When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?I date my love for books to the acquisition of a copy of Tarzan of the Apes at a book fair in third grade. I ended up reading everything by Edgar Rice Burroughs multiple times, plus tons of other stuff as well-Hardy Boys detective stories and then science fiction and then the big guys like Dickens and Poe. Everything I liked I read again and again, until I began paying less attention to the story and more to how the story was put together. I was writing stuff, too, that my peers enjoyed, and people were saying I ought to become a writer. But that was just for fun. I was in my twenties before I sat down with the intention of writing something for publication.
What was your path to publication?The advice I had was to start at the top and work down as needed. So I sent my first short stories to the New Yorker. I actually made friends with an editor there. At least, he took the time to tell me why they weren’t going to accept my stuff, and he encouraged me to keep trying. Eventually, a few small literary and college publications published my stories. However, finding a home for each piece was a slow process. Gradually, I found myself writing features for newspapers, instead of fiction, because there was a greater likelihood of getting into print. Then life intervened, and I wrote almost nothing aside from WATB, which consumed many years.
Why did you write this book?My reasons for writing WATB changed over time. At first, the writing was simply an emotional outlet that helped get me through a difficult time, and I had no idea of ever seeing it published. Later, because I felt that my wife and I had discovered something of value-information that was being suppressed-I began to think of the project as a how-to book. We were helping our little boy improve his abilities in order to lead a fuller, richer life than would have been possible otherwise, and I thought others would want to know what we did. Eventually, however, events began to deviate from the scenario one would expect to see in a book offering direction and encouragement. I put the project aside for a long period of time until I was able to make sense of what had happened. It still makes a statement, but the book I ended up with is more concerned with the general human condition of pursuing a goal in the absence of dependable guideposts, as opposed to prescribing what families with disabled children ought to do.
What surprising things did you learn while writing this book?I’ve known for a very long time that telling stories is an evolutionary pursuit, by which I mean writers of fiction should not expect to know the outcome of their stories in advance. However, it was a surprise to me to realize that, in a sense, the same thing happens in memoir. Of course, the facts being recounted in memoir do not change, but in the course of working with them my understanding and perspective most certainly did change, which in turn affected what I had to say. I’ve since learned that the same thing often happens in memoir, and it has even been described in books about the genre.
Who will enjoy and benefit from reading this book?The audience I would most like to reach with this book includes professionals, especially in medicine, because it dramatizes the doctor-patient interface and it shows the consequences when things go wrong there. I sent advance copies to a few doctors whom I thought might be receptive, and I’m just starting to get their responses. Parents grappling with developmental disability also come to mind, but having been in their shoes I know they want something a little more prescriptive than this is. Some will view it as a cautionary tale. Some will notice that it maps the terrain that they have to navigate. I hope it gives them perspective and empowers them to make good decisions. Aside from that, it’s for people who like children and people who like honest depictions of uphill struggles.
Explain your philosophy of writing. Just three things: Respect your readers and give them what they need. Tell your story as well as you can. And tell the truth. Even in writing fantasy, you have the opportunity and I think the obligation to offer your insights into the nature of reality.
What About the Boy? A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son