Of Cents and Psychology: An In-Depth Interview with Cornelia Read (Part One)

by Sandra Ruttan


Excerpt from my upcoming review of A Field of Darkness:

I was on the third page of Cornelia Read’s debut novel, A Field of Darkness, when I had a writer-moment. After grabbing a pen and a notebook to jot down all the verbs and phrases that are unique to Cornelia’s style, I resumed reading. It’s a writer-thing that, no matter whose book I’m reading, I always think about doing. Sometimes, I take notes but if the book is incredible, I have to read it again.

What happened to the notebook while I was reading A Field of Darkness? By page four I’d completely forgotten about the list and Madeline Dare’s story had consumed me…

And you’ll have to wait until the Summer Issue for the rest of my review. Until then, part 1 of my in-depth interview with Cornelia Read. By the time I interviewed Cornelia, we’d exchanged dozens of emails and I was prepared. Not all of my interviews start with questions about nudity, but this time it seemed strangely appropriate…


Sandra

Now, set me straight here. You were asked to take off your clothes at the age of 7 to be filmed picking clover in a meadow for a movie, which was called Be Here Now, and you refused?

Cornelia

I did. I was a little uptight as a seven-year-old and was not too much into this hippie shit. I said no, and they made my sister do it instead. We’ve never seen the movie. Some day I hope to find a video of it or something. I think there’s a very blurry little sister wandering through a field of clover in Big Sur, with probably some intensely spiritual voice-over.

Sandra

Do you have any regrets about not doing that now?

Cornelia

None whatsoever. Even at that age I considered the hippie stuff to be pretty much wifflehead shit.

I’m much fonder of Empiricism than in leaving all the scientific method by the side of the highway and seeing what happens then. It just doesn’t work for me.

Sandra

About the banner at the top of your website. Is there symbolism to those graphics?

Cornelia

There are a couple of things that are old illustrations from children’s stories that show up because in the book, the killer stages all the victims to resemble children’s stories, and there’s a shot of the Morro Castle--an ocean liner that burned at sea and washed up on the beach in New Jersey--and the shotgun that my character has… There’s one weird little shot that’s actually of my grandfather Read climbing into his Auto-gyro, which is an early helicopter, which has nothing to do with anything but I just always liked the photograph.

Sandra

So when people read the book, then they’re going to come to your website and it’s all going to make sense to them.

Cornelia

I hope so! And I hope that people who haven’t read the book will go, “Oh my God, what is this bizarre conflation of images?

Sandra

Speaking of bizarre… you have an ancestor that kept her husband in a cage?

Cornelia

Apparently yes. Although my mother says only when he was having fits. There was a novel written about it called The Winthrop Woman…I sometimes think that the idea of being able to keep your husband in a cage might not be entirely a bad thing.

Sandra

I was going to ask how that influenced your marriage and how you handle Jim.

Cornelia

Well, I don’t think I could get Jim into a cage. I’d need a very large cage because he’s rather tall, and I don’t think he’d go for it, but I do threaten occasionally and he just goes, “Oh, you downstate girls. God.”

Sandra

Your grandmother had a really neat idea about getting her lips tattooed so she could save money on lipstick.

Cornelia

She was a wild woman. She was married for many years to my grandfather and other than things like that, was a very sedate and charming woman, and he had terrible claustrophobia so he went on an airplane once and refused to ever fly again. He said it wasn’t being in the air that was scary to him, it was just that the door was locked and if they left the door open he would have been fine. So they always traveled, into the late 80’s, by ship or train or car – never flew anywhere – and they traveled a lot. The year after he died, she was 75 years old and she started taking flying lessons. She was just a trip.

She never did get her lips tattooed, by she did get eyeliner tattooed when she was 80, in Florida one day. She said, “I can’t see any more and I can’t put the damn stuff on and I don’t want to be bothered,” so she finally came through and did that. It looked really good, too.

Sandra

Why hasn’t that caught on?

Cornelia

If they sneezed in the middle and the needle jogged you might be in a little trouble.

Sandra

Your mom really met her fourth husband just before he was transferred from Pelican Bay?

