Kathy Erskine's second novel, Mockingbird, sprang from the intersection of two life-changing events—a daughter diagnosed with Asperger's, and the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech near Erskine's home in Charlottesville, Va.
Your daughter, Fiona, has Asperger's Syndrome. When did you decide you wanted to write a novel about a character with that condition?
I had been jotting down notes, mulling over the idea of a main character who had Asperger's almost as an exercise—trying to see the world through her eyes, but I didn't have a compelling plot.
And an idea came to you after the Virginia Tech shootings?
I know it sounds like a weird combination. It was so horrific and so overwhelming and I spent a lot of time trying to process my thoughts on something like that could happen so close to home. [The shooter] was obviously deeply troubled. Maybe if somebody could have gotten him help before he got to that state. But, it was just such an incredible waste. And it wasn't something you could avoid thinking and even talking about. Everybody in Charlottesville knows somebody at Tech. It was everywhere. My thoughts went to what it must be like to be related to one of the victims and to how a kid like mine who sees the world so differently, who doesn't feel heard or understood, how frustrated she gets and how frustrated other people get with her because they don't understand how her mind works. Those two ideas gelled in my mind.
In your story, the brother of the main character, Caitlin, is a victim of a shooting incident at his middle school. Was this almost like Caitlin losing her translator?
Right. He was the person in her life who understood her best, her link to the outside world.
Has your daughter read Mockingbird? What was her reaction?
She's read it and she really likes it and she feels it's pretty accurate of the way she sees the world. She's very excited to have a book about someone like her. She's 13 now and suddenly she sort of likes the idea of being different. She's almost proud of her Asperger's. I don't know if that's going to change but at the moment she's okay with it and she likes that it's out there.
Does the "Facial Expressions" chart Caitlin uses in Mockingbird to understand how other people are reacting come right from personal experience?
I did social stories with Fiona, going through cartoons, and talking about various situations. I'd say, ‘Here are some of the options you have on how to react. Which would you choose?' With Asperger's, part of the educational process is learning how to socialize. Fiona really needed to practice being in a group. It made me realize how much we take for granted about the way we interact with each other.
One of the really useful things about a book like Mockingbird is that it opens a window for kids on what the "different" kid in their class might be going through.
I hope so. I mean, one time, Fiona's whole school had art assignment to draw a flower. Fiona drew a dog with a Mexican hat and a ukulele. When I asked, ‘Where's the flower?' she said, ‘The teacher didn't say we had to draw a flower, she said she wanted us to draw a flower. I wanted to draw a dog.' So one of the things we had to stress with her teachers was not to couch things in polite terms. Be direct.
When I tell my kids, ‘Bring your shoes upstairs,' they leave them on the top step of the stairs. When I complain, they say, ‘But you said to bring them upstairs.'
Most kids can relate to the literal-mindedness, but it's something they associate with being younger. The difference with Asperger kids is that they don't grow out of that way of thinking without a lot of instruction.
Was this a hard story for you to write?
It wasn't. It came out very easily. In fact, it just all poured out. I am an overwriter. In revision, what I have to figure out is what to cut. There were some scenes that didn't need to be there. In researching Asperger's again to write this, I also realized how far Fiona had come and remembered how frustrated we had been. She's made so much progress. She's still brutally honest but we're working on that. She's not a kid who's ever going to have a ton of friends but she does have some and that's a huge step right there.
Do you like to revise?
(Heavy sigh) I like seeing the story improve. I like getting into a scene and finally managing to make it have the impact I want it to have. But my favorite part of the process is the creative outpouring at the beginning.
For all its sadness, Mockingbird has many really funny scenes.
Well, it is funny sometimes because the way she sees things can be so skewed. And I had to have some humor because the story is really heavy.
Though Caitlin is 10 in the story, can you see 10-year-olds reading Mockingbird? Who do you think the audience is?
My sister is a fourth-grade teacher and though she loved the book, she said, ‘I can't do it for fourth grade,' and I agree. School shootings are really, truly scary. I think it's probably better for kids already in middle school.
You call yourself a "recovering lawyer." What kind of law did you practice?
Intellectual property and trademark law. It wasn't that I didn't like it—I did. But I started writing because my mom died in her 60s. She always wanted to get a book published. I intended to wait until I retired to start writing but after that I thought, I better start now. I liked being a lawyer but I didn't feel real passion about it. It wasn't hard to give up.
What are you writing now?
I'm working on a new book because the next novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, has gone to copy-editing.
Those are every novelist's favorite words, aren't they? "Gone to copy-editing."
They sure are! That book will be out in summer 2011 so right now I'm working on a novel set in Virginia in the early 1970s. It was about one thing but it's morphing. I'm also working on a novel set in the Middle Ages and I have something going that is contemporary, dealing with the economic downturn.
That's almost a pot on every burner. How do you keep them all straight?
If I'm in a serious mood, I work on the serious novel. If I'm feeling silly, I work on the fluffier novel. I'm also trying to write a picture book and I did NaNoWriMo and an adult novel came out, which I didn't expect at all. I think I have ADHD. I think in little packets all over the place.
Is it getting easier, now that you have two books published and one "gone to copy-editing?"
I have a little more confidence having gone through the process already. Both of my editors [Patricia Lee Gauch and Tamra Tuller] are very hands-off. They will say, ‘I'm not really sure what you're trying to say,' without telling me what to do. They leave it to me to figure it out, which can be kind of scary, but I just keep telling myself if I did it before, I can do it again.
Mockingbird. Kathryn Erskine. Philomel, $16.99 Apr. 978-0-399-25264-8