The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, The Bookshelf features New Hampshire novelist Benjamin Ludwig. In his debut novel Ginny Moon, Ginny Moon is a fourteen-year-old girl unlike any other. She’s autistic and living with foster parents, and she’s overcome with the urge to return to her mother, a recovering drug addict, because she feels the need to care for her baby sister, who was not removed from her mother’s care. Find Benjamin Ludwig's top five reading recommendations and the transcript of his conversation with NHPR's Peter Biello below.
Benjamin Ludwig's Top Five Reading Recommendations:
1. The One Room Schoolhouse: Stories About the Boys by Jim Heynen. "Jim Heynen’s book contains some of the most beautiful works of fiction I’ve ever read. It changed the way I look at writing, at stories, and at people. The thing I love the most about the book is that each story, which is almost always under 1,000 words long, contains a surprise. So you can get surprise after surprise in a very short amount of time. The One Room Schoolhouse is one of several books that I re-read every year."
2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. "Graeme Simsion lets his protagonist, Professor Don Tillman, fulfill every stereotype associated with Asperger’s Syndrome: Don is meticulously neat, mathematically adept, and socially challenged. What makes Don unique is that Don gets to the point where he takes command of his quirkiness. At first, when he decides to blend in and act “normal,” we’re tempted to think he’s achieved something positive -- but then Simsion shows us what the other characters in the book have lost as a result of Don’s compromise. It’s a fun, lighthearted read, and yet completely dead-serious."
3. Jazz by Toni Morrison. "The playfulness of language in Jazz, combined with the way Toni Morrison mirrors different elements of jazz and music itself, made me fall in love with the narration of the book rather than characters. The style itself is what’s exciting in Jazz."
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "Marquez can surprise me like no other writer. The rhythm of his sentences, the boldness with which they plunge on and on, suggests that there’s a great distance to cover – and of course there is, in a book that covers so many years and pages. But the movement of that book. The energy. It tells me there are things I need to know, and that if I wait just one more second, I can know them."
5. Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowatt. "Never Cry Wolf was extremely moving to me, not because of the issues Farley Mowat explores, but because of the passion with which he describes them. You get the sense (I do, anyway) that he was personally transformed not only by the events in the book, but by the process of writing the book."
You wrote this book from the perspective of a girl with autism, but you occupied the perspective of other characters in this book: the foster parents. Tell us about how your experience as a foster parent inspired your novel.
My wife and I have both always wanted to adopt and when we got married, that very first year we became foster parents and adopted our first placement, a young lady, 12 years old, with autism. She is not Ginny, by the way, at all. Our daughter is so tame and friendly.
But yes, we were very much immersed in the world of Special Olympics and foster classes and workshops and seminars for three or four years and that sort of became the background for the book.
Ginny is not a one-to-one comparison with the girl you adopted. How did the character of Ginny Moon come together for you?
In a very mysterious sort of way. I like to tell people that if I understood it better, I swear I would explain it better. She came to me through her voice. By sitting at so many Special Olympics basketball practices and listening to the voices of all these kids with special needs, her voice came together fully intact, fully formed. Once it hit me, it was really all I could do to keep up with it. The book really wrote itself in that sense.
Having her voice is important to you, it seems, because, as you write, and as you’ve mentioned in interviews, giving her agency, giving her the ability to advocate for herself, was very important to you.
Incredibly so. Kids with special needs and kids without special needs—children in general—have an uphill battle learning how to speak up for themselves, learning how to speak at all sometimes. And I really did want to give a voice to someone who otherwise would have remained largely voiceless.
And boy is her voice compelling.
I mean, from page one, you get a sense of who she is, how she thinks, and what she deeply cares about, and I found it was all completely relatable.
Teriffic. What can I say? Yeah, I felt the same way. I said it’s a mysterious process, writing from this perspective. I really feel like she’s a real person. I’ve never felt that way writing a book before, and I’ve written bunches, all unpublished. But still, never have I felt this way about a character. She really seems to be a living person.
You put her in such an emotionally-charged situation. She’s been removed from this place that was clearly a danger to her, but a place to which she felt really emotionally attached. She was taking care of her baby sister. She had an aunt who was more reliable than her mother. And then, suddenly, all that changed, and she stopped really growing up from that point. One could understand why she wanted to get back to that point. She had unresolved business that needed to be resolved and nothing was going to stand in her way.
And no one understands that’s what she’s doing. That’s the voice piece of it for me. We hear these kids say things but we don’t really hear what it is they’re saying. And Ginny’s message is lost on so many adults who work with her and encounter her and finally she finds a way to break through all of that.
I want to talk about some of the adults, because there were moments here that seemed very honest, especially with respect to the foster parents. Just for a little background in the story: Ginny’s foster parents, whom she calls her “Forever Mom” and “Forever Dad,” couldn’t have their own children, so they decided to foster Ginny, and then after that, they did get pregnant. So the equation changed. We see—especially for Forever Mom Maura—a change in attitude toward Ginny, which made me think, did this foster parent really know what she was getting into when she decided to be a foster parent? And then I thought: Does anyone know when they get into this what it is? And so maybe I should ask: did you know what you were getting into?