Cornelia

She started corresponding with him, I think he was still at Pelican Bay, and she had a friend who was working in the prison system in California and Mom said she’d always felt so awful for people who are in prison, and if her friend ever knew somebody who didn’t have family who’d like somebody to correspond with, she’d be interested in doing that. Her friend said she knew a guy who was accused of a double murder and he was going through the appeals process and of all the people she’d met, she didn’t think he did it.

He had a terrible lawyer who was drunk the whole time, to the point that the judge asked this man if he wouldn’t like to have different representation, and the guy thought it was so obvious he was innocent that he didn’t want to waste more time and said no, and ended up getting the death penalty. He was in the appeals process for 13 years and probably would have gotten out eventually but he contracted Hepatitis C, he thought from a dentist in prison, and he died.

He’d successfully appealed what they call the penalty phase, so he was no longer on death row, and when he died he was life without parole and was working, appealing the conviction, and probably would have been freed if he hadn’t died.

So he and mom started writing to each other and after a couple years really fell in love and they got married and she used to go and have conjugal visits and she’d smuggle in little cans of shrimp and crab in her bra for the conjugal visits so they could have little picnics and stuff.

I never met the guy but I read a lot of his letters and typed up his notes on the history of the case, and it sounded pretty convincing that he wasn’t involved with what happened, and got set up. So that may show up in a story at some point.

I was reading Harper’s Magazine once, and you know how they have little sidebars of ’10 Worst Restaurant Experiences’ or little things that they excerpt from other publications? They had one that was the 10 worst trial lawyers from some legal journal, and his case was the first one. Bill Garrison was his name, and I guess it’s sort of a story that’s told in law schools about the importance of getting yourself a good lawyer. The lawyer would just show up drunk and pass out through half the testimony and stuff, so it’s infamous. (Bill) was hanging out with some pretty rough company when he got picked up – he was involved with a lot of bikers and meth dealers and stuff, but was basically framed for the murder of two pawnbrokers, because somebody owed him money on a meth deal and they paid part of the debt back with jewelry that they’d stolen from the people who were killed.

The cops screwed up the warrant on the guy who may well have actually done it, and then the guy agreed to testify against Bill.

Sandra

Now, switching topics completely, you have 1 1/2 tattoos?

Cornelia

I do.

Sandra

What exactly are they of?

Cornelia

I have a cents sign right above my right ankle. It was actually a real tattoo done in a tattoo parlour. It was my mother’s idea. Her best friend from college, one of that woman’s daughters was depressed one day, so the mom took her for a spa day at Elizabeth Arden in New York, and my sister came home over Christmas break that year and said, “Oh Mom, I’m so depressed,” so Mom said, “Well, my friend Anne took her daughter to Elizabeth Arden. How about if I take you to get a tattoo?” So my sister got a dollar sign in the same spot, and over spring break that year I came home and said, “I’m so depressed” so Mom said, “Well, obviously you need a tattoo.”

So she sent me and said, “Why don’t you get a cents sign because you need more sense?” which I thought was really boring, but what the hell – I couldn’t think of anything better and a very good friend of mine got the same tattoo a few months later and she decided we got them “for change.”

My half tattoo is on the inside of my left thigh, and it was supposed to be a star, which is the same thing my mother got tattooed with all of her college buddies in 1957. (Mom’s) then boyfriend…his son said, “Cornelia you could use a tattoo” and so he did it - we fried up the ink in a skillet to sterilize it and I was wearing a kilt. I hiked up my kilt at the dining room table but I think the ink didn’t go deep enough so it’s just a bunch of blue dots. So that’s the half.

Wholesome family fun, basically.

Sandra

Note to self: be prepared for anything at Thanksgiving at the Read house!

You’re a few months away from the launch of your debut book, and already the reviews are starting to come in. Do you worry about the criticism? How do you handle knowing that the review is about to come out?

Cornelia

I mostly lie under the sofa, hyperventilating among the dust-bunnies. I’ve been very, very lucky so far. I’ve seen three reviews from the four major advance pre-publication publications and they’ve been really positive, which is astonishing to me and I just feel very, very blessed. So I’ve seen Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist and they were all very gracious, positive, thoughtful reviews. And two were starred. That’s completely unexpected to me and I guess it will help. I hope it will encourage other people to take a look at it as a debut book, that it might be worth reading and reviewing and I’m sure somebody’s going to hate it, ‘cos God knows there’s stuff that I hate that other people love and vice versa.

