Carolyn Parkhurst Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Carolyn Parkhurst

Carolyn Parkhurst

An interview with Carolyn Parkhurst

Carolyn Parkhurst discusses her novel, Harmony, and how her own life influenced it.

Harmony is in part about raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. You are the parent of a child with Asperger's. How did your own experience inform the novel?

While I was working on this book, I used to make a rather lame little joke whenever I started talking about the subject matter. I'd say, "So it's about a family that has a child on the autism spectrum. But their kid is a girl, so…see? It's obviously fiction." And then I'd laugh a little too hard.

It's always tricky to answer the question of how a fiction writer's life intersects with her work; in my last novel, The Nobody's Album, I describe the life experience of a fiction writer as being "like butter in cookie dough: it's a crucial part of flavor and texture - you certainly couldn't leave it out - but if you've done it right, it can't be discerned as a separate element."

Which is just another way of saying this: my life is private, and I'm not always comfortable discussing which stories are "true" and which are not. But the fact is, I do have a son who has Asperger's, and any attempt to write about what it's like to raise and care for a child with those particular issues is going to rely heavily on my own experience. In most cases, the details I've chosen are different and the settings and situations are entirely made up. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that Alexandra's story is not a close reflection of my own.

What are some of the difficulties that come with raising a child with developmental differences? What do you wish more people knew about children on the spectrum?

Children on the autism spectrum often have trouble navigating situations that other kids don't think about. They struggle with sensory overload and have difficulty managing their emotions; they don't always understand how to join a group of kids in a game or recognize when someone's telling a joke. Your kid might be very smart, but have trouble learning how to tie her shoes or eat with utensils. Or he might be incredibly talented at math or spelling, but become overwhelmed to the point of meltdown if he has to wait in line with you at the grocery store.

Diagnosis can be difficult; your child may or may not fit into any one particular group, and there's a lot of overlap among different disorders (autism, ADHD, Tourette's, OCD, etc.). There's conflicting information and advice about treatment and ongoing therapies. It's hard to find a babysitter who understands how to handle your child; it's hard to say yes to social invitations, when you're not sure your child will be able to manage the situation without becoming overwhelmed. It all adds up.

We love our children; that's not in question. It's not that we want to change them or to make them into anything other than who they are. We just want to figure out how to help them make their way in the world with a little less struggle. We want their lives (and our own) to be just a little bit easier.

The family you portray in Harmony reaches a breaking point and makes a drastic decision to move to a cult-like "family camp" in the New Hampshire woods. What brings your characters to this point where they are willing to take a leap of faith and leave their whole life behind?

Parenting a child with special needs can be very isolating. And it gets harder if you don't have friends and family who understand the kinds of challenges your facing, or if you live in a place where there aren't a lot of resources (like the right kinds of schools and doctors), or if you don't know where to turn for advice on handling your child's medical needs and behavioral issues. You look at Facebook, and it seems like everyone else's children are doing great and exceeding all expectations; it feels like everyone's life is moving forward while you're stuck in place. And when someone comes along who takes an interest in you and wants to help you make your life better, you feel enormously grateful to that person. From there, it's not such a leap to think about making choices that would seem crazy under other circumstances.

Where did you get the idea for Scott Bean - the book's charismatic, but troubling, child behavior guru?

Scott Bean was the character I had the most trouble pinning down. He's not a villain; he's not motivated by anything evil, or even by anything as prosaic as greed or self-interest. He can be manipulative and unpredictable, but he feels a connection to these kids, and he genuinely wants to help them. And a lot of his ideas make sense; that was a key part of the equation, that readers be able look at Scott and understand why Alexandra was willing to put so much trust in him.

Are there any redeeming qualities of Camp Harmony? What would have had to happen for it to succeed? Do any places like Camp Harmony really exist?

Through my research, I discovered that there are actually a number of camps and retreats that cater to kids on the autism spectrum and their families. I don't have any personal experience with them, but I can imagine that most of them are probably great resources for parents of special needs kids. Parenting a child with special needs can be very isolating, and it's always useful to meet with other parents to share stories and advice. It's also helpful for kids with any kind of disability to meet and spend time with other kids who look and act and think the same way they do, to see that they're not alone. The problem with Camp Harmony lies more with Scott Bean and the way he handles his leadership than with the idea of the place itself.

11-year-old Iris is one of the book's narrators and her voice is very distinct. What was it like to write from the point of view of such a young person? What surprised you as Iris's character developed?

One of my favorite things about writing fiction is that you get to imagine yourself into the head of anybody you want. And while it's been quite a while since I actually was an 11-year-old girl, it's an experience I have clear memories of, which makes it easier to write about than trying to imagine the life of (say) an elderly medieval peasant.

