Monday, August 1, 2016

Carolyn Parkhurst talks about Aspergers, why we don't know anything about parenting until we become a parent, The Simpsons, and Harmony, her gorgeous and moving new novel

Carolyn Parkhurst is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels, The Dogs of Babel, Lost and Found and The Nobodies Album, as well as a children’s book, Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly. Her new novel, Harmony, is an extraordinary story of a family who leaves everything behind to try and live a new kind of life. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Carolyn!

What haunted you into writing this novel? Were you haunted?

Well, yes and no. My fourteen-year-old son has Aspergers, and a lot of the impetus for the novel came from my own experience of parenting him.  Right from the beginning, he seemed different from other kids, in ways that were positive as well as negative, and that made it difficult to compare notes with other parents, to seek out that parental camaraderie that can be so useful in navigating motherhood.  For example, he memorized all fifty states on a U.S. map when he had just turned two; my husband and I were proud, but also kind of baffled.  It felt a little bit like bragging to talk about it, to even tell the story, and even though we knew it indicated extraordinary mental power, we did sort of understand that it also indicated some divergence from the usual course of development.  Then, when he was three, he had an enormous meltdown one time because he asked us how to spell “concrete,” and our answer didn’t make sense to him.  (He was sure that it ended with a k-sound.)  None of this seemed even remotely similar to what our friends with similarly aged kids were going through.

So actually, a lot of the writing of this book (especially the sections told from the point of view of the mother, Alexandra) was cathartic, which I think may be the opposite of “haunting” in some sense.  But it was also clear to me that this was a book with an unusual amount of baggage attached to it.  (And in case that wasn’t obvious to my conscious mind, I had a recurring dream about having to pack up an entire apartment or house or dorm room in an impossible amount of time.)  I worried a lot about whether I was “allowed” to be writing a novel which mirrored my personal life and drew material from my own children so clearly. 

The Family Camp was so uncomfortably strange that I wonder if you've visited a place like this as research?

I’m not sure there are any places exactly like Camp Harmony, although I know that there are “family camps” (which are sort of modern versions of Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing), as well as camps that are designed to help families with special-needs kids in various ways.  But I did draw some inspiration from the location, which is Lake Winnipesaukee  in New Hampshire.  As a kid, I went on a lot of vacations to “cottage colonies” in that area, and that’s what provided most of the visuals and atmosphere for me in creating the setting.

There is a breathtaking coda at the end of the novel, which I won't give away, but I do want to say that it's the loveliest manifestation of parental love I've ever read. It goes beyond acceptance into championing. Why do you think so many well-meaning parenting advice backfires?

I think that one problem with parenting advice is that it takes a “one size fits all” approach, when in fact there’s a lot of variation in what strategies work with different kids.  When my son was little, I bought dozens of parenting books on subjects that we were struggling with, like sleep habits and discipline, and for the most part, none of the recommended methods worked with him.  I was kind of amazed when my daughter (who’s almost four years younger and is completely neurotypical) was born, to discover that a lot of those strategies did work for her.  But not everything works for every kid, and it’s very much a matter of understanding your own child and what makes him/her tick.

I know that a lot of people (me included) think that we know a lot about parenting before we actually have kids, and then it all gets blown out of the water once this tiny little tornado enters your life.  And then you start to think you’re an expert, but if you have a second kid, you realize that you were only ever an expert on the first individual child; the second one is completely different.  In the same way that waiting tables in college made me a good tipper for life, the experience of parenting two very different kids has made me a lot less judgmental about other parents. 

What do you think it means to be different in a society that would prefer to keep square pegs in square holes?
Like so many things, I think it’s a matter of degree.  I know many people who felt slightly out of step with other kids when they were growing up; I think it’s almost a universal component of identity formation to discover the ways that you’re not like the majority (or the perceived majority).  You don’t fit in with the cool kids or the athletic kids, or whatever, and you figure out who you are in relation to them.  And there’s a tendency to look at kids who are diagnosed with autism or ADHD and say, “Well, thirty years ago, they just would have been considered quirky.”  Or “There’s nothing wrong with marching to a different beat.”

But I think that does a disservice to these kids (and the adults they grow up to be), because there are real differences.  Sometimes having a kid with special needs helps me to clarify what my job is as a parent: it’s really about making sure that your child will be able to function in the world on their own.  It’s fine to march to a different beat, as long as you know how to talk to a co-worker and remember to do your laundry regularly and pay your bills on time when you’d rather be playing video games all day.  There are a lot of unspoken rules that most kids pick up instinctually, incidentally.  But the ones who don’t need help and constant support.  It’s been obvious since my son was tiny that he has a huge amount of potential.  But he’s going to struggle more than other kids in figuring out how to unlock that potential while simultaneously living in the world.

Again, because your novel haunted me so much, I want to know what was it like writing the book? Did you know the whole arc before you put pen to paper?
No, I didn’t; in fact, I never do.  My goal in terms of plot is always to create a story that makes readers want to keep turning the pages, but it’s always the emotional content that comes first.  With this book, I went through several different possible endings, and there were a lot of scenes at the camp that later got deleted or modified.  I’m always much more clear on what I want to convey about the characters and their inner lives than I am on the external events that create the bones of the story.  That only comes through writing and revising, trying different things out and seeing which of them work.

What's obsessing you now and why?
Well, the obvious answer is the election, but honestly that’s a subject that’s so fraught and anxiety-laden that I’m trying not to obsess about it.  As I write these answers, I’m on vacation, with my family and my husband’s extended family, and it’s been such a lovely relief to focus on nothing but happy and relaxing things.   So today I’m obsessed with the pool and the beach, heat and sunscreen, my kids and the cocktail I’m going to have when it isn’t even dinnertime yet.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What was the most fun detail of writing the book?  I have one minor character, a kid at the camp, who’s obsessed with The Simpsons, and I had a great time coming up with Simpsons quotes for him to insert into conversation.  I’m a die-hard Simpsons fan.  (I mean, I agree with critics who say that not every season has lived up to its full potential, but I think it’s like Saturday Night Live at this point—it’s contributed so much to pop culture at large that I’m willing to overlook its low points.)  And so this kid’s obsession is something I picked strictly because I knew I’d have fun with it.  I think that a lot of authors probably do this—throw in a little something that isn’t crucial to the larger work, but is meaningful or interesting to us personally.  And for me, this time around, it was picking the right Simpsons quote for every occasion.

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