Interview with Jill Dawson on Asperger’s Syndrome

When her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, novelist Jill Dawson went back in time to explore the condition.

Interview by Candida Crewe

WHEN NOVELIST JILL DAWSON WAS a single parent living in Hackney and her ten-year-old son, Lewis, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – an incurable condition on the autistic spectrum – she felt not horror, but relief, even delight. He had had a Special Needs teacher since the age of five; most days Dawson had been rung by his state primary school soon after she had dropped Lewis off because the staff could not control his rages; and he had eventually been expelled. At last there was an explanation for his behaviour, and an official name behind it.

“It’s just a label, words,” says Dawson, “but it’s currently very useful because it allows him to go to a particular school and be understood. One of the key traits of autism is lack of empathy – while Lewis can work out what others are thinking, he can rarely guess at what they are feeling – and this is a major part of what the school tries to teach. Knowing that he has Asperger’s hasn’t made life totally easy, but it aliows me to anticipate which things will be difficult for him, such as changes of routine, situations that are too noisy, and simple things like the importance of telling him what he’s doing – he doesn’t like spontaneity or uncertainty in his day.”

These days, life for Dawson is a relative breeze. She is married to a “gorgeous” man, Meredith Bowles, an architect, and lives far from her former Hackney flat, in a village in the Fens near Ely, in a house that her husband designed for her. (“It has my first-ever study – bliss! I always worked in my bedroom before.”) She has another son, Felix, three, and Lewis, now 14, is thriving at his school in Cambridgeshire, which is specially for those with the “triad of impairments” characteristic of the conditions on the autistic spectrum – difficulties with communication, social difficulties and a predisposition for rituals and obsessions. Dawson has read an enormous amount about Asperger’s and autism since Lewis was diagnosed.

One book in particular, Autism: Explaining the Enigma by Uta Frith, not only increased Dawson’s understanding of the condition, but also prompted her to write her latest novel. In her book, Frith claimed that the “Wild Boy of Aveyron”, a 12-year-old who was found in 1800 having lived alone in woods in the south of France for five years, was history’s first documented autistic child. Dawson’s fourth novel, Wild Boy, is all about Victor, as he was named by Dr Jean Marc Itard, who set out to tame him.

“France had just been through a bloody revolution,” Dawson wrote recently, “and was attempting to shake off some of its cherished beliefs about the nature of man, of God, of innate rights and endowments, yet the idea that environment might shape an individual was still tairly new”

Dr Itard did not believe the boy was an idiot, but that he had been damaged by extreme isolation. Although jeered by his peers, hard staked his career on teaching Victor to speak. Dawson was struck by the irony of this man’s position – enlightened for his time, but thwarted by the one thing he hadn’t bargained for: Victor’s severe autism, a condition which had yet to be identified (and indeed wasn’t until the Forties). While Dawson’s novel is concerned with the nature versus nurture debate, it is also the affecting story of the boy and his relationship with the doctor, as well as the indomitable Madame Guerin and her family, who looked after Victor until he died, aged 40.

Born in Durham in , Dawson came from a family for whom the idea of a writer in their midst was very odd. Her father was a lecturer in telecommunications, and the family moved around a lot. Her mother’s background was extremely poor. “My parents did well for themselves, but dad once said he couldn’t see the point of novels. They hoped I’d get married and have kids. When I had a child at 26, that was considered quite late by their standards. I always wanted to be a writer.

Undeterred, she wrote stories and sent one to Hodder & Stoughton – coincidentally her present publisher – when she was nine. “I got a nice letter back,” she laughs. “I was an eccentric little child. I remember at ten thinking unless I wrote Id never be happy, it was as simple as that. It wasn’t that I felt I had to be successful, or even published, I just knew it would nag at me.”

