An interview with Alexei Maxim Russell and a signed book give away!
What [or who] is the inspiration behind Trueman Bradley?
My inspiration, ultimately, was my brother. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome(AS) from a very early age and I have been close to him since birth. It was only due to him that I learned what Asperger’s was. In my day, growing up in 1980s Canada, there was no test for Asperger’s in schools. So, if I have it, or any other member of my family has it, we are largely unaware of it. Aspies can be adaptable and, if their natural tendencies are not accommodated at an early age, they may force themselves to become typical, at least on the outside. This may seem like a good thing to people who are neurotypical, but this kind of self-suppression is likely psychological harmful to the Aspie–encouraging them to see their natural self as flawed. Retrospectively, some of the more eccentric qualities of my extended family seem to be neatly explained by this possibility of repressed Asperger tendencies. But, regardless of whether AS runs in my family, the lack of understanding, and even occasional prejudice, I would see my brother encounter would break my heart. I came to realize this “prejudice” was more often than not caused by a lack of knowledge, rather than by any genuine desire to be hurtful. People are naturally wary of what is unknown to them.
I realized that not all people benefited from the first-hand experience I had gained, through watching my brother grow up. Only parents of children with AS and people like me, who are close to an Aspie child, can tell you what that teaches you, about the incredible potential of the Aspie mind. That is why I wrote Trueman Bradley, to help people learn these things I had learned, from my brother, about how the AS mind functions. I knew that a novel, in the first person, could allow people to “put themselves into the head” of an Aspie. And, if I could make the novel entertaining enough, I could keep the reader’s interest until the end and so teach them all I wanted to teach them, perhaps without their knowing that they were even learning a lesson. Given some of the reviews, I am gratified to think that I may have succeeded in doing that. And so, I hope, have come close to achieving my goal of making this a safer world for my brother, and for all the misunderstood Aspies out there.
What are you writing habits? Do you follow a rigid regime, or is your creative process more organic?
My creative process is very much about visualization. I imagine myself in the place I am writing about. As a result, I need peace of mind, to concentrate; I need privacy and at least a reasonable amount of solitude. Anything distracting, and it will “break the spell”, so to speak. I can’t tell you how many chapters have gone unwritten simply because someone spoke to me while I was concentrating on my imagined universes. It simply goes “poof”, like a cartoon puff of smoke. I am told not all writers use this creative process, so I imagine it may come as news to some people. I really can’t imagine how a person could write any other way, however, and so I admire those writers who can create amazing writing without resorting to visualization, as they must have some mental faculty that I am utterly lacking.
But, given this creative process, you can see how I have been known to define my work as a sustained, well-documented daydream. I am always flattered, and maybe a little bit mystified, to know that someone has been entertained by what amounts to my daydreams. Trueman Bradley was really nothing more than a sustained daydream of two or three months. If I have accomplished anything as a writer, I think I owe it largely to my love of introvertive pleasures. An extreme extrovert would not have been able to have such a long, sustained daydream as Trueman Bradley was, without growing bored. I, on the other hand, was sorry it was over and had already planned a sequel.
How do you feel about how autistic people are portrayed in mainstream media?
This is a complex question, because there are the two extremes. There are the people who treat AS like a disability that needs a cure, almost as desperately as the swine flu. And then, on the other extreme, I recently I had someone tell me: “Yeah, it seems like everyone wants to have Asperger’s these days.” So there is the perceived danger of over-emphasizing the positive side of Asperger’s. Regardless of that, I am very happy to see the increasingly positive portrayal of Asperger’s in the media and entertainment industry.
In truth, I don’t think this perceived danger of over-emphasizing the positive side of AS is much of a danger. I think this new view that Asperger’s could be a good thing is far superior to the previous view that it is almost a uniformly bad thing. And, frankly, I think people only grumble about how everyone wants to have AS now in response to how quickly and dramatically the portrayal of those with AS is changing. If we were brought up to think AS is a disability, we will naturally react with resistance and sarcastic remarks if we are suddenly made aware that there is anything good about AS. There certainly are many good things, and so I see no harm in this recent movement to raise awareness about the positive side of AS. On the contrary, I hope that I have contributed to that movement, by writing Trueman Bradley.
Which is the better route, publisher or agent, with today’s technological options?
There is no replacement for an agent, I think. Although, that said, I still do not have one. But I would absolutely love to, and am pursuing one at the moment. I have learned, from the testimony of other authors, that agents are worth their weight in gold. As a result, I recommend the following: 1. Try to get an agent. 2. If you can’t, then learn to be your own agent, until you can get a real one. As we all know, the fiction market is ridiculously competitive. So, unless you are very lucky, you need an agent to succeed–plain and simple.
