Sunday, April 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books May Newsletter - featuring Benjamin Ludwig

In the May edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to American writer Benjamin Ludwig about his debut novel, Ginny Moon.

Ginny Moon is a fourteen-year-old girl with autism. At the age of nine she was taken away from her abusive birth mother, Gloria. Since then she has been living with different sets of foster parents, but due to her behavioural issues these arrangements have not worked out.

Written entirely in the voice of a fourteen-year-old autistic girl, Ginny Moon is a brilliant achievement.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Benjamin Ludwig

Photo credit: Perry Smith

North Melbourne Books: Ginny Moon is a 14-year-old girl with autism, who was taken away from her abusive birth mother Gloria at the age of nine and is now living with her ‘forever’ parents Maura and Brian. Despite having a stable home with two caring parents, Ginny is determined to run away and live with Gloria, who has a restraining order placed against her. As the story develops, we learn some of the complex psychological reasons as to why Ginny wants to run away. What inspired you to write this story?

Benjamin Ludwig: The story was inspired by the world my daughter exposed me to. Every Wednesday night, I’d take my daughter to the Special Olympics basketball practices, sit on the bleachers, and listen to the athletes talk. The way they communicated with one another—and keep in mind not all of them were autistic—turned my understanding inside-out. Many people with intellectual disabilities use language in what looks to us like a purely expressive way. We assume that their verbal expression is enough for us to know how to help. For example, when I’m hungry, I might say, ‘Hey, let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving.’ It’s all right there, the desired action coupled with an explanation as to why we should take it. But people with intellectual disabilities sometimes aren’t always capable of that level of complexity. A person with autism might stand there with a hand on his stomach, saying, ‘My belly.’ And we think, What, does it hurt? Ah yes! It must hurt! Let’s get you to the bathroom! And the truth may very well be that he’s hungry. So he’s used language to state what he thinks is a complete expression, but it’s missing a whole host of beats. The missing-beat dynamic, if I can call it that, helped me create Ginny, a young lady who wanted to say something, was trying to say something, but whose disabilities caused her to miss at least half the beats needed to say it.

NMB: The novel is written in the voice of 14-year-old Ginny Moon. Sustaining the perspective of an autistic child for 360 pages must have been a daunting challenge. It also carries a heavy responsibility to get it right. How did you go about creating Ginny’s voice?

BL: Ginny’s voice drove the story. It came to me fully-formed, and charged onto the page. If I’m honest, it wasn’t her voice that propelled the narrative. In that sense, writing it was really a matter of keeping up with her. The plot, which of course exists separate from the voice, was sort of pre-determined. I’d ask myself, Why does she emphasise that particular word? or What is it that’s really bothering her, when she picks at her fingers? The answers to those questions, and others like them, composed the major plot-points in the book.

NMB: The ‘forever’ parents Maura and Brian are shown in a very realistic light. You really sympathise with them. How much of your own experiences went into the novel?

BL: I couldn’t have written Ginny Moon if I hadn’t become a foster parent and adopted a special-needs teenager, but my own personal experiences aren’t in the book. When we adopted our daughter, my wife and I found ourselves immersed in a world of social workers, therapists, special educators and adoption specialists. We heard a lot of stories from a lot of people who take care of kids. All those stories helped inform the story’s background, though not in a conscious way. I should also say that we were tremendously supported by the people we met through social services and at our daughter’s school, so I hope people see that everyone needs a network when they do the kind of work that Maura and Brian do. Adoption isn’t something you do on your own. It takes the active participation of lots of different groups and individuals.

NMB: What do you hope the book will teach readers about autism?

BL: People with autism are individuals, and really can’t be lumped together in terms of behaviors that some of them exhibit. The autism spectrum itself is truly vast. One time the mom of an autistic child said to me, ‘You know, if you’ve met one kid with autism, then you’ve met one kid with autism.’ And she was right. People with autism are as different from one another as two neurotypical people are from one another. They’re not all great at math, though that’s the stereotype. They tend to love math because math is consistent and predictable, but having a need for consistency and predictability doesn’t make a person automatically gifted.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

BL: Since I just finished a pre-pub tour, I wanted to read something grounding, so I’m just finishing The Hobbit. There are several books that I re-read every year, and that’s one of them. Others include two of Shakespeare’s plays (Twelfth Night and Hamlet) and a collection of short stories by Jim Heynen, called The One-Room Schoolhouse.

Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig. Published by Harlequin. RRP: $29.99