It’s nice going into the rest of it with that under my belt, and especially from Kirkus because I hear that they’re very, very stringent. To have a positive response from them means a great deal and I’ve heard from a number of friends who are librarians that with their acquisitions they take Kirkus very seriously.

Sandra

The tendency is to think that everyone who lives in California wants to write screenplays.

Cornelia

Probably more in southern California. I have some buddies down there…who are more involved in film and TV stuff. It’s almost like two separate states. The cultures are very different. The Bay area, the crime writers who are here, it’s a feast of people. The local Mystery Writers of America chapter is really active. There are a lot of good book events and many, many really good bookstores, a pretty good amount of coverage in the local press at book events.

The MWA meetings here are almost always held in this place, John’s Grill, where Sam Spade went to have dinner at one point during The Maltese Falcon – this wonderful, old, dark-paneled steaks and chops place and there’s a great dining room upstairs and so we go up there and listen to FBI agents talk about serial killers and stuff.

(San Francisco) is incredible and also with the centenary of the 1906 earthquake this year there’s a lot of very, very cool exhibitions, articles and stuff.

Sandra

I think that mystery writers are a lot more tuned into society.

Cornelia

I’ve heard a couple of people say that they feel like mysteries have become the social novel, in a way that maybe Jane Austen was years ago, and I think that’s really true. One thing, for me especially, and I think it’s true of a lot of other people is, what is fascinating about crime is that you get the thin end of the wedge very quickly into the insides of people’s lives. It just rips away veneers and facades and you can find out so much about different castes of society, different industries, different people’s jobs, people’s family lives, relationships, religions. Pretty much anything. If you kill someone [fictionally], you blow the lid off lives and get to look at them from the inside and touch on so many different things and that, I think, is why there’s just such amazing juice to crime fiction, when it’s done well.

Sandra

Is that part of what drew you into writing in crime fiction?

Cornelia

For many years I had sort of a memoirish novel that I worked on, and it just went on and on and on. I have great, bizarre family anecdotes that never go anywhere. I mean, the whole point of any kind of novel is there’s supposed to be character arc and people are supposed to learn something and move on, and everybody I know just kept doing the same kind of weird shit endlessly.

I saw an ad… for a mystery writing group and I saw it once and thought it was kind of interesting, and I’d just been laid off from my dot com job and I kept on seeing it. Finally I thought, “Wow, you know, for about the last ten years the stuff I’ve enjoyed reading has all been mystery,” and I had never realized that, that I’d moved away from literary fiction and started to find it boring and pointless and bloodless.

(I got involved in the group and) suddenly it was like having a form, like a sonnet or something, that all of the family background stuff that I had looked at in my own head for so long had a purpose, and I really love having a structure - I love having traces to kick against. The confines of genre make the pot come to a boil a little better and bring up the pressure, and it made characters who’d already been in my head learn things and make some progress so that I actually came out with a novel.

I would still go off on bizarre tangents that ended up not being relevant, like my first-draft hunka hunka burning Erie Canal pages, but what got trimmed back to serve the purposes of the story, I think that made it much more interesting.

I could lose myself in Google for months at a time, I’m sure, and I’ve had different obsessions, some of which actually turn up in this book. I got really into growing old roses for a while when we lived in Massachusetts, and then I moved on to researching vintage Porsches, and my most recent thing was a shipwreck, an ocean liner called the Morro Castle that burned off the coast of New Jersey in 1934. It was the worst North American maritime disaster ever, and I mentioned a fictional version very briefly in A Field of Darkness because my lip-tattoo grandmother christened the Morro Castle in 1930, since her father ran the shipping line.