J.K. Rowling is the somewhat over-used example of how successful a struggling writer can be. And I am certainly a massive fan of her writing style. She has actually been a large influence on my approach to writing. But something that most people do not realize is that she has had an agent from almost the very start of her career, as a writer. I believe those agency people are likely the unsung heroes responsible, to a large degree, for her success. So, this only illustrates what kind of a difference a good agent can make. You can be a phenomenal writer, like Rowling, but you may not get your deserved exposure unless you have an agent–someone to do the all-important work of getting your work read.
And so, if you can’t get an agent, be one. I sold my book by composing and executing my own marketing campaigns and the vast majority of that plan was executed over the internet. It is truly remarkable how many possibilities are available to writers in our modern age of social networking and omnipresent internet. An author can actually act as their own agent with some success, these days. You couldn’t do that, even ten years ago. You can’t replace a real agent as they have invaluable industry contacts, but you can at least learn to be something close to an agent, which is better than none. I recommend researching what agents actually do and attempting to take on whatever of those tasks are within the realm of possibility.
My publisher has a very capable marketing staff, and as a result, I’ve gotten publicity without the support of an agent, but there’s no denying I would be seeing far better results if I had an agent out there, “repping” my novel. Because I am still unrepresented, I am still repping my own novel, as a supplement to my publisher’s efforts. As far as repping yourself, I suppose my main advice would be: you must believe in your novel. You must believe in yourself and your writing, because if you don’t convince yourself of its value, you won’t convince others.
Is Trueman based on anyone in particular, or is he a composite?
I have said the inspiration for writing this novel is my brother, but Trueman Bradley is, in fact, nothing like my brother–apart from sharing some very general Aspie traits. And yet, I have had people say he seems very “familiar” and I feel the same way about him.
I am unsure if this is because readers may have similar Aspie family or friends, or if traces of Aspie traits are in their family and he vaguely reminds them of their eccentric uncle, or something. It is a mystery to me why he should seem “familiar” to anyone, because–truth be told–he is an invented composite, based, I suppose, on my transferring the Aspie traits I’ve learned about onto a character of my own invention. It is really no different from making any other protagonist. If you are able to empathize with others and have a vivid imagination, you can create a new person, Aspie or neurotypical, and give them some semblance of life.
But, the fact that he does seem “familiar” to people is a good sign, I believe. Because it means I may have been successful at distilling the general Aspie character and making Trueman into a person that recognizably depicts an average person with Asperger traits.
Which came first, the character, Trueman, or the plot?
My writing is incredibly, almost ridiculously, protagonist-based. I will begin with an idea–in this case, I specifically wanted to create a detective with Asperger’s Syndrome, as an entertaining vehicle to help educate people about AS. That was a deliberate intention.
After I have the general idea, I invent the protagonist. This person begins as someone I’ve designed to deliver my message, but, with time, I become so absorbed in my protagonist that, as strange as it sounds, I begin to relinquish control of the action to my protagonist. It is hard to talk about this without sounding at least slightly flaky or metaphysical, but as my protagonist “comes to life” in my own imagination, I find that I no longer have a choice as to how he reacts to situations, because I can only write whatever would come naturally to him. I can put him into situations, sure, but I gradually lose more and more control over what he does in these situations, as the book progresses. And as a result of his reactions, he creates the natural consequences, and so the plot begins to take on forms I have little control over.
I would not, for instance, be able to put Trueman into a plot situation and force him to react in a way that I just couldn’t see Trueman reacting. It somehow causes a great psychic disturbance in me–to violate my protagonist in that way–and greatly disrupts my creative juices. Much like a ringing mobile phone can “kill the illusion” of a theatrical play, making my protagonist act in any way but their own natural way “breaks the spell” of the story and I am no longer able to tell it. It becomes something similar to a dictation of what I am observing, after time, more than something I am inventing. This may sound very odd, but that is how I write. As a result, although I may plan the plot points, loosely, before I start writing the novel, the end result is usually much different than I expected, because Trueman’s own natural reactions greatly influenced the plot. After all, when I first plotted out the storyline, I did not know Trueman quite as intimately as I would later on, and so I had no way of knowing, exactly, what choices he would be making and so how the plot would develop.
This can be exasperating, because, like all authors, I like to know what I am writing about, beforehand, and so if Trueman causes a lot of alterations, it can be a bit addling to a writer’s nerves. But I think this drawback is made up for by the fact that, remaining true to my protagonist causes him to be very true-to-life, like a living person. People sense that life and are drawn to it. It can put me in tough spots, however. Because people, understandably, equate the ideas in my novels with my own ideas. But, as you can now see, I often I feel as if I am not entirely responsible for them. And so, if someone asks me why Trueman said this, or did that, or exhibited this quality, I am very tempted to say: “I don’t know. Ask Trueman.”
