What research did you do into autism and behavioural
problems before writing this novel? Is Christopher's character based on anyone
After leaving university I spent several years working with adults and children
who had a variety of physical and mental handicaps (as they were then known).
Ever since that time I've been interested in the subject of disability and
mental illness. As a result, hardly a week goes by without me reading an
newspaper article or watching a television documentary about schizophrenia or
manic depression or Tourette's. And hardly a month goes by without me meeting
yet another person who is the parent or grandparent of someone who has been
diagnosed as having Asperger's.
I also know a number of adults (men, mostly) who would almost certainly be
diagnosed with the syndrome if they had been born twenty, thirty, forty years
later. And that was the extent of my 'research'. I deliberately didn't consult
fat tomes on Asperger's or visit special schools when I was working on the book
because I wanted Christopher to work as a human being and not as a clinical
The book has been published for adults and children simultaneously; did you set
out to write a book which would appeal to such a wide age range?
No. I wrote it to entertain myself (which is, I think, the motivation behind any
half-decent novel) in the hope that there would people out there who shared my
interests and obsessions. So the much-vaunted 'crossover appeal' came as a very
Have you received any positive feedback from people with Aspergers syndrome/
autism, their families, or people who work with them?
To be scrupulously honest. the book had one very bad review from a young man
with Asperger's who thought the book was bad, mainly because Christopher wasn't
like him or like any other people he knew with Asperger's. But the review
missed the point, I think. People with Asperger's are as diverse a group as
Belgians or trumpet players or train drivers. There is no typical or
representative person with Asperger's. And to try and create one would have
produced a stereotype.
On the other hand I've been genuinely moved and completely taken by surprise by
the number of parents and grandparents of young people with Asperger's who have
written to tell me that the book rings completely true for them.
I have been even more surprised to receive several invitations to address
academic conferences on Asperger's and autism. Which misses the point in a
different way, I think. If Christopher seems real it's because he's
well-written not because I'm an expert in the area.
We live in an age obsessed with documentaries, with biographies, with
investigative journalism. We often forget that you can have all the facts but
be no nearer the truth. And this is what novels are good at. A novel can put
you inside another person's head and give you an understanding of their life
you could only get by moving into their house for six months.
How did you come up with such and original idea for a novel?
It happened piece by piece and without any deliberate seeking after originality
or quirkiness. I began with the image of the dog stabbed with the fork simply
because I was searching for a vivid and gripping way of starting a novel. I
then realised that if you described it in a flat, emotionless, neutral way it
was also (with apologies to all dog lovers) very funny.
So I had the voice. Only after using that voice for a few pages did I work out
who it belonged to. Having done that the difficult thing was to work out a
believable way for Christopher to construct a novel given that he is utterly
unaware of the reader's emotional responses to what he is writing. Having
Christopher simply copy his hero, Sherlock Holmes, by borrowing the format of
the murder mystery was the solution to this problem.
Finally, because I genuinely believed that very few people would want to read a
novel about a teenage boy with a disability living in Swindon with his dad, I
arranged the whole plot round the central turning point (where we discover who
killed Wellington and what really happened to Christopher's mother) to make it
as entertaining as possible, hopefully dragging the reader up to a highest
point right in the middle, like a roller coaster, then speeding them down
towards the conclusion.