Author Interview: Kathryn Erskine

Interview by Elaina Daniels

First off, let me just say how much that I absolutely loved the book Mockingbird.  As the mom to a nine year old little boy with autism, I just “got” this so much.  If you are ready for a “real life” book about living with autism, try the book, Mockingbird.  There were some very heavy questions to ask the author, Kathryn Erskine, regarding her process in writing this thought provoking book.


Elaina Daniels: You mentioned that you have a child on the spectrum.  How do you handle being a mom to a special needs child, and a writer all at the same time?

Kathryn Erskine:  I am fortunate that both of my children are in school all day so I’m able to spend part of that time writing.  As you know, there are always appointments, new things to research, etc., but I write “in the cracks,” those bits of time that aren’t already accounted for.


ED: Was she the inspiration for Mockingbird?

KE: She was definitely a large part of the inspiration.  Since she wasn’t diagnosed until she was 8, we spent a lot of time trying to understand her, often unsuccessfully!  It was a huge relief to know what was going on and learn how to address it.  I wanted others who had been in our situation, i.e., anyone who doesn’t already understand kids on the autism spectrum, to have a chance to see the way they think and feel.  And I wanted the story to be accessible to younger readers because I firmly believe that a lot of the teasing will stop if kids have an opportunity to understand.


ED: What helped you really get into Caitlin’s mind in this book?  

KE: Having knowledge of how kids with Asperger’s react in a variety of day- to- day situations made it easy to write.  I also did a lot of research–reading, workshops, observation, talking with those who work daily with kids on the spectrum.  Since much of it was an integral part of my life, it just poured out.


ED: I like that you aren’t afraid to show the real emotion of the characters in the book.  This was an incredible emotional journey for me.  Several times I had to put the book down, and just absorb everything that was going on.  This is such a touchy subject, how did you approach that?

KE: Directly, exactly the way a person with Asperger’s would.  I think it works because it’s authentic.  It can be kind of in-your-face but that’s the way someone with Asperger’s often is.  There is no mincing of words.  Also, because Caitlin is often emotionally distant, she can look at things in her objective way which makes the pain a little easier to take.


ED:  How could you see a teacher using this book in their classroom? 

KE:  I know classes have used it as anything from a creative writing tool to a fully integrated curricular and community event.  In La Crosse, Wisconsin, the whole town was involved in learning about autism.  Teachers, parents, police officers–everyone was reading Mockingbird.  Every high school student received a copy.  Students spent six weeks learning what it means to be on the autism spectrum.  They worked on projects from woodworking (making a mission chest) to music (writing a song about Mockingbird) to drama (producing a movie).  Local college students who had studied autism came to the high school to show the kids what it would be like to try concentrate and communicate in a classroom setting when you have Asperger’s–they flashed the lights, made jarring noises, patted the students, etc. and then shot questions at them so the kids could feel what it was like to deal with sensory overload.  At the end of the unit, the schools invited me to speak and had a community talk and concert — where the high school choral group and special needs students together performed “Imagine,” complete with sign language.  It had me in tears.  It was a truly stunning endeavor and I think LaCrosse pulled it off beautifully.


ED:  What age level do you see as appropriate for that?

KE:  Mockingbird has been used, to my knowledge, from 3rd through 12th grades.  I think it can be used for any age, really, as long as the activities are age appropriate.


ED:  In this story, you combine great sadness and grief with really good humor.  How did you balance it, in a story about something so tragic?

KE:  Having a main character with Asperger’s made it relatively easy.  She almost can’t help but make us laugh sometimes with her inappropriate or straightforward or unabashed remarks.  Her misunderstandings can be poignant but also funny.  Living with someone on the autism spectrum, I think you need to cultivate a sense of humor.  Sometimes that’s the only thing that helps us all deal with the ups and downs!


ED:  What made you walk away from law and turn to writing?

KE:  I always figured I’d write when I retired but when my mom died, still in her 60’s, I realized life is too short and we need to follow our dream while we have the chance–and it might mean we have to be proactive about making that chance for ourselves.


ED:   Is there more to be told about Caitlin’s story?

KE:  There’s definitely more, but I’ll leave that up to readers.  I’ve had kids write the next chapter in the book and it’s fascinating to see.  I hope the rest of the story includes a better understanding of all the Caitlins out there, and that all the Caitlins understand their world better, too.


ED:  What advice would you give an aspiring writer, on both the side of what to do, and what not to do?

KE:  Read lots, write lots.  Join a critique group because you need the support of fellow writers; also, you learn as much critiquing others as having your own work critiqued.  Take lots of classes–seminars, workshops, online classes, whatever and however many you can get to.  Don’t settle for less than your best.  People often give up because they start submitting before their work is really ready.  And even though you can self-publish, be sure it’s the best it can be before you put it out there.  It’ll have your name on it forever.


ED:  You are a recipient of multiple awards with your books, including the National Book Award 2010, and the International Reading Association Award 2011.  How did it feel to achieve this level of success?

KE:  Amazing!  I’m very grateful.  I hope the more Mockingbird is read, the more people will come to understand those on the Asperger’s spectrum.


Elaina Daniels is a 13 year educator, who had taught at the elementary/middle school level for all of those years.  She has taught all subjects, but her passion is Reading.  She has two children, aged 9 and 7.  Her oldest son was diagnosed with autism.  Elaina lives on a farm in Southwest Missouri with her husband of 11 years. Together, they raise children, dogs, and cattle.


See my review of the book Mockingbird, here.



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