Did you have your manuscript professionally edited before you submitted it to JKP?
If by that you mean an editing service which can be employed to edit a manuscript for money, then no, I did not. I can’t answer whether or not I recommend using such a service, because I have never used one. I do think it is very useful to study the craft of writing and develop the necessary skills to create a polished manuscript on your own, without help. This way you have the most control over your own work and it assures you remain close to your original vision. That said, all writers are different, and some may prefer to focus entirely on the creative side of the business and leave the hard grammatical or technical details to someone else. I think it’s important for writers to follow their natural tastes, as there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, any two writers who are the same. And, in truth, I did not edit the manuscript by myself.
There was one person who critiqued every chapter. Given that she does similar work, professionally, I could call this my own private “professional editing” service. Arnika Lucka, my partner, who has many Aspie qualities, reviewed every chapter to assure it was “Aspie friendly” in its use of language. I wanted this novel to be accessible to everyone, both Aspie and neurotypical. And it was thanks to her excellent work that I succeeded. She did a lot to make my manuscript up to publication standard, as well. I wish I had thought to give her credit on the book cover as my primary editor. Unfortunately, things were a bit hectic for me at the time and I neglected to request she be mentioned, until it was already too late. There is no “thank you” section on the book, as a result, but I have so many people to thank. Perhaps, if the book goes into re-print, I can give these people their deserved recognition.
Will this become a series?
Definitely. I already had the ideas, settings and general storyline for a second novel before I had even finished the first one. And once a novel takes enough of a form in my mind, it develops a mind of its own and it becomes a requirement for it to be written out, eventually. Not only do I feel compelled to explain more about Trueman and his mysterious past, but there are a great many other issues surrounding AS, which I think need to be addressed, and I look forward to using Trueman Bradley as a vehicle for that.
Who did you write this book for / who is your intended audience?
I did not intentionally write it for children or young adults, but it turned out very suitable for those age groups. I think my deliberate attempt to keep the language free of metaphor or unnecessary complications of language, and so make the work accessible to those with Asperger’s has also caused the book to be very readable for children and young adults.
The simplicity makes it very accessible to everyone. Although there is, I believe, within the story, complexity and references that appeal to the adult mind. There are some rather sophisticated references to such adult topics as path integral physics, ulam spirals, architecture and art which, when put into a highly stylized, comic-book-like setting, seems to succeed in holding a certain appeal for the adult reader. I am glad of this, as I was really trying to make the book appealing to all people, whether on the spectrum or not, from all walks of life and for all ages, and I think I managed to succeed in doing that.
Short answer: I wrote it for everyone. I wanted to reach as many people as possible because I believe the more people I can induce to know and love an Aspie, the better.
What other projects and writing assignments do you have on the boil?
I have so many ideas for novels, short stories, plays, etc, that I doubt I will live long enough to complete them. I do have another completed novel, entitled “Why Not-World”, which I am trying to get an agent to represent. It is a fantasy adventure which is suitable for almost the exact same demographic as Trueman Bradley. Although it has nothing to do with AS or Autism, the escapist, alternate-universe aspects of the plot may appeal to Aspie readers. It is about an alternate secret society that lives alongside our own; one that is infinitely more logical, wise and intelligently-controlled. This alternate society has been secretly stopping the mainstream world from destroying itself for millennia. You could see how such a fantasy could appeal to an Aspie, give how mainstream culture can often seem so nonsensical and disturbing to them. It would be comforting to know there is, in fact, a hidden layer of intelligent control, behind all that confusion. It may also appeal to Aspies considering the significant amount of subject matter relating to one of the most famous reputed Aspies: Albert Einstein. The title, “Why Not-World”, is in fact a reference to a fictitious essay, written by Einstein, which is central to the plot of the novel and was considerably fun to write. That said, I think Why Not-World would appeal to all people. As, all people, I think, not just Aspies, enjoy an escapist tale that help allay all their fears. Like Trueman Bradley, I wrote it with a universal audience in mind.