But even so, I had some blind spots I had to get past. On a surface level, I had to be careful about vocabulary and syntax, making sure that Iris sounded believable as a kid (rather than sounding like an adult trying to talk like a kid). It helps that my own children are in the right age range (they're currently fourteen and ten), so I had a good sense of what she might sound like. But there was still a lot of line-editing, considering whether or not a particular word or concept was too sophisticated for the character.

More importantly, though, I had to think about how she'd view the people and events around her. Kids pay attention to different things than adults do, which is useful for storytelling - Iris and Tilly see their time at Camp Harmony very differently than their parents do - but it also makes it harder for an adult writer to tap into the right frame of mind. What would Iris notice, what would go over her head? Which details would matter to her, even though they might seem insignificant to someone older? In the end, I think that what surprised me most about Iris was her clarity and insight. She's a kid who notices a lot more than the adults around her think she's noticing.

Iris's older sister Tilly, who has an autism spectrum disorder, is smart, vivid, funny and challenging all at once. How did you develop Tilly's unique personality and voice? Were any aspects of her character inspired by your own experience?

One of the things that amazes me most about my son is how creative he is. He has an incredible mind; he's smart and funny and probably the most inventive person I've ever met. That's the trait I wanted most to convey with Tilly: She has trouble managing her emotions and understanding social situations, but she has a mind that's absolutely amazing. If she can get the right kind of help navigating the day-to-day details of the world, there's nothing she won't be able to do.

Why did you choose a second-person voice for their mother, Alexandra?

I love the immediacy of the second-person voice; it has the effect of putting the reader inside the character in a very intimate way. There's very little distance; you're right there with Alexandra in everything that's happening to her. It also, I think, echoes the voice we all have in our own head, the one that keeps us running through our daily tasks, but also takes the time to dig through our memories and remind us of all the things we wish we hadn't done. That voice is never as kind as we deserve it to be.

Harmony explores the experience of a "normal" sibling in a household where another child has special needs. How does this relationship affect the other sibling's development?

I think it's inevitable that siblings develop in response to each other, to some degree. And when there's a child with special needs in the household, it can complicate that dynamic. If one child has behavioral issues, then the other sibling might try very hard to become "the good kid," which is a bad model for everybody, both for the special needs kid who becomes "the bad one" by default and for the "typically developing" sibling who then feels like he or she can never misbehave or act up in any way. Special needs kids also tend to get a lot of attention, in both positive and negative ways, and that can be hard on other kids, who feel like they're getting short shrift.

In terms of the characters in my book, I have enormous sympathy and compassion for both Tilly and Iris. I think that they both have their own struggles, which are interrelated in a lot of complex ways. But I also think that they have a great bond. Like a lot of siblings, I think they'll appreciate each other more once they've had a chance to grow up a little bit.

Harmony is very suspenseful and will keep readers on their toes. How did you weave this element into the story?

For me to be engaged with a story, I need to feel like it's moving toward something - a climactic moment, an incident that changes something between characters - even if I'm not sure yet what it will be. I know that if I'm not keeping myself interested, then my readers aren't going to be interested, either. Often the specific details of the plot don't take shape for me until fairly late in the game, but I always have some sense of the kind of ending I'm heading toward.

Your family used to vacation in New Hampshire, renting cabins similar to those in the book. Did you revisit the area when you were writing your book? What made you choose to set Camp Harmony there?

When you're writing a novel, there are so many dozens of choices that you have to make - character names, settings, hair colors, etc. - and sometimes you can contrive to give yourself a little gift. And choosing a setting that was part of my childhood (but that I hadn't written about before) was one of those gifts. I didn't actually revisit the region while I was writing, but I had so many evocative memories of the area that once I put it into the book, it opened up a lot of new ideas: I want to include something about the "Old Man of the Mountain," I want there to be a scene at Weirs Beach, etc.

What do you hope readers will take away from Harmony?

My first hope is always that the book will strike a chord with readers, that they'll enjoy reading it and feel like it was worth their time. My favorite compliment is when someone tells me that they continued to think about a book for days (or longer) after they reached the end. I also hope that readers - both those who have personal experience with autism and those who don't - will feel that I've handled the subject with honesty and sensitivity, and that I've contributed some little bit of insight to the ongoing conversation. Finally, I hope that people are entertained; in spite of the weighty-sounding subject matter, there's actually quite a bit of humor in the book. My goal in writing a novel is always to embrace the broad messiness of life, in all its absurdity and beauty.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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