Novels taught me how to talk to people. I'm autistic, and when I'm conversing with non-autistics, I get overwhelmed. I'm too busy staying afloat to refine my technique. But when I sit down with a book, I take the words in, learn new phrases and pause to consider the characters' intentions. As a child, I thumbed through my dog-eared Potters and pored over the verbal back-and-forth between Harry, Ron and Hermione. I tried to follow these precedents around other children, learning the hard way that 'blimey' and 'prat' were not the lingua franca of Dublin playgrounds.
As an adult in my twenties I'm better at talking, but I still struggle in casual conversations.
I can get thrown even by something as simple as: "When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?" It's hardly the Tour de France of author questions, but when I'm put on the spot, I start mapping out potential meanings.
By 'a writer', do they mean anyone who scribbles anything? Is 'a writer' someone who's had stories published? Do they have a book deal? Do they make a living from writing? Or is 'a writer' someone whose view of themselves revolves around writing - someone who expects romantic partners to read their work, someone who feels when they're not writing that part of them is missing? I've never wanted to be 'a writer' in that sense, so perhaps I should start by looking at the premise…
I could just take one of these 'writer' definitions and run with it. My interlocutor would probably be happy enough with whichever meaning I chose. But I can't proceed without clarifying. I ask what they mean, give long-winded replies, then realise too late that I should have just said: "Well, I wrote stories in primary school and I always had my head in a book."
It doesn't correspond with the literal wording of what I've been asked, but it's perfect for a casual exchange. There's no need to treat every question like a riddle about why a raven is like a writing desk, or an interrogation of whether ravens and writing desks are doleful allegories of late-capitalist literary output.
Sometimes I do remember how to be casual, and the conversation continues. A non-autistic person's experience of this moment is that they asked me a simple question and I gave a simple answer, albeit a beat too late. They don't see how many considerations I spent that beat batting down.
But when I'm tired, stretched, or fed up with finding it so difficult to communicate with non-autistics, I revert to my real self. I ask follow-up questions; I go on tangents dotted with sub-clauses. Then it sounds to non-autistics like I'm the one complicating matters. They don't see the effort it takes me to arrive at the 'offhand' response that they would give naturally. My roundabout answer is less work for me and more for them.
I'm not trying to be pedantic, I want to tell them. I'm not being annoying on purpose. I just see a lot of things at once.
This isn't a problem. It's just a difference. When I talk with my autistic friends, I watch their own metro map fill out; we shelve one consideration momentarily to ponder something else, then pluck the first topic back out to comb it over anew. We soon find ourselves discussing six things at once. It's fun. There's nothing wrong with my brain, and non-autistic people would find it just as challenging to talk in my way as I do in theirs.
But the casual stuff doesn't come easily.
Mind-mapping can paralyse me when I'm writing, too. As a result, I rarely plan ahead. In conversation, I have to snap out of my befuddlement and say something eventually; but if I started charting contingencies when I sat down to write something, I'd never get around to the writing itself. So I start small. In theory it would be more efficient to craft blueprints for my writing, but it would make me over-conscious of all the possibilities. My brain often annoys me, but it's the only one I've got. I have to work around it. I think paragraph by paragraph, and trust that in time I'll have a book.
My debut novel, Exciting Times, is accordingly compact. For the setting, I created an intimate world and made everything fit together. The characters occupy a tiny milieu in expat Hong Kong, and the telling is pared back in a way I rarely manage in conversation. Most of the sentences are deliberately short, much shorter than the ones I speak in. When they're long, it's on purpose, and not because I'm lumbered with options.
The ability to refine and simplify my wording is one of the main pleasures I take in writing fiction. Writing isn't seamless for me, as there are still many decisions involved - but I make those choices when I'm good and ready. I see just as many detours and side-lanes when I'm writing as I do when I'm talking to people, but there's no immediate pressure to pick a course. I can stop and enjoy the view. Once I've decided where to go next, I have space to travel as far as I want.
Naoise Dolan's debut novel, 'Exciting Times', published by W&N, is out now