Madeleine Ryan was 27 and about six months deep into writing her debut novel when she was diagnosed as autistic.
“It was a really beautiful thing,” she says of the diagnosis in 2017, speaking from her home in Castlemaine, Victoria, and channelling the same upbeat energy as the birds warbling in the background.
“It was like this process of personal acceptance started to happen alongside this world that I was creating.”
A sumptuous novel, A Room Called Earth unfolds on the night before Christmas Eve and thrums with the sights and sounds of Melbourne under a full moon.
The unnamed neurodiverse protagonist gets ready, at home, for a party she knows will test her limits, keenly observed by her cat Porkchop.
When she gets there, it is a bit much, but she engages with several people before meeting a nice guy. The inklings of romance unfurl.
Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick describes it as: “A resolute deep dive into an inner self, a transcendent character study, and a timely reminder that there’s an entire universe inside of everyone we meet.”
“In many situations, she’s me amplified 20 times,” she said.
“In other instances, she’s responding as I wish I could. I have a tendency to keep talking and to keep trying to explain myself. Whereas she’s much more comfortable sitting back and hmm-ing.
“And I really envy hmm-ers who don’t feel this compulsion to quickly explain themselves and be understood, because I absolutely am plagued with that.”
Does Ryan, like her character, have a shrine to Heath Ledger?
“I do have a poster of Heath. However, it’s not erected on a stone altar in my garden surrounded by geodes. I wish that it were,” she admitted.
A Room‘s protagonist was a joy to write, Ryan said.
“She’s so fabulous and courageous. I mean, she’s got contradictions and lots of things going on that are confronting, but I find her quite magnificent.
So that really helped me recognise those aspects of what it meant to become, and to identify as, a neurodiverse person in a really positive, empowering light.”
A Room Called Earth embraces the power of difference, including some beautiful observations about how we need to better connect to Australia’s First Nations people and to the land on which we live.
It’s also about, as Ryan puts it, “gently reminding myself and others that we’re all more than these labels. We all go through phases where a label means a lot to us, and we cherish it, and other times where it’s the bane of our existence”.
Last year, Ryan penned a hugely popular New York Times essay entitled Dear Parents: Your Child With Autism Is Perfect.
“I always felt like I was chasing, growing up,” she said.
“I desperately wanted to fit in. To learn like other people. To do what the teachers asked and to be able to gossip like the other girls did. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never do it the same way.”
She remembers feeling that there was something wrong with her.
“I’m smart, but I’m not getting anything right. I’m constantly challenging people without meaning to and seemingly saying the wrong thing and putting people offside, and they don’t have the confidence to share with me.
“And I’m ending up in these situations constantly, and I don’t know how I got into them. It created extraordinary feelings of alienation, isolation and frustration.”
When she’d try to counteract this, folks would become even more uncomfortable and the circle repeated.
So it was just layer-upon-layer of torment and anguish.”
The essay, and now the novel, are about rewiring the conversation.
“The things that connect us as human beings are, I think, fundamentally, that everyone wants to feel a value, everyone wants to be able to contribute.
“So when you go into different environments, and you feel like you don’t have value, and what you have to contribute in your way doesn’t have a place, it’s existentially painful.”
Understanding isn’t as big of a job as we make it out to be, Ryan suggests.
“Everyone has to go, ‘Oh, okay, so there’s nothing to change or to fix, to make small, or to avoid or to infantilise’.
“If they can see that [neurodiverse people] can accept all our different facets, sexually, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, then we can kind of all relax a bit. We don’t have to run to protect them.”
A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan is out now, published by Scribe.