I'm excited to welcome Jeni Decker, author, mom and all 'round great lady to my blog today. Her latest book is a memoir, I Wish I were Engulfed in Flames: My Insane Life Raising Two Boys with Autism is truly a fabulous read.
Please tell us a little about your memoir I Wish I were Engulfed in Flames: My Insane Life Raising Two Boys with Autism and why you wrote it.
Well, the whole thing snuck up on me like the swine flu, the symptoms fairly banal until suddenly it felt like I was hooked up to life support with a priest administering last rites in the form of a cattle-prod shoved up my…
…okay, so that lasted about fifteen minutes, relatively speaking. A friend once told me that I was lucky to have my life. “While you’re enjoying an eight course meal, most people are sitting down with a frozen dinner.”
Boy, was she ever right. Profundity; you can’t find it in the frozen food section.
I am the mother of two amazing autistic children who are on different ends of the autism spectrum. This book was born out of my need to understand them. To find out where we fit into the world around us, and to figure out how I could be the best parent I could be.
I’ve always written fiction and never considered writing a memoir. But at some point, in between working on another novel, I began posting short stories about my children on my writer’s workshop site. The response from readers was immediate. They wanted more. So I continued writing the stories; recounting things that had happened up to that point, and jotting down “scenes” as they happened in my life, real-time. Early readers seemed to connect with the stories, even if they didn’t have children with special needs.
I think there’s a universal need to see what we as individuals have in common with others. But also to look at the lives of others and say, “Yeah, I’ve got some issues, but look over there. It could be worse.” I also think that there’s something to be said for being able to laugh at the absurd; to look at something that could potentially break you and find the humor in it. It sure does make it easier to get through each day. Since that’s how I live my life, that’s how I wrote the book. It’s a no-holds barred, often sarcastic, slightly irreverent look at autism and dysfunction from someone in the trenches.
Was it easier to write about your own life than to write a novel?
Hmmm… easier, no. Different, yes. With my life, there’s always enough material on any given day to provide me with a chapter, a blog post, or at least 140 characters for a tweet!
Fiction is different, particularly because I never outline. There are times when I stall out and am forced to reassess where I’m going. I tried to outline once, but the story felt forced. Don’t get me wrong, I generally have an idea about where the story will begin and where I want to end up - though not always the latter. But everything between the two is up for grabs. I don’t like to shove my characters into any plotline or action. The writing feels contrived that way.
One of my favorite parts of the fiction writing process is research. I may research fifteen things for any given chapter, from something as small as a piece of furniture, to something as large as a particular setting in historical context. Research always leads to me to write something that I hadn’t earlier anticipated. Whether it’s to flesh out a character/ description/ setting or to add a deeper layer to what I’ve already constructed. Those little surprises I find while doing research often lead me on an unexpected tangent.
That’s the bliss of writing, for me; exploration.
How can you write an honest memoir without offending the people in your life?
You can’t worry about offending the people in your life. You must simply write the truth as you see it, fallout be damned. There are certainly quite a few moments in my book that make me cringe when I think about other people reading it, but I never thought about those things while writing the first draft.
Once I started editing and got closer to the publication date, I started to think about it. But every time I got a glimmer of concern and thought to myself, What will people say?, I forced myself to delve deeper into whatever it was that made me uncomfortable. I believe the finished book is better for it.
Honesty is never wrong. In life or in art. In life, since I’m the type of person who expects people to take me as I am - the good, the bad, and the ugly - it would have been disingenuous to write this book any other way.
You may ask: “Don’t you have any problems with exploiting your children for your own literary benefit? My answer: No - because it’s my life, too. And I don’t necessarily consider this exploitation, per se, so much as the preservation of their essence for posterity.
Yeah, that’s it…I’m an essence preservationist.
Do you ever censor your writing to avoid offending or displeasing people?
No, no, and NO!
You can’t write effectively if you’ve got your inner censor on all the time. When you begin to chip away at an “honest” scene, when you start excising layers of truth or softening them for a certain audience, the story suffers for it.
Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, my first priority is to the story and people (characters) within it. What is right for them, what is their truth. Once you edit that one sentence or scene with the specific intent to make it more palatable to a certain audience, you have instantly made the work something other than it was meant to be.
I am a voracious reader and there’s nothing that comes across as blatantly as censored and over-edited work. I think there’s an effort, when trying to ascertain what the “market” is looking for, to pander to the lowest common denominator. To write what will sell. While I understand the inclination, as a reader I resent it. I respect authors who are willing to saunter up to that line (whatever that line may be) and unapologetically try something different… something a bit scary.
Something raw and honest and… right.
What advice would you give parents raising an autistic child?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Take each day as it comes and for God’s sake, don’t try to judge yourself or your parenting against the people down the street. Each family is unique, like every journey in life. Only you can know, in your gut if your choices are right for your family.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Life is messy. We’re not always prepared for what’s coming our way. But a good rule of thumb is to laugh as much as possible. There’s humor to be found in just about every situation, and if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll probably find yourself crying.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers or aspiring published authors? Because they’re two different beasts. I’d say that if you write for the sheer joy of it, because you can’t imagine doing otherwise, you’re on the right track.
Write what appeals to you, what you want to invest your time in. Because the odds are against being published. So you better be enjoying the ride or you’re wasting your time. Life’s too short to be squandering even one minute.
How do you build or create an effective platform to reach your audience?
Platform, platform, platform! It’s all you hear agents/editors/publishers talking about, and as far as publication, there’s a reason. The more people that are interested in what you’re writing, the greater possibility for sales.
But, whether you choose to self-publish (I’ve done that, too) or you’re published traditionally, you’ll still have to do the same thing: sell yourself and your work. Any good agent or publisher will tell you that. When you’re traditionally published, you still have to build a following. Publishers have certain connections, but you still have to get out there and market yourself. Social media is invaluable in that regard. Twitter, Facebook, blogging - get out there and figure out what you have to offer that might appeal to others.
Then get out there to your community and do the same. Stop into bookstores, set up signings, do local radio and TV interviews if you can. Make friends with your librarians! They’re a great source of information about what’s going on locally.
If you’re not an established author with a built-in following, don’t expect things to happen overnight. Consider each book that you get into the hands of a reader another opportunity for word of mouth to spread. It’s the “pebble in the pond” effect. Those ripples don’t immediately appear, they feed off one another, getting larger and larger over time.
I don’t consider writing a job, but selling myself is. And it’s a full-time job.
Where can we find you and where can we purchase your book?
Thank you, Jeni, for taking the time to answer my questions. As you know, I was one of those readers in our writing group who kept coming back for more and can personally testify to the fact that your book is an excellent read. Best of luck with Engulfed and with all future endeavours....Jeanne