Without Alice by D.J. Kirkby

DSM IV and the creative writing force

This interview is loosely based upon our old fiend the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders edition IV – [a rivetingly fun read, probably just before DSM V is published] and some of the more crass things that people sometimes ask out loud.

Here I am ‘interviewing’ DJ Kirkby about the creative writing process that produced her most recent novel called “Without Alice,” and she graciously shares with us the benefits of her experience.

The blurb reads, “Meet a man who you will love to hate until you learn to love him.”  If you win this giveaway, let me know if you do?

1.    Everybody knows that autistic people are emotionally stunted, incapable of empathy and can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes – so how do you?

I’m glad you warned me that these questions had an element of sarcasm in them or I would have been quite shocked to be asked questions like this by yourself.  We are, of course, quite capable of empathy.  I think that we tend to use it in a more subtle and practical fashion (for example; ensuing that steps have been taken to ensure that  the person in need of empathy will not come to any further harm first and foremost) than neurotypical people might and therefore it may not be as obvious to those who are looking for displays of empathy from people with autism but should be immediately obvious to those on the receiving end who are likely to be those who know us well.

2.    You’ve started pretty late as a writer, is that because you’re autistic?

I actually started writing as soon as I could string a few words together to form sentences. I wrote my first story when I was six years old and found that it was a good way to try and explain how different I felt from everyone around me. So I do think that being autistic does define me as a writer as it definitely shaped the way I write.

3.    Autistic people are so single minded that they can tune everything else out – doesn’t this fact give you an unfair advantage by comparison to the average writer?

Erm, yes it does as long as writing is my current favourite thing to be obsessed with. However, when I find a new interest then writing takes a back seat for a while in favour of the new obsession.

4.    How come you’re not an engineer or a computer nerd if you’re really autistic?

Because I find engineering very boring…though I do have to confess to being a bit of a computer nerd. Autistic people are all individuals just like neurotypical people and therefore we all have different areas of interest and hobbies.

5.    Were you diagnosed by a real doctor, one with qualifications, certification and expertise in autism?  Or are you self diagnosed?  What do you think about people who self diagnose?

I was diagnosed by Dr Gould at the Lorna Wing Centre for Autism which is the diagnostic centre for the national Autistic Society UK.  However, I think that there is nothing wrong with self diagnosis if it helps the individual understand themselves better and to be able to put more effective coping mechanisms in place.

6.    I’ve heard that ‘female’ autistics ‘present differently.’  Is there any truth to this?  In what way might this be applicable to you?  In what way[s] has this affected your writing style?

I’m sorry but I don’t understand this question. My son and I are both autistic and we are very similar.  This could be because he is my son or for some other reason. I don’t think it has any effect on my writing style though but a psychiatrist might tell you different.

7.    Do you have a commercial advantage as a writer claiming to have autism?   What do you say to people who accuse you of exploiting the condition?

As far as I know I am the only autistic novelist though there are many people with autism who write poems, stories and non fiction. I don’t think there is a commercial advantage to this, in fact I think it is more likely to put people off buying my books seeing as autism is considered to be, in part,  a communication disability. Regardless, I am proud to be a person with autism and will continue to tell people even if it means they may be less likely to buy my books. I am happy to say that no one has ever accused me of exploiting the fact that I am autistic and I do wonder why anyone ever would want to.

7.    Where do your ideas come from?

I’ve spent my life studying people around me to try and pick up clues of how to behave in a more neurotypical manner and this observation is also great writing fodder

8.    How did you handle rejections of your work?  Which worked for you better – perseverance or unrealistic optimism?

I don’t like rejections but did get some.  Luckily I had more positive feedback on my writing over the years and this encouraged me to keep on writing and submitting my writing.

10.Do you think that a solitary writer’s life is ideal for you since you have Asperger’s Syndrome?  If you’re on your own then no-one will notice the lack of all those multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction surely?

I think saying that writer’s live solitary lives is  stereotyping. Some do but many don’t. I prefer to be less sociable in real life but can be quite social on line on sites such as facebook and twitter.  I don’t know if that is just the way I am or because of autism or a bit of both.

11.Do you have any friends or appropriate peer relationships such as a writing mentor?  If not, is this because of your Aspergers?  Would you like to have such relationships or are they unimportant to you?

