a reason he felt different.
Still, it was very freeing to write in this world. No characters would have brought any assumptions about him to the table, and so everyone interacted with him just as he is. I could also create an environment that heightened any social anxiety he had—he really hasn’t had any experience with people, he lives in an incredibly small world and doesn’t know the rules of the way people interact with each other. He also lives in a very protected world in terms of his sensory experience. And I never had to engage with the process of diagnosis—that it had come, or would come over the course of the book, or in the future—it’s just wasn’t supposed to be part of Oscar’s journey and since there was no diagnosis I didn’t have to engage with that possibility.
It also allowed me to negotiate the reader’s conception of Oscar. Often autistic (and disabled) characters seem to be defined by their label in our popular imagination—but because no label exists in this world I could let readers get to know Oscar and see the whole character, and they would not be guided by their own assumptions. His autism is part of who he is, but it was not supposed to define him.