Michael Whelan: Author of The Other Country

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image-michaelwhelan200Michael Whelan is the author of The Other Country, a book about his son’s autism. He gave up his job to care for his son and made a discovery not only about his son, but about his family and himself along the way.

His son Charlie is now an independent, confident and happy 12-year-old who is travelling to Sydney with his soccer team and will start at a mainstream high school next year.

Michael Whelan held an academic position in the Music Department at Queensland University of Technology where he taught courses in songwriting and film music. He left university teaching in 2002 to commence his new career as a home-parent.

He lives in Brisbane with his wife, Helen, and their two sons Charlie and Thomas.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.29

 

The Other Country

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for talking to us today, Michael

Michael:
You’re very welcome.

Valerie:
Now you’re book is obviously about a subject that’s very close to your heart. Why did you decide to write it?

Michael:
I think the main reason I decided to write it was that I felt that there were a number of families that we had come into contact with, all of whom had shared our experiences. And yet they were very private experiences and one in the broader community, I don’t think, understood the intensity of range of activities that parents of a child with autism spectrum disorder go through and I think for that reason, trying to just sort of draw out into the public arena a little bit more what that journey of parenting is like because with the incredible increase in diagnosis over the last 10 years for children with that disorder, it’s not an isolated section of the community anymore.

It’s sort of one in a 160 children born in Australia at the moment are diagnosed with that disorder so I think it was sort of just trying to bring out, into the public, what had been a private experience.

Valerie:
And when did it occur to you – you know, I’d really like to put this down in writing – and initially, was it you’d like to share this story or was it initially you just want to write something down and see what happens?

Michael:
I think a part of it was that therapeutic urge to write something down but another part of it was wanting to share information because information, as a currency, was – is very valuable for parents of children with any number of medical disorders because getting information that you need is quite critical. But part of it was simply wanting to contribute in that way and another one was that sort of – what you’re referring to – was that sort of therapeutic urge to set in a motion a process of getting all this out so I can expel it in some way.

Valerie:
And how did you feel about the response the book has received so far and what has the response been?

Michael:
The response has been really good. It’s, interestingly – our conversation is the first conversation where we’re a little bit, so far – I imagine later on we’re talking a little bit more about writing. Almost all of the coverage, so far, has been about the subject matter of autism because it’s such a – it strikes a chord across the global community to such a level because there are so many families who know some one or had a relative or had a child in their family with this disorder.

So the response in that level has been fantastic. Response, so, from an interest point of view has been great. Response also, in terms of the comments that people are making, is really good in the sense that they’ve just been very warm, sharing of experiences, people finding that I’ve, obviously, experienced something similar because they – and because the book’s not just about autism spectrum disorder.

It’s about that feeling of dislocation of when you’re part of a mainstream community and all of a sudden, you get relocated to this world of disability that the fracture and shock of that experience and finding yourself in a different place, in a different community. It’s something that a lot of people feel for any number of reasons, whether it’s through illness or culture or any number of experiences that make you feel like you’re, for some reason, out of your control, being relocated to a different community. And I think that that’s also common for our pursuit.

Valerie:
Right. And apart from your own personal experience, obviously, did you do a great deal of other kind of research before you sat down to write the book?

Michael:
We, in terms of the – there were two sort of – there was a number of research lines to pursue in writing the book. One of them was simply remembering all of the facts and getting them in the right order and then a lot of the information that – so that was the first stage of it and that was through diaries and through conversations with family members and just going through clinic notes from various specialist appointments and that sort of thing, to establish a timeline and a narrative line.

The other was a lot of information that I felt I knew anecdotally but I didn’t really have any hard evidence to support it. So it was a case of going through on specific topics, whether it was, you know, specific information about research into sibling prevalence or to do with vaccine injury or to do with dietary details, things like that where I knew that we’d been – I’d heard on a grapevine or I’d been influenced by certain things I’ve read.

I just had to go back and do a little bit of more instead of the way that it was database research or popular journal research or simply going back through textbooks in the house and just sort of making sure that when I was asserting quite a few things, I was getting my story straight.

