LJ Talks to First Novelist Benjamin Ludwig

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Photo by Perry Smith

Ginny Moon (Park Row: Harlequin; starred review, LJ 3/15/17) is debut novelist Benjamin Ludwig’s beautifully told story of a 14-year-old autistic girl, whose troubled past threatens her loving family’s fierce determination to keep her safe. Ludwig knows whereof he writes—he and his wife also adopted a child with autism.

Critics have run out of accolades for Ginny Moon. Did the avalanche of praise surprise you?
I am overwhelmed and grateful. It means that people care about kids like Ginny—kids who went through the foster care system, and kids who are intellectually disabled. People are responding to Ginny’s voice, which came to me fully formed. It was a real, living thing, and it was so demanding. I could barely keep up as I was writing. Ginny is totally honest all the time and almost always totally wrong. I found that combination delightful and endearing. A lot of readers wrote to say that they appreciate that bittersweet aspect of her personality.

How were you able to convey the perspective of a young girl with autism so perfectly?
By listening to [Ginny’s voice], I could begin to understand her disability. And while it’s perfect for her, it’s not perfect for any other person with autism. I’ve known a lot of kids on the spectrum, and each has their own unique way of speaking. What’s consistent, though, is their consistency. People on the spectrum have difficulty with communication. They use language as a tool to get what they need rather than as a way to express what they feel. Most neurotypical people are more in tune with language than they are with their senses. My understanding (and I’m not an expert on autism) is that for people with autism, it’s sometimes the opposite. Their brains are wired in such a way that they understand nonlanguage input more than language input.

ginnymoon12.jpg41417What were some of the things you and your wife learned as adoptive parents of an autistic daughter?
The most important thing we learned is that you need a network. All parents do, but when you adopt a child with disabilities who’s been in and out of several homes, not to mention in and out of several dangerous living environments, you need a lot of help. In addition to friends and family, we had social workers, therapists, and teachers guide us through the process. Honestly, if we didn’t have so much support, I don’t think we could have done it.

Do you hope your book is seen, in part, as a “lessons learned” manual for people in the world of autism?
I hope it will help people think twice about what kids say. Ginny’s autism worked for the book because I was familiar with it, but it’s the communication aspects that I wanted to highlight. People need to listen to each other. We all need to examine our own assumptions a lot more before making judgments.

The need for precision seems to ground Ginny. You capture that in her strict adherence to the “one question at a time” rule and in your chapter headings that are stamped by date and time.
The precision is all about control. Control makes Ginny safe—or at least seems to make her safe. If she can know or determine when something is going to happen, she can get ready for it. It’s a stereotype that people with autism are somehow gifted when it comes to numbers. That’s not really true. Yes, many of them care about numbers, but they aren’t all spectacularly gifted when it comes to math. The reason that people with autism care so much about times, dates, and amounts is because those things are objective. If I say I’m feeling blue, that could mean at least two different things. If I say we’re having only one cookie each, then my message means the same thing to everyone.

Did your daughter and wife give you feedback during your writing process?
My wife read a lot of the book as it was being written, and she had plenty to say about whether certain parts were as accurate or as funny as I’d hoped. My daughter didn’t read any of it at all until we received the first galleys from my publisher. She asked to read it, so we gave her a copy. She thought Ginny was “a bad girl” because she broke rules. And there’s a bad word on page 21! She didn’t understand the subtle parts or plot twists. In the end, it was a long boring book (with no pictures!) that Dad wrote.

What are you working on next?
I can’t say much about it just yet because it’s still in draft form. I can tell you that it’s another voice-driven book and features a male character who becomes a genius poet.—Beth Andersen, formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI

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