An Interview with Anne K. Ross by B. Lynn Goodwin
It takes courage to write a memoir about family. An author exposes herself and her loved ones to observation and criticism as well as appreciation. Anne K. Ross has taken a close look at her family’s unique situation in Beyond Rain Man. Asperger’s Syndrome caused her older son’s problems, but it took a long time for the family to find that out. She looks at his condition as both a mother and a school psychologist, feeling despair over his excessive reactions to noises, the seams of his clothes scratching his skin, and any answer that is remotely ambiguous or open-ended. It’s countered by moments of joy at the accomplishments of her “Sweet Boy.”
An accomplished writer who looks at the diagnosis from a unique perspective, Ross brings a full gamut of emotions to her observations. She compares her own reactions to the parents of students on the spectrum with her own reactions to her son’s unpredictability. The whole family is in a tough situation, and this is the story of how they cope, survive, and come to terms with a condition that was barely recognized when her son was born.
Here she answers questions about the process of creating this particular memoir.
LG: Tell us a bit about your writing background. When did you become a writer and how do you balance the lives of a school psychologist, a mom, and a writer?
AKR: I’ve always written, starting with a diary in fourth grade and then writing for my school newspapers. Later I got busy with my career as a school psychologist and always wanted to get back to writing creatively (school psychologists write thousands of words a year crafting psycho-educational reports, but it takes a different part of the brain to do that writing).
Then I had my kids and it was even harder to find time to devote to writing. But my eldest son’s behavior was so challenging—tantrums way past typical ages for them and resistance to certain types of clothing—so I started writing again, in a journal. I wrote it all down because I felt like I was a bad mother and I was going crazy. But as I learned more about the autism spectrum through my work, I became a better mom. And as I understood my son more and more, I became a better school psychologist.
LG: What is Beyond Rain Man: What One Psychologist Learned Raising a Son on the Autism Spectrum about and why was it important for you to tell this story?
AKR: It’s about my partner and me raising our two boys, our eldest who finally got the diagnosis of Asperger’s at age eleven, and our youngest, who is neurotypical (doesn’t have an autism spectrum disorder). It’s about all the things we learned along the way, how we did cope, how we raised two boys who have turned out to be wonderful young men.
I wanted to tell our story in order to help other families who are going through this extra challenging parenting journey so they wouldn’t feel so alone and so they could learn how to get the supports and services their children might need at school and in the community. Since I’m a school psychologist, I know the ins and outs of special education and wanted to share that knowledge.
I also wrote Beyond Rain Man in order to help educate professionals in the field—pediatricians, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists—about the breadth of the autism spectrum and how not everyone on the spectrum fits the type made famous in the movie, Rain Man.
LG: What was the most challenging part about writing this memoir and what was the easiest?
AKR: Probably the easiest part was writing it all down in my journals. The harder part—and it took me about eight years—was to form that writing into a true memoir, with a solid structure, well-developed characters, and a narrator with an appealing voice who has some distance from the events and who could look back with a balanced perspective and be both self critical and forgiving.
LG: Any advice for writing about characters that are also a part of your life? When do you share what you are writing with them and how do you handle whatever issues they may have?
AKR: My advice for writers who are writing about family member is to not show anyone anything until you have it all down. Even then, you may want to wait until it’s in its final form. If you show it during the initial writing stages and they object—and it’s likely they will—that can freeze up writers for years, or even make them give up the project entirely.
If you really need to tell your story, then write it, rewrite it with input from readers outside of the family, get professional editing help, and when it’s ready to go into the world, decide when you want to share it with family.
Some authors don’t share their work with family until the book is published. I did show the final drafts of Beyond Rain Man to my partner and children. My partner okayed it immediately, but my eldest son was less than thrilled that I was going to share some of our most difficult and unflattering moments in public. He would have preferred I not publish it at all—it’s about his childhood after all, and I understand his desire to have some control over when people in his life hear our story. That’s why I’m using a pen name, to provide him some privacy.
LG: So insightful. What message(s) do you hope readers will take away from Beyond Rain Man?
AKR: That the autism spectrum is wide and wonderful. Although people on the spectrum share difficulties with social interaction and communication, have sensory integration difficulties, and have difficulty with flexibility and regulating their emotions, no two people on the spectrum are exactly alike. This can make it difficult to diagnose ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and therefore many children and adults go undiagnosed for years instead of receiving supports or services early, when many of those do the most good.
I want parents and professionals to have a better understanding of the spectrum, both the positive characteristics and the more challenging, many of which are often hidden. Children with less obvious behaviors can still have pretty significant needs.
LG: What can you tell us about your path to publication? What advice would you give to today’s writers about finding an audience, a platform, and a publisher?
AKR: The path to publication is strewn with huge, looming obstacles. We have to be limber, strong, and persevering in order to make it down that path. The first step is to write the best piece of work you can write and then get feedback, rewrite it, get more feedback, and rewrite it as many times as it takes to make it competitive in the market. Even then, many fine manuscripts get rejected multiple times. Keep rewriting, getting feedback and rewriting.
LG: What advice would you give aspiring writers other than to read in your genre and write daily?
AKR: Be ridiculously tenacious. Find a writing community in person or online. Ask for and accept feedback. Write for the pleasure it brings you and not for any dreams of fame or riches.
LG: Where can people learn more about Beyond Rain Man and where can they purchase a copy?
AKR: The Beyond Rain Man website (www.beyondrainman.com) has links to reviews, an excerpt, and ordering links. Beyond Rain Man is available as a print and ebook.
BLG: Thank you for sharing your insights and observations.
Beyond Rain Man is a powerful story. The more people understand about Asperger’s, family dynamics, and trouble-shooting, the better.
Many readers will be encouraged by the feedback to keep rewriting and inspired by the courage it took to write this book.
Pick up a copy from Amazon or your local independent bookstore today. If you are a parent or teacher, this is a must-read.