Interview with Donna Williams:
Hi Donna. Thank you for doing this interview. I would like to welcome you to the Romance at Heart Interview and Author Grilling session. *bg* We are interested to find out as much about you as we possibly can, so lets get started...
- Please tell us about your latest book.
My latest book is titled "Everyday Heaven". It’s autobiographical, non-fiction.
I was already one of the most famous people diagnosed with Autism in the world and people looked up to my achievements and particularly perhaps, the fact that as an Autistic person, contrary to all existing stereotypes at that time, I had married and, of course, was an iconic writer of heterosexual romance.
But all is not what it seemed. Agoraphobic, outside of my public face, I was actually a relative recluse on a farm in the middle of nowhere, completely controlled by my obsessive, rather multiple-personalitied husband, Ian. I was beginning to discover that not all 'Auties' were nice at all and the one I’d married was a doosie.
Now, on the day of our second wedding anniversary, only one week after the death of my eccentric rather bipolar father from cancer and in the middle of the filming of a documentary about my life, I was falling deeply 'in like' with one of the film crew, Mick who himself lost the father he loved. Now Ian boldly de-masked and announced he wanted to run off with the male producer!
The de-masked Ian clinically announced how he now qualified for being two years in the marriage and, hence, declared himself entitled to half of everything I’d ever made from my internationally bestselling books. To boot, I had only a few weeks before flying to America to give a talk about being happily married and on the Autistic Spectrum before a massive US audience!
As Ian packed up the furnishings and stripped the house bare the cameras kept rolling, My life, 'in like' with Mick turned to being in love and after I started a smart drug I found myself developing lust for the first time in my life at the ripe old age of thirty-two.
But Mick had his own challenges with love, sex, identity and alcohol and with the help of a colorful hippy eccentric dance teacher, Margo, I found myself on the road again. More alone as a famous person than I would ever have been otherwise, and deeply traumatised by the death of my father, I confronted my sexual orientation and attraction to women, going to a gay club specifically to meet 'someone'. I ended up in a torrid sexual relationship with an alcoholic lesbian, Shelly. Then my best friend, Margo, went suddenly into a coma, then died from a brain haemorrhage, and soon even my beloved cat Monty joined the 'other side'. It was like everyone was dying and I was surrounded by their 'ghosts'. But among the ghosts awaited an angel named Chris who, in rescuing him from his own messy love triangle, I rescued myself from the edge of breakdown. Everyday Heaven is a humorous, riveting, roller-coaster of a book that will rip your heart out and then have you laughing your head off on the next page.
- What can we expect from you in the future?
I’ve written 9 books in the last 15 years so I’m pretty prolific. I’ve recently moved into writing fiction, particularly film and have my first film script under option to a producer in LA. From there I finished my first non-fiction novel so hopefully that will be published some time.
- How do we find out about you and your books?
People can go visit my website www.donnawilliams.net where they can read up about my range of books and how to get them.
- How may readers contact you?
I’m relatively contactable through my website at www.donnawilliams.net.
- How many readers contact you?
Over the years… buckets of them.
- Do your fans' comments and letters influence you in any way?
Good question! I think they keep me in touch with the broad diversity of hearts and minds out there. I’ve even heard from a handful of angry ones over the years but even that taught me a lot about very different perspectives, ideas of ‘normality’ and how relative that is.
- Do you have a favorite comment or question from a reader?
I guess one that stands out was ‘Donna Williams is not just teaching us what it’s like to be autistic, she’s teaching us what it means to be human’. As an autistic author I’d like to think that autism is just normality with the volume turned way up so it gives me a window on that human thing which is a fairly quirky and raw, tell it like it is, sort of style.
- Why did you decide to write romance novels?
I totally didn’t set out to write romance but in fact my first book, "Nobody Nowhere" (which was an international bestseller) was majorly romantic and the film script based on the book really hones in on that time in the book. The thing about romance is it’s broad, its not just about the characters involved, its about the backdrop and what they’ve already been through, why you so desperately want them to find happiness and you’re capacity to relate to the struggles they go through in getting to that. My autism made me terrified of closeness and love felt like the threat of death so I was attracted to something that then set my immature nervous system into such chaos I was compelled to run. That puts romance in a very unusual context… people who are terrified of closeness yet love people so deeply and know them as only the fly on the wall observer can. My second book (also an international bestseller), "Somebody Somewhere" also finished up with a great promise of closeness, a promise that was taken further in my third book, "Like Color To The Blind".