Of course, with our family we call it the Reverse Midas Touch, that everything we touch turns to shit. There’s newsreel footage, (my grandmother’s) about 18 years old in a little flapper hat bashing a bottle of champagne across the ship, and of course it turned out to be horrible devastation and it was probably arson and the captain might have been murdered several hours before the fire broke out, and the ship washed up on the coast of Asbury Park, New Jersey, where it was, like, a tourist attraction. They were taking people through the hull of the ship on the beach for 25 cents before they got all the bodies out.

I call it the Glamis Castle instead of the Morro Castle (in A Field of Darkness).

Sandra

Along with the release of the book comes the public appearances. You’re speaking in New York in July, are you not?

Cornelia

Yeah, that is the Backspace Writer’s Conference. They do an online writer’s forum, which is outstanding, just amazing, amazing information and a really good community of people. The Backspace people were doing their first conference last summer and Bob Kellogg, a member who’d been very helpful to a lot of people, had passed away, so they wanted to do an award to writers in his memory, for someone who was helpful to new writers, who was established – The Bob Kellogg Good Citizen Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Internet Writing Community – and they decided that Lee Child, who’d been one of the earliest writers who’d come on to the forum to talk with new people, and he’d been so helpful to so many people, that they wanted to give him the award. They were asking people who Lee had helped to write up something that could be read at the award ceremony, to let people know how kind he’s been to everyone. Heidi Moos, who I met through my website designer, Heidi Mack, got in touch with me and asked me to do this, and so I wrote something up about that and then the founder of Backspace asked if I’d be interested in joining the forum, so I did and I really, really like them. Unfortunately, it’s so easy to procrastinate because it’s so much fun to log on there and read what everybody’s up to and trade stories and stuff.

They’re doing their second conference this summer and I was asked to do two panels, one is with mystery people and then one will be me, my agent, my editor and Sarah Weinman is supposed to moderate that. So I guess I’ll actually get to meet Sarah in real life finally, which will be very exciting.

Sandra

Before we get to how Lee helped your career, how did you get your agent and your publishing deal?

Cornelia

Well, I was really lucky. I was in two writing groups and one was mystery and one wasn’t. There was a guy named Robert Clark Young who’d had a novel published with HarperCollins in the non-mystery group, and when I finished my third draft he said, “I really think this is ready to send out now and I have a list of agents I’ve collected over the years, and I think these would be good people to try first.”

He gave me a list of about 50 people and I just started querying them. I queried about 35 and a bunch of people asked for partials and then full manuscripts and four people wanted to sign me, so it turned out well.

“It’s pretty much impossible to describe Lee without sounding suspiciously like Frank Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, the guy who’s been brainwashed, to say, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful person I’ve ever known in my life,” whenever Shaw’s name gets mentioned. Here’s the thing, though. When it comes to getting across the truth about him, Lee’s the hardest to convince of all. The man seems utterly incapable of taking in any of the “kindest warmest bravest” stuff. Nor will he admit that his generosity is in any way remarkable. I’ve never met anyone who deserves the Bob Kellogg Award more than Lee. It would be tremendously cool if this recognition serves to convince him, at long last, how very much he does."

- Cornelia Read


I was expecting that I’d be lucky to get a rejection with some notes. Three of them had said, “We’d like to sign you,” and I was waiting for the last one because that struck me as the best agency, and the head guy I’d sent the query to said, “I really think it needs too much work and I’m sort of semi-retired, but the first reader in our office really championed it and he would like to take it on. He’s a very good editor, he’s new, but he’ll have all of us backing him when it comes time to sell it if you’re interested.” So I decided to go with them because my worry had been that their clients were big and I’d sort of get lost in the shuffle and I’m not very assertive, so I thought to have the young guy who’s hungry with the experienced people behind him was the best of both worlds, and then I worked on revising it with him for 14 months, and then finally he sent it out January before last to about 13 people. Three were interested, so it went very well. And I’m lucky because he had a lot of time to talk me through it and make good recommendations and he really made it much better. One of the other agents had said, “I think it’s ready to go now,” and I’m glad I went with (my agent) because he was the toughest on it and it’s much better as a result.

Sandra

So you would say that there’s tremendous value in finding a good editor.

