Giving Autism Some Love In 'A Room Called Earth'

Aug 15, 2020

The new novel A Room Called Earth opens with a young woman as she gets ready for a holiday party in Melbourne, Australia.

Getting ready takes 17 chapters. And every detail has a reason for being. As the narrator tells us, "My inner processes can be visceral to the point of being completely illusory, and absurd."

Writer Madeleine Ryan says there's a word that's important to understanding her book. "And that would be autism ... I'm autistic," she says, "and I was diagnosed as autistic when I was writing the book. So it was a very intimate adventure, writing this book, in lots of ways."


Interview Highlights

On whether writing the book helped her get perspective on her own experiences

Definitely. She helped me to embrace so much about how I process thoughts, feelings and experiences. It sort of dawned on me that she was autistic too — it kind of took some time. Like I kept writing once I got the diagnosis, I didn't really think about it too much. And then one day I was sitting outside having a cup of tea. And, you know, I was like ... this is in the first person. So I'm inside her mind. And if I'm kind of harnessing the way that I process feelings and thoughts and experiences, and if I'm applying that here to help bring her to life, does that mean that she's autistic? I just felt this big, warm "yes." And it was such a relief too, and it felt like she'd chosen me. And in a sense, from that point on, she really helped me to embrace autism.

On how it can take 17 chapters to get dressed

Savoring every moment with herself and in her world is her special place. And I think that there's also something to be said for the power of getting ready for an event, and kind of the stories or imaginings you can weave of what's to come. It's like this beautiful, sweet spot before the event where you can imagine how amazing it's going to be. And you're in this place where you don't, you know, the reality of it hasn't kind of confronted you yet. And you can dream it into being and be with yourself and care for yourself — and so hence the 17 chapters of it.

On whether reading this book can help people appreciate their on company in isolation

I hope so. I mean, this book is a real celebration of having space with yourself in lots of ways or how that can become a very loving experience. And I mean, she is not without challenges. She's not without pain, but she's found a space to hold that both in her physical world but also in her inner world.

Because I think a lot of time alone, you're confronted with yourself. We're confronted with ourselves. There's nowhere to run. There's nowhere to hide. You can't rush out. And that's certainly been the case for a lot of people, obviously, this year. And this book is, I guess, a testament to how that space can be a loving one, even if there are challenges.

On seeing autism not as a disability, but as an opportunity

I would love for them to see it as an opportunity. And I think the word autism could use a bit of love and being expanded. And if it becomes something that is synonymous with the idea of opportunity, that's a beautiful choice of word, because I really think it is a different way of seeing the world and experiencing sensations and processing thoughts. And there's a huge value to someone who has a different perspective, and an autistic person is always going to have that. So, yes, opportunity. Absolutely.

This story was produced for radio by Peter Breslow, edited by D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"A Room Called Earth" is a novel that opens with a young woman as she gets ready for a holiday party in Melbourne. Getting ready takes 17 chapters. Every detail has a reason for being, as the narrator tells us, my inner processes can be visceral to the point of being completely illusory and absurd. Let's ask Madeleine Ryan, the author of "A Room Called Earth," to bring us inside the mind of her character.

MADELEINE RYAN: (Reading) One time, I went to a doctor about some paperwork that I needed for something completely unrelated to anything medical, and she asked me if I was taking prescription medication. Like, was I on anti-anxiety meds or antidepressants, perhaps? I tried to explain to her that I didn't feel comfortable having my feelings meddled with. She looked at me over her teeny-tiny glasses and insisted that taking medication might help me deal with difficult feelings. And I said, no, thank you, before sharing with her that feelings weren't supposed to be dealt with; they were supposed to be felt with. She remained silent, and I took that silence as an opportunity to go on to say that no matter how hard it might be to feel feelings and to think thoughts, they're all that I have, and they mean a lot to me.

SIMON: Madeleine Ryan, the novelist, writer and director, joins us from Victoria, Australia. Thanks so much for being with us.

