Clem Bastow on ‘Late Bloomer’: First Book Club

The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
The Kill Your Darlings Podcast
Clem Bastow on 'Late Bloomer': First Book Club

‘When you don’t understand something that important about yourself, [diagnosis is] almost a kind of cheat code to go back and understand things that you’ve been through.’

Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club. For August that debut is Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life by Clem Bastow, out now from Hardie Grant.

Clem Bastow grew up feeling like she’d missed a key memo on human behaviour. She found the unspoken rules of social engagement confusing, arbitrary and often stressful. It wasn’t until Clem was diagnosed as autistic, at age 36, that things clicked into focus.

With wit and warmth, Clem reflects as an Autistic adult on her formative experiences as an undiagnosed young person, deconstructing the misconceptions and celebrating the realities of Autistic experience.

First Book Club host Ellen Cregan spoke with Clem about the book and the experience of writing it at a live online event hosted by Yarra Libraries.

Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’. Sound production by Lloyd Pratt.

Further reading:

Read CB Mako’s review of Late Bloomer in our August Books Roundup.

Read about Clem’s favourite books and reading habits in this month’s Shelf Reflection.

Clem wrote for KYD in 2015 about women screenwriters and ‘the obligation to represent’.

Late Bloomer is available now from your local independent bookseller.

Stream or subscribe: Apple Podcasts / Soundcloud / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Other (RSS)

Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!



Alice Cottrell: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m KYD publisher Alice Cottrell, and today I’ll be bringing you our August First Book Club interview. Our pick this month’s Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life, by Clem Bastow, out now from Hardie Grant. The following audio is from an online event we hosted in partnership with Yarra Libraries, with Clem in conversation with First Book Club host Ellen Cregan. Enjoy!

Ellen Cregan: We’re going to start with a reading from the book for those of you who haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. So I’ll hand over to you, Clem.

Clem Bastow: Awesome. So I’m gonna start kind of at the start—not the start-start, because I feel like there’s a sort of prologue which, you know, you might want, not spoiled. But this is from the chapter called ‘Well, How Did I Get Here?’

After being assessed for Autism Spectrum Disorder shortly before my thirty-sixth birthday, in 2018, everything moved in slow motion while I waited for the ‘results’. The journey to receive my diagnostic report—or, as feared at the time, lack thereof—took one hour and thirty-eight minutes. Across the course of that journey, on 3 September 2018, I listened to Queen’s ‘Now I’m Here’ approximately twenty-three times. Getting ahead of myself, I had already picked out the image that would articulate, on social media, my feelings if I was diagnosed as Autistic: a monster truck slamming over a giant mud pile, its livery daubed with the slogan’AUTISM: IT’S NOT FOR WIMPS’.

monster trucks are extremely sick

did you know there’s a monster truck called Higher Education that’s made from a school bus?

one of the happiest moments of my life was when we went as a family to the Monster Truck Madness x Supercross Masters spectacular at Rod Laver Arena

The monster truck image served a number of purposes: I was touched by the story behind the picture (the truck’s driver was a down-home bloke whose Autistic nephew inspired him to raiseAutism awareness by mowing down car carcasses in mud-daubed arenas while heavy metal played), but it also served as a pre-emptive show of confidence. I knew that my being Autistic would a be a surprise to some, and that their reaction would likely be one of incredulity. By assuming the persona of the Autism monster truck, I could do a burnout so loud it would drown out any critical voices—including my own. Diagnosis: it’s also not for wimps.

A year or so earlier, I had been in a script development meeting, discussing a screenplay I’d been writing. The general tone of the meeting was, as was often the case with my screenwriting, that the script was structured well (thank you) and very funny (oh, thank you), but there seemed to be consensus that my protagonist was confusing the reader. Nobody really seemed to know what was driving her actions.