So they were the two primary areas of research, I suppose.

Valerie:
And was that quite a laborious exercise?

Michael:
It could have been. Some bits of it where there was one particular thing I wanted to refer to and I, in some cases, couldn’t track it down and I would have to delete it…

Valerie:
Right.

Michael:
… because I just couldn’t validate the observation or the claim I was making but no, I didn’t find it very, I suppose draining or demanding. Part of that reason is that – and this may come up later in our conversation – is that I enrolled in a PhD in creative writing and this book was my main creative project for that course and there was a certain amount of scaffold research – scaffold in place and I was able to draw upon a number of methodology and resources within the university to be able to allow me to access and sort of categorise and pool a lot of the information I wanted to refer to.

Valerie:
So tell us why you enrolled in the creative writing degree?

Michael:
Well, I had a long background of working in the arts. I’ve worked as a musician and worked in theater as a – I had done some writing in theater and worked as an actor and director to some different degrees but I was teaching as an academic in university in the music faculty and even though I had done some professional writing, in order to put together a narrative of this nature I wanted to do it well and I thought I’d really benefit from some professional writer mentoring.

Valerie:
Right.

Michael:
And so I contacted a different university and approached a specific staff member whose work I was interested in and I felt they might be able to offer me some useful guidance through this process. And really it was – first case in point, was I just wanted access to goodwill letters and their experiences to help as a touch down for my journey through this process.

Valerie:
Now obviously, your son’s diagnosis changed your life.

Michael:
Yep.

Valerie:
Has the book, then again, changed your life further?

Michael:
Well, not really. I mean, it’s only been out a month at this point and there are, I suppose, transgressive aspects of writing that have changed my life, in the sense that your personal experiences are now a little bit more public. But in a way, it’s only through, when there’s media conversations and we’re not doing radio interviews or TV interviews about the book. That’s when it’s at its most changed or most transformed and since, I’m in some sort of public arena talking about my personal life.

But the book, itself, because it’s sort of a private experience reading a book and I’m not doing a one-person show about my life or something, it’s less – it really hasn’t changed much but the writing of it, the process, I feel I’ve learned a lot about just being able to put together really basic aspects of grammar that I thought that I knew and the story telling, getting a narrative in shape and find the flow of it, those sorts of things.

They’ve been lock changing the fence, that’ I’ve noticed a really dramatic improvement in my own ability to express myself in written form.

Valerie:
And are you then pursuing writing further?

Michael:
I am, actually, yes. I’ve started another book; this time a sort of semi-fictional piece.

Valerie:
Great.

Michael:
And I’ve sort of got some first chapters of that finished and off to my agent and she’s been making comment on it so, yeah, so I definitely have it on. I thoroughly enjoyed the process now and unlike some of the other art experiences that I’ve been involved with, whether it was music or theater, which are largely collaborative and you get caught up in the lifecycles of other peoples’ lives and deadlines and those sorts of things. Writing is very private and I found it incredibly invigorating to pursue a creative outlet where I can choose the time that I engage in it than not, as opposed to the lengthy rehearsal processes of theater and the demands of, you know, everyone else’s deadlines as opposed to my own.

So yes, I am, and that’s what I’m enjoying about writing, I think, is the fact that I can control when I do it and under what terms.

Valerie:
Now you quit your job, actually, to become your son’s primary caregiver…

Michael:
Yes, that’s right.

Valerie:
… which is usually a role stereotypically assigned to women. Why did you decide to do this and how did you deal with this change?

Michael:
Well, I think the main reason for it was that my wife had been primary carer at home for the first four or five years after both of our young boys were born and particularly through this very, very difficult post-diagnosis and in the middle of a therapeutic intervention process. So more than anything, she was about to combust from stress from four or five years of dealing with that front on and so she went back to the workplace and I simply left work so that I could spend time at home, taking up the bat and then continuing that work. (Excuse me – coughing up, got a bit of a throat.) And so I think that that was the primary reason. It wasn’t – in some ways it was difficult leaving work because I’d been an academic for 13 years and so I was perhaps a part of the furniture at the university and so any of those sort of life decisions that you make, that are a big change in lifestyle – that was difficult but the decision to leave, knowing what I was going to, felt very right.

