Graeme Simsion and Helen Hoang talk writing autistic characters

Graeme Simsion and Helen Hoang are very different kinds of writers, but they do share one quality: a commitment to centering nuanced autistic characters in their novels.

Simsion broke out with his critically acclaimed 2012 debut The Rosie Project, a romantic novel following a genetics professor who struggles to develop relationships with women. It’s since spawned a trilogy, which will be capped on May 28 with the release of the finale, The Rosie Result, which tackles the universal experience of parenting.

Hoang, meanwhile, has emerged among romance’s most exciting new voices over the last few years. Her first book, The Kiss Quotient, hit the shelves to great response last year, with readers falling hard for its reverse Pretty Woman storyline. Earlier this month her encore, The Bride Test, was published, and instantly became an EW favorite (and national best-seller).

EW put the two authors in conversation for a wide-ranging discussion on the importance of representation, the challenges of writing their books, and more. Read on below.

GRAEME SIMSION: We’ve both written novels with autistic protagonists and I guess that’s still unusual enough to bring us together to compare notes. But we’re seeing more characters being identified (and identifying) as autistic. I think this is a positive thing, especially if they’re good guys (I’m a bit over the implicitly autistic villain) and the representation of autism is realistic: intrinsic to their personality but not the whole of it. And, broadly, more is better: we want to see the variety of people on the spectrum.  Something we’re both doing is presenting the autistic person as protagonist and asking the reader to identify with them rather than just observe them. And it’s great to see more autistic women in fiction (nice work, Helen!); they’ve been under the radar for a long time but now seem to be taking the lead in activism.

HELEN HOANG: I’m happy to see more autistic protagonists in fiction, especially women. (Thank you for the compliment, Graeme!) Growing up, I never saw an autistic woman in film, TV, or books, and I think that contributed to the lateness of my diagnosis. Now, I’d like to see even more. The common idea with autism is when you’ve seen one autistic person, you’ve seen one autistic person. To get a full grasp of what the autism spectrum is, you really need to see the full spectrum, which includes different levels of ableness, varying gender identities, sexualities, races, etc. That means we need many, many more books.

SIMSION: In that respect, I see Stella and Don as quite dissimilar, with different manifestations of autism.

HOANG: Yes, Don [from The Rosie Trilogy] and Stella [from The Kiss Quotient] are very different. I find the contrasting portrayals of autistic people to be very interesting, especially with regards to gender. While both characters are extremely logical, I’d say that Stella seems more aware of her own emotions and those of others. She also has more sensory issues.

SIMSION: Don came out of my work relationships and friendships with people who were probably on the autism spectrum. (I’m a boomer, and people of our generation were far less likely to be formally diagnosed.) None of them had obvious sensory issues but I suspect many had sensitivities that they’d learned to keep quiet about. That’s where writing from personal experience as you have makes such a difference.

HOANG: I’ve been surprised by the focus on my personal story as opposed to the one written in my book. Many times, people have complimented me by saying something along the lines of “the best part of the book was the author’s note where you shared your own experience getting diagnosed,” and that gives me mixed feelings every time. As an author of fiction, my ambition is to reach people with the stories I create, not the one I live, but at the same time, I feel responsibility toward other women on the spectrum (especially those who are living with undiagnosed autism) to share what I’ve gone through and to own the label without shame.

SIMSION: Responses from individuals are not why I write, but I’d say the good ones are the most rewarding thing about being published. There are books that literally changed my life, sometimes through landing at the right time. Joe Queenan’s The Unkindest Cut prompted me to give up my business/technology job and become a writer. So, I guess it’s inevitable that if you sell a few books, some will have that impact.

I’ve been gratified by the feedback from members of the autism community who believe I’ve captured something of their experiences in a way they can relate to and share with others. I know some readers have sought an autism assessment after relating more closely than they’d expected to Don.

HOANG: I truly love all my fan mail, and it is very meaningful to me to know that I’ve touched other people’s lives with my art, be it through setting them on the path that leads to diagnosis or therapy, seeing themselves represented for the first time in a positive realistic light, or just getting swept away in a love story for a few hours.

SIMSION: We’ve been talking about The Kiss Quotient, but I actually read The Bride Test first. The books had been presented to me with ‘autism’ as the key word, and my immediate feelings were that you’d addressed it (in both cases) with a light but sure touch. If I can temporarily steer a middle path on ‘people first’ language, Stella and Khai are ‘people who are autistic’ — neither caricatures of autism nor non-autistic people with autism as an add-on.

HOANG: I am truly honored that you read my books, Graeme! Reading The Rosie Project was an experience for me. It was the first time I’d been exposed to a character like Don, and I treasured him. I identified with him in a rare way. I loved his logical mind and his routine with the lobster and his very methodical plan to find the ideal mate, and I wanted to write someone like him, though at the time, it didn’t occur to me that the first “similar” character I’d write would be female.

As for “person first” versus “identity first” language pertaining to autism (saying “person with autism” versus “autistic person”), I’d like to stress that many in the actually autistic community (including me) do prefer “identity first” language as they believe autism is an intrinsic part of who they are, it cannot be separated from them. This isn’t universal, however, so I think it’s important to change our language depending on the preferences of the people we’re talking to.

SIMSION: Absolutely agree. And if The Rosie Project played even a small role in inspiring you to write…well I’m very happy. Though in terms of love scenes, those were definitely all you — the Rosie books are pretty mild.

HOANG: I think that’s absolutely fair. Everyone has their own preferences. I’d like to add, however, that I believe it’s important to show autistic people can have healthy sexual relationships. Not all autistic people want or are capable of sexual intimacy, but that is not a defining characteristic of autism. There is a popular mindset that it is “insensitive” to write autistic people having sex, and this is infantilizing and infuriating. I’m happily married. I have kids. It’s a regular life, aside from the fact that I happen to be on the spectrum. This shouldn’t be offensive to anyone.

SIMSION: Definitely not offended: there’s a bit of transgressive sex in one of my novels [The Best of Adam Sharp] and in that case, much of the negative feedback has been about older people doing what only young people are supposed to do. And it’s great that you’re busting a myth about autism. There are so many of them…. If I could get one message across to readers, it would be autism is not characterized by a lack of empathy (or the absence of emotions). It’s the first thing people seem to think of when they think of autism, and it’s not only wrong, it’s a starting point for seeing autistic people as lesser beings.

HOANG: I completely agree with you. This is one of the main messages in my second book, The Bride Test. The misperception that autistic people are heartless and lack empathy is so widespread that some autistic people even believe it themselves, and that’s heartbreaking to me. I’d like the public to understand that different people process emotions in different ways and ask them to withhold judgment until they have a fuller understanding of the individuals involved.

SIMSION: I think fiction has a real role in changing these attitudes, if only because of its reach. And we need more own voices like yours — autistic people writing from personal experience and being out there as authors as well as characters. More people — including prominent people who’ve hidden their autism — “coming out” and telling their stories. And just more stories in which autistic people have a role that isn’t primarily about their autism.

HOANG: Definitely more own voices and otherwise, and I hadn’t thought about more prominent people “coming out” as autistic until you mentioned it, but I would really love that. As a “normal passing” autistic person, I experience a great amount of insecurity relating to my label. I get told that I don’t “look” autistic, that I’m just asking for preferential treatment, that I’m making a big deal out of nothing, even though people generally have no clue what it’s like inside my head. But when someone like Sir Anthony Hopkins discloses that he’s been diagnosed with ASD, I can say, “Hey, Anthony Hopkins is on the spectrum. His autism is valid. So is mine.”

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