Apart from that, I have at least a dozen novels lined up in my head, patiently waiting to be written out. I sometimes cannot help but sigh and wonder if I will ever reach a point where I am “done” with writing. This may be a distressing realization, that life is too short to write all I would like to write, but it was just this realization that made me realize that I should have been a writer–right from the beginning. I did get offered an honors in University English and my professor said I’d be happiest as a writer. Somehow, however, it was not until only recently that life’s many tip-offs reached my consciousness and I began writing full time. Now I greatly lament all the lost time of the last decade or so and all the novels I didn’t write in that time. I suppose I didn’t pursue writing, previously, as I had never seen being an author as a “viable” career move. So, let this be a good lesson for your readers–on following the career path that is most natural and fulfilling, regardless of practical considerations.
What aspects of autism do you find most frustrating, fascinating and endearing?
Autism is only frustrating if you don’t understand it. Now, having come to know the Asperger nature and ways of communicating, I actually find I prefer the way Aspies communicate. They are straight-forward and logical in their communication. On the contrary, what I begin to find frustrating is the deceit and lack of sense neurotypicals demonstrate in their social communication with others. Because, now, I can see it!
Prior to being exposed to Asperger’s I could not even see what a mess of confusion the mainstream, typical way of communicating is, because that was all I had experience with. I had grown up in mainstream, typical society and so I had nothing to give external contrast and so let me see the foibles of that society and its methods of communication. But Aspies, by and large, so long as they are not repressing this Aspie qualities, are aware of what a mess it is. I think this is why Aspies are drawn to programs such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication(NVC) and other systems that try invent the best and most logical way to communicate with other people. My partner, Arnika Lucka, who has many Aspie traits, is an instructor of Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training Program(PET)–which is a series of communication classes, similar to NVC. And she says that she, as an Aspie, does not understand mainstream language, but can understand people perfectly if they use the techniques of communication taught with PET. I think such a thing can help Aspies, as they seek to make sense of the somewhat senseless and arbitrary nature of our day to day interactions. Something I can only see as an improvement and, perhaps even, long overdue.
Now, I realize it is somewhat revolutionary to say I prefer the way Aspies communicate, given that society is only beginning to realize that AS has any positive qualities, but, as said, Autism is only frustrating if you are not entirely aware of what it is or if you are fixated on trying to convert Aspies into neurotypicals and so refuse to accept their way of communicating. I am hoping Trueman Bradley will help to increase both the awareness and acceptance of the Aspie way of thinking and communicating and so help eliminate that frustration. Because that is something that will help both Aspies and their typical loved-ones.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I have been thinking of that, myself, lately. I think there are several important ones, but the most essential one is simply to have self-confidence. It is essential to develop a thick skin. If you are overly-sensitive about your work and easily hurt by criticism, it is masochistic to pursue a writing career, because rejection, by someone, sometime, is inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of sensitive people. I greatly prefer them to the insensitive variety. The point is not to become insensitive, but only to train yourself not to get offended, when dealing with editors or critics. You can be your wonderfully sensitive self with everyone else in your life, of course, just take a different attitude to the editors and the critics. Anyone who doesn’t foster your confidence or tries to undermine it should be ignored as much as humanly possible. That is the best advice I can give to new writers.
Writers are told that a platform is essential – what do you think about that?
Platforms are an interesting thing because it is something a lot of writers do not readily understand–I didn’t understand it entirely when I first heard of it. I think it would help if people defined platform in less metaphorical terms: a platform is simply what you are known for. If you are still not known as a writer, you will have no platform. If you are known for having written anything, you will automatically have a platform. The more you are known, the stronger your platform, until you get up to the loftiest levels, like Stephen King, whose name is interchangeable with the word “horror.” I think writers should simply focus on being known for something, and a platform will come automatically.
But be prepared for your platform, as it can muscle in on you. Since having published Trueman Bradley, I have begun to feel a responsibility to my audience. There are a great many very adult and even gritty topics I would like to write about, but I feel a responsibility not to give my young adult or children readers an unpleasant shock. So, I put all such ideas on the back burner. I don’t really mind, as I like to write for young people too. I may decide to publish some of these more adult works someday, but perhaps under a pseudonym.
What are your views about ‘curing’ autism?
It depends what is meant exactly by “curing”. In the cases of people who are extremely affected by their autism, to the point they can’t communicate with others; cannot dress themselves, etc–in those cases, certainly a “cure” of some kind would be helpful. But I cannot help but be offended by those who suggest Asperger’s Syndrome is something that needs to be “cured”. I think every Aspie has a perfect right to be offended by that. I am not a fan of discrimination of any kind, and particularly against Aspies, because of the fact Aspie-discrimination is still relatively socially acceptable, compared to racism, etc.
