Friday, November 30, 2012

Interview with Andrew Solomon

Author Ann Bauer talks to Andrew Solomon about Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity 

Ann Bauer: The first, notable thing about FFTT is its size, of course. Did you feel any pressure to reduce the length and make the book more accessible?  What made you decide to submit all 900+ pages?

Andrew Solomon: I know this may sound shocking, but the first draft of the book was more than twice this long, and cutting it to this length took me well over a year. If I’d taken five years, I could have made it shorter—but then it would have needed updating, which would have made it longer again. I know readers can find long books daunting, and I don’t want to put anyone off. But I felt that I was really writing about diffuse topics, and that I needed to build up real insight into each one in order to assert at the synthetic insight at the center of the book. We live in the era of the sound byte, and I know that long books are not in fashion, but I subscribe to the antiquated idea that if you use more words well, you can say more. And I ended up with a lot to say.

You worked on this book for 10 years. Was there ever a point where you gave up on the project or tired of it? How long did that last and what drew you back?

I sold the idea eleven years ago, and worked on it for a year or so, and then decided to write a book about memory instead. For eighteen months, I kept saying that I was doing the book about memory—but I kept being drawn back to the topics of Far From the Tree, so a year after that, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t writing the memory book, and that I was writing this book. And then that’s what I did. After that, there were days when I was exhausted by the book or felt I’d lost my way, perhaps sometimes a week, but no major deviations from the course forward.

I know this is an exceptionally tough question, but do you have favorite sections/family stories from the book? I, for instance, was particularly riveted by the chapters on dwarfism and crime, perhaps because I found the details so surprising and compelling. If you had to choose, what are yours?

It’s been fascinating for me, since publication, to interact with people who are in most instances very clear about the “most interesting” chapters. People wonder whether the ones they found most interesting are the most interesting to everyone else, and the answer is that they are not. Everyone has some favorites, and the favorites differ. I considered many other categories and the chapters I wrote are all my favorites—I know that sounds like I’m failing to answer, but my favorites vary from day to day. I had the biggest shift in working on the chapter on trans kids. I’d thought their experience was so obscure and weird, and when I got to know them, I saw how much their experience was like mine. But I was riveted by the idea that autism, which seemed to me like such an affliction, could be a valued identity for other people, and I was amazed at the appealing humanity of the criminals I got to know, and devastated by the people who were bringing up children conceived in rape, and moved by the richness of Deaf culture. If I hadn’t loved them all, I’d have left some out and written a shorter book!

This book has such a unique structure: It's a memoir frame with a mammoth ethnography tucked inside. What made you decide to write it this way?

I’m always amused that nonfiction books are sold on the basis of proposals, because I always think that if you knew enough about what you were doing to write about it before you started, your book probably wouldn’t be worth researching and writing. I’d had the experience of writing about Deaf culture for the NY Times Magazine, and I recognized the parallels between the Deaf experience and my own. As the book took shape, I was aware that my understanding of the other cultures I was exploring was deeply informed by my own experience of difference. I knew I’d bring that perspective to what I was writing, but how could I do so most honestly? I decided that I had to write about the personal side to the whole thing, and yet I didn’t want to make this into a whole book about me. So I decided to write an introduction that drew on my own life. Then as I kept working, my own life kept changing, and I ultimately saw that I needed to pay tribute to what I had learned in writing the book, and how it had informed my own experience of parenthood. So that shape just emerged in fits and starts and then suddenly seemed to make sense. I felt that I had looked as deeply as I could at the lives of other people, and needed to look as deeply as I could at my own life, too; it felt unfair to do otherwise. But I didn’t want to insert my life in the middle of other people’s stories, as that seemed egomaniacal.

Several times in the book you allude to the fact that your growing up gay, 40 years ago, was somewhat like the experience of exceptional or disabled children today. But being gay is no longer considered an aberration while being three feet tall probably always will be....How do you think of the metaphor today?

