By Thushanthi Ponweera
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lyn Miller-Lachmann (Torch) and Meg Eden Kuyatt (Good Different) to the WNDB blog to discuss writing autistic characters and more!
Both Selah (in Good Different) and Tomas (in Torch) are on the autism spectrum but are both undiagnosed. What made you choose this ambiguity for your characters?
MEG: I think this ambiguity is the reality for many autistic folks. If autism doesn’t present in very specific behaviors that are culturally familiar as “autistic,” it can easily be overlooked. This was my reality as a kid, and so it’s one that’s particularly important to me to talk about.
LYN: My novel takes place in the late 1960s, when diagnostic tools were not as developed as they are now, and the vast majority of people who are diagnosed today would not have been diagnosed at that time. I was one of those young people who slipped through the cracks (or should I say chasms), only receiving my diagnosis as an adult. In Tomáš’s case, he could have been diagnosed because a Soviet child psychiatrist, Grunya Efimovna Sukhareva, identified the characteristics of autism even earlier than Western doctors did, but Stalinism and the Iron Curtain kept her work mostly unknown or unacknowledged in the West. Still, there were reasons who Tomáš’s father, a Communist Party official, wanted to suppress any move to diagnose his son because the regime treated people who were different quite harshly and punished entire families for a single member’s inability or unwillingness to conform.
Selah is obsessed with dragons and Tomas with trains. What are your obsessions and have they influenced your work? If so, how?
MEG: My special interests are usually shows and video games. A few that come to mind are Pokemon, Bojack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fire Emblem… The shows particularly influence the craft of my work. I’m constantly rewatching Bojack and CXG for how they do what they do so well. How can I learn from that? Video games are different kinds of storytellers, so they often show me new tools that I can play with in my writing.
But special interests also influence my work conceptually. Special interests are things autistic folks love that help them better understand the world and connect to those around them. Because this is a way I connect with the world around me and build connections, my characters often share some special interest (or tangential special interest, like Selah with her dragons) that drives them and provides a lens for them to understand the world around them. We write about what we’re passionate about so often the seed for a project is something like: I love video game conventions, or I collect and am nostalgic for old things—how can I write about a character that loves that too? What might happen?
LYN: Tomáš’s model train obsession parallels my obsession with Lego. I’ve built a massive Lego town that keeps expanding like his miniature town. I even have a cargo train and track made of Lego. After the 2016 election, my husband and I considered emigration—he taught part of the year in Portugal already—and I thought about what would happen to my Lego town if I had to leave. I would want it to go to a place, like a library, where kids could enjoy it. So early on in Torch, Tomáš fears he’s going to be arrested because of his dissident friends, and rather than having to worry about what would happen to his lovingly constructed train set (which police could have destroyed), he packs it up and donates it to the town library, with unexpected results.
Lyn, your story covers so many powerful topics—political and personal. Did you have to tone down any of it from the original manuscript?
Not at all, and I’d like to shout out my brilliant agent Jacqui Lipton at Tobias Literary Agency and editor Amy Fitzgerald at Carolrhoda Lab for “getting” my story and helping me make it the best that it could be. The only major cuts I made were tightening the pacing, especially in the last third of the novel. It was a challenge, too, because I had to cut a day from my novel’s timeline while maintaining all of the emotional beats of the original.
Meg, in your author’s note you mention that you love being neurodivergent. What do you think made the difference?
I think I grew up in the perfect home for my neurodivergence. My parents always saw my differences as positives. Even to this day, they say how cute my hand flapping was, or other quirks that we now see as signs of my autism. I never felt self-conscious at home for who I was, so I never thought there was anything bad about how I work. I’ve always liked being different. As I got older and I hit difficulties because of my autism, I gained some insecurities and struggles, but the foundation for joy in autism was already there. I’m so grateful for this gift from my parents.
Meg, this is your debut middle-grade novel and Lyn, it’s your fifth. What advice would you each give to other writers about the publication journey?
MEG: Persist, persist, persist! There are rejections. There are hurtful comments. There are moments I wonder why I’m still doing this thing. But there are also allies. There are readers. There is writing, which is in and of itself, such a beautiful thing. And when you have readers who connect with your work, and appreciate what you’re doing, that’s so incredibly rewarding and makes it all worth it. If you love writing, if you want your words out there, keep persisting. It will take time. Don’t let that make you lose confidence that what you’re doing matters.
LYN: It’s not a linear journey. A lot of writers think that once that debut book is signed, it’s going to be upward from then on. I had three MG/YA novels published between 2009 and 2015 and then fell off the career ladder for seven years. I didn’t stop writing during that time, but I couldn’t sell any of my manuscripts. I ended up taking classes, trying new things, basically reinvigorating my craft, which served me well when publishers started acquiring my books again. The reception for these two books, Moonwalking (a verse novel co-authored with Zetta Elliott) and Torch, has been far and above what I’d experienced for any of my earlier three novels, even my multi-award-winning debut, Gringolandia. So, I’d say there’s always more to learn, and you should keep pushing yourself, trying new ways of presenting stories.
Which other recent/upcoming books would you recommend that your readers read that would pair well with your book?
MEG: Noa Nimrodi’s Not So Shy, Wendy Wan-Long Shang’s The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, (this is a classic now, but) Elle McNicoll’s A Kind Of Spark.
LYN: I’m on a panel for AWP with Diana Ma, whose YA novel Her Rebel Highness also explores teenage activists facing an overwhelmingly powerful adversary during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China. Katherine Locke’s YA historical fantasy This Rebel Heart takes place in Hungary in 1956, another moment of resistance against totalitarian communism. Finally, I’m working on a verse novel about a teenage girl confronting the fascist dictatorship in Portugal in the 1960s, and Kip Wilson’s brand-new YA verse novel One Last Shot presents the life of Gerda Taro, the intrepid German Jewish woman photojournalist who chronicled the heroic resistance to fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
Meg Eden Kuyatt is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee and teaches creative writing at colleges and writing centers. She is the author of poetry books and children’s novels, most recently Good Different (Scholastic, 2023), a JLG Gold Standard selection. Find her online here.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the YA historical novel Torch (Carolrhoda Lab, 2022) and co-author (with Zetta Elliott) of the middle grade verse novel Moonwalking (FSG, 2022), both of which are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections and recipients of multiple starred reviews. Her recent nonfiction includes a biography of Temple Grandin in the She Persisted chapter book series from Philomel and Film Makers: 15 Groundbreaking Women Directors (co-authored with Tanisia “Tee” Moore) from Chicago Review Press. She also translates children’s and YA books from Portuguese to English, with YA graphic novel Pardalita by Joana Estrela, due out in April 2023 from Levine Querido.
Thushanthi Ponweera is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books and a WNDB 2021 picture book mentee with author David LaRochelle. She was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka where she lives with her husband and two children. She grew up reading and falling in love with stories about children and places that were foreign to her. She believes that someday children from around the world will read and fall in love with stories about children in Sri Lanka. She hopes to write those stories. You can find her on Twitter @thushponweera and on Instagram @bythush.