Cornelia

Absolutely. To get as many pairs of eyes as you can get to look at something…and Kristen Weber, the editor at Mysterious, also made me do two more sets of revisions, so I’ve been lucky. You often hear that editors don’t edit anymore, and in my case it really wasn’t true and again, I think the book is much, much stronger as a result.

The copy editor was amazing too. She queried everything – I referred to a coffee machine at the newspaper where the main character works and called it a Bunsen, and she wrote and said, “Are you sure you don’t mean Bunn? Because I looked it up and Bunsen doesn’t make coffee makers, they just make lab equipment.” So there was fine-tooth attention to the whole thing, which was great.

Sandra

Do you find when you get back editing like that it really raises your bar as a writer?

Cornelia

Yes, very much. And I have worked as a fact checker and proofreader and editor for magazines, so I really appreciate somebody taking the time to do that with me. I thought I absolutely knew, for instance, what the coffee machine brand was, and the stuff that you can miss going over something so many times yourself… You need objective eyes on it to make sure that it’s right.

Sandra

Can you tell me about how you met Lee Child and about his impact on your career?

Cornelia

He came to a local mystery writing conference at a really great bookstore…at Book Passage. They do a great conference every summer, and he was on the faculty my second year attending. You can pay a little bit extra and do a consult with somebody on the faculty, and I turned my paperwork in late and had just read one of his books again and thought, “What the hell? I’m going to request him (but) I’m sure he’s all booked up already.” I ended up getting him at the last minute.

He read the first 20 pages and liked them and said, “Where are you with this?” I said I was working on what I hoped were the last round of revisions for the agent, so he said, “When you’re happy with it, send it to me and I’d be happy to blurb it.” I told the agent, I was very excited, and the agent said, “Will you ask him if he’ll do it before we submit to publishers, because I think that would be very helpful in getting it sold.”

It had not occurred to me to do that. Lee was happy to help with that. He read it quickly and emailed his very kind blurb back to me. The next week, Heidi Moos said to me, “You should go look at David Montgomery’s Mystery Ink Online and check this out.” David had asked a bunch of authors and fans to pick their 5 favourite books of 2004, and Lee picked mine as one, although it hadn’t been sent to publishers yet.

Kristen Weber at Mysterious, who we ended up signing with, said afterwards that having Lee behind it really helped in selling it to her editorial board.

And then last year Lee was on tour and he emailed me that he was talking to a lot of booksellers and they always asked him what he’d been reading and what he thought was good. He said he’d love to be able to tell them when my book was coming out, so they could keep an eye out for it. It was originally supposed to come out fall of ’06, but Kristen had moved the date up to June of this year instead.

I wrote to Lee to tell him June, and when he came back to Book Passage last summer he said, “Listen, my next book is going to come out in June as well, and would you be interested in doing a joint tour?” And of course I said yes.

That has been amazing as well, because I doubt I would have got as much backing to do a tour and Mysterious was very excited. We’re going to do five joint appearances together around the country.

Sandra

What can you tell me about the second book?

Cornelia

Well, it’s set at a boarding school for emotionally disturbed teenagers… I taught at a place like that--the kids were great and the administration was totally psycho. My husband commented eventually, “If you stay there one more week they’re going to make you shave your head and sell flowers at an airport.” Pretty interesting place to be.

Sandra

Well, it provides interesting fodder for writing.

Cornelia

I hope so. I’m very interested in the history of psychiatry too, especially pop psych stuff, having grown up in California in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s some pretty bizarre stuff that was passed around as gospel that I’d like to re-examine and talk about a little bit.

Sandra

You have a trend towards…more recent history.

Cornelia

I’m interested in that stuff. Even just trivia… I collect factoids and I’m always trying to make sense of it, of just pop culture and stuff, so I don’t know if I’ve managed to do that in this one, but that’s just really fascinating to me and how just what as a culture we can be convinced is absolute truth, in the moment, shifts and changes through time is really intriguing to me and I love reading old pop non-fiction … I’m currently reading a 1945 edition of Emily Post’s etiquette book. It’s such a trip to me to see what we believe from week to week and how it changes and what we take as absolutes that go away.

Sandra

Do you find, when you’re writing, you try to come up with answers to some of that, or…?

