As a child, John Elder Robison found it very difficult to make friends. He spent most of his time alone. “My social disability was dismissed as laziness, or deliberate misbehavior,” he says on his website. “I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade.”
His genius lay in all things mechanical; over the years, he designed special-effects sound gear for the rock band Kiss, and video games for a toy company. He now runs J.E. Robison Service, an auto business in Springfield, Mass., that specializes in customizing and restoring luxury cars. But that “social disability” of his youth remained, and it wasn’t until he was 40 that he got a diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome.
Understanding that changed his life.
Coming, as he did, from a writing family (his mother is poet Margaret Robison; his brother is memoirist Augusten Burroughs), Robison began writing about living with Asperger’s. His memoir, “Look Me in the Eye,” published in 2007, was a New York Times bestseller.
His latest book (“Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures With Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives”) explores his relationship with his son, who also has Asperger’s. Robison will be the Talk of the Stacks speaker Thursday at the Central Library in downtown Minneapolis. Here, he talks about the grave responsibility of the writer, the trickiness of writing about one’s family, and how autism might make him a better writer.
Q: Did writing your first book change your life?
A: Writing “Look Me in the Eye” put me out there in public view as a person with Asperger’s who’d done OK. Temple Grandin and I were two of the first people to show that you could be successful because of something others saw as a disability.
My first book opened many doors for me. I was invited to speak all over the world, and to participate in cutting-edge research by neuroscientists, which will be the subject of my next book. That book also showed me the responsibility authors have when they write words that go beyond simple entertainment. To my amazement, “Look Me in the Eye” proved to be a big deal to readers who had family members on the autism spectrum, and their comments and questions made me understand that I need to put my very best quality of thought into anything I write.
Q: How did your son feel about having his life written about in your new book? Did he have veto power?
A: Cubby has mixed feelings, I guess. Remember that the New York Times had him splashed over the front page and a whole two-page spread in a story, “Navigating Love and Autism,” about his relationship with his girlfriend, who also has Asperger’s. So a few million people have already “met” my son in print.
There was nothing he wanted to veto, though he did have corrections and advice — especially when it came to the names of complex chemicals and the details of his love of science and technology.
Q: Do you hope your books will change people’s perceptions of people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome?
A: Many people have said that “Look Me in the Eye” and “Be Different” changed how they see autism. I hope “Raising Cubby” will do the same, especially for parents.
With the reading public, I hope to start a dialogue and increase the acceptance of people who are different in our society. Kids who act different are not generally villains. In fact, it’s the different people who often drive our world forward.
Q: Describe your writing room.
A: I do most of my writing in the library of my home, and in my office here at work. I’m answering your questions from my desk at Robison Service.
My library at home is the highest point in the house, above the garage. I can see the whole length of my driveway from the window, and I watch for animals — weasels, turkeys, bears, foxes and squirrels. We live in a rural area, and the animals have been getting much more aggressive of late. Humans used to be at the top of the food chain, but now I’m not so sure. I walk around the house in the morning and see footprints in the snow where they stood at the ground-floor windows, and marks where they rested their forelegs on the sills, looking in. Are they watching TV, or planning the takeover?
Q: How do you get around the distractions of the Internet?
A: It’s true that I have far more distractions now than I did before the Internet, Facebook and my increased visibility as an author. I don’t have a special trick, though. … I just decide to write something and I sit down and do it. It’s possible that I have less trouble in this area because I’m autistic. One trait of autism is that people like me can concentrate more deeply than ordinary people, and that can help when it comes to writing.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: I liked the Encyclopedia Britannica a lot. I also liked Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, especially the old brown hardcover editions I used to find at my grandparents’.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: This past weekend I read a new book — “Hitmaker,” by Tommy Mottola, the former president of Sony Music. I enjoyed that story because I’d worked with many of the people he wrote about during my own years designing fire-breathing guitars for Kiss and traveling with the rock bands who used my sound equipment.
Q: What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
A: I’ve been honored to be invited to give talks at prestigious places, like the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control or the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And I’ve enjoyed giving talks in spectacular venues. The finest of those was the free-form aluminum and glass BMW Amphitheatre in Melbourne, Australia.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: My brother’s book, “Running With Scissors” — and the way people welcomed and accepted him despite such an awful childhood story — gave me the courage to share my own stories. I’d never have written a book if not for that.