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Kathy Lette is usually a writer who aims for the laughs, not the heartstrings. All of her 14 novels have been hilarious reading.
However, her latest book, Best Laid Plans, has a poignant air about it. While still displaying the trademark Lette wit and chockful of puns and comic twists, it has some sobering moments of truth in the story of single mum Lucy and her autistic son Merlin.
Merlin’s quirkiness has made him unlucky in love, so English teacher Lucy tries to help him find true love – or at least lose his virginity – with disastrous consequences.
Herein lies the comedy and the heartrending truth about parenting a child on the autistic spectrum, something Lette only knows too well. Lette’s son Julius is also on the spectrum and she has long been a public advocate for the condition.
“When I write about autism I’m trying to take the stigma out of the condition by writing books that are accessible and funny and pacey,” she says. “And autism’s not the main story, it’s just like the seam of gold running through it. Because I think you can disarm with charm and get people to emote with the character and enjoy them. Then you’ve got a much better chance of getting your message across.”
“My message is that we’ve got to celebrate people’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. How boring it would be if we were all the same! I think autistic people are the garlic in life’s salad, otherwise it would just be the case of the blandly bland… people always try to make autistic people be normal, but no, just let them be their best autistic selves, let’s appreciate that.”
Best Laid Plans is the second novel Lette has written that deals with autism. Her first, The Boy Who Fell to Earth was released when Julius was 21 and it was the first time she went public about his condition and the challenges he faces.
“Jules has a great sense of humour, he’s really funny when he’s in the mood,” she says, explaining how he inspired the narrative behind Best Laid Plans.
Lette's son Julius provided some inspiration for the character of Merlin in 'Best Laid Plans'. Photo: Dave Poole
“It’s not a documentary, it’s a novel, of course, but a lot of the jokes in the book did come out of his mouth, because he’s just got this original way of seeing the world.”
“I also didn’t talk about his autism until he was 21, because I didn’t want to invade his privacy, so I was very discreet about it. But when he turned 21 I asked him, with his permission, would it be okay if we came out about it because I’d written The Boy Who Fell to Earth, and I didn’t want journalists to ask me if it was true that I had a child with autism, so I very tentatively started talking about it because I’d hidden it for so long.”
“It was such a relief! It taught me, first of all, that it’s always good to shine a light into a dark corner. I get letters from women all around the world, whenever the book is published, all the time, saying thanks for putting into words what their life’s like with humour. But also it was great for me, because finally people understood why I’m often deranged and swinging from a chandelier with one hand and swigging alcohol with the other.”
Best Laid Plans takes it a step further, by tackling Merlin’s emerging sexual maturity and accompanying loneliness as he struggles to find a girlfriend.
“When I came to write the book, I looked around and thought gosh nobody’s ever written a book about this before! And that’s rare as a writer – to find a topic that nobody has addressed before,” Lette says.
“Wherever they talk about people with autism in books or in a TV show or anywhere, they’re always either to be pitied or they’re inspirational. You never see them just having normal desires and appetites and ambitions and all of that, so I really did want to address it.”
The book opens with protagonist Lucy attempting to find a prostitute for her angst-ridden autistic son – a course of action that resonated with Lette.
“Just before my son turned 20, I seriously considered picking up a prostitute for him because he had so many rejections – girls his own age just saw him as too exotic,” she said. “After rejection after rejection, their self-esteem is just miniscule. You would need the Hubble telescope to locate it. And so I seriously did consider this.”
“Luckily just before Jules turned 20 he met a girl and fell in love and nature took its course. But a week or so later, I read about a guy – a father of an autistic child, a boy, who was picked up kerb crawling in London and went to court and everything and I thought, ‘oh my god, that could have been me’. It really could have.”
“And from that, I thought, that’s a great way into a book about this subject and the kind of Kafka-esque spiral of comic chaos that ensues for this woman.”
It seems that humour is the best weapon in the battle for acceptance and understanding, says Lette.
“How can you not be funny?” she says. “For parents of autistic children or anyone with special needs, humour is the only way to cope.”
Main photo: Nicky Johnstone
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