Everyday Heaven was the fourth installment in my non-fiction autobiographical series, and the books are sort of like a huge road trip but also a road map in coming to terms with a condition that made closeness such a challenge, yet ultimately I come through that challenge with contact with some highly individual and unusual people. I think the last one was almost like the crescendo in a musical score where all hell breaks lose in the finale – gender identity issues, sexual orientation shifts, love triangles and absolutely sexual bumbling against a backdrop that couldn’t be bleaker – the deaths of almost everyone close to me – in a sense its like romance set in a black comedy.
I write about romance because I’m a passionate artist and a sociologist and teacher so I observe people and their patterns. As someone echolalic and echopractic (involuntarily mimicking sound and actions) all through childhood, this ended up serving as a great skill. I understand people. The irony is that in direct interaction with them I often can’t keep up with the information and don’t have a clue!
- How much of your personality and life experiences are in your writing?
As an autobiographical writer, A LOT. But even in my 3 fiction film scripts and my fiction novel, these are all parable based on real people I’ve known, real situations but thrown into a soup and stirred.
- When did you first think about writing and what prompted you to submit your first ms?
In school, I was a good reader but when I was nine they found out that I actually couldn't understand sentences. I could understand individual words but understanding written sentences was as hard as understanding heard ones.
They just ended up in a meaningless tumble.
Hard to imagine that from there I have become a writer with 9 published books, 4 film scripts and a (as yet unpublished) novel, Diamonds in The Mud. When I was actually able to stay sitting in a seat (and mood, anxiety, compulsive and information processing disorders make that quite some challenge) I was able to copy sentences from the blackboard and hence learned to handwrite. But expressing myself personally was something altogether different. Intimacy-phobic, my life was committed to intense privacy so where on earth was I meant to find the desire to show others who was in there? But I still loved the world and people and life and I was an avid people watcher all my life, mapping their patterns, their 'music of beingness', like a master spy, a 'fly on the wall' and not even I noticed I was noticing.
My writing career began when a typewriter was left in my room at the age of nine. Like most introduced objects, these things were not presented to me with instruction for it was known that in my mostly meaning deaf world, that was a sure fire way to put your own stamp upon it, branding the object part of your world and an attempt to invade mine. So the typewriter, like other introductions, appeared to have introduced itself, it was merely there one day.
It took me some time to dare to touch its keys, watching the mechanism as it struck the ribbon through the roller (for there was no paper in it) and the carriage moved along, now shockingly altered by me. I had had an impact upon it. I existed. I had to undo it and pushed the carriage back into line before the hyperventilation subsided.
Progressively, I dared this all again until one day, I arrived home to find the typewriter had fed itself with a sheet of paper. I was shocked. The typewriter and I were not on speaking terms for quite some time. Then I dared to press the keys again.
To my horror, it printed upon the page. Now not only had I made an impact, but it could not be erased. There was the proof, upon the white of the page. There was no denying it now. I had asserted my existence and it had been captured. Then I broke out, defying all compulsion to rip the paper out, shred it and eat it, and typed a whole line of letter patterns. Well, that was the beginning of the end.
Before I knew it the patterns of letters had me in fits of giggles and they made their way line by line down the page. Over the next four years the letter patterns would before word lists and the word lists would eventually become automatic, subconscious-driven, poetry hidden in the roof void where it was allowed to dare exist. My career as a writer had begun.
I went on to consolidate these words into the songs on my CDs, titled Nobody Nowhere and Mutation and expand on the experiences within them in the autobiographical works, Nobody Nowhere, Somebody Somewhere, Like Color To The Blind and Everyday Heaven, into text books, Autism; An Inside Out Approach, Autism and Sensing; The Unlost Instinct, Exposure Anxiety; The Invisible Cage of Involuntary Self Protection Responses and The Jumbled Jigsaw and the poetry work, Not Just Anything, which you will all find here. Sometimes, you have just got to trust and open the floodgates.
So my books had their foundations long before words ever found their way onto paper. The experiences under the words were first etched upon my soul, beyond the grasp of my conscious mind. Writing was the first key to the door behind which it was all locked.
My first book got accidentally published. It was left with a doctor who passed it to his colleague who sent it to her publisher who sent it to an agent and then I heard from the agent. I was 10,000 miles away at the time. I only had to say ‘yes’ but that wasn’t easy as I was scared to death my very private book would become public. I then reasoned that my fear of intimacy and being known would change forever if there were nothing to hide from. So I let the book be published. It took several years to settle into writer’s shoes, but now, yes, I can say I’m a writer.