Cornelia

Yeah, and then I usually have to delete those in later drafts. I can get caught up in really ridiculous side issues. My example from this book was I had that 15-page chunk of tremendous research I did on the architectural influence of the Erie Canal in upstate New York, complete with pictures, to say, “Oh look, it was at the same time as the Greek revival.” Luckily my cousin Winthrop said to me, “If you don’t find a dead body floating in the canal you get two sentences and this is a very lovely term paper but it’s got to go.”

Sandra

Have you ever thought of putting that up on your website, just for interest?

Cornelia

I don’t know. Maybe.

Sandra

Well, there are some people who might be really intrigued by that whole history.

Cornelia

They might be. But it’s tough to play off of stuff. I get obsessed with specific topics and research and then I just have to cut it all out but I remember, I think Ibsen talking...somebody asked him about a character – maybe it was Torvald in Hedda Gabler or something – and they asked him why something happened and he said, “Well, of course, Torvald was a vegetarian,” which is never mentioned in the play and I thought, that’s kind of cool to think that he knew that much about the character but it wasn’t used.

We can all go off on these tangents where we get lavishly obsessive about something we think is going to be absolutely essential, and then it turns out to be half a sentence that’s left.

I mean, I thought the first book was going to be about neo-Nazis, and bought all these books about neo-Nazis and got about halfway through it and thought, “Wow, that just doesn’t work at all.” So there’s still little, tiny touches of that left, but it ended up being about something completely different.

Sandra

That raises an interesting question. How do you plot your books?

Cornelia

Just as I go along. I’m not an outliner at all. I’ve found it very interesting--to me, anyway--that things I touched on very lightly in the opening ended up mattering a great deal to the plot when I thought I was going in a completely different direction. There’s sort of some subconscious groundwork there that percolates up as you work on something over time.

In this one, photography and photographers ended up mattering a lot…and I…had no idea that would come into play in the way that it did until I was about 150 pages into it.

Sandra

You’re like me, you’ll fly by the seat of your pants.

Cornelia,

Totally. Half the seat of my pants. I don’t even have my full seat in the airplane chair.

Sandra

You’re perched on the edge.

Cornelia

Leaning out to one side with an arm extended so I don’t fall over.

Sandra

When you write that way, it’s almost like your subconscious is smarter than you are.

Cornelia

Oh definitely, definitely. And thank God.

Sandra

Out of curiosity then, when you read other people’s work, do you ever feel that some of it is stilted because it’s been plotted out rigorously?

Cornelia

I think when something’s really good, I don’t think you can tell how much it’s been plotted out in advance. But it’s always interesting to hear because it’s a question that gets asked so often… I think sometimes people who aren’t outliners, that the story can be richer because they get into areas that they explore without a guaranteed payoff, but then it probably can also lead to books that are flipping around all over the place, too.

Sandra

That’s where that editing comes in, doesn’t it?

Cornelia

Let’s hope so, for all of our sakes. I like books that go in unexpected directions and I would imagine some people who are outliners will do that too. I don’t think I could tell just from reading something which way it is, but I always like to hear what people have to say about it.

The thing that always cracks me up on panels is the outliners always accuse the non-outliners of secretly outlining.

Sandra

There’s no formula for what works, I (personally) don’t think.

Cornelia

Having time to step back and bring your own eyes back to something fresh is really helpful, but also I think just over time different little pieces percolate up through the magma that you wouldn’t have expected, and especially for me, working on the first one…suddenly I’d be driving along and have a fragment of a sentence or something and I’d be, like, “Wow, that’s interesting. That takes me in a completely different direction than what I thought I should be doing.” And it turned out to be better.

I hope on the second one, because there’s a time-limit on doing it--now I have a deadline, which I didn’t have with the first one-- that there’s enough time for serendipity to occur.

Sandra

Now, what is your time limit on the second one? Are they targeting release for a year from May?

Cornelia

It’s due in June. I had four years to work on the first one and a year to work on the second and I was still working on copy edits for the first one into October.

Sandra

So are you doing this full-time now?

