SciFiPulse recently had the privilege of interviewing Ada Hoffman, author of the spec fic novel The Outside, the short story collection Monsters In My Mind and the forthcoming book The Fallen. In this interview, Ada discusses neurodiversity in fiction as well as in society and gives her tips for writers who are just starting out.
SFP: What got you into writing?
Ada Hoffmann: I’ve always done it! My parents read to me a great deal and I was fascinated by books. As soon as I learned how to put words on a page, I started writing “books” of my own – most of them were badly spelled and involved dinosaurs or dragons. It seemed natural.
SFP: How do we move most people’s perception of autistics away from characters like Sam in Atypical and towards autistic protagonists created and written by actually autistic authors?
Ada Hoffmann: I think this has to start on the publishing or broadcasting company’s side. People are creating these stories, much more prolifically and openly than, say, ten years ago. It’s a matter of getting them into the mainstream. In the science fiction book world, so many openly autistic authors are coming onto the scene that I’m starting to lose count of them all; some have become finalists for our biggest awards; but the big publishing companies are the slowest to take notice. To my knowledge; in science fiction and fantasy for adults, we still haven’t had an #ownvoices author sell a book to any of the Big 5 publishers. All this activity and even the award nominations are coming from the margins. Most people read books and watch shows made by just a few companies, and it’s those companies that need to start investing more in authentic, nuanced autistic stories. The stories are already out there – they just need distribution.
SFP: You mentioned in one of your essays that a character like Sheldon Cooper is powerful because he pays no heed to neurotypical mores but is still friends with the other main characters. Where should we as autistics draw the line between acquiescing to NT society and living our own neurodivergent best lives?
Ada Hoffmann: That’s a fascinating question, but I want to start by contextualizing what I said about Sheldon Cooper – as a portrayal of autism he is very flawed, and we can do a lot better. Those flaws didn’t stop me from having a powerful reaction the first time I saw him. I think one of the points that escapes us sometimes in representation discourse is that even very flawed representation can be powerful if it does something we haven’t seen before.
I’m not sure there’s a single answer to how we as autistics should live. There are a lot of external pressures influencing those decisions. There’s a lot of solid evidence that pretending to be neurotypical, changing ourselves to fit in, is actively damaging to an autistic person’s mental health. But sometimes the alternative is worse. We can depend on neurotypical people for our jobs, housing and safety. And we still have to check ourselves to make sure we are not hurting the people around us – everyone has to check themselves in that way.
But those specific factors are going to weigh differently in different situations. In a way I think it’s like feminists asking if women should be traditionally feminine or if we should behave more like men. Whichever choice you make, you’re still making it in a sexist society. I’d like to look more at the structures that put those pressures on us and figure out how we can change them.
I deal with this question a little bit in my novel THE OUTSIDE. Yasira Shien, the autistic protagonist, has grown up being celebrated for her gifts, and to some degree accommodated for her impairments. But she still thinks in terms of fulfilling the role people put her in, and in the process she’s lost something of herself. Evianna Talir, also autistic, has had much worse experiences, and she’s responded to her oppressive society by trying to burn it all down and hurting others. There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere – and to some painful, imperfect degree, that’s what Yasira ends up finding at the book’s end.
SFP: What would you like autistic people to take away from your books and what would you like neurotypicals to take away from them?
Ada Hoffmann: I honestly find it strange to distil whole books to a take-away, let alone multiple books! One of my favourite things about writing is that different readers can latch onto different things about the same story. That’s fascinating to me. But I suppose I hope autistic readers come away feeling seen, and I hope NT readers feel they’ve seen an interesting new perspective.
SFP: Without being familiar with a lot of autistic sci-fi do you think we are at a point where we can move away from characters like Data from Star Trek as metaphors for neurodivergence and show autistic people as themselves?
Ada Hoffmann: Absolutely. As I said, the stories are out there – it’s a matter of producers and distributors buying in. But I also think it’s not wrong to use characters like Data and Spock as metaphors. When you feel alienated from other humans and very anxious about fitting in, there’s something about a non-human character that can speak powerfully to that feeling. I like metaphors. The problem is what happens when we only get represented as non-human metaphors, and never as actual humans.
SFP: Do you think we could ever see an MCU film with an autistic main character?
Ada Hoffmann: Sure, maybe. I’ve gotten a bit tired of the MCU, but we’re seeing pushes for mainstream Hollywood representation along a lot of axes; it would make sense if either they or some other big action franchise stepped up. What I doubt is whether those portrayals would be any good. I honestly think we will see more stereotypes and clumsy portrayals before we start seeing the real thing.
SFP: What are you currently working on?
Ada Hoffmann: You asked at a convenient time – I just recently handed in the first draft of THE FALLEN (Book 2 in the OUTSIDE series) to my publisher. Now I’m taking a short breather! THE FALLEN will come out in July 2021. There’s also a secret project in the works that I hope to unveil sometime in the fall – it involves dinosaurs.
SFP: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Ada Hoffmann: Yes, I do! And the most important part is to keep writing! You’ll hear that you should write every day, and that works for many people, but not everyone – some people write in bursts, and some need long fallow periods between projects. The important thing is to find a way to work writing into your life sustainably.
Write whatever excites you most. Don’t tie yourself in knots about what’s “marketable” – the market changes all the time. If you’re lucky, you might be one of the things that changes it.
Find a group of writer friends who will give honest, constructive critique of your work. I don’t just mean correcting your spelling – I mean people who can tell you when a character choice or a plot point isn’t working for them and why. (And also what they like!) Practice articulating why you like or don’t like other people’s work, too – that will help you figure out what you want to do with your own. If you don’t already have a group of friends who can do this for you, there are online critique groups like Critique Circle and the Online Writer’s Workshop which are good for beginners. Taking feedback and revising your work are really important parts of the process even for established professionals. Once you get used to it, you’ll find that you don’t always agree with other people’s feedback, and that other people don’t always agree with each other, either, and you’ll figure out how to distinguish the critiques that help you achieve your goals from the critiques that are missing the point. But you have to know how to take criticism to heart at least sometimes before you can learn to make those judgements.
Finally, #dontselfreject! When your work is revised, polished and ready for submission, send it to the places where you most want to see it published, even if they feel like a long shot. For short stories, the Submission Grinder (https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/) is a good, free website that helps you find places to send your work.
SciFiPulse would like to extend our most heartfelt thanks and best wishes to Ada Hoffman for so graciously taking the time to answer our questions.
Ada’s website is http://www.ada-hoffmann.com/home
Her twitter is @xasymptote