After Samantha Stanko’s wonderful review of Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s contemporary middle grade novel Rogue, we had to set up an interview so the two of them could discuss the book further.
Samantha Stanko: What inspired you to write Rogue?
Lyn Miller-Lachmann: I had always avoided writing characters like myself, and all my other novels (particularly Gringolandia and its forthcoming companion, Surviving Santiago) were based on people I knew well and observed carefully. I didn’t want to remember my childhood and adolescence, when nobody liked me and I was bullied and excluded from social activities. It was just too painful. But when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult, it answered so many questions I had about why I couldn’t fit in, make friends, or follow rules even though I wanted to be a part of everything. I also realized that there were other kids out there just like me, and if I wrote a novel based on my experiences, perhaps it would help them to feel less alone. I know that if I’d read a book by someone just like me, I would have felt less alone.
I think what drew me to the main character Kiara the most is that she was so genuine. I saw so many parallels between her thoughts and actions and my own at that age. Did you draw inspiration from your own experiences to write her?
Because Rogue is more or less a contemporary novel – it takes place in 2006, when Congress banned the over-the-counter sale of pseudoephedrine – I’ve updated the details, but the key events of the story did happen to me. The popular girls really did push my tray off the table when I tried to sit with them in seventh grade. However, I didn’t pick up the tray and smack one of them – I just stood there crying – and decades later, I wished I had, to salvage whatever dignity I had left. Rationally, I knew it would be a bad thing to do, so instead I wrote a novel about someone who does and faces the consequences of her actions.
The other major thing is that I unwittingly became a drug courier when I got my driver’s license. Some popular kids who were a year younger asked me to drive them to the community radio station where I volunteered and to other places around town. I thought I’d finally made it into the popular group, and when I found out the truth, I had a tough decision to make. I was tempted to do whatever it took to be popular, but I realized that these kids didn’t really like me. They were only using me. Kiara has to make that same decision when she finds out what Chad and his family are in the drug business, and, really, she goes back and forth because she desperately wants his friendship.
Samantha: I’m really curious about the relationship between Kiara and Antonio. One instance that stands out in particular was when Kiara wanted to kiss Antonio—was this a reciprocal feeling that Antonio also felt, or was it more of a crush Kiara developed because Antonio is one of the first people in Kiara’s age group to take an interest in her and treat her like a human being?
Lyn: It’s a crush, but Kiara is inexperienced in terms of sex and is drawing her cues from a hypersexualized culture. Yes, she has these feelings, but she doesn’t know how to control them or express them. There were various times when I was a teenager that I was taken advantage of sexually because of my inability to read social cues or understand social situations, most notably when I was an intern for a local television station in high school. I had a crush on an older reporter, and he would touch me in ways that I didn’t realize were inappropriate until one of his younger co-workers, who knew my parents, pulled me aside and explained that what this other guy was doing was wrong.
After that, I had a crush on the guy who saved me, but I’d learned my lesson. Instead, I made him the model for Antonio. I don’t think Antonio has reciprocal feelings for Kiara, and he wouldn’t act on them because of his friendship with her older brother and the fact that he knows she’s struggling and vulnerable.
Samantha: One thing that really stuck with me was the speculation of the causes of autism. Her older brother, a medical school student, postulates that it was his father’s chemotherapy drugs that caused the autistic mutation, so to speak. It kind of surprised me that this went unchallenged, considering that we don’t yet know what causes autism. Could you talk a little about that?
Lyn: Kiara spends an inordinate amount of time online, and “Mr. Internet” is her go-to source for information. And like most young people, she’s still learning how to evaluate the quality and veracity of information she finds there. Her brother’s speculation that she overhears and runs with to “Mr. Internet” is, unfortunately, quite common among family members (and even some people on the spectrum) who are searching for explanations. Many people want explanations for things they don’t understand. And while Kiara’s father tries to tell her the truth – that no one knows – she doesn’t believe him because Eli is in college and her father dropped out of college.
A lot of bad science gets traction this way – people with very little background lording their credentials over everyone else. We should also ask: What is their motivation for doing so?
Samantha: Once Kiara finds her place in her social group as a video recorder, she feels happy and accepted. Do you think the kids in her group actually liked her for her, or was it more about her being useful to them?
Lyn: She’s useful to them, but that serves as an entry point for people to get to know her better. One has to start somewhere, and finding common ground with others through mutual interests is a great way of making deeper connections. In the end, Kiara finds kids her age who are looking for a videographer, and they discover another thing in common in their experience of being humiliated by the girl who Kiara hit with the tray. She and the boys in summer school come to accept and appreciate each other when earlier she’d considered them bad students and troublemakers and they saw her as weird. I think it’s okay to be useful, as long as being useful doesn’t involve doing things that are hurtful or harmful. It can be a starting point for genuine understanding and friendship.
Samantha: Yours was only the second YA/MG novel featuring an autistic character that I’ve read. The other, Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, despite its troubling ableist tropes. Why do you think books that reinforce negative and harmful stereotypes garner so much praise while novels like yours, which more accurately reflect the lived realities of autistic folks, don’t seem to get the attention they deserve?
Lyn: The short answer is that the National Book Award committee is composed of people with MFA’s, not Ph.D.’s in psychology. But there’s more to that, and the most troubling aspect is the increased emphasis on self-promotion and networking for a writer to be successful. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” A writer with Asperger’s starts out at a disadvantage in this hypersocial marketing environment, and any misunderstanding with the publisher makes things worse, because publishers have a lot of power in what gets traction in the marketplace and what doesn’t. At the very least, a publisher has to nominate a book even to be considered for the National Book Award, and that nomination costs money.
Before Rogue, I published exclusively with small presses and academic presses, and I am grateful to Rogue’s publisher for getting me some attention that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, like being selected for Junior Library Guild. However, outsiders with superior connections and marketing skills can run rings around us, and when their books win awards and become bestsellers, they become part of the canon. Then, authentic books by insiders who are less well known (and, who knows, may have put off gatekeepers with their writing or behavior) are seen as invalid because they don’t conform to the image of us that has already been defined by outsiders and accepted as the canon. I remember having someone reject Rogue because Kiara “isn’t like the girl in Mockingbird.”
While smaller publishers can also get it wrong, I think that, overall, we need to pay more attention to diverse books coming from smaller presses. Smaller presses have published works by cultural insiders for decades, and many of these books directly challenge the canon.
I should also point out that things appear to be changing because of initiatives like this one and We Need Diverse Books. This month’s “Autism on the Page” has done a great service by explaining the tropes and stereotypes and highlighting more authentic portrayals by both insiders and outsiders. The series has given voice to people on the autism spectrum, and it really matters to have a place where we can speak for ourselves. It has certainly made a difference for me, as I have been invited to speak in person or via Skype to more schools this month than in the past year and a half, and Rogue was just selected for the Missouri state list.