Jo Case and I caught up last Friday at a Spring Street café in that lovely lull between lunch and dinner services to chat, a recording machine doing what it was asked to do for at least half of the time on the table between us. Our topic was Jo’s new book, Boomer and Me.
Your book is about motherhood and Asperger’s but how conscious were you that you were also writing a memoir about your development as a writer?
I did want that to be in there, because you need to write about what makes you you. For a memoir to be interesting, it has to be specific. As I was working I was keen to portray the effort that goes into things that seem effortless, like writing. When I was starting out I always thought that other people could just do these things without trying and they were just good at them. Then I began talking to people who I really admired, especially about public speaking, and I’d confess that I was nervous and they’d often say, ‘Oh, I’m always nervous beforehand!’ It always made me feel so much better, and it also made me realise that most people aren’t naturally good at these things. I do think that the parts of me that are Asperger’s or on the autistic spectrum are also the parts that have got me where I have with my job, because it’s about immersing yourself in it and working really hard – and working through being crap at things.
You are candid about how hard you’ve had to work to be a writer and all the other roles that it entails for you in the book. Did you worry about revealing your anxieties as a working writer?
I definitely worried about it, but I think when you’re writing a memoir there are a lot of things where you weigh up the cost and the necessity of revealing it. If you don’t take any risks and if you don’t reveal yourself at all, then what’s the point? I realised that if I was going to write about my family and my son in the context of Asperger’s, then it would be dishonest to not also write about myself. If I didn’t, that would be kind of like saying I was ashamed of it. How dare I take the privilege of not revealing that about myself when I was going to reveal it about them? In order to make that part of myself true, one of the things that is intrinsic to my experience of how Asperger’s feels – or how it affects my life – is that anxiety about things that I try very hard to make seem effortless on the surface. And of course when you reveal it the magic is gone. Not saying that I am magic, but confidence is a trick. I think sometimes we are too attached to the idea of the overnight success story or the idea of people with amazing talent. Usually that’s not the case. It’s about effort.
You’re very good at dialogue. Does it come naturally to you? How concerned were you about getting it right – in terms of sound, but also in terms of accuracy, given you are detailing events that happened six years ago?
It’s my favourite thing to write. I kept diaries during that period and my diaries tend to be reams of dialogue. It’s funny, when I was writing this, I was also looking back at my teenage diaries and, wow, were they reams of dialogue! I just had these whole conversations… unfortunately they were all themed around the boy I was obsessed with at the time. I would have much rather have reams of dialogue that I had with my family, rather than what this guy said to me and what I said back and what might it mean. But from looking at that it was clear that I was always interested in decoding what conversations really mean, because that was obviously why I was writing them all down back then.
I was also writing a blog during that time. That blog I kept pretty much daily, and that had lots of conversations in it that I had with people. So some of the dialogue in the book was recorded at the time. Some of it I did have to reconstruct. The part of me that likes to analyse social situations is useful because that part of me… I guess if you’ve gone over what somebody’s said a few times, you store it in your memory.
You’ve chosen the present tense, however, which places significant limitations on the analytical voice – why did you do that?
It was a hard decision, because it does limit you in that way. But I feel most comfortable writing in the present tense – that was really it. I was originally thinking I might write my draft in the present tense and go back and tweak it. But I spoke to my publisher and she said, ‘No, I like it in this way because it’s really immediate and you should keep it.’ I did manage to weave some analysis in there. Because I am writing a character – myself – who is analytical, that enabled me to break away and do that. And because I break away and go back to my past, there I’m able to go back and analyse things.
The book is very attuned to difference, isn’t it? It’s class-conscious – or perhaps ‘tribe’-conscious is a better way of putting it…
Yes, I think you’re probably right. I do like to categorise people; I once thought about studying Psychology. I guess if you’ve often felt like you don’t fit, then thinking about exactly where you do fit is a response to that.
I went to school in a place where my friends came from families that were more working class than my family – my parents were teachers. And now, in the book industry, most people I mix with are from the upper-middle class. Also, it’s so poorly paid that perhaps many of the people who can afford to do internships, to get in the door, have more money to fall back on. So I think if you’re on the edge of a world, you’re kind of conscious of those divisions. Not even in a negative way – it’s just noticing a difference.
It seems like giving the west side of Melbourne a real presence in your book was important to you.
Yes it was, because I live there and when I read books that are set in a place that I recognise or where I live, I really love it. So I wanted to do that with my book. But my publisher said to me at one point, ‘You’ve got to take out all of these place names. You’re walking down Anderson Street, you’re working at Readings. You’ve got to take out these references because you’re going to alienate readers.’ I argued with her about it but in the end I realised she was right. It’s still in there but I’ve cut that right back. It’s lazy when you just chuck in a whole lot of names of places, because you haven’t actually described them.
The book also has a lot to say about forms of community – and ‘uncommunity’. There is a contrast drawn between your local community and online communities you discovered at that time, isn’t there?
That was a strand that I had in there on purpose, for a couple of reasons. For one, I was writing about the social isolation that I felt with other parents who I met in the local community. If you meet people in your neighbourhood or your child’s school it’s a really random survey compared to people you meet online, who you’ve met through a path of shared interests that bring you together – you’re much more likely to connect with them. It was really important for me to find that community of mothers to talk to who were a bit wry and self-deprecating, who made literary references and were smart and funny. When my son was diagnosed, having those people to talk to was such a comfort: it reassured me that I wasn’t a bad mother because I’m not like those mothers I met in the schoolyard. If you’re a bit different, if you’re not someone who’s – this sounds a bit awful – really average, then it’s great to have another community that you can walk into and find people who are like you. I think that growth of online communities is really a positive development over the last 10 years. I also think, for people who are Asperger’s, those online relationships can be so much easier – it’s not about keeping up a conversation in person. You check in or check out if you want to; you craft what you’re going to say. That’s a great thing.
Melinda Harvey has worked as a literary critic for over a decade, reviewing books for publications such as The Australian, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Book Review and now the Sydney Review of Books. In 2012 she was an inaugural Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre, working on a memoir called Lip Service. This year she will be judging the Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing. She lectures in literary studies and creative writing at Monash University.