ROBYN BAVATI WRITES:
ON A WEEKEND WITH OSCAR
Several years ago, I joined a local Toastmasters club and met Jacqui, a friendly and outgoing young woman with Down syndrome who attends our meetings with her dad. I have three adult children myself, and two of them had considerable difficulties at school. One of the ongoing issues my husband and I had to deal with was whether to disclose our children’s struggles, and to whom. Who could we trust? In what cases would it help our kids if their difficulties were known, and when might it hinder them? To what extent were we duty-bound to protect their privacy?
On meeting Jacqui, I realised that parents of a child with Down syndrome would not have this issue, or this choice. The conspicuousness of Down syndrome would be part of what they had to deal with. I wanted to explore what that would be like.
At the time, I was writing Within These Walls, so I left the idea alone for several months, which worked to my advantage – the process of writing a book takes years, and I know (from books I’ve started but never finished) that it’s best not to dive in too soon. A few months after Within These Walls was published, I revisited the idea, and found that my interest had grown.
To my knowledge, while many books had been written by and about people with disabilities, most seemed to be about smarter-than-average people. For many of them, their physical or neurological disabilities led people to believe they were intellectually disabled and treat them as such, and a large part of their struggle was trying to alter this perception. But what about people with actual intellectual disability? Didn’t they deserve the same respect and acceptance as everyone else? This question would inform the theme.
I knew from the start that the character with Down syndrome would not be the main character. Firstly, I felt that any attempt to get inside the skin of a person with Down syndrome would not ring true. (In fact, I have subsequently read a novel written from the alternating POV of two main characters, one of whom had Down syndrome, and to me, the voice of the character with Down syndrome seemed inauthentic.)
Secondly, I recalled a conversation I’d had with my then-teenage son when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time first came out. I encouraged him to read it, but he hated it and refused to finish it. When I asked why, he said that he did not want to identify with ‘an autistic kid’.
And thirdly, while I had come across several books narrated by a person with a disability, I had not come across any written from the point of view of the sibling of a person with a disability, and I wanted to give siblings a voice.
To grow as a writer, I like to not only write something quite different from anything I’ve written before, but also to take on a new technical challenge. As my first three books had female protagonists, I decided to write A Weekend With Oscar from the POV of a sixteen-year-old boy. (I also hoped that by doing this I would get a male as well as a female audience.)
I realised that, as a teenager, his younger brother’s struggles would not necessarily be his main concern – he would have other issues to deal with. So the story had to be about more than just disability. I decided that he would still be grieving the loss of his dad, and I drew on my own experience of my father’s death some decades ago. I also decided that the protagonist would be romantically drawn to a girl whose sister had ASD. This would not only give them something in common, but allow for very natural conversations about disability, highlighting the similarities and differences between their siblings and the issues they faced.
I made all these decisions about the book even before interviewing people with Down syndrome and their families, as well as parents and siblings of children with severe ASD and other disabilities.
The interviews were the most important part of my research. My interviewees shared their thoughts, feelings and experiences. They educated me, challenged my misconceptions, and informed the story. While the story itself is my own invention, I couldn’t have written it without their input. Their struggles made their way into the book, along with their joys and triumphs.
One woman told me that her daughter had been banned from respite because she banged on all the doors at 2am and woke everyone up. In the book, there is a reference to Oscar having been banned from respite for doing just that. A young girl told me that one night she got no sleep because her sister, who has ASD, decided that 3am was the perfect time to rearrange the furniture in their bedroom. In the book, Zara gets no sleep one night because Hayley does exactly that. These are just a couple of examples of the many small anecdotes I used to provide the kind of authentic detail that I believe enriches the story.
The character of Oscar is a hybrid, composed partly of two different boys/young men with Down syndrome and partly from my imagination.
A Weekend With Oscar is short and simply written, so readers might think it was easy to write. This wasn’t the case. I wrote multiple drafts before it was accepted for publication, and then several more. Almost every time another reader offered an opinion, further changes were made. The language around disability was a minefield, every word vetted, prodded and probed. But in the end, it was worth the effort. I know I got great value out of writing it, and I hope readers, too, will find it worthwhile.
For more about my writing process and further examples of true anecdotes used in the book, see this interview
Visit me at robynbavati.com
A Weekend With Oscar at Walker Books