So it was only difficult in that sense of lifestyle change and what will that be like but in terms of agonizing over is it the right decision, I didn’t have any of that. But it was difficult leaving, you know, someone else sort of establishing the rhythms of your week and your year for your with the workplace, then trying to be the person who constructs the rhythm of a day with two children who don’t know what rhythms of the day are supposed to be, you know, and trying to sort of get any sense of that. I did find that very difficult in – for the first year or two.

I didn’t come to it naturally but I’ve stuck out at it and now I feel quite comfortable in the role and the kids were at school most of the time and so I sort of helped my wife with her business a little bit, part-time during the day. But I wasn’t one of the people that just sort of fell into home parenting as though, “Oh, this is fantastic. This is what I was meant to do.” It was quite tough.

Valerie:
And on top of that, you had to get into the rhythm of writing. How did you sort of incorporate that in? Was that easy?

Michael:
Well, in some ways, because I worked basically during school terms when kids were at school. That part of it, finding the time and the place was quite simple. In the early stages of writing, that was very difficult partly because I wasn’t – I lacked a bit of confidence with the process and also because the things I was writing about were very difficult emotionally.

And so I think that knowing that when I was going to sit down and work for two or three hours, I was going to be revisiting some very difficult memories and emotional experiences that were sort of – I did a lot of procrastination there and I would find it very easy to go and distract myself with other things. So the first half of the book, which is more – sort of recounts the darker times of diagnosis and all therapeutic interventions – was difficult to write, simply because I think of the emotional level and also getting used to it. So the first half of the book took me about two years to write but the second half of the book, which is much more, I suppose, joyful and also much more uplifting and positive from our point of view, from the narrative point of view, I wrote in about three months.

So – and a part of that was getting used to the routine of writing and the discipline of writing and the other part of it was just getting through that part of the narrative that I was finding it difficult to address.

Valerie:
And when you write about your life, you really do lay yourself bare. Was that something that was hard to do at first? Did you lay it all out there or did you, you know, feel tempted to hold bits back? And did that work?

Michael:
I did find it difficult initially, partly because I thought well, no one will want to know this. No one will want to know how that affected me. I was sort of trying to just list facts of this happened and then this happened and as I go to drop chapter to various people, particularly writing mentors at uni, to have a look at they’d go, “Yeah, I’ve got a sense of the story but what – how did that impact on you? How did that – what happened in the emotional, in the social, in the personal world? And what’s that story?”

And so I was reluctant, initially, not so much because of the personal exposing, personal feelings. I just sort of felt a bit vain writing about myself and what I was thinking, for thinking that people would think, “Christ, you know, what’s he writing that stuff for, you know, to give for the facts?” Now I’m bit of a fact person so I think I wanted to just write facts and so being more reflective in the writing process didn’t come naturally but after a while, I sort of got into the swing of it.

Valerie:
Because that’s in fact what people do relate to, the actual personal element, isn’t it? Not just the facts.

Michael:
Yes, it is. And that’s what people have responded to, you know, within the feedback I’ve got so far. It’s been really lovely.

Valerie:
Now in the book you mentioned that you researched and tried all kinds of therapies and resources to assist Charlie, yet beforehand you weren’t that keen on alternative or holistic medicine. What are your thoughts on that now?

Michael:
Well, it was more that I was – we just never experienced them. I didn’t really have an opinion either way and we’d been in the, you know, brought up in Australia in a sort of a mainstream, middle-class family. We’d just been to GPs to get your, you know, whenever you get the flu you go and get antibiotics. Whenever you get, you know – I don’t know, whatever ailment that sort of goes through the suburb or the community, you know, we’d only ever engaged with fairly traditional, general practice doctors.

