This next interview is with one of my longtime and closest friends, Alyssa. I first remember her from French class in junior high, but she says we had a math class together first. Eh, she’s probably right. We went on to become friends who shared an odd sense of humor. I credit her with putting up with me because I was far less sophisticated than her. A visit to her family generally includes in depth historical references, clever jokes, and classical music. I think I first heard KBAQ played in her mother’s car.
Alyssa and I have shared many experiences including working at the Renaissance Festival, watching Black Adder, and opting out of dissecting the fetal pig in biology. Those other suckers spent a week inhaling stinky fumes while we chilled in the library and finished our report in a day!
This interview is longer than most, but hey, she’s a writer…
(alyssa and jiro)
JM: Tell us a little about yourself.
AM: Um. Yeah. I always hate this kind of thing. I mean, I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I think I’m a little hard to sum up. Not that I don’t also think this of most people. Hell, I can’t even sum up a single one of my novels when trying to draft query letters, and there we’re just talking about a few thousand words I strung together.
So, uh, some basic stuff.
I am a woman. Which I still find surprising and necessary to point out now and again, because even though this seems to mean something to everyone else on the planet I still can’t figure out how this is supposed to have affected who I am or what I’m capable of. I’m a person, as far as I’m concerned. I have general person-y qualities that I would neither call masculine nor feminine when taken as a whole. I strongly dislike being told that I’m supposed to think or feel or be any particular thing based on which reproductive equipment I ended up with.
I am a mother. My son turned 14 this year and will be starting High School in the fall. This freaks me the $#&! out.
I am autistic. Not “I have autism.” I am autistic. It is a defining element of who I am, not a disease that I need to be cured of. Autism has been under attack by a smear campaign led by organizations like Cure Autism Now and Autism Speaks which only propagate public hysteria and fear among parents, offer no aid of any kind to real life autistic people, and are raising money solely for the purpose of raising more money to raise more money. I do not consider myself mentally ill or disabled or even particularly disadvantaged. I face a set of challenges on a daily basis that are slightly different from the ones that most people face, but I have also been compensated with strengths most people are not.
I am a Phoenician. As much as I hate that this is something that has defined me, and negatively, it is. I was born here, raised here, I’ve always lived here, and one of the things everyone knows about me whether they know me well or not is that I’m basically desperate to get out of here. I just wasn’t cut out for desert-dwelling.
I am eccentric. This is something I hear all the time, sometimes in a derogatory context. I take is as a compliment anyway. I know I’m not the easiest person, and I don’t go out of my way to make knowing me easier for anyone. I firmly believe that within each person rages a constant clash between various seemingly-exclusive contradictions, and that who we really are can be found on the lines of these battles, not by using easy labels to deny the conflict. I get combative when people try to tell me who or what I am.
I am an artist. When I was younger, I believed the definition of artist was “someone who can draw representational images with an exceptional degree of verisimilitude.” Naturally, when I turned out not to have this ability, I felt a certain amount of shame at the idea of calling myself an artist despite my artistic eye and desire to make the world more beautiful. It has only been in the last few years of my life that I’ve finally been able to do away with the ridiculous shame and accept that there are as many kinds of artists as there are kinds of art.
I am a writer. Ever since I understood what a story is – when my mother read The Hobbit to me when I was 3 or so – I knew that I wanted to tell my own stories. I learned to read and write as early as I could so I could get started. I had already completed a draft of my first full-length novel by the time I was 12. Oh, I was so serious about that thing it goes past being funny. I really thought I was going to publish that steaming pile of magic unicorn pulp and become the youngest best-selling author in the history of ever. Luckily, I got over this as soon as I put it down for a couple of months and then read it again from start to finish. Children really do grow quickly at that age; I had already gained enough perspective to see that I had a lot of work ahead of me. And I was more serious about it than ever.
At this point, I’ve completed four rather long fantasy novels, none of them contain unicorns, and I’m pretty sure I no longer suck. I’m still looking for my big break as far as publication goes, although these days I’m well past being able to call myself the youngest anything. They say novelists don’t really come into their own until 50, right? Yeah. I’ve still got time.
JM: You mentioned the strengths of being autistic. Could you elaborate?
AM: Heh. Well, there’s the anal-retentiveness. I’m sure that’s everyone’s favorite thing about me.
