Donna Levin returns to fiction with her new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home (Chickadee Prince Books, 2017).
ISBN: 978-0991327461, $15.99
I’ve been teaching fiction, freelance editing, and ghostwriting — and I even worked at a literary agency for a couple of years. I never stopped writing my own fiction, though. I tried telling this story a few times, but I tried telling it too soon. Finally I got enough distance, and it has been liberating to write it once and for all.
Anna, the protagonist of your novel, has a son on the autism spectrum, as you do. How has your life influenced this book?
I do have a son who is on the spectrum (his diagnosis is Asperger’s Syndrome, as is Jack’s, the boy in the novel) and it was something I wanted to write about. Here’s where fiction is a practical tool. I can attribute to Anna many negative feelings, feelings I’m ashamed of, such as her frustration and even disappointment, but stand back and say, “Who, me? I’m not frustrated! That’s my character!”
I hate to use the V word (as in “validate”) but I hope that some women will identify with Anna and see that other mothers have a tough time adjusting to the pronouncement of an expert that their child is different and faces an uncertain future.
The book is part-mystery, part-social novel, and part good-old-fashioned sexy women’s fiction. How did you decide on this kind of mix?
The book did grow in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Having had some experience in local politics I was eager to show some of its absurdities. (It’s even more absurd than I described.) There’s also a level at which the book parallels Anna Karenina: a woman married to an older man who then meets the man who seems to be her soul mate, to put it in modern terms. There are a few plot points that highlight this, for example, the AIDS ride, which is an institution here in San Francisco, is the counterpart to the steeplechase that Count Vronsky participates in.
As for sexy women’s fiction… thank you.
In the novel there’s a lot of prejudice and fear surrounding Jack’s disability.
In 2004, when the novel is set, the so-far-inexplicable epidemic of kids being diagnosed had only recently hit the news. Now there’s so much more awareness of what being on the spectrum means — although I’m not sure how deep the tolerance goes yet.
When a pre-school teacher told me that my son might be autistic, I was devastated (which I’m not supposed to say), but I was equally disbelieving. Autistic kids don’t speak and they spend their days banging their heads against the wall and making animal sounds, right?
When another doctor told me that my son probably had Asperger’s Syndrome, I’d never heard of it. I don’t remember who told me or where I read that autism is a spectrum disorder.
As far as the prejudice goes, here’s something that really did happen to a friend of mine, and recently, when her son was in second grade: He was having some behavior problems and the school, a private school, wanted to expel him, which was their right, but it was early April and the parents desperately wanted him to finish the school year rather than disrupt his life further — I mean, the behavior was the result of a neurological problem. They offered to pay for a one-on-one aide in the classroom for the remaining weeks, but the school said no, because “We don’t want to get a reputation as a special needs school.” That was heartless. The school didn’t pretend he was preventing other kids from learning — they just cared about their own reputation.
There’s been a proliferation of neuro-diverse characters in literature and onscreen in recent years.
Now these characters are on television, too. Once you hit TV you’ve gone mainstream. Earlier this year the Sundance Channel rebroadcast a BBC series, The a Word, which in turn was a remake of an Israeli television show, Yellow Peppers. It recreated, for me, those early years, when you know something’s wrong but you keep praying that the next therapist will tell you that you’re just a nervous parent. In the show I saw a couple of the same experts who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a parent at that horrible stage.
Chickadee Prince Books is reprinting your first novel, Extraordinary Means, at the same time that they’re publishing There’s More Than One Way Home. What’s Extraordinary Means about?
A young woman is in a coma after an accidental overdose, but she’s out of her body and able to move from place to place, following her parents and siblings as they fight over whether to terminate life support. In spite of how that sounds, it’s not grim. I venture to say that it’s often funny, or as one reader put it, a “coma-dy.” The young woman, Melissa, comes from a highly dysfunctional family. These aren’t people you’d want to be Facebook friends with, let alone have over for Thanksgiving, but I hope they’re interesting to read about.
Does it discourage you that fewer people are reading, let alone buying novels? Does the novel still have a future?
There is much more competition for people’s attention: I see people sitting in cafés watching their iPads when they would have been reading books just a few years ago. But before iPads, there was TV, and before TV there was radio and movies, and somehow novels go on. Maybe they’ll command a smaller percentage of the possible audience, but there are seven billion people on earth at last count.
There’s More Than One Way Home by Donna Levin (ISBN: 978-0991327461, $15.99) will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on May 1, 2017 in trade paperback.