Author Kathryn Erskine on Her Novel "Mockingbird"
After working as a lawyer for 15 years, Kathryn Erskine realised her real passion lay in writing. Here she talks about her novel Mockingbird.
"How did you get inside her head?" people ask me about Caitlin, the main character in Mockingbird, who has Asperger's Syndrome. The short answer is that I know people with Asperger's, which makes it a lot easier. The longer answer is that I did a great deal of research--reading, attending workshops, observation, interviews. The longest answer goes all the way back to my childhood.
At a gut level, every story has a piece of the author in it. While I don't have Asperger's, I know what it's like to "see the world differently". Because my parents were in the American Foreign Service, I went to eight very different schools in a variety of countries. I became used to being the oddball who didn't understand social cues.
At my first change of school, from South Africa to the United States, I mimicked my parents and made up "calling cards" that had my name, address and telephone number, in very inelegant pencil on bits of cardboard, and distributed them to my classmates. As if that didn't make me odd enough, I had a funny accent and carried my books on my head. Even small things stand out to children, such as raising one pointed finger instead of my hand. I vaguely remember my older sister, who had caught on to the cultural differences more quickly, giving me lessons in hand raising: "Your whole hand, K-K," her nickname for me. "No, not with your fingers spread out like that! Relaxed, but not drooping." She is a teacher now and can handle the most challenging of students. Is it any wonder?
When we moved to Scotland, the girls were curtsying to the teacher on the first day of school, while I made a double bent knee bob, like an awkward plié. And I honestly didn't know what knickers were or why one shouldn't twist them. In Alabama, I was an anomaly coming from a girls' school in Scotland. I think what saved me was one girl's insistence that I was Julie Andrews's daughter, sent to an obscure location to protect me from the limelight. My denial only served to strengthen her case that I was, indeed, famous, and was keeping my true identity secret. In Newfoundland, Canada, I attended a Catholic school, a new experience for me. I knew the Lord's Prayer, of course, but not the "Hail Mary". Try as I might, I couldn't figure out the part where the girls mumbled the apparently embarrassing phrase, "Fruit of thy womb, Jesus". When I thought I'd finally figured it out--although I considered it a strange and even disrespectful term--I cautiously enunciated, "Fruit-of-the-Loom Jesus", to the hysterical laughter of the girls. Even Sister couldn't help cracking a smile.
So, in my mind, we all fall somewhere on that autism scale. It's a scale of human interaction, really, and depending on our background or culture, we all bring something different to the table--which, when you think about it, is actually quite wonderful.