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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

An evening with Laura Guthrie

We had a wonderful HighlandLIT online author event on Tuesday evening with Laura Guthrie. Laura’s first novel Anna, aimed at young adults, was recently published by Cranachan.

The blurb tells us ‘Anna is thirteen years old, lives in London with her father, and has Asperger’s syndrome. When her father dies, she moves to Scotland to live with her estranged, reclusive mother. With little support to help her fit in, she must use every coping strategy her father taught her – especially the ‘Happy Game’ – as she tries to connect with her mother, discover her past, and deal with the challenges of being thrown into a brand new life along the way.’

Laura has an honours degree in biological sciences and a PhD in creative writing – and the original version of Anna was part of her PhD thesis. Laura who has Asperger’s (which for diagnostic purposes is now classed as an Autistic Spectrum Disorder Level 1 condition) and also ADHD, has thought deeply about how people with Asperger’s are reflected in fiction. She reminded us of the significance of Asperger’s being on a spectrum: people with the condition are affected in different ways and to different degrees.

She found that some characters in fiction long before Asperger’s was first identified display traits similar to those depicted in characters in more recent fictions created especially to portray someone with the diagnoses. Sherlock Holmes, was one such earlier character, as was Anne Shirley in Ann of Green Gables. But Laura was especially struck by the way in which Pollyanna in Eleanor H. Porter’s eponymous 1913 novel displayed some of the traits of Asperger’s.

Laura has reflected on the authors’ thinking behind creating characters with Asperger’s in more recent fiction. She warns that merely because a certain trait is ascribed to a character who is said to have Aspberger’s in a novel, it need not mean that it features in the lives of people with the condition in real life.

Some recent authors create a context in which other characters learn to better understand people with Asperger’s - the need to avoid figurative language in conversation with them for example, their sensitivity to loud noises. The difficulty is that we might assume that the ‘accommodations’ which other characters learn to make in interacting with the character with Asperger’s are necessary in interactions with everyone in real life who has Asperger’s. This is not always the case – for example many people with Asperger’s report being comfortable with figurative language.

Other authors depict a character with Asperger’s struggling to find a place for their talents because perceptions of their oddities eclipsed their talents. These characters succeed because as their talents are seen to be ‘useful’ in the mainstream, so their oddities are accepted in the mainstream.

Others still – and Laura has concerns about this approach – depict a character with Asperger’s deciding to become more ‘normal’ and as a result finds new opportunities opening up. The conclusion drawn is that one must change to be accepted - both on a personal-social needs meeting level, and on a careers opportunity level. But what message does that send to folk with the condition, Laura mused. That you must change to achieve greater success?

In many books with characters who have Aspergers Laura realised, the character develops, but the world around them doesn’t. She wanted to write an empowering, inspirational novel where the character with Asperger’s remains substantially the same and is able to change the world.

And so she conceived of the idea of translating Pollyanna into a 21st century Scottish context, and using it as a means of creating a thoroughly attractive and credible character with Asperger’s.

And that is what she did in Anna. Laura read us a couple of passages from the book, which is seen through the eyes of the resilient Anna – through the eyes of a person with Asperger’s. It is a wonderful book. Laura deploys language so skilfully. Her pages are full of life, and joy often breaks through.

I was impressed at the deep thinking which went into the creation of the book. Laura discussed the challenges of translating the Pollyanna story into a modern context: what to leave in, what to change, how to shape the narrative. I have often heard authors talking about their writing, but I don’t think I have heard anyone speak so freely about the multitude of creative decisions and choices which are made as a narrative takes shapes, the false starts and cul-de-sacs on the way to creating something magic, which sings effortlessly. And the perseverance, the determination not to give up until your text ‘works.’

And her total commitment to the interests of her readers: she is aware that at one point she regarded herself as more ‘disabled’ than she is after modelling herself on a fictional character who did not have the range of expression she has. In writing Anna she was forever conscious of its potential impact on readers who are on the Spectrum.

Laura’s talk was followed by an interesting Q and A. We discussed for example what is ‘normal,’ and Laura prompted us to wonder what it would have been like if people with Asperger’s had predominated when ‘normal’ was being defined. She also discussed the difference between ‘being disabled’ and ‘becoming disabled’ – the latter being a process involving grief, and dealing with the loss of something one had before, and now don’t have.

We are so grateful to Laura for sharing so freely, openly, and joyfully, and for the many insights she gave us in the course of the evening. We look forward to more writing from this gifted young author – there was a hint of a sequel to Anna. Bring it on, I say!

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