Andrew Solomon Charms Katie Couric With Special Kids Epic

Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree” may have the most intriguing table of contents ever.

“Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” “Schizophrenia,” “Prodigies” and “Transgender” are some of the blunt chapter titles.

Solomon spent more than 10 years interviewing parents of children who were different from them in a significant respect. He investigates questions such as how hearing parents can raise a deaf child to be fluent in both sign language and written English and whether it’s right to give hormone blockers to a pre-teen who wants a sex change.

The book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in non-fiction, which will be announced next month.

Solomon spoke with members of the Muse team recently in Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Muchnick: Your book is a bestseller and Katie Couric devoted a whole hour to it on TV. Did you think it would be such a hit?

Solomon: It’s a thousand pages long and deals with disabled children. A few months ago I thought it might never sell a copy, so I was surprised.

I’d hoped that it would reach a larger audience, and I strongly believe that the message of the book is applicable to all parents, not just the parents of children with special needs.

Extreme Parenting

It’s like the way we test children’s pajamas by putting them in an inferno so they won’t catch fire when someone reaches across the stove. I think that in looking at these more extreme kinds of difference, it’s really a way of looking at difference altogether, which is part of the experience every parent has with their child.

Every parent looks at their child sometimes and thinks “Where did you come from? Why are you like that?”

Muchnick: Were some of the families unhappy to be lumped with the others?

Solomon: I thought it was a sign that I was on to something good that all of them objected to being lumped with the others.

The people with autism said, “Some of us are incredibly brilliant; how can you put us with Down syndrome people?” The people who committed crimes said, “OK, but we’re not weird like the transgender people.” And the prodigies couldn’t understand what they were doing in the middle of this whole thing at all.

Book Party

But as I talked to them they began to see the commonalities. I invited a lot of people in the book to the book party, and I got an e-mail a few days later saying that the father of an autistic child, a dwarf and a woman with schizophrenia had all talked at the party and were going out to have dinner together. I thought OK, there it is in micro. This is what we’re trying to achieve.

Muchnick: Did you find yourself getting very involved with the people you were interviewing?

Solomon: It could be very emotionally draining, but I set out to write about people I admire rather than people who seemed obviously flawed and not coping well.

There are plenty of parents of children with special needs and challenges who abandon and neglect them, but that isn’t the topic of the book.

So I ended up liking most of them -- not all of them, but most -- and I wanted to make sure they didn’t feel exploited. And so I tried to remain present in their lives as far as they wanted me to, but at the same time to set some boundaries just because of time.

There were some interviews in the book that I did and I came home and fell asleep -- the next day I just felt paralyzed. It had been so intense and emotional.

Musical Prodigies

Muchnick: What are the special issues of the prodigy?

Solomon: In the same way that it’s very difficult to live in the world if you have the mind of a small child in the body of an adult, it’s very difficult to live in the world if you have the mind of an adult in the body of a small child.

The problem with prodigies is asynchrony: They’re either with their intellectual peers who are 20 years older than they are and not very interested in hanging out with a little kid, or they’re with their age peers who have absolutely not the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Muchnick: Can you talk about how you found your voice for this book?

Personal Stories

Solomon: I wanted to bring together personal stories because I think the statistics in these areas, while they sound very scientific and reliable, actually don’t tell you very much. I think people’s lives are lived through narrative and it was by finding other people’s narratives that I was able to illuminate these points.

And then I had to do all this endless research and become an expert in problems with the juvenile justice system, the genetics of autism and the autism rights movement, the question of musical genius.

They’re very diffuse topics and that’s part of why it took so long. Various people said to me, “You can do just a book on one of these things or a couple of these things,” but I felt -- well, I hope -- I had insights in each area.

And I feel the primary insight was the synthetic one that said all of these apparently diffuse experiences really fit together, and the way we deal with them is a thermometer for how we’re dealing with the diversity of the world.

“Far From the Tree” is published by Scribner in the U.S. and will be published in the U.K. on Feb. 7 by Chatto & Windus (962 pages, $37.50, 30 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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