I have a few friends and they are my friends because they are willing to tolerate long periods of exclusion from me and my life.  Like i said, I’m not keen on going out socialising and I also hate talking on the phone.  Which means I communicate with my friends by email and text even though they live in the same town as me and I go out with them only very occasionally.  Usually to a restaurant…I’m easily bribed with the promise of a good meal.

12.I know you have a family life but what makes your family different from normal families?  What shared interests do you have as a family or do you all do your own thing?

Our family isn’t a lot different from other families except that we keep to ourselves a lot more.  We spend a lot of time together.  We all enjoy eating outside, gardening, working on our allotment, being at the seaside (though we go to a beach that almost no one else uses), working on our allotment, playing with our pets, gaming, horse riding (youngest son) rugby (middle son) football (husband and two older sons) reading and so on.

13.When writing, how much of your inspiration comes from your personality and how much from being an autistic person?  Is it possible to separate the two?

It is impossible to separate the two. I have to be very careful when I am editing in order to ensure I have enough dialogue in my books to satisfy the neurotypical readers so that I am showing rather than telling the story.

14.Would you describe yourself as lacking social or emotional reciprocity? If yes, then how can you write about it so well?  Is it all in your imagination?

Yes I am  instinctively less forthcoming in that area and have to make myself behave more neurotypically  when at work. I write about it well because I am a registered midwife and have spent countless hours supporting women and their families through the most complex and important  times in their lives from early pregnancy to the early postnatal period during which times I have been able to observe their interactions with each other.

15.Would you agree that your writing has become an encompassing preoccupation?  Do you think your writing is abnormal either in intensity or focus?

I would say no more so than any other writer.

16.Do you have a writing routine?  How strictly do you stick to the schedule?  How do you feel if something interrupts your time-table?

I write in the dark hours when I know everyone else is asleep and therefore I wont be interrupted.

17.Does your writing interfere with your work or other social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning?

Yes, sometimes, especially if I am trying to meet a writing deadline.

18.Did you have a normal childhood?  What would be your definition of normal?

I was raised by a hippie mother in the wilds of the Canadian West Coast.  I would say my childhood was normal to other s in the same situation and that would also be my definition of normal – normal is being the equivalent to the majority of those around you.  I am normal when I go to my adult autism group.

19.Does anyone else in your family have similar deficits?  If so, how will knowledge of their condition affect their careers?

Many people in my family have similar traits.  They are most definitely not considered deficits in our family. I think my son has the best opportunities available to him as he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 6 and so he has his whole life to learn how to work with his autism and find different ways of doing things in order to achieve to the same level or way beyond those in his peer group.

20.Do you feel shame or embarrassment about having a mental disorder or do you feel empowered now you have a better understanding of who you are?

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome was one of the most life enhancing things I’ve ever experienced. I have never been embarrassed to be autistic though I do get frustrated with people who seem to believe it is a cop out or an excuse.  I never use it as an excuse but I do sometime use it as a way of explaining why I behave the way I do.

21.How long does it take you to complete a book and how many times do you rewrite it?

It took me 2 years to write the first draft of my first novel and it looks like it will take me about the same for my next one.  I blame this on the fact that I work full time and doing so often drains me emotionally to the point at which I am incapable of writing. The rewrites seem endless but are worth it if it means that the end product is something which can be enjoyed by my readers.

22.Do you plan to keep writing or are you bored of it now?

A very good question. I plan to keep writing but am aware that I could become bored with it at some point.  At which time I will, of course, promptly drop it and move on to something else.

23.Do you have any overlapping/underlying diagnoses such as OCD or ADHD or anxiety?  If so, in what way do these conditions affect your writing?

I am extremely anxious and now have high blood pressure which I am sure is a direct result of a lifetime of worrying and fretting. I don’t think it has any effect on my writing as I don’t seem to feel anxious about that. The book signings and public appearances that follow on from having a book published do make me feel very anxious though.

24.Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

That an autistic person can write a novel.

25.Would you have anything to share or advice to give to other aspiring autistic writers?

Write it

Edit it

Share it

Learn from the criticism as well as the praise

Believe in yourself


Thank you Denyse for sharing that fascinating incite.  So, as you can see, Denyse has achieved the impossible; remained calm and resolute in the face of adversity.

You can visit Denyse at her old blog or better still go to the new site or buy Without Alice  available from Punked Books or from Amazon.

I have one copy to giveaway so make sure to leave a comment and I’ll contact you later if you’re a winner.

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