Children’s writer Elizabeth explains how living with Aspergers Syndrome has influenced her writing…
Do you write to please your readers or to please yourself?
Actually, I write to empty my head before it explodes – well that’s what it feels like sometimes. My head is full of story ideas, part written stories, or sometimes what feels like complete books. I started writing as a way to empty my head so it didn’t ache and quickly found my story ideas pouring out faster than I could get them onto paper.
I’m naturally the creative type. I love to make things – sometimes models or miniature film sets and other times making outfits for model characters. These things can help me to visualise a story idea. They don’t always turn into anything I can develop into a full story, but they are another way for me to empty my head. They also help distract me from the anxiety and depression I struggle with in addition to being autistic.
Have you ever used real people/animals or real experiences to create characters/plots?
Sort of, but not on purpose… Like many people with autism, I get easily overwhelmed with too much information, so rather than have written character profiles, I prefer to have visual ones. I search the internet for photos that ‘feel right’ for my main characters, and I keep these in front of me when I’m writing. While searching for a dalmatian picture for a story I planned to write, I came across a photo of a dalmatian with a husky. It seemed as if the husky was telling me her own story and I felt compelled to write it down. This story, and the series that is growing from it, are named after this husky whom I called ‘Akea’. As I used a photo of a ‘real animal’ as a basis for her character, then I guess you could say a real animal was the inspiration for Akea.
Has living with Aspergers Syndrome influenced what and how you write?
After I had published my first children’s book, Akea – The Power of Destiny, in 2017, several people commented on the parallel between Akea’s personal journey and my own. Akea begins the story feeling out of place among her sled dog family where she should belong, overcomes various obstacles and ends up fitting in happily where she stands out the most – in charge of a wolfpack. In the same way, I’ve had to overcome different obstacles (autism and mental health) and the feeling that I didn’t fit in, but now I understand it’s okay to be different and I have found my place in the world as an author. So, it seems my own life journey helped to create the first book in the Akea series, but it was certainly not a conscious thing.
I find people really hard to understand and much prefer the simpler company of animals. I have a deep connection with them and have volunteered at a number of different animal rescues over the years. I was nick-named ‘The Cat Whisperer’ by the staff at Cats Protection as even the most aggressive or nervous cats felt calm around me. I think this natural rapport enables me to get inside the minds of the animals and write from their perspective. I find writing people based stories a struggle as they tend to see things from my autistic perspective, but it’s something I am working on.
Your books are published through a company called i2i Publishing. What was your ‘journey’ in taking this route and did you consider self-publishing in the usual way?
I wrote the first book in the Akea series when I was about fourteen, around the same time that I began to struggle with depression and anxiety. My self-worth was extremely low and my mother wanted to prove to me that I could achieve something. She started searching for an agent for me and eventually found one who had just gone freelance. He said he could imagine my story as a film and agreed to take it on.
Finding a publisher to take a children’s book from an unknown author wasn’t easy, but eventually we received an encouraging yet disappointing reply. I can’t remember the name of the publisher, but they had thoroughly enjoyed my book and felt I had great potential. Unfortunately, they had just published a dog story and felt it would be unfair on the author to publish another so soon. Due to a string of unfortunate events, my agent eventually gave up on self-employment and we were back on our own.
After a couple of years of being distracted by our own complicated situation, my mum decided to try again. We had thought about self-publishing, but with various significant health issues in the home, it was a very daunting and stressful thought for us all. We wanted someone else to take on the work of editing, cover design and formatting etc. That’s when we found i2ipublishing who are really understanding of the pace I needed to work at with my autism.
Do you have many unpublished novels/stories?
I have a whole cupboard full of story ideas and part written stories. I can’t throw anything away just in case my subconscious decides to go back to it. I often describe my mind as ‘The Board of Directors’ in my head because it feels like a separate part of me is in charge of what I write and when I write it.
The Akea series is a good example of this. I have almost completed the third book in the series and I’ve written parts of books 4, 5, 6 and 7. Yes, I can write part of a later book without finishing the one before it. My mind seems to know roughly what will happen in each story, and when a story piece surfaces, I pick up that notebook and carry on writing. I also have the beginning of a series prequel idea and a side story about Akea’s daughter, so I have plenty to keep me busy.
Who does the illustrations for your books?
My illustrator is a very talented man called Anthony Wallis. I discovered him through a Facebook group for authors and illustrators. Knowing that a good illustrator could be rather expensive, I asked if there was anyone looking to illustrate my book at a discount rate in exchange for using the finished illustrations as advertising for their website etc. Several people sent in samples and I was immediately drawn to Anthony’s work.
I hadn’t realised how much work went on behind the scenes for an illustrator until I asked Anthony to do a guest post on the topic, which you can read here. Anthony really excelled himself with the illustrations for my second book and I hope to continue this wonderful partnership with the rest of the series.
Can we expect stories in other genres/themes from you in the future?
I am naturally drawn to animals and have a deep connection with them, so I am certain there will be other animal based stories on different themes. I have worked on and off with a story called Royal Blood which is a kind of period drama with horses instead of people, and another called Born to Die which is about an ill-treated dog’s thirst for revenge. Writing for adults is a work in progress, but I have several ideas on the go, including some in the sci-fi genre.
Who or what has been the biggest help to you in becoming a published author?
Definitely my parents, my mum in particular. I have zero confidence in myself and my writing, so I would not be where I am now without her belief in me and her hard work on my behalf. I may be the writer, but she is the drive behind publication and marketing. She has even run an author table at a few events, turning my absence into an advantage by using a poster about me as The Aspie Author to start conversations.
We also work together on author interviews and guest blogs etc. On my own, the answers would either be non-existent, incredibly short or very literal. For example, one question I had was ‘What was the first thing you wrote?’ My answer was ‘The letter A’ because that’s the first thing I learned to write in school. Not exactly what the blogger had in mind, was it?
What advice would you give to young writers in similar situations to your own?
(i) Don’t worry about the spelling and punctuation etc, at least not to begin with, as it can interfere with the flow of the story – you can always fix these later.
(ii) Find someone who can support you on your writing journey, particularly if, like me, you struggle to believe in yourself or you find the thought of publishing overwhelming.
(iii) Don’t give up. Your hard work could be just the inspiration someone else needs.