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Cassandra Dunn’s debut novel, THE ART OF ADAPTING, gives voice to Asperger Syndrome

by Mary Yuhas

Cassandra Dunn was a Glimmer Train Short Story Award finalist, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semifinalist, and Clapboard House’s Best of the House finalist. She’s published 12 short stories. She is represented by Harvey Klinger. Her debut novel, The Art of Adapting, is forthcoming July 2014 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. Her website is cassandradunn.com.

LitVote: You broke a cardinal rule in your debut novel, The Art of Adapting, because each of the four main characters speaks from his or her point of view. You did a great job because they are all so believable and real. Why did you decide to use this writing technique?

Cassandra DunnCassandra: I felt it was important to give Matt his own voice, because I didn’t just want to show what Asperger Syndrome looked like from the outside, I wanted to give some idea of how it felt to have Asperger’s: Matt’s interests that bordered on obsession, the logic behind his food issues, his reasons for disliking physical contact. But setting an entire novel within his point of view seemed too limiting, so I decided to balance it with Lana’s perspective as the loving, devoted sister who has seen him overcome so much and appreciates him for exactly who he is. As Abby started developing as a character, with her secrets about food, I realized the only way to tell her true story was to let her it because no one else can see what she’s doing to herself. That also gave a chance to show how the children see Matt at first, and the shift in their relationship with him as they come to understand and accept him. At that point it seemed I might was well put Byron in the mix, too, especially to show how differently he and Matt approach their common interest of art.

LitVote: What inspired you to write this book?

Cassandra: I grew up around Asperger Syndrome: my Uncle Mike had it. Like Abby and Byron I saw him as a bright, quirky, shy figure, until I had a chance to spend enough quality time with him to really get to know him. I began to see how Asperger’s wasn’t just a challenge he had to overcome each day, it was an integral part of his personality. And not a negative one. He was a brilliant and curious soul, so interesting to talk to but often hard to read. He had periods of drifting away in his thoughts, following patterns and streams of information that I couldn’t see but loved hearing about, and he had unexpected moments of such tenderness and unabashed love that it would bring me to tears. I wanted to write about the everyday practical aspects of interacting with someone with Asperger’s, not just the challenges, but the gifts as well. My uncle passed away several years ago, and the character of Matt was my way of honoring his memory.

LitVote: I love the nuggets of wisdom that are woven into the story you tell in The Art of Adapting. Do they come from your life experiences?

Cassandra: How nice of you to say there are nuggets of wisdom in it! I have some very wise friends who have given me loads of inspiring advice, and a fair share of it belongs to them. I also tried to put in some of the simple truths I’ve learned along the way, in the hopes that some of it can help or inspire someone else. My life has been one long journey of learning self-acceptance, so that theme interested me, and having it play out differently for each character gave me some room for offering different perspectives on it.

LitVote: Were you in a writers group when you wrote your book and what do you recommend first-time authors do to get feedback on their books?

Cassandra: I don’t currently have a writing group, so I wrote the first draft of The Art of Adapting almost entirely without feedback, which meant it needed a lot of work. My first feedback came from my 6-year-old daughter who asked me to summarize the entire novel as her bedtime story over several nights. Just having to sum up the entire thing out loud helped me fine-tune a few plot points and character traits along the way. And she asked great, probing questions about “why” (a young child’s favorite question), which helped me dig deeper into character motivations. Mostly, I just kept tucking it away, working on other novel ideas or short stories and then coming back to it with fresh eyes a few weeks later. Once I had a full somewhat-revised draft, I sent that to two beta readers (not writers, but avid readers who know what they like and what they don’t), and their comments helped me steer my next revision. I’ve had some excellent writing groups in the past, and their feedback on previous projects definitely helped inform this one as well. I’ve also had some editors for literary journals work with me on short story submissions, taking the time to point out what areas needed more work. The more feedback you can get, from any and all sources, on any piece of work, the more you can figure out your individual strengths and weaknesses, so that you can do even better next time. I’m still finding flaws in my process and bad habits I need to break, and I hope that my future work is better for it. My advice really is to put yourself out there and get feedback from readers as well as writers, to toughen up your skin and learn to incorporate what will help you improve and to let the rest go.

LitVote: How did you find a literary agent?