RYAN: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: There's really not a label or an ism in this book, but would it help us to understand your character and this novel for you to use one in this interview?

RYAN: Sure. We can use one, you know, one important one, sparingly, but we can use it, definitely. And that would be autism, yeah.

SIMON: And you know this world.

RYAN: I do. I do. I'm autistic, and I was diagnosed as autistic when I was writing the book. Yeah, so it was a very intimate adventure writing this book, in lots of ways.

SIMON: An intimate adventure, but at the same time, did it help you in writing this book to stand outside of yourself and look in, in a sense?

RYAN: Definitely. She helped me to embrace so much about how I process thoughts, feelings and experiences.

It sort of dawned on me that she was autistic, too. It kind of took some time. Like, I kept writing once I got the diagnosis. I didn't really think about it too much. And then one day, I was sitting outside, sort of having a cup of tea. And, you know, I was like, you know, if, you know, this is in the first person, so I'm inside her mind, and if I'm kind of harnessing the way that I process feelings and thoughts and experiences, and if I'm applying that here to help bring her to life, does that mean that she's autistic? I just felt this big, warm yes, and it was like - it was such a relief, too, and it felt like she'd chosen me. And in a sense, from that point on, she really helped me to embrace autism.

SIMON: Can you help us understand that getting dressed over 17 chapters...

RYAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Which, by the way, is at once exhausting and stunning?

RYAN: Oh, thank you. Yeah. I mean, sort of savoring every moment with herself and in her world is her special place. And I think that there's also something to be said for the power of getting ready for an event and kind of the stories or imaginings you can weave of what's to come. It's like this beautiful sweet spot before the event where you can kind of imagine how amazing it's going to be. And you're in this place where you don't - you know, the reality of it hasn't kind of confronted you yet, and you can dream it into being and be with yourself and care for yourself. And so hence the 17 chapters of it (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. Forgive me, but did an editor ever say to you, you know, after five or six chapters, OK, I get the point?

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN: No, actually. Not when it came to her rituals and routines, no. I mean, no, they never touched her inner world.

SIMON: Without giving away too much of the storyline, a romance ensues in the course of this novel. And when someone tells your character, I wish I could see what you see, I have found this just about the tenderest expression of love I've ever heard.

RYAN: Wow, yeah. Well, I think it could be. It feels like that's also at the core of what this story's about, too. Like, what is it like to be inside someone else and to see what they see? And to encounter someone that you find yourself yearning for that kind of experience with them - I mean, that - yeah - that has to be the definition of intimacy.

SIMON: I don't have to tell you a lot of people around the world now are spending more time by themselves than ever, perhaps. And for a lot of people, after all these weeks and months, they're past enjoying it.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You know? I wonder if people who read your novel now can take something from it in these times.

RYAN: I hope so. I mean, this book is a real celebration of having space with yourself in lots of ways, or how that can become a very loving experience. And, I mean, she is not without challenges. She's not without pain. But she's found a space to hold that, both in her physical world, but also in her inner world.

Because I think a lot of time alone, you're confronted with yourself. We're confronted with ourselves. There's nowhere to run. There's nowhere to hide. You can't rush out. And that's certainly been the case for a lot of people, obviously, this year. And this book is, I guess, a testament to how that space can be a loving one even if there are challenges.

SIMON: I think anybody who reads this book will, if I may mention the word one more time, will cease to think of autism as a disability but maybe see it as an opportunity.

RYAN: I would love for them to see it as an opportunity, and I think the word autism could use a bit of love and be expanded. And if it becomes something that is synonymous with the idea of opportunity, that's a beautiful choice of word because I really think it is a different way of seeing the world and experiencing sensations and processing thoughts. And there's a huge value to someone who has a different perspective, and an autistic person is always going to have that, so, yes, opportunity, absolutely.

SIMON: Madeleine Ryan - her novel, "A Room Called Earth" - thank you so much for being with us.

RYAN: Thanks, Scott, for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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