Rachel Simon is the award-winning author and nationally known public speaker. She is best known for her critically acclaimed, bestselling memoir RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the same name. The book has garnered numerous awards, and is a frequent and much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country.
Rachel and I share a common bond as siblings of adults with disabilities. When I asked her for an interview, she responded immediately. In the short time I have known her, she has been nothing but encouraging. Her latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a NY Times Bestseller.
I’m one of those people who figured out that writing was my life’s path almost as soon as I learned to write. I actually remember the moment when I had the realization. One afternoon, when I was seven, and my mother needed one of her daily afternoon naps, she asked me to lie down beside her and nap as well. She did this often, even though I rarely felt as tired as she did at that time of day. So as usual, I just stayed awake, daydreaming. And that day, my thoughts went to that dumb question adults kept asking me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was always an irritating question, because in that era – the early 1960’s – girls were allowed only a few acceptable answers: teacher, nurse, mommy, or ballerina. None of these excited me, so I thought it was high time for me to come up with an answer just to shut them up. As I asked myself the question, I remember looking up at the ceiling, which had cracked paint, and which, hard as I tried, could never be made to form itself into anything recognizable. Suddenly I just knew that I’d be a writer. I’ve wondered since what it was about the cracked paint that led me to this conclusion, and I think it was the desire to form something meaningful out of something that otherwise seemed random. I’ve come to see this as one of the primary goals of any art: to create order out of chaos.
I was quite satisfied with this answer, but didn’t get serious about writing immediately. As it turned out, my family moved soon thereafter, and a few months later my parents split up, so I was pretty miserable for a long time. However, I started writing letters to all my friends from my earlier home, and soon I was corresponding several times a week with half a dozen girls. I realized that each wrote in what I would now call her own voice, and that each also had difference topics that interested her. I decided to learn how to write in a way that synced up with the interests and voices of each, and so by the time I was nine, I’d become pretty good at taking on multiple voices. That year we moved again, and the family typewriter (a big old manual) was given a prominent spot on my mother’s desk. I decided I needed to get more disciplined, so I started writing short stories, then taught myself to type so I could put them in typed form. By seventh grade I’d started working on a novel, in ninth grade my father gave me an electric typewriter (what joy!), and by the end of high school I’d written four book-length works of fiction.
Little by little I gained some skill with craft, and I also gained some confidence. I sold my first book when I was twenty-nine – and, by the way, unagented. I didn’t get the agent until I already had an offer.
I switched from fiction to nonfiction for my third, fourth, and fifth books, but now with book #6, The Story of Beautiful Girl, I’m back to fiction.
You are most known for your memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, which was made into a movie. But your latest book, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, is a work of fiction set in the late 1960’s about a couple with disabilities. Can you tell us about your research and how you went about gathering what you needed?
My sister Beth has an intellectual disability. When she was born in 1960, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend to parents that they place children like my sister in institutions, but my parents never considered that option. I had little idea about the way people who lived there were treated. Many years later, I wrote about Beth and our relationship in Riding The Bus With My Sister, and soon after it was released, I started getting asked to do public speaking around the country at disability-related conferences. There I met people who, because they already knew me through my memoir, opened up and shared their own personal or professional experiences, and some of these stories involved institutions
Over and over, I returned home, reeling. The reality of institutions had obviously been widespread and affected millions of people—yet no one outside these conferences spoke about such things. In fact, the only institutions most Americans even seemed to be aware of were psychiatric institutions, which is an entirely different system from the institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. My curiosity finally stoked, I began collecting books and documentaries on the subject. At the same time, I developed friendships with many people in the disability community, from scholars to staff people, self-advocates to family members. From my conversations with these new friends, I began learning about disabilities other than the one my sister has, as well as many issues of social justice that were outside my own experience. I then started wondering if I could write something, fiction or nonfiction, that dealt with some of this material, but I couldn’t figure out how.
