Monday, June 27, 2011

Interview with author Randy Robertson

Randy Robertson is an experienced journalist and author of the new book Finding Mary: One Family's Journey on the Road to Autism Recovery. He was kind enough to stop by the blog today and tomorrow to talk about his new book, his writing journey, and advice for other writers. Randy lives in New York with his wife Debby and his three children. In addition to writing, he is an avid runner and sports fan, having completed the New York City Marathon and currently training for the 2011 Mohawk-Hudson Marathon in upstate New York in October. He also coaches youth basketball and baseball in Queens, NY and is the Special Needs Coordinator for his Catholic Church.

How did you get started writing?

I was born and raised in San Jose, CA. Around the age of 12 I became an avid sports fan and daily reader of the San Jose Mercury News sports section. I knew then that I wanted to become a sportswriter, and I worked toward making that happen for the next decade.

During college I wrote for several Bay Area newspapers, including the weekly Milpitas Post, the daily Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto and the Modesto Bee (internship). I was sports editor of the Spartan Daily at San Jose State and earned my BA in Journalism in 1992. Upon graduation I was hired as a full-time sports writer at the Tracy Press in Northern California. I later worked for the Oxnard Press-Courier and the Ventura County Star.

In 1996 my fiancĂ©e Debby and I moved to Chicago. In a competitive newspaper market I was only able to find freelance work, so at that point I decided to put my writing on hold and utilize my developing graphic design and layout skills in a corporate setting. I’ve been working in the multimedia/graphics department for the global consulting firm A.T. Kearney ever since.

In 2001 Debby and I had our first child, Mary. We later had two sons, Charlie and Marty. In 2004, Mary was diagnosed with autism. Our family spent the next five years trying many strategies for improving Mary’s condition – some successful, some not so much. I was often asked for advice from other families coping with autism, so in 2008 I decided to get back to my writing roots and write a book to share Mary’s story.

How did Finding Mary begin?

I think there’s a part of each of us, deep down inside somewhere, which wants to write a book and hold that book in our hands and see our name on the cover of that book. I’m no different I guess. For years I toyed with the idea but never seemed to have the right topic. Then, as Mary’s autism therapy continued and she started making incredible progress, I knew I had the ideal content for a book. In addition to satisfying my internal passion for writing I also would be able to share some really helpful information with other families.

With Finding Mary, I wanted to reach two audiences: families struggling with autism first-hand of course; and, also, any readers who had heard of autism and maybe had a curiosity about what it is really like. This second group was likely to include neighbors, friends and non-immediate family members of people with autism. That is, people who knew someone with autism but didn’t really know or understand what that meant on a daily basis.

How did you structure the book?

The book moves along chronologically, starting with Mary as a young and healthy toddler who interacted with her family. Then I describe how she spiraled into a deep regression for about two years, throwing tantrums, pulling back from interactions with everyone and finally encasing herself in a cocoon of self-stimulation (“stimming” such as spinning in circles, repeating the same cartoon dialogue over hundreds and hundreds of times, etc.). One of Mary’s favorite things to do in that darkest of times was to watch the movie Finding Nemo. She probably watched it 100 times. So the book title Finding Mary is a play on words, reflecting Mary’s obsession with Finding Nemo and also our own desperate search to find the daughter we wanted and never gave up on.

Throughout the book I discuss various treatments we tried with Mary, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a gluten-free, casein-free diet, vitamin B shots, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). I also shared our experiences in dealing with the New York City school system to find the right placements for Mary and my thoughts on the impact of immunizations on children. (I believe kids are getting too many shots too soon, but I stop short of blaming autism entirely on immunizations. It is important to give the children immunizations, but they should start later and be spread apart instead of given in batches of 2, 3 or even 4 at a time.)

What has the response from readers been like?

Finding Mary shares some real-life success stories. These include Mary’s ability to learn to play the piano, her academic achievements at school and her independence to the point of being able to pack her own swimming bag, enter the women’s locker room by herself and go in and change out of her wet swim suit and back into her dry clothes on her own.

Readers have given me a tremendous amount of feedback on the book. Some are amazed at how many different treatments we’ve tried. Some are shocked at how difficult Mary’s behaviors have been at times. And others have commented on how down-to-earth and honest the book is. And almost everyone has asked when Finding Mary 2 will be available! I’m still thinking about that!

What have you learned through writing and publishing this book?

Through writing this book, I learned that self-publishing a book is actually quite easy and do-able. Yes, anyone can do it!! I didn’t spend a fortune on the book and I didn’t have to work 100 hours a week to make it happen. I actually wrote the book little-by-little, in the evenings, when the children were asleep, usually just one night per week. It took me a year to write the book, then another year to shop the manuscript, settle on self-publishing, edit the book and prepare the photos. Through my publisher, iUniverse, the book is available on and has sold in countries around the world. Finding Mary is also now listed on the Autism Speaks website in its recommended books to read.

The other thing I learned is that people are incredibly caring and compassionate. Mary has become somewhat of a mini-celebrity in our little corner of Queens. The community has embraced her as a special little person and many more people understand her now, as opposed to seeing her as a quirky weirdo. She’s different, but because so many people in our community have read the book and gotten to know her, she’s better understood and accepted for who she is.

With such a busy schedule, how do you fit in writing time?

Once I decided to write Finding Mary, I knew I had to devote a specific time to writing. It would be the only way to get it done. With three young kids in the house and all of their activities and the daily chores around the house, there was and is little quiet time around here. However, on Tuesday nights Debby goes to a yoga class once the kids are in bed. So I decided that every Tuesday would be my writing night and I stuck to it.

Come back tomorrow for Part II of our wonderful interview with Randy Robertson!

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