- Generally, how long does it take you to write a book?
My first one took 4 weeks – crazy but true. That became a number one international bestseller. The second took 8 months! The third took about 6 months, so did the fourth. My books take no more than 8 months to write usually. My film scripts take about 6-8 weeks. I’m a compulsive writer. Having co-morbid bipolar probably helps.
- What is your writing routine?
I’m a 9-5 writer. My desk is my workplace. I write 1-10 pages at a time then shift task and then come back… like a sculptor carving away till its done.
- Do you have a set schedule for writing or do you just go with the flow?
I go with the flow but I have projects that ‘call me’. Me and my projects are friends so there’s no procrastination… I see them as freeing me, not imposed on me, so that means I’m fine about writing. After a project’s finished though, I often want to have a week or so before being ‘committed’ again.
- What about your family, do they know not to bother you when you are writing - or are there constant interruptions?
Good question. My husband knows that when I’m on a writing bender to not expect a great deal of contact or interaction. I do run things by him though, especially the films and the novel and his responses have really helped. Even when out walking I’ll talk about my characters and ‘what they did today’ or what they are about to do.
- What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?
Walking, painting, sculpting, composing, visiting galleries. I’m also an artist and musician.
- What truly motivates you in general? In your writing?
The fact I can’t consciously hold thought. I only become aware of it when it burbles out, but verbally that is then lost, so when it’s on paper, its like a paper brain, a place to store my thoughts, feelings, observations, passions. I don’t think in pictures or words, I’m kinesthetic, so I notice patterns, movement, tone, rhythms in how people express themselves and interact… it’s a kind of more intimate way of knowing them than just how they look or what they say. And this bonds me to people but also I love my distance from them, my observation deck perhaps.
- Where do your ideas come from?
Life, people, passion, dilemmas and struggles, injustices, and also humor. I deal with a lot of what annoys or angers me through humor.
- Do you feel humour is important in women's fiction and why?
Oh yes, for me, certainly. I don’t think romance should be all ‘pink’. Romance is multicolored and one of those colors is certainly humor, another is tragedy and struggle. I think I’m very known for contrasting the two and that’s what gives my works a rollercoaster sort of quality to them. Writing needs relief and not to take itself too seriously. But it also needs to dive into the deep, raw, gritty and embarrassing, even guilty and shameful spaces because I think people read to find new experiences, learning but also belonging, sometimes a reader wants to be ‘found’ and you can help them with that through how you tell what you tell and humor along the way certainly makes all the equally necessary trenches and bumps easier for them to handle.
- What are your thoughts on love scenes in romance novels, do you find them difficult to write?
As someone terrified of closeness and love (not anymore though) it was a real challenge to write scenes of greatest intimacy but I think my desire to come to terms with these things in myself really pushed me to tell this stuff in both a beautiful and raw, gritty manner. I don’t gloss. I like tangibility.
- What kind of research do you do?
My autobiographical works are based on real life, so the research is interpersonal, so to speak. But in my fiction works, again this stuff comes from real people who have turned to me or whose lives I’ve come into some close contact. I’ve had a lot to do with people of very different race, culture, sexual orientation and social class and have traveled widely and lived overseas so this really broadens my character range.
- Would you like to write a different genre than you do now, or sub-genre?
I recently wrote a fiction thriller but it is more thriller-romance called ‘The Protégé’. It’s got all manner of sexual orientations in it as well so the romance isn’t just heterosexual. I am monogamous and live in a wonderful heterosexual marriage but my last long term relationship was a lesbian one and I see myself as bisexual. I think that helps me relate more broadly on the topic of romance. I also have always had close gay male friends and that keeps romance in a broad perspective.
- What does your husband think of your writing?
Interestingly he’s an avid reader but doesn’t read novels outside of sci-fi and fan-fiction generally. He read Everyday Heaven with me (he’s in it) and he was gripped, on the edge of his seat, crying and laughing by turns and he finds my work highly emotive. My books certainly aren’t a ‘meander’, more like a rocket ship ride, strap in and hold on kind of thing.
- Do you ever ask him for advice?
Yes, in my fiction works, if a character is stuck I’ll ask him what he thinks might happen.
- Please tell us about yourself (family, hobbies, education, etc.)
