My novel The Kitchen Daughter was published in 2011. Seven years is not that long ago, really, but for many reasons, it feels like a different lifetime. The world has changed a great deal in less than a decade, and publishing has changed along with it—in ways both negative and positive.
When I made the decision to write a novel from the perspective of a character on the autism spectrum, such books were relatively rare on bookstore shelves. Basically, if people had read a book with an autistic narrator, it was almost certainly Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Which of course, in certain circles, gave rise to the typical publishing conversation of “Isn’t your book kind of like a book that already exists?” And the standard, exasperated answer, “Yes, except not at all.”)
In the beginning, my decision to write from an autistic character’s perspective originated from a logical place, not an emotional one. I love to cook, and when I prepare meals, I’m doing it to connect with people. I wanted to write about someone who cooks without any intention of connecting—someone isolated partly by circumstances and partly by choice—but who comes to realize that she can use cooking to connect.
When I began writing the book, I had recently met the writer John Elder Robison, whose memoir Look Me in the Eye brought what was then called Asperger’s Syndrome to the attention of many. After delving into everything I could find written on the topic, including first-person accounts written by women on the spectrum, I made the decision that the narrator I wanted to write had undiagnosed Asperger’s, and the story unfolded from there. I dug in, learned everything I could, worked to define Ginny’s unique experience, enlisted a host of readers who could tell me what didn’t ring true, and wrote and rewrote until the book was the best I could make it.
If I were facing this decision in 2018 instead of 2008, would I have made the same choice? I’m not at all sure.