Cornelia

Yeah, in between doing childcare and stuff. It’s nice. Just with having such different educational arrangements for the girls, to be able to be flexible with my schedule…if it pans out and people actually buy this thing, it could be the best kind of job to have. Last year I was still doing some journalism stuff. I’d drop everything and be asked by a local magazine to write an article about hot tubs and saunas or something. This year I really don’t have time to take that on.

Sandra

How old are your girls?

Cornelia

They’re about to turn 12. They were born in the last year of the dog.

Sandra

Your daughter Lila has autism and you’ve had some interesting experiences, in terms of being a parent of a child with autism, that we’ve discussed in correspondence. There’s a whole perception in society about people who have autism, or about people who have different needs.

Do you think that might ever be fodder for your writing?

Cornelia

Definitely. I hope to kill Bruno Bettelheim, and I’m sure it’s a desire that I share with many other people. (Read more about Cornelia’s opinion on Bettelheim here: http://www.epinions.com/book-review-3F91-18D8C29E-384A9CAC-prod1)

I’d like to talk about autism if I get to keep going with this series, to tackle that in a book down the road. It’s vaguely following the contours of my life at this point, and so it would maybe be two or three books down the road that the character would have kids.

It’s a tough disorder to explain to people in a nutshell, because I think that there’s so many ways – I mean, you know, having worked with autistic kids – that it can present and manifest in so many different combinations. It’s not like it’s linear and there’s more or less severity. You really have different combinations of effects that it has. Lila is non-verbal, and really into creating as much chaos as possible at all possible times, but is very affectionate and cheerful most of the time too, and then, you know, other kids who would be termed autistic might be highly verbal. Lila has nothing to do with the character Dustin Hoffman played in Rain Man, for instance, and so if people haven’t been exposed to it, it can be kind of difficult to explain what it’s like.

Sandra

Well, it fits into our ideas about putting people into boxes and especially when somebody has a condition that you don’t understand, you want to try and buttonhole it down into this nice little compact definition. The reality of it is, I think this is part of the reason why some of the treatment has been not as effective as it could have been in dealing with children with special needs, because people are looking so quickly for that little pat answer that they then look for the pat solution. And there aren’t pat solutions for autism and many, many of the other conditions that children face.

Cornelia

Exactly. And I think for autism in particular-- part of my fascination with the history of psychiatry and psychology--is when it was first named in the mid-40’s, for decades afterward it was considered a psychiatric disorder and not a neurological disorder. It was an incredibly painful thing, the whole sort of Freudian thing, that it was really blamed on mothers and bad mothering, and it’s fascinating to me to go back and look at texts that I know were assigned in my high school and my college, and Bettelheim being widely read, and everybody being basically told that everything was bad parenting.

I think that was something that was just a tremendous tragedy for so many people, that here they’re trying to cope with this and at the same time being told that it’s their fault and having no intellectual rigor brought to bear by the clinicians. It wasn’t treated as science, it was almost treated as mythology. Bettelheim wrote a parenting column for Ladies Home Journal for 15 years and his word was law, and here were these people struggling to do the best for their kids and the only thing they could get from even the medical community was, “Obviously, you didn’t want to be a parent. You resent your child and you’ve made them ill.”

Sandra

To me, part of the simplicity of that, is that there is such an inherent tendency to fall into the self-blame trap when there is something wrong with your child, and I’ve seen this with countless parents who ask me what they did wrong. I’ve seen people divorce over it, you’re so naturally inclined as a parent, and particularly for mothers, to blame yourself, to think that you didn’t eat the right foods…and then when somebody comes along and you’re already thinking this is your fault and somebody says, “Yes it is your fault,” you just buy that. You’re already halfway there.

Cornelia

I feel so, so lucky that we’re dealing with this now and not in the 50’s or 60’s, because I would have believed it. And I still have huge guilt because I really think that it is connected to the tripling of the number of vaccines the kids were given starting around when our girls were born, and I remember the Sunday night before the girls got their first shots with the pediatrician--they were probably a month old--and there was a thing on 60 Minutes about adverse vaccine reactions among little kids, and I had this very smug response to it. My dad and stepmother had a little girl about a year before our girls were born and she was breast-fed for many years and they did the family bed – the west coast take on attachment parenting and all that - and my stepmother said she’d didn’t ever do vaccines because she didn’t believe in western medicine. I watched this thing thinking it was idiocy, why wouldn’t you do vaccines? and I remember walking into the doctor’s office thinking I would take full advantage of all that modern medicine has to offer.

