Memoirs about raising sons – all kind of memoirs, all kinds of sons – are one of my weaknesses. I collect them the way my teenager hoards NASCAR tee shirts and my10-year-old accumulates Pokemon cards. I know I may never get to all of them; that's not the point. I have to have them.
By way of a mutual writer friend, Laura Shumaker's memoir, A Regular Guy: Growing Up With Autism, landed on my desk this summer, got moved around from office to bedside table and back, resided for a week in my car, where I can read for 15 minutes each afternoon while in the school pick up queue. As with most memoirs, I didn't want to start it until I knew I'd have time to finish. Then I read it in two short sittings last weekend and I knew I wanted to interview Laura.
LR: Your book covers so much ground, from before Matthew was born until his 18th birthday. What was your biggest challenge as a writer in selecting which events and scenes out of the vast store of family memories to write about? And as a mother?
Laura Shumkaer: When I first started writing what I thought was “the book,” it was a collection of stories--sort of like an anthology--about being a mother of an autistic child. I arranged the stories semi-chronologically and showed them to an editor, Alan Rinzler. He encouraged me to change it to a continuing narrative with a beginning, middle and end. It was then I had to think about what readers would want to know about me and my family. I thought it was important to show how my history, growing up in a loving family affected by tragedy and knowing early on that I wanted to be a MOTHER, was important. I tried to stay focused on the memories that would add to the story.
LR: I felt a close rapport with you as the mother-narrator especially through your use of italics to frame your gut reactions, acknowledging the sometimes unsavory thoughts we mothers have when outsiders make judgments about our children. What impressed was your restraint in using this device so that each use has an impact. I'm curious how you came to deploy this device, whether it was there from the start, or did it evolve in revisions?
LS: In the beginning, I wrote long explanatory sentences about how I was feeling, what I was doing--so much emotional calamity. It seemed awfully wordy and defensive, so I decided to try the old “show don’t tell” and the italics showed what I was thinking, which I thought was more effective.
LR: Writing about one's children and spouse and about family history is fraught with landmines, some anticipated, others often unexpected. Can you talk about how you navigated this difficult terrain? Did you let your husband and/or sons react to the book before it was published?
LS: I took a class from a writer who joked about being sued by her family after each of her books was published. I wanted to tell the truth, but I wanted to do it in the context of our situation. In one chapter, I tell about the time my husband lost it with Matthew. They were punching and kicking each other and I had to call 911 to break it up. Instead of making my husband look like a child abuser, I showed how exasperating Matthew can be, how frustrating it was for my husband to connect with him, and the remorse both felt after the fight. When Peter (my husband) read that chapter, he was very moved and appreciated how I portrayed him. Both he and my son Andy read every chapter and helped me express the truth. One funny thing--in one chapter, I talk about breast feeding, and Andy begged me to take it out.
LR: What has the reaction been from family members, neighbors and others who know your family and Matthew?
LS: My family loved the book. My husband and my son Andy both cried when they read it from beginning to end. Andy said “Wow. You really knew how hard it was for me.” That was very cool. I was surprised that some friends and acquaintances felt guilty after reading the book because they thought they hadn’t done enough to support me along the way. I’ve also noticed that some friends and acquaintances have been avoiding me, so either they are judging me or they think I targeted them!
LR: You open yourself to possible criticism when you write about being just too tired and worn down to try yet another "solution" for Matthew. While parents of special needs kids will relate completely, were you concerned about the reactions of others?
LS: I thought it was important to tackle this issue honestly. When you have a special needs child, some well-meaning friends, family and remote acquaintances have stories about what other people in your same situation have done, bless their hearts, they have stopped at nothing blah, blah, blah and look how great their kid is doing. As for showing my flaws, I knew that readers would relate to me better if I told the truth. I think that readers could feel my fatigue and desperation.
LR: Some writers who've written about their children's struggles are accused of exploiting their family for career advancement. How does one deal with those emotions and practical considerations?
LS: I felt like I didn’t exploit anyone, but explained them. When in doubt, I left out incriminating stories because I felt that being defensive would take away from the story. I tried to show that Matthew was a challenge even in the best of circumstances.
LR: At one point you eavesdrop on your sons Andy and John, telling "Matthew stories." I thought this was an effective way to allow another point-of-view and show the brothers' affection for Matthew without that cloying "aren't my boys fabulous" tone. Another move I liked was the switch to present tense for a chapter detailing the tediousness of a day at home with an unpredictable teenage Matthew, who's scattered and unmoored. I'm always curious if writers make these choices organically or if they result from a dilemma during rewriting.
LS: Once again, “show don’t tell.” Especially the present tense story. I really wanted readers to know what a typical day with Matthew was like!
LR: As a first time author, what surprised you most?
LS: I’m surprised by how hard it is to get a book published. I’m amazed by the bad books that get published and the good ones that don’t. I’m thrilled by the people I’ve met now that I’m a writer.
LR: What led you to publish your book independently?
LS: After my manuscript and book proposal were ready, it took about four months to get an agent, Jill Marsal of Sandra Dijkstra. I thought I was set. Jill was a great agent and loved my project, as did the other agents at Dijkstra, but was not able to find a publisher. We came close several times, but it seemed all of the editors who were interested wanted to turn my memoir into a "how I cured my son" book. They said that autism memoirs didn't sell well unless they had a prescriptive element.
I decided to self publish, because I was scheduled to speak at a number of conferences and didn't want to lose out. Once I had my book designed and put together, I sent it out to a few more agents and April Eberhardt of Reese Halsey North, in her words "snapped it up". She is pitching it to traditional publishers, and while I'm hopeful, I'm realistic. It's a numbers game, and the Jenny McCarthys of the world will sell more books regardless of quality than a first time 50ish author like me! While the book is selling well, it is hard to get the distribution that I would with a traditional publisher.
LR: Have you done a lot of readings? Does your family get involved?
LS: Funny you should ask! I was just in Chicago where I did a reading at a developmental center the same night and the same time as the second McCain/Obama debate. I had nine people in the audience and sold ONE book. I’ve had many others, though, and am scheduled for many more.
I love readings and author appearances. They are the best way to sell books. I usually read three chapters and then take questions and the questions go on for an hour or more. My husband and son John go to all my readings and are very active in the Q and A. (Andy is in college back east, and Matthew chooses not to attend, but tells everyone that he is famous because his mother loved him so much that she wrote a book about him.)
I have several California readings coming up in November for A Regular Guy (details on my website). During October, I'm doing a few readings from a new anthology, Writin' on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything In Between When Children Leave the Nest.
LR: What's next? Are you at work on a new writing project?
LS: I’m ghost writing a book with an autism specialist--it’s a great learning experience and profitable, but what I really want to do is write a sequel that weaves Matthew's, Andy's and John’s stories together.
Note: You can find an excerpt of Laura's book here and an essay Laura wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle here.