Dawson read American Studies at Nottingham University and had her first piece of journalism published in Honey magazine. “I was paid the huge sum of £50 and was really chuffed. After university I came to London with my then boyfriend. We lived together. I was a neurotic mess, a nightmare, in my early twenties. It was all about growing up, the usual confusions about family and identity. It sounds pompous, but it’s hard, embarrassing, to have the ambitions I had coming from my very ordinary background’. I worked as an au pair for a bit, and was on the dole for years and years. In 1984 1 wrote a short story for City Limits and won a holiday to Tunisia, but they didn’t give us any spending money. My boyfriend ended up selling his watch just so we could buy a meal.”

Dawson also won a poetry competition, so there were enough “little things” to make her think it was worth carrying on. She went to live in Seattle with Lewis’s English father, a mechanic who had a series of different jobs. She bought a log cabin for them to live in, with seven acres. (Her first novel, Trick of the Light, about a mother in a difficult relationship, was set there.) “My relationship with him was extremely complex from the word go,” she says.

Although she relates the various difficulties of her past, she does so without any rancour or retrospective self-pity.

“I didn’t know him very well when I found out I was pregnant, though I wanted the baby. I was incredibly decisive about that, I never hesitated. I’d never lived with him or experienced life together, and it was a nightmare.”

Dawson and Lewis returned to England, to Hackney, and she wrote her second novel, Magpie, set on an estate there.

“It was really urban, a mirror opposite of the first,” says Dawson. “But it wasn’t depressing, 0 about drugs and prostitution. Estates become shorthand for misery and deprivation. It was about normal people, a single on with her son mother who falls in love the background with an older, married Jamaican neighbour. It was an optimistic story. I do write about parents because that has been an ordinary, absorbed part of my life and experience since I’ve been writing [novels]. My characters always have children and they always know who their parents were. They’re never in isolation.”

It was while Dawson was writing Magpie that Lewis experienced particular difficulties at his primary school. It is astonishing that she managed to get the book started, let alone finished. She had a part-time job as a literature development worker in a community arts centre in Whitechapel because she had no financial support. The school was constantly ringing her.

“I love writing,” she replies when asked how she did it. “To me, it’s – mostly – a joy, and then it was quite a pleasant form of escapism. I was incredibly constrained by what time I had available so I was hugely self-disciplined about work, which was a good thing. I had to be like that. I did manage to write Magpie, but it was a year late.”

After Magpie, she edited The Virago Book of Love Letters and was struck by those of Edith Thompson, a lower middle-class woman who, in the Twenties, along with her lover Fred Bywaters, was charged with the murder of her husband. Fred & Edie, Dawson’s third novel, skilfully incorporated contemporary press reports, imagined scenes and monologues, and the real and imagined love letters written by Edith to Fred. It was shordisted for both the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award in 2000.

Her method of working on her latest two novels was very intense because of their historical nature: she researched and wrote simultaneously. But since she and Bowles met on a blind date at a friend’s dinner party in 1997 and moved to the Fens three years ago; since Lewis has gone to his special school; and since scoring her high-up private study with its windows on three sides and amazing views, Dawson’s writing life has become considerably easier.

“I’m supposed to be writing another novel,” she says. “It’s set in Yorkshire, that’s as much as I know at the moment, or maybe the Fens, but I’m struggling with whether I dare do that because there are too many Fens novels. At the moment I’m having a breather. After Wild Boy I felt I needed a long rest. It’s such an intense focus and concentration that it does my head in. After it I feel I have to veg for a year before starting again.”

So it is, for the time being, her role as the Royal Literary Fund Project Fellow at the University of East Anglia and Felix that are occupying most of her days.

Finally, before Dawson leaves, it seems important to ask her what her parents make of her career as both a published and successful writer, and one for whom familial relationships are an integral part.

“They’re very pleased,” she replies, smiling. “I now give my dad novels and he reads everything. I think he’s read mine, but it’s hard to tell with him. Who knows? I can imagine him smoking his pipe, nodding, and saying, ‘Yes, aye.’ And that’s high praise, coming from him.”