It seemed perfectly clear to me: it’s a romantic comedy, so the expectations of genre and plot dictate that the protagonist must start the script thinking she wants something in particular, but learning that she needs something else. It’s my job as screenwriter to deliver this in a Fresh And Entertaining Way. Apparently, this was not the correct answer, because this character’s emotional motivation was, according to the experts assembled before me, utterly opaque. As soon as this topic arose, I grasped the moulded plastic arms of my office chair with a white-knuckled grip; I knew what was coming. It was the same question that’s always coming in any discussion of screenwriting, the one about the protagonist’s emotional journey. What’s her problem? And I knew it would be utterly unprofessional to respond in the way I felt compelled to, which is to yell ‘I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!’ before throwing my office chair through the window and rappelling down the outside of the building. I didn’t know what my protagonist was feeling because barely knew about my own emotional state at any given moment. I only perceived the broad brushstrokes of vivid ‘primary colour’ emotions

happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’, at best

maybe ‘hungry’?

no, that one is often a mystery, too

that I was generally the last to recognise. You know those moments in movies, where robots become self-aware and cry for the first time, and reach up in amazement to touch the tears rolling down their cheeks? That’s me, every time my body has an emotional response to something.

I mean, I did know what the protagonist’s problem was, at least to a certain extent: I had recently decided that she was ‘on the spectrum’. Up until that point, it had never really occurred to me that the female protagonist of the very loosely autobiographical screenplay I’d been working on for a while might be Autistic, even when I had a minor character yell at her ‘Jesus, are you on the spectrum or something?’ That is, until I consulted The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Emotional Trauma, a popular text that aims to assist screenwriters in ‘[rooting] your characters in reality by giving them an authentic wound that causes difficulties and prompts them to strive for inner growth to overcome it’. My script editor had recommended I look through it to consider some different approaches that might liven up the next draft, given the issues I was having in communicating the protagonist’s emotional state.

Skimming over the entry for ‘Social Difficulties’, I noticed that one of the examples given was that a character may struggle socially as the result of Autism. Intrigued, I read on. As I read the words ‘BASIC NEEDS OFTEN COMPROMISED BY THIS WOUND: Love and belonging, esteem and recognition, self-actualization’, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ started playing as gazed skyward in a moment of realisation.

Shortly after, I googled terms I had never thought to look up in tandem before: ‘female + Autism’, and entered a research hole that was, in its intensity, not unlike Leeloo[minaï Lekatariba Lamina-Tchaï Ekbat De Sebat] in The Fifth Element, learning about all of human history while eating microwave roast chicken. You’ve seen those ‘galaxy brain’ memes? That was me.

I read about how boys are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at a rate roughly three times that of girls. I read about how girls and women may be misdiagnosed with other conditions (such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) while is their Autism is missed because its presentation is different. I read about how Autistic girls are more likely to camouflage or ‘mask’ their Autistic behaviours. Across dozens of tabs and hundreds of hours, I read absolutely everything I could find on the topic. After exclaiming ‘Oh my god, that’s me’ for the twentieth time, I texted an Autistic friend and asked if she thought I might be, as they say, on the spectrum myself. Her response was one of delighted relief: ‘lol we have had our suspicions about you!’ I returned to my screenplay and realised what I’d been missing: not only was the protagonist Autistic, it seemed that I might be, too.

What happens next? I don’t know! (Laughs)

Ellen Cregan: (Laughs) Thank you, Clem. That was great. I love that reaction too, ‘lol we’ve always had our suspicions,’ like so anticlimactic, but also so loving. And…

Clem Bastow: It’s so funny, it’s very common, and you know, I’ve been the one now since having been diagnosed myself to often say ‘I’ve had my suspicions about you’. It’s like you kind of receive the the Olympic Flame of the Autism radar, and then you pass it down from generation to generation.

Ellen Cregan: So for those of us who haven’t had a chance to read the book, can you just give us an elevator pitch for your book? What’s it about?