I was often thought deaf into late childhood, labeled disturbed and probably assessed in infancy as psychotic (after a 3 day observation in a private hospital at age 2). I was diagnosed with autism in adulthood and after dietary interventions, medication and other things I’m a far less affected version of what I was. I grew up in a very unusual, dysfunctional, uneducated if not feral family. I failed my way through several secondary schools before leaving at 15 for factory work.
I failed in jobs too, having 30 jobs in 3 years. Then with the help of a shrink I returned to education in adulthood, completed college, went to university, got an honours degree in sociology (and a degree in linguistics), went on to get a post grad teaching qualification and somewhere in there became a well known author and altered the field of special ed and child psych in the area of autism spectrum conditions. I had lots of encounters with homelessness, which comes through my works, but as an author have met the other, affluent, side of society. I remain pretty down to earth and live very simply. I’m wildly sensory and love all things arty whether performance, dance, music, visual arts and nature… which is very much like art. I run a social morning for socially phobic women and a writer’s group, get into voluntary work now and then over the years.
- Fill in the blank favorites -
Desert - Aussie outback
City - Melbourne
Season - Spring
Type of hero - I find unlikely heroes the most appealing, and reluctant ones.
Type of heroineType of heroine, hmmm, flawed people who deserve a break then get one.
- What are some of your favorite things to do?
Arts; writing, painting, sculpting, composing… and walking in bushland… also watching movies.
- Do you have a favorite author? Favorite book?
Because of language processing problems I’m an expressive writer far more than a receptive reader. I can’t easily hold words with meaning when I read. Hence films become my version of reading really.
- Who are some of your favorite authors?
- Who, if anyone, has influenced your writing?
Complete strangers who never knew they did. Creeps and angels who taught me about rollercoasters.
- Are you a member of any author groups - RWA, critique groups, etc.?
Australian Writer’s Guild.
Australian Society of Writers
- What do you think of critique groups in general?
I run an informal, small writer’s group. We are all very sensitive yet constructive in helping each other critique our own works.
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
More involved in the film process and converting my film scripts to novels.
- How long have you been writing - have you always wanted to be a writer?
15 years. I had no idea what I wanted to be and the idea of being someone who spoke through written words to a world of strangers would have sounded utterly bizarre to me up until that was what I became.
- How many books have you written, how many have been published?
I’ve written 12 and am currently writing another 2 plus another film. I have had 9 books published, two of them international bestsellers, and my first film is currently under option (sort of the film version of ‘published’ before the film is made)
- After you've written your book and it's been published, do you ever buy it and read it?
No, I get a handful of author copies sent to me. I read my books only once after they are published.
- Among your own books, have you a favorite book? Favorite hero or heroine?
In my non-fiction works I’d have to say Sion stands out in Nobody Nowhere above all. In Everyday Heaven, of course my husband Chris stands out.
In my recent novel, Diamonds In The Mud (as yet unpublished) Zach is certainly my hero but Oceane is very beautiful, though actually I’m sure the transgender Gloria actually steals the show.
- What book for you has been the easiest to write? The hardest? The most fun?
The non-fiction books were always very hard because I have a strong instinct to get it all out and an equally strong one to keep it all private, so its quite some dance. The most fun would have to be writing film but writing Diamonds In The Mud, as my first fiction novel, was a great adventure for me.
- Which comes first, the story, the characters or the setting?
In fiction, I’d definitely say character.
- What are the elements of a great romance for you?
Impossible situations where a possibility opens up, usually at great cost or involving some complete turn around.
- Are you in control of your characters or do they control you?
Great question… they pretty much write themselves… my job is to let them.
- Have you experienced writer's block---> If so, how did you work through it?
I’ve experienced great terror at what’s about to emerge, yes, but I’m a ‘bite the bullet’ sort of person, I’d always face the needle rather than stay living with the fear, so I work through the hard medicine and then feel the relief the other side.
- What is the most rewarding thing about being a writer?
Living non-verbally, connecting from a distance, time, space, autonomy.
- If you weren't writing, what would you be doing?
Painting, composing or sculpting – and I swing between writing and these things as it gives a great break to writing.
- Are there any words of encouragement for unpublished writers?
Get comfortable with yourself first. If you don’t like you, then this will come through in how you write, your voice. So work on your life, your relationship with yourself… you don’t have to be ‘together’, but being at peace with who you are or at least on the road to that really helps.
Thank you very much for taking the time with us and giving us such an insightful interview. I really appreciate this interruption to your busy schedule. Good Luck, and we will be looking forward to the next delightful creation from your talented imagination!
Yours in good reading,