Every year I hope to be better with Fan Mail.
But I guess I might as well confess this, even if it makes me look like a creep: While I’m grateful for fan mail, and amazed, and often touched, there’s a part of me that sees it as more work. And expensive, too, because almost nobody sends a SASE these days. Part of the problem is me: I’ve never been happy with the idea sending back a standard reply. I put effort into my responses, and time. That is, when I’ve responded (I usually do). But sometimes I let time slip away. Tremendous guilt over that. So one unhappy aspect of Fan Mail for me is, “Oh, great. A new way to hate myself.”
Here inside the expansive offices of Jamespreller.com, I’ve instituted Fan Mail Wednesday. I like the blog approach, and the cost is right. I took a little break from that over the holidays, but now like a lion in a cage, hear me roar: Meow!
I got this email a few days ago:
Dear Mr. James Preller,
My name is Michael and I am a senior in high school. I recently came across your book, Along Came Spider. It was due to pure chance that I came across your book. I was at Barnes and Noble, meandering around and happened to be in the children’s section and picked up your book. Within moments of flipping through the first few pages, I lost myself in the story of Spider and Trey. At the end, I read your acknowledgments section and understood where you got the basic idea for your story from. However, I do not understand why you chose an autism spectrum disorder (which I presume from the descriptions of Trey that he had Asperger’s Syndrome). There were so many other conditions you could have chosen, or none at all. What compelled you to choose an autism spectrum disorder? Nor do I understand how you were able to so effectively capture the mind and imagination of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Given the intense complexity of autism, the fact that you were able to accurately characterize autism in a child to such a degree of detail and depth is commendable and insightful.
In addition, the friendship between Spider and Trey was a unique twist and resonated many feelings and thoughts within me. I thank you for writing about such a friendship. I immensely enjoyed the story, especially the conflicting angst that Spider was going through as well as Trey’s understanding of friendship.
Thanks for your letter, Michael. The quality of your writing is even more impressive than the quality of your reading! Very nicely done. First of all, I should note that I’ve contacted the people at Guinness, and it’s been determined that you are the first High School senior to read the acknowlegements section of a book, any book. Your name will be featured prominently in the 2010 edition of the World Records. (Actually, um, no.)
But I wonder: Did you really stand there in Barnes & Noble and read the whole book? Did you at least buy a muffin or something? How am I going to catch up to J.K. Rowling if all my readers do this? She’ll be in her yacht and I’ll be swimming alongside it.
To answer your question, I arrived at Asperger’s in a circuitous way. At first, I was interested in an outsider. I’m often drawn to themes of inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Which I guess is a fancy way of saying, “friendship,” how we treat each other. In order to create this character, this child who did not fit in, I needed specific characteristics. You achieve that through the accumulation of small details. I began by asking questions. What does he like? Is he good at sports? What does he dream about? What kinds of things upset him? Who are his parents? And so on. I not only asked those questions of myself, I talked to experts. One principal in particular, Laura Heffernan at Glenmont Elementary, gave me an hour of her time. We talked and talked. She kind of casually brought up “kids on the spectrum” and it resonated with me. I went to the library. I bought books and underlined passages, almost filled an entire notebook. What I learned fit my conception for this character. It worked for the story.
But you are right. I could have explored the same ideas, written the same essential book, by selecting a different condition or none at all. The dynamic in the relationship was, to me, more important that Trey’s particularities. Does that make sense?
I appreciate that you feel I effectively captured the mind of a child with autism. Honestly, I don’t really know if I did or not. But I tried to do my best. I’ve had good experiences, though. I recently had a mother come up to me, pull me aside — I could see the upset in her eyes — and say, “That’s my son. He was just diagnosed with Asperger’s.”
Well, there’s more. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I feel a connection with children with autism. It’s not an intellectual understanding. It’s not even experiential. But somehow I identify with many of those common symptoms. I don’t have autism, but in some small way I feel I can glimpse its shadow. Can’t everyone? Don’t we all have at least those shadow traits? Or not? All that said: I didn’t make that a big part of Along Came Spider. I didn’t feel qualified, or ready, or brave enough, or whatever. If you are still interested in the topic, I recommend the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. He goes much, much deeper.
Thanks for reaching out and contacting me. I’m really grateful, and honored, to have a reader like you.
Dear Mr. James Preller,
I suppose you have wondered why a high school senior would be so interested in Along Came a Spider. I have a friend who has Asperger’s syndrome so I was already familiar with many of the traits and symptoms of autism.
You can imagine my surprise then, upon picking up Along Came a Spider and by just reading through chapters one and two, and getting lost in the book a bit more, that Trey had autism. There is no amount of words that I can use to describe the cascading flow of feelings intermixed with my surprise. I continued this cascading fall of unfathomable depths until I gained use of my senses once more. A few moments later, I walked around in a daze, feeling as if my whole world had shifted. Even today, I still remember the intensity and focus that moment carried. Who knew that a single book could trigger such staggering upheavals of such emotional and insightful depth?
I, like the mother who came up to you could well understand her statement of “That’s my son. He was just diagnosed with Asperger’s.” As far as I know, there are few researchers, let alone writers who are able to convey such an in-depth analysis and characterization of autism. Indeed, I have no idea how to express my thanks for writing such a book. Once again, words escape me.
And just for the record, Mr. Preller-
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away”.-Anonymous
And you have done that Mr. Preller-your book, Along Came a Spider did exactly that, it took my breath away for that single moment. . .
Sincerely Yours Michael,
Michael, thank you for those beautiful words. And thank you, especially, for taking the time and energy to share them with me. You really made my week. And now I’m the one who is struggling to find words. I have your email, so we’ll talk more privately.