Then one day, as I was wrapping up a talk, I came across a book at a vendor’s table, God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, by Dave Bakke. In 1945, I learned, a deaf, African American teenager was found wandering the streets inIllinois. No one understood his sign language so no one knew who he was. A judge declared him “feebleminded” and he was put away in one of these institutions. There he remained, despite the suspicion of many staff that he had no intellectual disability at all, until he died fifty years later. The tragedy of John Doe No. 24 haunted me, and led me to read a lot of material about Deaf culture, and the African American Deaf (and deaf) experience.
Then in 2007, the creative writing department where I’d taught for over a decade decided to restructure the department and I was let go. Grieving the loss of a job and students I had loved, I set about trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was sure of only one thing: I wanted to keep writing. Though what I wanted to write about, I didn’t know.
In this vulnerable state, I sat down with a blank pad of paper, waiting to see what would emerge. Instantly, there it was. The novel I’d been vaguely thinking about all this time.
It is 1968. Night. A rain storm. An elderly widow is reading a book. Who is she, I asked myself, and without hesitation, I knew: she was a retired schoolteacher, in a state of grief. Unlike me, her grief was for a child and a bad marriage; like me, she had stayed in touch with her former students. A knock comes to her door. Who is it, I asked myself. Again, I knew. Standing before her is a woman who has my sister’s disability—and a man similar to John Doe No. 24. The woman is the love of his life. Although I don’t know it for another fifty pages, he calls her Beautiful Girl. They have just escaped from an institution—and Beautiful Girl has just borne a baby girl. I continued writing, and the whole first chapter spilled out. When I reached its ending, I was as shocked as my readers have been. I had no idea she would say to the widow: “Hide her.”
So a lot of the research happened by accident, or through my personal life, before I even began the writing. However, once the book was underway, I did get more directed. I arranged interviews with my new friends, or people they knew. From these interviews, I learned many details about life inside and outside of the institutions. Some of these details were sad, as you’d imagine, but others were a lot of fun. For instance, one friend spent several hours talking about a cross-country trip that he went on when he was a teenager, where his companion was his best friend, who had spinal cord injury. Another friend talked with me about alternate forms of communication when people are nonverbal. I also spoke with staff people who had a great deal to share about individuals they’d served, and loved, in their past.
But I think it’s important to note that I didn’t wait to start writing until I had all my research done. I started writing the book because I was sad and didn’t know what to do with myself, and then I completed the research as I went along.
How is your next project going?
I try not to talk about ongoing work until it’s finished. So for now I’ll just say that the burner is on.
What is your greatest challenge?
Only one? Gee. Well, if I must limit myself, I suppose I’d say it’s my extroverted personality. I just find everyone so fascinating, especially if I’m lucky enough to have the chance to speak with people one-on-one. In fact, when I was younger, I decided that my goal in life was to meet everyone in the world. Though I’m far from that goal, I will admit to being one of those people who has hundreds of friends (and I don’t just mean the Facebook kind), and I try to keep up with them all. As you might imagine, a person who’s this social might have a challenge going on a people diet so she can sit alone in a room and write. I’m lucky in that I also really enjoy being by myself, and I don’t mind doing so for very long stretches of time. But I just love meeting and speaking with people, so sometimes I have to get very strict with myself in order to get back to work.
When do you feel the most victorious?
I think most people assume that as a writer, I would have my happiest moments when I win an award or get a very positive, high-placed review. And it’s true that those are indeed happy moments. But I feel even happier when I find a creative way to work through some difficulty in my writing. That’s quite thrilling. I’m also deeply satisfied when I hear from or meet people with disabilities, their family members, or staff people, and when they tell me that I gave voice to their own thoughts, feelings, and stories. In addition, I love when they then share their personal experiences with me. I feel very fortunate to have gained their trust, and to learn about their lives so deeply.
Thanks so much for your time, Rachel! To learn more about Rachel Simon, please visit her at http://www.rachelsimon.com.