Clem Bastow: So it’s kind of a time-travelling memoir, I guess. I was diagnosed as Autistic when I was, yeah, just after my 36th birthday. So what’s that now? Like, kind of three and a half years ago. And so it’s partly looking back at these experiences I’ve had with this renewed sense of understanding, and also kind of looking forward. So thinking about, now that I know what my identity actually is, you know, how do I kind of live in the world now? But I guess what I wanted to do with this book was, you know—it seems ironic to say it, given that it is a memoir officially—I didn’t want it to just be about me. I kind of wanted to think about how I could use my own experiences to help give a kind of broader context to Autism in general, but particularly these more recent ideas about how it can look different in women and gender diverse people, and just to kind of give, you know, some context and some explanation. Obviously, they’re all just through my, you know, my own experience. But I know that even when I was diagnosed, there was a lot of stuff where you get told all of these clinical terms and you don’t actually know really what that means. So you can kind of read the very dry explanation of ‘a circumscribed interest’, but I thought, okay, if I take the reader through the time that I was really, really into dinosaurs when I was only five years old, then that’s a way to kind of explain what a circumscribed interest might look like. So, yeah, kind of using my own experience as a jumping off point for looking at Autism more broadly.

Ellen Cregan: And in the book, there are a couple of things, like sort of minor things that I just wanted to quickly ask you about before we keep talking. So you use identity-first language in the book, and you also make the choice to capitalise Autism. Can you just talk a little bit about those choices?

Clem Bastow: Yeah. So, there’s, there’s…when you look at the Autism community or Autism kind of discourse, you’ll see either identity-first, which is, ‘I am Autistic’, ‘Autistic person’—or person-first, which is ‘person with Autism’, ‘has Autism’, and it’s totally a personal choice, but I think increasingly people who are Autistic are moving towards that idea of identity-first, because it kind of, for me personally, I knew that Autism was such an important part of who I am, and I can’t separate that. So it’s not everything about me, but it’s always there.

Clem Bastow: So to say, you know, I ‘have Autism’ or I ‘live with Autism’, kind of, it, it sort of puts it in that realm of, you know, a hat you can take off, or something you can ‘get better’ from. So that, that was important to me. The capitalisation was something that I, you know, like so many things, it’s a kind of collective unconscious thing, I guess. I started doing it myself just because I sort of respected Autism as a unique culture, and not just a condition, I guess. And then, of course, saw that other people were doing that, and then also learn more about how there are other communities, particularly, I guess, the capital-d Deaf community.

Ellen Cregan: Mmm.

Clem Bastow: It’s, I guess, a political statement. It’s been really funny because obviously that messes with a lot of people’s style guides, but you know, Hardie Grant were really great in letting me make a point of that in the author’s note and carry that through the book. But, yeah, it’s absolutely a personal thing. You know, there are a lot of Autistic people who identify, you know, who use person-first language, which is totally valid. But I think increasingly there’s this understanding that often person-first language is something that particularly parents and teachers will use because there’s a concern that you know, in labelling a child, you know, you kind of box them in or you might make them vulnerable to teasing. But I guess part of writing this book was looking back over my life and going, well, would it have been easier if I knew what was, in inverted commas, ‘wrong with me’ in a lot of these moments? And I think it would have been, and you know, having spoken to people who were diagnosed earlier in life or understood themselves as Autistic earlier in life, they found, you know, that very helpful. Because you don’t have then that sort of question mark of ‘why do these things keep happening to me’, which seems sort of totally out of your control and random. So, yeah, that’s kind of where it comes from from me. And I think it’s a fairly, fairly similar position for a lot of people who do identity-first language.

Ellen Cregan: I really like in the book how you, you know, you have made that choice to go with that identity-first language, and that feels right for you. But the book is very much about, like, how you are more Autistic when you’re yourself. Like it’s never, there’s no, like, ‘Clem underneath Autism’, it’s just very much you being your truest self is your most Autistic self, almost.