Seriously, though, I’m reminded here of a fun little web page I once came across. Ten Terrific Traits of Autistic People. I’d say all ten of these apply to me to greater or lesser degree, and I like what they bring to my life. Pardon the hubris, but I actually really enjoy being a person who says what she means and who isn’t impressed by other people’s bullshit.
I’ve also read several accounts of autistic people who found great success in the professional world because of their ability to hyperfocus or perseverate. It’s true that autistic perseveration is a mixed bag and can lead to bad things when you can’t make yourself stop perseverating to do the real life stuff, but like I said, everyone struggles with real life in their own way. I recently worked a contract job where I was exactly what the company needed because of my non-traditional problem-solving approach, eye for minutiae, and autistic ability to be happy doing the same mind-numbing data-analysis for days at a time.
For the last few years, I’ve also been doing a lot of editing work for other people. I’ve found that here, again, my autistic traits really set me apart from other editors. Because one of my lifelong perseverations has been language and grammar, including sociolinguistic applications, I’ve become an expert on esoteric word choice and language usage. My autistic brain is constantly picking out patterns that other people miss; and again with the hyperfocus and eye for minutiae, there is little that escapes my notice when I’m reviewing words on a page. This can be a bad thing when I’m trying to just enjoy a piece of writing for its storytelling and all I can notice is all the tiny flaws, but on the whole it ends up being an asset.
Before my diagnosis of autism, I was feeling generally out of sorts all the time and I had no idea why or what I could do about it. Now that I know more about myself, I’m able to recognize that my physical environment was affecting me negatively. Specifically, the disorder and general clutter. My mom didn’t raise me to be particularly tidy, so a little bit of mess had always been part of my environment and it was a shock to learn that this was causing mental and emotional untidiness as well. Knowing now that I can do something about this and that the stakes are worth the effort, my autistic need for things to be in their proper order has been a tremendous help in keeping a clean and organized home. It also freed me from the general cultural belief that a house with more stuff in it means a more successful and fulfilled life. Streamlining has been a major stress-reliever.
This is not to say that all autistic people are natural housekeepers or anything – quite the opposite for me, personally. We often feel overwhelmed by the task of cleaning, and like I said I wasn’t raised for it. I guess what I’m saying here is that my autistic traits have been a help in overcoming a messy upbringing.
And of course there’s the synaesthesia. Not that all autistic people have synaethesia or that you have to be autistic to have it, but studies do show a higher than coincidental correlation. Which makes sense, as autism is a sensory disorder. It’s a beautiful way to experience life, and I can’t imagine being without it. I’d feel robbed if I woke up tomorrow and suddenly found that words and sounds no longer painted colorful images in my mind.
JM: How do you find inspiration for your characters and storylines?
AM: This is a difficult question for any writer to answer, because ideas come from literally everywhere, in all sorts of forms.
Sometimes I see two strangers exchange a look I find intriguing, and my brain starts throwing out absurdly complicated theories to explain it. Sometimes an old, skeezy building all boarded up and rotting in the middle of an otherwise thriving neighborhood presents such an arresting image that I assume there just has to be a story behind it. Maybe I encounter an unusual word combination that my imagination turns into a title and then begins to work on the mystery of what a story by that name would be about. There are the random thoughts that come out of nowhere while driving, like, “Dude. You know what would be a great name for a coffee shop? The Grind House. And the owner would totally be a tatted-up Hell’s Angel and there would be a giant screen in the back of the joint where he would show grindhouse movies 24 hours a day.”
Ideas come from everywhere.
But, I think I can address this in a more general way. I have a curious mind and, thanks to the autism, a constant need and ability to find patterns. When I look at the world, I’m always trying to answer some question. I want to know how and why things work, how they got that way, why we leave them that way – or how they could be changed. What would happen if we changed them. What will happen if we don’t.
Mostly I’ve always been puzzled by people and how they think. I understood, even as a child, that other people are basically aliens to me and that I’ll only ever get them bymaking a conscious study of human behavior. (I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons why literature has always fascinated me.) So, I’d say that my ideas are usually generated by questions and I’m inspired by the need to know (or make up) the answers. The characters I write tend to be either people who have some unique ability to explore these questions, or people who raise questions/ conflicts for my other characters to explore.