We had no idea and we knew going in that we had no idea because we had so many people telling us that we had no idea. And they were absolutely right. I like to tell people who are interested in adopting and foster care that you don’t do it alone. You need a tremendous network of people—social workers, therapists, school counselors, family friends, even neighbors—to support you, because you have no idea what you’re getting into.
It’s so much more difficult than having biological children. My wife and I have two children aside from our adopted daughter and they’re a piece of cake compared to all of the issues that you deal with taking someone from a different family into your own.
How did you feel about the foster parents in the book?
Well, the unique situation of the writer is that that he has to be every character in the book regardless. So I got to step into Maura’s shoes and feel what it was like to feel very protective of my own family, and I also got to step into Brian’s to feel what it was like to try to open up some doors and be a little more relaxed. But it was wonderful to be able to step into the different perspectives and viewpoints.
I loved Ginny’s quirks. I loved that she loves Michael Jackson. I love that her curse word of choice is, “Well, dang!” Are these things that you created out of whole cloth, or did you glean these from seeing the real world?
“Well, dang!” is very much part of Ginny’s natural way of speaking. That’s part of her voice. I didn’t make that up so much as record it when it was in my head, so I wrote it down.
The Michael Jackson thing is really kind of cool, because a tremendous number of special needs kids are completely enamored with Michael Jackson. I don’t know why, but if you go to a Special Olympics event—I shouldn’t speak for everybody, but when I go to a Special Olympics event, I’m going to find someone listening to Michael Jackson, doing the moves from the videos. A lot of them have the hat and the glove. It’s really cool. They totally connect with Michael. And I love Michael Jackson myself, and our adopted daughter does, too, which helps. But it’s not a Ginny thing. It’s more a special needs thing. People really dig Michael.
I’m a fan as well. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. But Ginny said that he looks kind. He looks like a gentle, kind person, and that’s something that Ginny likes and, frankly, needs in her life, given what she’s been through.
You bet. Ginny sees pictures of Michael Jackson and she’s seen pictures and she just connects with him on that human kindness level. You’re right.
Character-driven stories—those seem to be what you’re about as a fiction writer.
Yup. Character-driven or voice-driven.
So first person is the way you like to go?
Unless there’s a really quirky narrator. Unless there’s a unique narrator. A lot of my current work involves a narrator who is not a character but has a very distinctive way of speaking and that plays and pings off of a lot of the plot points as well.
Ginny is an unreliable narrator. She doesn’t necessarily know—she didn’t put all the pieces together, whereas the reader could. Is that something you gravitate towards as a writer?
Oh yeah, that’s one of the reasons I write. That’s the mystery of it. You think you know where the story’s going, or even where a chapter’s going, and you’re writing it and, all of a sudden, surprise! It’s not going there. There’s something better. Writing a book or even a short story—if it’s something you care about deeply and really love—is a process of constantly unfolding new layers and new corners and new directions. So it’s an adventure.
I want to talk a little bit about your writing process. You went to school and got an MFA, and you’re also a teacher. One of your teachers, as you wrote in the afterward of this book—
You know where I’m going with this.
Your professor, John Yount, said to you, “Wait tables if you have to, but don’t teach.” You did not follow that advice. I think the assumption here—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that teaching is an exhausting profession that will leave nothing left for your creative writing. Is that the assumption?
That, and you simply won’t have time. Teachers bring papers home, English teachers. You come home, you maybe eat dinner, maybe not, but you grade papers. You write in response journals for kids. You email with parents and administrators. It’s not a nine-to-five or even a seven-to-three. That’s why they get summers off. They really need them.
But yeah, that’s exactly what my professor told me and that was a good 20 years ago at least. He knew it would be absolutely devastating and for a while, it was. Getting my feet wet as a first, second, third year teacher—there was no time when you were developing your lessons and your pedagogy for the first time. But eventually, you know, you kind of get that under your belt, you get your legs under you and you find time. So I got up very, very early in my first few years of teaching in order to get the writing done and I found that that worked great because I could just pound out words, you know, rubbing my eyes, not really being able to see clearly, and just forget about them when I went to work, and then come back the next morning, and to this day, I have this habit of early, early, early in the morning is when I write and that’s when my best work happens. But you have to steal time. You have to steal it from your sleep. From your kids, sometimes. You steal it from whatever you have to. But it’s not easy. I’m very glad I took this year off from teaching in order to support the promotion of the novel and also to work on the book I’m working on now.
So what advice would you have for writers who have to have a job to support themselves?
First, learn how to steal time. Lunch breaks, planning periods if you’re a teacher—whatever you have to do. Have your phone with you and type little notes if you get ideas or sentences come. And the other thing that I would say is: really embrace self-doubt. Getting up early in the morning to write, I know it’s not going to be good, and I’m glad that I think, “Wow, this is garbage.” Because the next day I’ll come back and look at it and fix it. And if I spend a third day maybe even revising that, because I’m doubting that it’s any good, well hey, that’s great. And eventually you get to the point where you just can’t change it anymore. And that’s when I move on, personally. So yeah, that self-doubt thing that really bugs a lot of people and can be kind of torturous—it works for me.