Tom Fields-Meyer on Gumby, Otters, and Raising an Autistic Son

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Long-time writer Tom Fields-Meyer is used to writing stories about families who have overcome some difficulties. For years, he wrote People magazine's human interest features, the emotionally resonant pieces tucked behind the celebrity news. Today, with the release of Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love From His Extraordinary Son, Fields-Meyer turns his focus on himself and his own family. I spoke with the author about his new book:

What is Ezra's understanding of what you do to make a living? My assumption is that you approached him to talk about turning his story -- his and your story -- into a book before you sold the rights and planned to print. What were his feelings about being made the subject of a book? Did he have any concerns?

Ezra has known from the time he was quite young that his mother is a rabbi and his father is a writer. Like a lot of kids, he didn't have a great understanding of what my wife and I actually did all day at work. Then, I wrote the final story in my twelve years at People magazine, a piece about raising Ezra -- in particular our regular visits to the Los Angeles Zoo. I told him I was writing it, but I wasn't sure how much he understood at the time. At age 11, Ezra wasn't much of a reader of anything besides Simpsons comic books and animal encyclopedias.

As my wife says, you should always look for the gift in what might at first appear to be a challenge.

The day I brought the issue of People home, I was shocked when he grabbed the magazine, sat down at the dining-room table and slowly made his way through the entire story. At the end, he stood up, smiled, and said, "That's a very good story about me." I was delighted.

That article became the seed of Following Ezra. Before I sent my proposal to my agent, I discussed the idea with Ezra, and basically asked his permission. He loved the idea. I told him that it might be helpful to many parents of younger kids with autism, and he liked that, too. I was concerned that some of the funny stories about things he did as a younger child -- say, the time he went up to an obese neighbor and asked him how he got so fat -- might be embarrassing. Ezra would just say, "No, that's okay. I'm not embarrassed. I don't do that anymore."

The book opens in the summer of 1999, but this is not just a flashback to help set up the narrative. The story covers a lot of ground between the mid-'90s, when Ezra was born, and his bar mitzvah 13 years later. Were all of the vignettes that make up the individual chapters written relatively recently, at the time you decided to put them down in book form, or have you been writing all along?

Since we first started noticing differences in Ezra when he was a toddler, I've been taking notes. Not for a book, but to figure him out, to try to understand his mind, how we could help him, what to expect -- and what the future might bring.

Many of those notes took the form of emails I wrote to myself, to my wife Shawn, to my parents and in-laws and others who cared about Ezra. (Age 7: "Last night I was making waffles with a new waffle iron. He kept grabbing letters from the fridge and taking them into the playroom. When I went to tell him the waffles were ready, he had spelled out 'dinosaur' on the train table. 'Yeah! I spelled 'dinosaur!' That's how you spell 'dinosaur!''")

After a while, I felt like a foreign correspondent or an anthropologist, reporting on the customs and practices in an exotic land. (Age 6: "Will only eat a banana one way: whole. I open, pull the peel halfway down, hand it to him. If it breaks before he eats it, he screams: 'You broke it!'")

But all along, I was noticing not just Ezra's challenges, but also how truly extraordinary he was, the astonishing ways his mind worked. (Age 8: "We were reading a book that mentioned a woodpecker. I asked if he had ever seen a woodpecker. 'No. But I heard one, on a hike on November 29, 2003. It was a Friday.'")

It's difficult (or at least it was for me) to live with someone like that and not be constantly taking note of the remarkable things that would come out of his mouth.

I posed the previous question because you're a professional writer and have been for more than 25 years. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that you turned, privately, to that form of expression as a way to sort out your own complicated thoughts on raising an autistic child. How did putting Ezra's story into words help you -- if it did at all -- to understand any feelings you might have been working through?

People have asked me if writing the book was therapeutic. I never saw it that way. But I felt deeply compelled to write it. Mostly, I just love telling these stories. Over the years, working as a journalist, I'd find myself at lunch with a source or colleague and instead of interviewing the person or talking about work, I'd be regaling them with the latest anecdote about how my son had memorized the premiere dates of every Disney movie or how Ezra could remember years later which cereals a neighbor had in her pantry.

And then I kept seeing new books by parents of children with autism, and almost none of them reflected my experience. Either they made parenting these children sound incredibly bleak, or they presented a story about some miraculous cure. (Of course, there is no cure for autism.) Either way, they all told the same basic narrative, about battling against a disease. I just didn't see it that way. I wanted to capture, with humor and tenderness, the kinds of remarkable moments that Shawn and I were having every day in raising Ezra.

And how was writing this story similar to and different from the other writing that you've done in the past? In part, you're known for the time you spent at People magazine writing what you've described before as "dramatic, moving tales of families and individuals triumphing over adversity." There must be some parallels.

People is known mostly for its celebrity stories, but I wrote the human interest stories -- the ones we called "real people" stories. Often they were about individuals who had experienced terrible tragedies of one kind or another -- the death of a child, a rare illness, a natural disaster. My editors were always looking for silver lining, the stories about people who had bounced back in remarkable ways, or found ways to use their experience to help others. (I should note that, as a writer, I benefitted from a tremendously talented staff of reporters who found and reported these stories.) You could not help but be inspired by the Indonesian man who survived the Asian tsunami and opened his house to hundreds of suddenly homeless people. Or the woman in Georgia who helped medically fragile children find foster homes.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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