Now that I am further into my writing journey and I only have a couple of weeks before the launch which is massively exciting, The Man on the Middle Floor has been seen by a few people and I am getting feedback. This is quite scary in itself, like handing your baby over to a babysitter you don't know. I have been so thrilled with the reviews, people have taken time to write insightful, thoughtful things about my book and the characters, and have seen what I am trying to say. It's been a humbling and nearly entirely uplifting experience. There have been a couple of people who have found it a difficult read, so I am having to swallow hard and listen carefully to differing and sometimes extreme opinions on the book and on whether I should have written it in the first person as a young man with Aspergers. The funny thing is, for me, that Nick just appeared, fully formed, with positives and negatives, like any other character. Yes he is on the autistic spectrum, but more than anything else I found him to be a refection of different people I know on the spectrum and I tried to give him a voice. My impression has always been that although the people I know with autism all share some diagnostic characteristics they are also just people, with likes, dislikes, varying personalities, but what they don't have is acceptance and a voice except the voice of their own groups who tend to represent from a defensive position.
My own view is that people with any kind of limitation need to feature in our popular culture. It has really surprised me that people have found it shocking that the characters in my book have strong personalities and are not all intrinsically likeable. This is because a lot of people are not likeable in real life. There are horrible mothers, and unkind men, but these days it is unusual for them to appear in novels. This seems odd, and beige, and wrong. Why don't we want books to reflect society? I think it's because we are all so disconnected and living in media bubbles that it offends our sense of what is palatable and acceptable and we shy away from anything unsanitised or uncomfortable. This is ironic in an age where more people are depressed than ever before, where suicide is the leading cause of death in men between 20 and 49 and where mental heath is declining along with our community spirit.
My book is a story, of three people, and to most people who live in London or any big city, it will be familiar on many levels. The grime, the disconnection and the isolation are commonplace to us. The mothers who are more interested in their careers and ultimately themselves than their children are increasingly familiar. The middle aged men who are lost and aimless, with a lingering hope that there is more to life than chasing money and women, but feel disenfranchised and lonely are familiar too. Why then is it shocking to write these characters? I have only had a couple of negative reactions, but the reaction is a 21st century kneejerk one, not a reaction to a novel. There is no criticism of the writing, or the plot, instead it is outrage that someone has written about autism and bad parenting and it has made the reader cross.
This is important. We need to look at what is uncomfortable. I am on Nick's side in The Man on the Middle Floor, and the point of the book is that his needs have never been met by his family or by society. We have failed him and he reacts. He is the misunderstood hero of this story, a man who has limited emotional tools to deal with his environment, and my friends who live with autistic partners or children are happy that the conversation is coming into the mainstream. There are as many different people....men, women and children, with autism as there are people without and we must all try and understand that.
It is World Autism Awareness Week, and a good place to start understanding how differently people with the condition look at the world, is to read a book where they are trying to exist within it when it makes no allowances for them. Instead of the Daily Mail printing and article which makes a link between autism, head injury and murderers, my book seeks to show that it is not the condition that causes the connection, but the way it is dealt with. I hope it is a tender, gentle, realistic treatment of a neglected subject. In my research it was clear that things go very wrong in the system, in families, in schools, in treatment, and we all need to stop looking away and running back to our vanilla thrillers, and instead think, carefully, about what we can do to make things better for the autistic community and ultimately for the whole of society.
I have genuine understanding of Tam, Nick and Karen. I am reflected in all of them in different ways and they all reflect problems we live with every day. I hope very much that the conversations around The Man on the Middle Floor make society more sensitive to our differences whether reflected in Tam, Karen or Nick and that our actions have consequences for others. I hope you will let me know what you think when you have finished reading it and I hope it takes you nearer to a place of understanding and that you think it's a good read. Happy Easter and roll on April 12th!