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A conversation on music and autism (part two)

In the first part of Music and Autism: Speaking for Ourselves author Michael Bakan’s interview with his Chapter 7 musician co-author Graeme Gibson (who is on the spectrum) and Graeme’s parents, the renowned science fiction novelist William (Bill) Gibson and autism researcher Dr Deborah Gibson, things left off with Bill telling Michael about how being Graeme’s dad had influenced his creation of “unnervingly human” AI (Artificial Intelligence) characters in his novels. Next in the conversation, Michael invited Bill to talk about the very significant influence of music generally—and specific musicians in particular—on his creative process as a writer. We pick up the conversation from that point.  

Michael (M): That’s really interesting [to learn how being Graeme’s father inspired your “humanization” of AI characters in your books], Bill, and leads me to another question, specifically having to do with how music has influenced you as a writer.

Bill (B): Well, I’m not at all musical, and neither is Deb, but we have both in our lives been very, very intensely moved by music. I’m just kind of a folk and pop guy (Deb’s tastes are broader; she has a library of operas), but yes, music has influenced me greatly as a writer. When I was starting to write, around age twelve or thirteen, I loved science fiction and read a great whack of it. But then, you know, puberty arrived, and I thought it was like a childhood thing and put it on the side. But when I began to think about writing again, I was dismayed by how uncool, to my mind, the science fiction that was being produced in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, was. I thought it had become like Nashville country: formulaic, nothing there that I would be interested in. And what I wanted science fiction to be, as I thought, was more like Dylan going electric.

So I was more consciously inspired by Steely Dan’s lyrics than I was by any of the science fiction that I could see being written when I first started to write. Then I found there were other people around trying for the same effect, other writers whose science fiction looked more like Steely Dan’s lyrics than the rest of the science fiction that was written… And when I started going to London on publishing-related business, the best science fiction store in town was right across the street from the studios where David Bowie recorded his first three or four albums. And the people in the stores—they would have loved David Bowie anyways—but they particularly loved him because he’d always been one of their very best customers, since before he started recording. And they could see that he was taking what he was buying from them, taking it home, fully digesting it, and bringing it back into the recording studio. So that’s an art of sound thing in its own way. I love it that I know that story and that I know it’s true.

M: So do you feel that there’s some similar kind of process, specifically relative to music, that went on in your own writing?

B: No, it was more like an ambition that there could be an analogy, and I knew that some of the most progressive science fiction being written when I was fourteen years old was being written by people who were already being inspired by the roots of the music of what we think of as the ‘60s. But their influence had faded away by the time I came back in my mid-twenties after getting a BA in English literature, and I was looking at contemporary science fiction and going, “Oh, man. This is not happening for me.” So my ambition was to, you know, make that analogy happen again… I remember listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” and imagining what it would be like if it were a science fiction novel.

M: Wow.

B: That was what I would do. I would listen to a piece of music and it would really move me and be unlike anything quite like what I’d heard before. And I’d think, “Yeah, but what would that be like if it were a piece of science fiction? What would that look like as a piece of science fiction?” And that would be a starting point for something.

Bill with Graeme reading. Photo by Dr Deborah Gibson, used with permission.

M: Fascinating! Over to you, Deborah. What essential lessons has being Graeme’s mom taught you, and how have those lessons impacted your life?

D: So one of the things I learned, I guess had to learn, was that we had to create our own experience and ways to get Graeme his best life, and ways for us to get through it without going completely berserk [laughter]. It was hard because there wasn’t the level of support that there is now, and we were, like, very impoverished really—well, not really—but we were very low income earners at the time. So it was difficult, but I managed, and I realized that I had to get another persona in order to find out what I wanted to know about Graeme, because every test that he had, everything that I pushed for, they would just give me the “mom” version.

And I knew there was another version that went amongst the professionals, that would use medical vocabulary and such. I needed to learn it, and I did learn it (that knowledge base eventually became the foundation for my PhD dissertation research, in fact, which was a case study on Graeme’s language acquisition) and I was able, therefore, to push quite far into getting information about Graeme that made me then feel like I had the information to take to, say, the school board or medical world, and to ask for things that were not there.

You know, Graeme was the first child with autism that that was integrated into the Vancouver School Board, to not be in a segregated class. And so I think just having a child who was “different” pushed me in a way that I was unwillingly pushed, but that nonetheless was an important maturation. I had a very cute baby, and one that was enchantingly different from others I knew. And it was delightful! Graeme’s babyhood was not all difficulties. He was so funny, and unique—very strong in what he liked and what he didn’t like. And what he liked were dots on the wall. He liked to find these microscopic dots and do this thing with sound, and touching them very slowly, and then screaming. He would play with things for hours and hours, but he hated primary colors, and all the toys were in primary colors. It was just really interesting, and often comical, and, I don’t know, there were wonderful things about being Graeme’s mother, wonderful things that I definitely wouldn’t have experienced if he had been a more “typical” child.

M: Let’s bring it all back full circle to Graeme. Graeme, what are three lessons you would like readers to take away from this interview, especially relative to your experiences as a member of your family?

G: First, I’ll always say that you have to keep in mind that all people on the spectrum are different from each other. People on the spectrum have different needs. You have to find a way to accommodate their needs, to meet them on their own terms. You have to know who they are individually. So that in itself is more the challenge, but once that’s established, in my family we’ve gone much beyond that, so it’s pretty continuous in the way that information flows from me to Mom and Dad by email or in person. I’ve gotten very good at asking for what I need, and at articulating what I want, and what I don’t want.

The second thing I’ll talk about, which is actually related, is the constant communication. That’s what keeps us together in my family, even though we don’t spend very much time actually together anymore, except when we travel, like the trip to England last year.

Third would probably be mutual support, like how my parents have found me teachers and other people who have helped me to develop my skills, like my music teacher Randy Raine-Reusch, and when I was young, my music therapist Johanne Brodeur. That does count in the overall picture.

M: Those are great. Thanks, Graeme. Deborah? Bill? Anything to add along related lines?

D: I think I have to keep being reminded that I have to respect Graeme’s boundaries about what is really hard for him. Because there are lots of things that I think would be maybe fun to do, and Graeme finds them difficult in ways that I haven’t expected. Or I’ll suggest something that’s spontaneous, and that doesn’t work for Graeme. He likes to plan ahead. So I have to keep being reminded, even though it’s been 43 years, that there are big differences between what I think is easy and what Graeme finds easy. In lots of ways it can be, in my opinion, something small that Graeme sticks on, but for him it’s huge, so that’s something that I’ve had to adjust to.

M: Yes, that’s so important. Bill?

B. I’ll just amplify what Deb said, that respecting who Graeme is has been really, really essential, and like an ongoing project for sure. It’s not something one perfectly masters.

D: Yeah, like having this interview happen today, and getting Graeme’s cooperation, was something we really had to work on together. You sitting here for all this time—almost an hour and a half—mainly listening to us talk? I thank you for that, Graeme.

G: Mm-hmm…

M: And I thank all of you. This has been really enlightening, and inspiring!


Feature image by Syd Wachs

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