And when Charlie was diagnosed with autism, we then became involved, you know, with, for example, occupational therapists and psychologists and physiotherapists and speech pathologists. And there were a whole range of allied health professions and each of them brought their own expertise to it and we sort of started getting our head around what these allied health professions were.

Then people in the parent groups we started talking to were saying there are dietary things you can do and so once you move into things away from allied health then and then into diet, there are sort of – you get into these disciplines then that are less scientifically or evidenced-based and more built on where various cultural traditions or lifestyle traditions and those sorts of things.

And so whether they were practices that were, you know, not necessarily drawn from that side – Buddhism or from New Age therapies or kinesiology or homeopathy and things like that where, you know, someone would say, “Look, it’s worth a try,” and so we adopted the attitude rather than bring any specific preconceptions to that process was just to go, “Look, there could be a benefit. There certainly won’t be a harm. So if it does no harm, let’s give it a go.”

And so we basically ventured into every possible holistic or alternative health scenario that we could locate, just to see if there were benefits and in some, there were, you know, and they were minute but they were there, you know. So I suppose, from a philosophical point of view, the big jump for us was: embrace everything, do no harm and try everything.

Valerie:
Great, great approach I think.

Michael:
Yeah.

Valerie:
You talk about that sense of displacement and sort of disconnectedness in a sense and you gave this book the title of The Other Country, I understand, after reading a poem by Emily Pearl Kingsley called Welcome to Holland, because Emily found herself in Holland instead of Italy after raising a child with a disability. So which country, so to speak, do you feel like (your) in these days? You know, in the world you used to be in or still in another world?

Michael:
Well, we – with the diagnosis of our child with a disability, we – it’s like having a visa stamped to the world of disabilities. And it’s a parallel community that exists but it’s largely invisible and we’d never, I mean, there are parent groups, there are play groups, there are therapy providers, respite cares, community groups, charities – all these organisations who are focused on delivering services to people and their families with disabilities and all of a sudden, we became shareholders in that community, stakeholders.

We were accessing services, we were meeting other people, we were going on to playgroups where there were kids with mobility impairment – with all these other disorders that were so different to our child’s but it’s like there was a line in the sand of there’s a mainstream society and then there’s everyone else. And as we increasingly started to meet parents with children with autism and we started to socialise with some of them, we had our own parties, you know, where the kids could – because they were behaviorally different and because they had different language and going to a public park – other kids might look at them.

You tended to socialise more privately and more discreetly and I think that that sense of difference drove the title because that was one of the most profound experiences for us, was that dislocation to a new place. We were still living in the same street but all of a sudden, we were part of a different culture and over the last 10 years, we have migrated a long way back to mainstream society in a sense that our boy, Charlie, now is for the most part indistinguishable from other kids. He plays sports in a, local a soccer club. You know, he goes to the movies with his friends. Sometimes, he rides his bike up to the shop on weekends and gets stuff.

We’re pretty normal in inverted commas now but part of us never wants to leave that community because the centering, the purpose, the unity that we found in that community is something we’d never experienced before. And so while we’ve been striving with all of our therapeutic interventions with our child to head back to mainstream society, part of us will never leave that other community because it is so full of purpose, meaning and hope for us. And no matter where the people have migrated on that journey with us, although where they’ve stayed where they are it doesn’t matter. You know, that’s our new – it’s like our new ethnicity, you know, and that’s where we sort of spend our time, I suppose.

Valerie:
And when you are in mainstream society and you told people about your son’s autism, how do people generally respond these days?

Michael:
What we’ve got, in a way, we don’t really, you know, we don’t broadcast that fact in a way that we might have if his behavior was going to be – draw attention to himself, we might let people know, “Look, you know, Charlie’s got this.” And, you know, we might want to cushion that experience for other people so that they might be more tolerant or something but really, we don’t tend to do that anymore and at the times when we were doing that, I think mostly people just sort of go, “Oh, okay,” you know, and look startled but caring and think, “Okay, well I’ll make accommodations. I don’t really know what they will be.”

