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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Michael Blastland was born in Glasgow. A journalist, he started on weekly newspapers before moving to the BBC where he makes current affairs programmes for Radio 4. He lives in Hertfordshire, often with his daughter Cait, less often and less quietly with his son Joe. His book, Joe, is a touching memoir about life with his mentally disabled son.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea to write a book about your experiences with your son Joe?
Michael Blastland: A whole bunch of motives: the most proximate to starting to write was when Joe escaped in a DIY store and was found cheerfully sitting on a display toilet with his trousers around his ankles, Saturday shoppers ambling around, not a care in the world or a jot of self-consciousness. "Interesting" I thought, among other less printable things. But it fed the resolution to find out as much as I could about the theoretical understanding of how children like Joe see the social world. I'd also wanted, for some time, to ground that thinking in a real life, namely Joe's, to try to bring it to life. And I hoped it might be some use to people who had stared for as long as I had at a child who seemed such an enigma. It had also struck me that other personal books about autism, good as they are (and some are superb), invited questions they didn't pursue about what it told the rest of us, which I thought might be a way of gaining wider attention for autism.
MT: Was it a difficult process writing about such a personal matter so candidly?
MB: It was hard to write, but not because it was personal. The fascination of Joe has been one of the greatest consolations of life. And once in that state of mind, there seemed little point except in telling it how it was. Frankness has a funny way of becoming a writing habit.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
MB: About six months to write and about eight years to think about.
MT: Do you think those who aren't mentally unwell will be able to understand something called normality better if we can understand the mentally ill?
MB: I think I do. I'm not sure that we properly understand ourselves without others who are different, and with whom we can compare. For example, I don't think we can properly appreciate the sophistication of our social understanding, or perceptions of others, until we see what goes wrong in those who are not so instinctively socially astute. Then we begin, as researchers into autism have begun, to see our capacity for decoding other people's consciousness for the breathtaking skill that it is. It is analogous, I think, to discovering one day that there were such things as mirrors. Imagine the shock of recognition and I think we get close to the scope of the realisation possible from greater self awareness of our social and perceptual faculties, all brought about by thinking of what autism can or can't usually do. What we can also understand better is which are the differences that truly matter. One or two people thought that by raising questions about Joe's nature I was doubting his humanity. I hope I was affirming it, and doing so by placing him squarely amongst the rest of us.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MB: Straight into a computer, with appalling posture in an old chair at an old desk, and then lots of revision until the restlesness fades or exhaustion wins.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
MB: I lke pointless kinds of exercise: running nowhere in particular, skating around in circles. Also time with friends and children, especially wandering around the local countryside or staring at the sea. And I like weather. Hard to explain, that one. I just like weather, every sort, and being in it. There's a gale at the moment, thrashing through the trees, rattling the windows, there's Monteverdi playing too loud, and it's thrilling.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
MB: I'm not sure. It was always an ambition to try to reach a wider audience than those with a personal interest alone, using the idea that we can all understand ourselves better through someone like Joe; but I also had in mind the reader who came to the book after a recent diagnosis for their child or a long period of increasing desperation. Most of all, though, I think I had Joe himself in mind, wondering what he would say about the book, were he able.
MT: What are you working on now?
MB: A book about the hailstrom of numbers that assail us, in the news, in politics, in life, and how to see through them, not with the need of any sophisticated maths, statistics or economics, but with images, ideas, and tricks from everyday experience. I hope it will be called something ike The White Rainbow, one of the chapter headings, which might convey the idea that it's not numbers as we usually approach them. It's co-written with Andrew Dilnot and linked to the Radio 4 series we make together called More or Less. It'll be out from Profile in August 2007.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MB: That's hard. One favourite? Thats too hard. An eccentric selection, fiction and non-fiction would have to include Henry James, Swift, Johnson, the Gawain poet, William Empson, John Maynard Keynes, Primo Levi, and I still find myself opening a huge edition of Shakespeare I remember blowing what seemed like half a student grant on; more recent, Ian McEwan, Jenni Diski, Mary Midgley, Thomas Nagel, Saul Bellow. I think there's an intermittent touch of genius in Zadie Smith, and I've just been introduced by a wonderful translation of Stephen Mitchell's to Gilgamesh.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MB: Am I not aspiring any more, then? I'll take any tips you've got. So maybe that's the adivce: keep looking and listening. And get a good chair.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MB: Thanks for asking.
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