JM: Why don’t any of your books feature unicorns? Because as any reader of my blog knows, I am a fan. And if I remember correctly, I think one of my editorial comments on one of your books was that it needed more unicorns.
AM: Well, I don’t have anything personal against unicorns. When I say my work is better because it no longer includes unicorns, what I should really say is that it’s never a good idea to try to write things that aren’t a good fit for you and your style. Unicorns are either absurd and hilarious, like Charlie, or they’re beautiful and graceful and they embody everything pure. Neither of those are my thing. As you know, my work tends to be darker.
If there’s a correlation between a lack of unicorns in my stories and an improvement in my overall writing quality, it’s because I’ve learned to embrace my strengths and not try to force myself to write what I don’t know just because it’s what the genre expects.
But hey, speaking of unicorns, have you seen the canned unicorn meat they sell on Thinkgeek.com? I keep thinking I should order some for you one day.
JM: What role does music play in your life?
AM: This question strikes me as a little odd when I give it some thought. I mean, it’s hard to say that music has this role or that role in my life, because I’ve always sort of felt that music is life. Or that life is music. Again, hard to say. I honestly can’t imagine a world without music in it, or the life I would have lived without it. Music enriches every experience, every moment life has to offer.
It might surprise you to know that I seriously considered majoring in Music Performance when I was weighing my path at ASU and my future as an adult.
I was in choir all through Junior High and High School – in two choirs my senior year. I began learning piano formally when I was 10; before that, I spent the first years of my life drawn to the instrument, fascinated by it, tapping away at the keys despite having no ability to play any of the melodies I was always hearing around me. I knew the thing had the potential to make magic, if only I could figure out how. I’ve spent my entire life looking for that magic, finding it sometimes, more often just enthralled by the search. I am never more at ease or more engaged in the human experience than when I am making music.
By the time I was a senior at Mountain View, music was so deeply woven into the fabric of my life that a music major seemed likea logical step.I don’t really regret that circumstances at the time forced me to be more practical. Back then I was still growing into my voice along with my technical abilities, and the standard indicators pointed toward my developing into a lyric operatic soprano. I know I was gifted with something special, so I’m not complaining when I say that in a surprise twist I ended up falling well short of this. My vocal maturity halted at a younger, smaller, lighter sound than what I would have needed as a soloist on any kind of stage. I say I don’t regret this because one, I really am grateful for the voice I have; and two, the way my development finally shook out, I never would have made a career of it.
Anyway, a career in musical theatre probably would have turned music into work.
These days, for me, music is more in the background than it used to be. Much more than I’d like. I realized about a year ago that there was a hole in my life, and after some personal examination I realized that hole was where my music was supposed to be. Adulthood and real life had kind of crept up on it and abducted it while I wasn’t looking. I did an internet search for choirs in Phoenix and rather impetuously sent in an application to the first (and, it turned out, only) one I found auditioning in my area.
Oh boy, was I terrified at that audition. I felt like it was a life or death situation, whether or not I got into this choir. Looking back even just a year later, I think it was. I was in a dark place, and music was the lifeline that saved me.
Early this May, my first year with the Arizona Deseret Choir concluded at a concert performing an hour-long repertoire of sacred Easter material. The experience was a stirring one for all of us as an ensemble. There is no feeling in the world comparable to the moment of concordance when a group of voices is able to find and share the same musical, technical, emotional, and spiritual space. When the concert was over, moved almost to tears, I thanked my director for the privilege it had been to make music with him and the choir this year. I told him that I hadn’t been able to sing with a choir since college, and I tried to explain a little of what this had meant to me. He watched me struggle to express myself for a moment, then said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “It’s like taking back a part of yourself that had been lost.”
Yes. Just like that.
JM: Would you like to share an internet link?
AM: And on that rather heavy note, I think I’ll leave you with something more lighthearted: The Nostalgia Critic, one of my absolute favorite things on the internet. Period. His tag line is, “I remember it so you don’t have to.” He reviews the bad good old movies and television of his childhood, profanely, hilariously, and quite astutely. I find myself nodding and agreeing with most of what he says when I’m not outright laughing myself to death, only he says it more entertainingly than I would. And with more swearing.
Thank you to Alyssa for participating in the series! And please feel free to ask her any questions in the comments section.