My central argument in this book is that this year’s illness is tomorrow’s identity (and sometimes vice versa). Bear in mind that if you had said forty years ago that gay marriage would be endorsed by the president of the United States, people would have laughed out loud. Indeed, when a friend of mine wrote one of the early books about gay marriage, just twenty years ago, I laughed out loud; it seemed like a sweet but essentially ludicrous idea. Being gay is still an aberration, to use the word you’ve presented; it’s a condition present in a minority of the population. Dwarfism in itself will probably remain much rarer than gayness, so if we’re looking simply at numbers, it’s already more of an aberration. But in terms of social acceptance, I think our understanding of people whose bodies and minds are different may be completely different in another forty years. I don’t know what will change or what it will look like, but I am open to the likelihood that there will be a profound shift. The category of the abnormal is in constant flux in the world—and in individual lives. My father would have found gayness aberrant when I was born and he doesn’t now. And I would have found most of the conditions in the book aberrant before I started it, and I don’t now. I look at friends who are trans or who are dwarfs or who have schizophrenia and I think how scared I used to be of such people, and how unlikely these friendships might have seemed to me, and I can only hope the world will encounter these people and see their indelible humanity, as I now have.

Some sections of this book were devastating to read. And you've been very open about your own tendency toward depression. Was there ever a point when you became too upset about the hardship you encountered to go on?

Oh, there were many, many days when I came home from doing an interview and collapsed. There were so many stories of so much pain and I was so done in by them. But I thought often of something that my mother’s oncologist said to me when she was dying of cancer. I had asked how he could bear to work with so many dying people, and he said, “Because of the ones I save.” I wasn’t saving anyone and I wouldn’t want to compare my work to his in terms of its value in individual lives, but I did have a sense of great purpose as I went about this work, and while the book chronicles many experiences of intense pain, it is ultimately a book about resilience and love. That being said, there were days when I found the sadness of individual stories so overwhelming that I was almost paralyzed with it. And I did sometimes need to take a week or two off in order to preserve my own mental health. It helped that I had by then found medication, therapy, and a husband—I felt at least a little less vulnerable than I did when I was writing The Noonday Demon.

This is the toughest question for me. As the mother of a son with autism, I was mildly put off by the Prodigy chapter, because it seemed to equate the experience of having a marvelously talented child with the heartbreak of watching a disabled child suffer....what made you decide to include this piece?

I’m fascinated by your response, because people who are themselves prodigies have been outraged that they could be compared to people with autism. I think it’s one of the signal triumphs of the book that almost everyone in it was offended to be in with the other categories. And it was terribly important to me that people understand the connection between their own form of difference (which was often somewhat isolating) and everyone else’s form of difference (because the parallels would demonstrate how un-alone people actually are). My experience was that while there are hidden rewards and pleasant surprises that follow on the devastation of having a child with a disability, there are hidden traumas and struggles attached to having a child with remarkable abilities, and I wanted to make the point, as emphatically as possible, that what is difficult it often not the inherent quality of any particular difference, but the fact of difference itself. I’d never want to trivialize your experience of bringing up a child with autism. But I hope you’ll understand that as unknowable as your reality ultimately may be for people who have no experience with autism, so the experience of these others is unknowable to you. Though it is difficult in very different ways, it is profoundly difficult. An excerpt from the chapter on prodigies ran in the New York Times Magazine, and I had dozens of letters from people writing to thank me for recognizing how scary and confusing and overwhelming the experience was, how ill-prepared they were to face it. Many commented that they felt that there had never been any recognition of their struggle, and some said that they cried with relief when someone finally acknowledged them.

At the end of the book, you admit that you prayed for your own son, George, never to join the ranks of the exceptional children you met. I found this brave and very human. Did you and your publisher have any concerns about how people would respond?

My publisher lets me make these calls, and so didn’t take a position on this. I was worried about how that assertion would go down, but felt that I’d asked the people in the book to be honest, and had to be honest in return. The point I hoped to make with that assertion at the end of the book is that I, like all parents, want to spare my children suffering; and like all parents, I want a child whom I can understand and who will express a gratifying happiness back to me. To be undisturbed upon learning that my child had possible brain damage would have been bizarre. But part of the point I was making in that final chapter is that while I used to think I might reject a child who was aberrant, I now believe that I would love such a child very profoundly. That made the prospect of having such a child was in some ways even more frightening to me, because I know, equally, the cost of such love. I wanted to protect my child and myself—but I already loved him. And the book is, above all, a book about love in all its wonderful and terrible manifestations: how hard love can be, and how deeply it is worth it. 

Andrew Solomon is a writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts; winner of the National Book Award; and an activist in LGBT rights, mental health, and the arts.
Ann Bauer is the author of the novel The Forever Marriage. She lives in Minneapolis.

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