I have moments where I think, “God, I didn’t question it and I should have.” You can find guilt in many, many things and, as I think I said to you in an email once, a buddy of mine who had a son with milder autism when we were in Massachusetts said to me that in the old days they blamed mothers for causing it, and now they blame us for not curing it.

People will send me newspaper clippings of how this family in India brought their kid back from autism and (suggest) it’s something I should look into and it seems like it’s a different thing every week. I could devote my life and whatever money we have into chasing down whatever comes over the horizon this week, in the hope of a cure, which we did for the first year or so… and then it becomes so heartbreaking. Now my take is if they really find a cure it’s going to be on the cover of every magazine and maybe we’ll just wait until there’s adequate testing done. About a month after I started getting pressure to try chelation therapy, a little boy died in the middle of chelation. His parents had come from England in the hopes that it would be a cure and I thought, “Yeah, that’s why we’re going to wait, make sure stuff is safe.”

Sandra

That’s even the thing with the vaccines. I’ve certainly heard the theory. There certainly are statistics but if you look at the percentages it’s a fraction of a hundredth of a percent of children who get these vaccines who end up with different side effects. As a parent you take the information you have about what is expected of you in terms of public health and you make the best decision possible. I mean, you could have passed on vaccines and your child dies…

Cornelia

Of mumps or something.

Sandra

Yes, so there can be blame on both sides of the equation and it’s always easy for people to look back and say, “Oh, well, you should have done this.”

Cornelia

About anything, sure. And I’m very leery about stuff because there are fads in everything. Just look at what’s the latest diet craze. No fat, no protein, no carbs and it switches back and forth and we have all these studies and “look, this is really it….”

Sandra

Live on water.

Cornelia

And water’s bad for you, that’s the latest thing. The latest thing in skin care is don’t use tap water. Thank God I don’t wash my face as often as they tell you to, maybe I’ll end up looking youthful.

We all just do the best we can. You can’t do all of it, in anything.

When Lila was first diagnosed, Jim and I were walking around convinced this had come through the genes of our respective families. We were feeling huge guilt and couldn’t confess to the other one that it was obviously our fault.

Sandra

Out of curiosity, you mentioned you’ve been a fact checker. What else have you done?

Cornelia

I was a chambermaid at the Tickle Pink Hotel and I was a frozen yogurt server in Grand Central Station and I worked as an educational editor for a dot com… When I got laid off from that is when I started working on the book. I was a journalist at a number of small hippie weeklies around the country. Always trying to make some money with writing, and if anybody would pay me for my talent in spelling I was always very excited. I mostly was paid in the high two-figures.

And I taught high school for a year, as I mentioned, which was a complete disaster. I still have papers that I never corrected and gave back, and that was in 1989. I should not be allowed to teach.

I worked for (Martha Stewart) once for two weeks as a fact checker, on the first issue of her magazine. She had very nice cowboy boots. That’s all I really remember about her. I had been asked to type up her guest list for the Martha Stewart Living launch party, and she looked in the door of this little cubicle – I was there on a weekend doing this – and just looked at me and said, “Who are you?” and I was like, “I’m Cornelia” and she said, “huh” and walked away. Me and Martha, we go way back. So luckily I don’t think we’re at any risk of having her drop by.

For more information about Cornelia Read and her debut novel, A Field of Darkness, visit her website at http://www.corneliaread.com/index.html

The Summer Issue of Spinetingler Magazine will feature Sandra Ruttan’s complete review, as well as part 2 of her interview with Cornelia, discussing the process of launching the first book and the impact this has had on her life.



ABOUT OUR INTERVIEWER

Sandra Ruttan has just signed a deal for the release of her first novel, Suspicious Circumstances, in November 2006. A regular contributor to Spinetingler Magazine, her work can also be found in the May/June and July/August issues of CrimeSpree Magazine.

For more information about Sandra visit her website or her blog


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