Rachael Lucas: Why I Wanted To Write a Novel About an Autistic Girl
Rachael Lucas' hotly-anticipated novel The State of Grace is out this week, and tells the story of a teenage girl with Aspergers trying to find her place and identity in the world. In this interview, Rachael tells us more about the book and how being an autistic writer has impacted on her work, as well as discussing perceptions of autism in society.
This is your first YA book. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and how it came about?
I never stopped reading YA books, so writing them is something I always aimed to do. When my eldest daughter was very young I suspected that she was autistic, and it took a long time to get a diagnosis. It’s still incredibly hard to get a diagnosis for women and girls as the stereotype of young, non-verbal males is a powerful one. In the end, we were both diagnosed in the same year after a consultant pointed out that we had almost identical traits.
Like lots of writers I make sense of things by writing them down, and the voice of Grace was very clear in my head. She’d been chatting away for about a year before I started scribbling down some ideas and I realized that her phrase “sometimes I feel like everyone else was handed a copy of the rules for life and mine got lost” was the theme of the book. I decided that if I wanted her to stop talking, perhaps I’d better write her words down! The first draft was written in a matter of weeks, and a book deal followed very quickly afterwards. It’s all been a bit of a whirl.
What has your experience of writing for YA been like?
The UK YA community are amazing, supportive and incredibly funny which means that it’s been great. I’ve had book bloggers and fellow writers cheering me on along the way to publication, which really helps. Whilst writing a book is quite a solitary job, there’s so much more to it than that and the community feeling – and events like the Young Adult Literature Convention mean that it’s a really fun thing to do. Everyone is incredibly passionate about YA books, too – I think because the books we read as young people form the adults we become, and so they are really important.
Have you had to think in a different way or approach your writing any differently?
I wrote The State of Grace in present tense, and in the first person, which was a deliberate choice. I felt very strongly that she was telling me her story, and that whilst my adult books are in third person and more reflective, it worked well for Grace to just chat away in my head. I found it really easy to find her voice – I don’t think many adults really think like adults, and the fifteen year old in us isn’t ever that far from the surface. I also wanted to really put people inside the mind of an autistic person and let them see how the world looks and feels – of course, every autistic person is different, but there are commonalities and I hope I’ve reflected them.
What kind of a response have you had to the book?
Autism in women and girls is becoming more widely recognized, but the diagnosis process is still painfully slow – or even non existent – in parts of the UK.
It’s been absolutely amazing. When I shared the announcement about the book deal on Twitter it was retweeted hundreds of times and I still get messages about it. I’ve had a lot of interest from autistic people who are happy that they can see themselves in a story where the character just happens to be autistic. The YA reading community has been brilliant as well, reading and reviewing early copies and spreading the word. I think it shows there’s a real need for this sort of book – known as “own voices” where the writer is writing their own experience. Up until now almost all books about autistic characters have been written by either parents or relatives, and whilst they have a place, they don’t accurately reflect autistic people and the way we experience life.
How far forward do you think we are, as a society in general, in understanding the issues that present themselves in your book?
I think we have a way to go. Autism in women and girls is becoming more widely recognized, but the diagnosis process is still painfully slow – or even non existent – in parts of the UK. As Grace shows in the book, even teachers who think they’re trying to understand really struggle to appreciate what it feels like to deal with sensory overload, or to struggle to find words. I hope that The State of Grace will help in this regard and initial feedback from teachers suggests that it will, which is lovely.
What do you think the keys are to writing a good character?
I don’t start writing until I have a good idea how my character thinks, which means they often live in my head for quite a long time before I actually put anything down on paper. I think it’s important that characters are fully rounded – which means they make the mistakes and do the things that we would do, even if that means as you’re reading you’re cringing with horror. In YA, that means looking at the way you’d behave when you were a teenager – and to do that you can’t rely on your own memory, because it’s easy to paint yourself as a reasonable, easy going paragon of virtue. I am lucky to have three teenagers at home, so I have a constant reminder of the joys of adolescence and the never ending twin desires for toast and wifi…