Thursday, January 26th, 2012
I just read Dirt, a novel written by Susan Senator, that centers on the life of Emmy, a suburban mom whose oldest of three sons, Nick, has severe autism. Susan’s oldest son, Nat, also has autism, and she’s written two other nonfiction books: The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide and Making Peace With Autism. Dirt is poignant and leaves an impression. Although the story as a whole is about how parents Emmy and Eric, and younger brothers Henry and Dan, cope with Nick’s autism, I came away feeling that the book has something for everyone—whether you have a child with autism, or enjoy gardening. I spoke to Susan about her writing process, family, and future plans.
I’ve read your blog and your novel Dirt, and couldn’t help but notice a lot of similarities between both worlds. Was it hard to differentiate or separate fact from fiction?
It was not at all, because Dirt is not my life. Certain characters are based on family members (some heavily, like Nick), but they are still made-up people. Writing my memoir, Making Peace With Autism, on the other hand, was much harder because it was nonfiction and I had to remember details of events and conversations. With fiction you can just make it all up, as long as it feels real.
What sparked your interest in writing Dirt?
Dirt began as a book I called Suburban Blue, which was about one stay-at-home mom’s miserable existence in an upscale suburb, and her only escape is gardening. Eventually I became more interested in her sons, and then more and more I was giving them voices that were like my own sons’.
Has anyone from your family read the book? How did they feel about it?
My husband and my middle son Max (19) have read some of it. My husband loves it, and helped me with plot issues. Max told me that it helped him imagine how his older brother Nat (22) might think. Max has written a screenplay for the book trailer for YouTube! He is a film major at NYU.
Which character did you have the most fun creating? Who did you struggle with?
Nick and Dan were the most fun, because I could so easily feel them and imagine them. While they are not my sons Nat and Ben, they are similar to them. The ways they are different were so much fun to write that sometimes I laughed while I was typing.
I struggled the most with Emmy, because in earlier versions I had been told by readers that she was not that likable or that her motivations were mysterious. I worked hard to make her innermost thoughts more explicit, and to assume less about what the reader already understood. Because Emmy and I have many things in common, it was hard work making her thoughts and voice different from mine. I did not want to write about myself, and yet my main character has a lot of similarities to me, so I had to constantly and consciously choose carefully everything she said and thought and did. I had to keep hooking in to her the way I hooked into Nick and Dan, but it was more of an effort.
Was it difficult at times to write from the perspective of Nick?
It was easy, somehow, because I just tried to dive deep into my son Nat’s head, based on what I knew of his behavior, and also based on what other autistic people have told me about their perception processes. Nick is based partly on research, partly on observation, and partly on my own wishes. For instance, I wish my own son Nat had a passion for orange paint, so that we could do that together.
How is Nat doing?
Nat is wonderful. He just finished school and will be moving into a nearby house shared by roommates and a caregiver. Since finishing school, his language ability has suddenly blossomed. We don’t know why, but we are thrilled.
Emmy’s garden serves as her center of relaxation and reflection. Where do you unwind?
I unwind on my bike. I ride in all weather, all winter. The hard exercise helps me focus on nothing but movement. I also bellydance. I do have a garden, but it is a mess.
Any plans for a future book?
Definitely. I loved these characters and I miss them! I have a draft of a prequel, actually.
A prequel sounds great! How far back would you start?
The draft I have has Nick as 4 and Henry as 2. Dan’s not even born yet! Emmy is struggling with OCD, and they’ve only just bought their fixer-upper Victorian house.
What message are you hoping people will get from Dirt?
I think the message of the book is that families are really, really not perfect, and that happiness is not perfect; that love is messy and family life sometimes doesn’t make sense but that’s okay.Add a Comment