But it’s amazing over the last 10 years since that diagnosis and we’ve had increasing number of children with the diagnosis. So many people are aware now of the disorder and of how it requires just some subtle modifications in the way that you interact but 10 years go, it was very different. You know, people had no idea and really didn’t know how to respond.

Valerie:
Now, these days you are writing and you’re writing your next book. Can you describe to us your typical working day when you’re writing?

Michael:
Oh, my typical working day when I am writing is I always try and leave myself something from the last time I’ve written, that makes it easy for me to start.

So I’ll try not to write myself out. I’ll try and sort of – if I’m going to finish working, I’ll finish on a new idea or a new chapter or a new paragraph and just put two or three dot points down of “Remember this, this and this. Do that, that and that,” so that when I sit down at the computer to start, there’s a little bit of something on the page for me. And I find that…

Valerie:
That’s a good technique.

Michael:
Yeah, it’s just – as a writing habit, I find that I just sort of – when I sit down, I’ve got a starting point and even though I may not pursue it, I can be productive within a few minutes and even though I might then ditch that train of thought, it just gets me productive and working straight up. I think another – other habits, really, are trying to work in two hour blocks and I find that if I can get two hours done, I feel like I’ve achieved something.

And if I can do two two-hour blocks in a day, I’m pretty much spent. I think if I spend more than that, I start waffling and if I have got time on my hands and I feel like it, I might just, you know, I might work in dot point after that or just sort of sketch form, just as opposed to trying to write prose or trying to write in a structured way but two two-hour sittings in a day. If I’ve done two two-hour sittings I’m ready for a drink.

Valerie:
And if you do your two two-hour sittings where you’re actually doing straight writing, the rest of the time do you find you’re, you know, in your writing world in your head or you’re thinking about your ideas or do you switch off?

Michael:
I sometimes am a bit vague in just in thinking about things that I’m wanting to write down but when you’ve got two young children, outside of that time of writing, having two young children and a big family life and my wife, Helen, with her busy business. You know, there’s always – it’s very rare to have the luxury of sort of just letting ideas gestate and formulate in your mind as you might normally. So I think this sort of quarantined writing for sitting down and working – but there’s always a part of your brain, you know, in those down time moments where you’re just mulling over ideas but I think two small children take it out of you and they sort of – they take up your head space.

Valerie:
Sure. And finally, what advice would you give to other people who are thinking about writing a book based on a particular life experience of theirs?

Michael:
I’d always, as a hobby person, as a hobby reader, always read biographies and autobiographies and particularly, autobiographies because I find the way that people represent themselves really interesting and from either the tense of the voice of their character that they produce, their narrative voice or just in terms of how they construct structure in their stories – so I find that reading widely and not just particularly in one style, like, you know, whether they’re literary autobiographies or celebrity or just political, you know, reading in a wide range of styles is important as a preparation.

And then also, I think in preparing to write, just sitting down and almost like as though if you were a project manager, just writing out in dot form what your aims are, what the content might be, where you intend to be by a certain time and just sort of mapping things out a little bit – not in too much detail because I don’t want to sort of, you know, override your creative impulse to take you in different directions but giving yourself a few skeletal or structural bits of scaffold to think, “I’m going to do this first, that. This is my main aim for this part of it and that’s what I’ll get out of it. That’s what I want to communicate.” I think that just basic structural stuff can be really, really effective in helping you become productive as a writer.

And then I think once you’ve done that, coming back later on and tweaking with that or throwing it out can be fine but it really – the worst thing can be sitting down and being inactive and trying to find that strategy for putting first words down. And I’m a great believer in giving myself, as a person who finds distraction very easy and is a great procrastinator – if I just give myself basic boundaries and a little bit of a starting point, I tend to be very productive, very quickly. And I think that a great trait, with my minimum experience as a writer, is productivity; being productive and writing is very important.

Valerie:
Great advice. And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Michael.

Michael:
Thank you very much for having me.


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