The view that AS needs to be cured goes against the entire message of Trueman Bradley, which tries to express that AS is a different way of thinking and not necessarily a wrong way of thinking. Thinking differently should not, in my opinion, automatically be seen as a bad thing, let alone a disease. My whole purpose is, in fact, to fight that sort of discrimination and give an outlet for Aspies to have some pride in who they are and how they think. I want them to know they have a right to be themselves and a right to be offended by those who want to “cure” them of the way they naturally are. I wanted to help give them some verification of what I think a lot of them already suspect, in spite of the prevailing prejudices, and that is that there is value in their difference and it is actually mainstream society which is the source of the problem, as it often seems incapable of realizing that.
To be fair, I realize that most of the people who seek to “cure” Autism are concerned with those people who are extremely Autistic and very disadvantaged as a result; I also realize that their intentions are likely to be very good. But, I also think the lack of awareness of how offensive it can be to an Aspie, to be told their natural way of being is something akin to a disease, illustrates how little knowledge and awareness of Asperger’s is out there. I think works such as my novel will do a lot to increase awareness and knowledge. And I hope, if more authors contribute to this new area of “Aspie literature” that there will be, as a result, more sensitivity to the inherent right of Aspies to think in whatever way comes naturally to them, without fear of being “drugged” or otherwise seen as a sick person, in need of a cure.
Instead of drugs or medical treatment, if you are having trouble communicating with an Aspie, I recommend reading all you can about AS and try to understand how Aspies communicate. And, perhaps, you can try using some of the programs like PET or NVC, which can help make communication understandable and even enjoyable to the Aspie in your life, by making it logical and predictable–things Aspies often need and appreciate.
Be brave, tell us a secret?
Something I have never mentioned to another interviewer, is that I had considerable worries that people would think that I am actually re-enforcing stereotypes about Aspies, by making Trueman Bradley a mathematical genius. That was, of course, the opposite of my intention and so it was a serious concern for me. One of the pitfalls of being a fiction writer is that you are almost constantly at the mercy of your imagination. Mine is relentless and I had already imagined all possible objections to Trueman Bradley, before I even began to write it. This stereo-type started, I think, with the movie “Rain Man”–ever since then, people have thought all people with Autism are born mathematical geniuses.
I never mentioned this, because I thought: “If no one mentions it, I guess I don’t have to worry about it.” And few have mentioned it, in fact. The only one who did, said something along the lines of “I was worried it may reinforce this stereotype. But after reading the novel, I was glad to see that it actually helps to obliterate this stereo-type.” But, although few people have mentioned it, it is actually something I want to talk about because I’m sure at least a few of your readers have had that secret concern, as well.
You may ask why I made Trueman a mathematical genius? Well, first off, I would like to take this moment to come to the defense of all the savant Aspies out there who actually are mathematical geniuses. They are certainly out there and there is nothing wrong with having a far above average aptitude for mathematics. I think the enhanced grasp of logic, which the Aspie mind enjoys, makes math more accessible to them, in general. But it is well-documented that some Aspies are absolutely abysmal at math and few of them are savants. And so, I think it is safe to say the savant mathematical genius constitutes the minority, among the Aspie population. But regardless of that, people like to read about them. These savants are famous and both Aspies and neurotypicals are interested in them.
And so I thought: “If this stereotype exists and there is such interest in this minority of Aspies, then I will use it, because it isn’t doing much good just sitting there, collecting dust.”
So I took the stereo-type, re-invented it in the form of Trueman Bradley, and used this captured audience to teach, within Trueman’s story, that not all Aspies are like Trueman Bradley or “Rain Man”. So, in fact, by using the massive draw of the savant Aspie, I actually taught many people that few Aspies are savants, and I taught them what most Aspies are, through demonstrating Trueman’s less amazing personality traits. By writing this first person novel, the reader can “get into Trueman’s head” and learn what it is like to be an Aspie, for a while. And what they are mostly learning about are the little troubles Trueman has with mainstream society; what doubts he has; what challenges he faces in communicating with and living in the world. The extreme mathematical skills—although central to the plot—are actually rarely mentioned compared to Trueman’s day-to-day problems of living as an Aspie.
So, in a sense, it is a classic “bait and switch”. I have taken that common perception of the Aspie as the mathematical genius, used it to get people’s attention and then turned the whole stereotype on its ear. It is permanently changed, as a result, and “Rain Man” will never be quite the same. This way, people get to read about the amazing savant Aspie genius, which they seem to so enjoy reading about; but they can also learn, in the process, what ALL Aspies are like, rather than merely those select few, who happen to be mathematical geniuses. This helps to foster understanding, acceptance and love of the common Aspie, while at the same time celebrating the incredible potential of those few Aspies who may, indeed, be savants.
So a big thank you and a warm round of congratulations to Alexei. If you want to win a signed copy, just leave a comment below. Good luck.