Cassandra: I had a novel that ranked as a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and I attended conferences where I pitched that book to agents in these timed pitch sessions (a terrifying practice). Having to pitch it live helped me tighten up my query letter. I sent that novel to a long list of agents, and got several requests to see more of the book, but no offers of representation came out of it. I figured that meant my query letter was better than the book. I learned a lot in the process, though. As soon as I finished The Art of Adapting, I knew it was a much better novel and that it was the one I should be focusing on. So I wrote up my query letter, chose my top five agents, and sent it out. I decided to be very methodical and send it to five agents every Monday morning, prepared to go the long haul. But one of the agents in my very first query group, Harvey Klinger, asked to see the first few chapters three hours after I sent my query letter. A few weeks later he asked to see whole novel. Two weeks after that, in one of my favorite messages ever, he offered me representation.

LitVote: What did you do to celebrate after getting representation?

Cassandra: I’m a single mom of two daughters, who were 6 and 7 at the time. It was a Monday, and they were at school when I got Harvey’s message. I picked them up from school, gave them the good news, and we went out to frozen yogurt to celebrate. It was a sweet moment to be able to share that success with them.

Lit Vote: What were the steps of the process after your agent signed you and how long until the manuscript was ready to go out to publishers?

Cassandra: Well, Harvey’s exact message when he offered to represent me was: “There’s a lot of potential here…with a bit of thought and rewriting you could have something salable. If you’re interested in rolling up your sleeves and taking direction, I’d be happy to work with you,” so the next step was a major revision. Harvey gave me some great broad-strokes notes, and I began to revise the novel chapter by chapter with his guidance, sending each chapter to him as I revised it, getting feedback as I went along. He’s a great, close reader who doesn’t miss a thing, but ultimately left it up to me to find my own way. He pointed out the stronger and weaker areas of my manuscript and that helped me dig deeper and find the heart of the story, figure out what needed to go and what needed to be developed further. After the full rewrite, we did another pass together, fine-tuning the little things. It was an amazing, exciting process, and I can’t imagine an agent who would be a better fit for me. The entire revision process took four months, and then I got another awesome phone call from Harvey, pronouncing The Art of Adapting ready for submission to publishers! Two weeks later we had an offer from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. It felt like it took a long time to get to the manuscript ready to go out, but then after that everything happened so fast. I remember it all came together during Mother’s Day week. That’ll stand as one of the best Mother’s Day gifts I’ve ever gotten.

LitVote: What do you think is the most common mistake first time authors make?

Cassandra: The mistake I made (and still sometimes make) is getting ahead of myself and sending manuscripts out before they are ready. You really only get one chance to make that first, great impression on an agent or editor, so take your time and do the work justice. Just because you have a finished first, second, or third draft doesn’t mean it’s ready to publish. Just because your friends think its great doesn’t mean it’s sellable. Get feedback from any readers you can trust to be honest. But also let it rest. Set it aside, work on other projects, then come back to it as if you’re reading someone else’s work, standing in a bookstore, with only enough money for one book. Would you buy it? And don’t be shy about editing. Don’t be afraid to cut everything that isn’t propelling the story forward. Even if you lose full chapters, the space you free up is an opportunity for something even better to come out of the story.

LitVote: What are you working on now?

Cassandra: I’m still looking for the next novel I feel compelled to write, the one I just can’t ignore. I’ve gotten two very rough drafts of novels done that I may come back to, but I think the pressure to get the next novel on the page got the better of me, and I didn’t really take the time to let them develop fully. I’m now working on a new novel, trying to take it slow and let it develop organically before I take it from the note-taking and brainstorming stage to the page. Since the day he signed me, Harvey has been telling me to take my time and not rush, and that’s advice I need to hear again and again. It’s easy to get caught up in the pressure of needing to produce a follow-up novel, but it’s more important to take the time to craft something you really love and are proud of.

LiteVote: What’s in your future?

Cassandra: I’m so grateful for everything that I have right now: the time and means to write, two amazing daughters, a chance to show them that lifelong dreams really can come true, the support and encouragement of friends and family, opportunities to meet kind, supportive, talented writers…I really just hope for more of the same in my future.

________

Author Mary Yuhas, has over 86,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

 

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