Clem Bastow: Yeah, it’s interesting. There was an interview that I read, or saw, with Hannah Gadsby, you know, and she said that, that she feels like she’s more Autistic when she’s in society. And I guess that’s that social model of disability, which I absolutely subscribe to. But for me, I, I feel like it’s sort of the opposite, because I guess for a long time, I didn’t really understand that very important part of my identity. So I went to a lot of trouble to, to cover it up, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, you know, when it was things like realising that not everybody wants to hear about, you know, whatever my latest passion is, you know, like there’s that sort of stuff. But then there is also a very kind of innate level of repression and suppression that happens of certain behaviours. And so, yeah, it was always when I was just kind of authentically me at home that I felt like that was, you know, when I was kind of truly Autistic. And so I guess part of the book, too, is, is a bit bittersweet, it’s this idea of, you know, if you haven’t known something so important about your own identity for so long, you know, can you, can you ever kind of return to a place of being 100 per cent authentic in that? And I think, you know, it’s definitely something that I’ve seen other late diagnosed people talk about, that you grow up without this understanding or sense of pride in your identity. And there, yeah, there are some behaviours that you kind of like, you know, I’ve heard some people call it, you know, you ‘ABA yourself’. So you kind of unwittingly go through these processes of suppressing behaviours and removing them and trying to appear, you know, in inverted commas ‘normal’. And so removing that mask is kind of part of, was part of the process of writing the book as well, I guess. And that’s still, you know, it’s a process of becoming I guess.

Ellen Cregan: So throughout the book, you write quite a lot about childhood and your teenage years. And I think that you write about your younger self with so much love and affection. And it’s really beautiful to read, especially when you’re talking about, thinking about the things that you did as a child that were perhaps different to what your peers were doing, and how that was, you know, a part of your Autistic traits. Was writing with that sort of really loving, kind look to the younger self a conscious thing for you, or did it just come naturally when you were writing?

Clem Bastow: Um, I think it became more conscious. The early draft…(Laughs) was different in tone. (Ellen laughs). Turns out, you know, if you’re trying to write a first draft during a once in a lifetime pandemic, you may feel a little bleak.

Ellen Cregan: Oof.

Clem Bastow: But I think there was also, you know, one of the other political things about the book is that, you know, Autistic children in particular are, broadly speaking, always kind of under. You know, there are these so-called therapies which aim to, you know, it’s literally in the terminology, like, ‘extinguish’ these behaviours, ‘extinct’ them. And, you know, we’re bullied at huge rates, you know, terrible mental—so part of that was, was trying to, yeah, I think unconsciously kind of convey to the reader that what I think Autistic kids need is love and acceptance, and in a way—and that’s what I got. You know, we didn’t know that I was Autistic, but I think I think that some of the reasons why it took a long time to work out, you know, who I was, was that at home it was very safe, you know, it was a very loving environment. And broadly speaking, I was very much accepted. And so I think that’s why often, um, it’s only when you kind of go out into the world that you start to realise the real differences, and so, you know, through childhood that became more and more difficult, obviously, once you start to grow apart from your peers—because, you know, when you’re five or six and you’re nuts about dinosaurs, everybody’s probably kind of got that childlike enthusiasm. But then as you start to grow older and you realise that you’re not interested in the things that everybody else is, you know, that it’s dictated that it’s time to be interested in, whether it’s dating or soap operas or whatever, and you still want to talk about light switches, you know, that becomes more and more difficult. So, yeah, I think that was a conscious, it became more of a conscious thing as I went along. That I felt this, you know, yeah, a sense of sort of care and wanting to impart that to the reader, that these are, they’re not problems to be solved. Because I think that’s the thing, you know. We still view Autism through this lens of it being a sort of deficit model, you know, and that’s built into the diagnosis. So in order to obtain a diagnosis, necessitates deficits in a lot of areas—you know, social recipocracy, yeah, circumscribed interests, obsessive focus, difficulties with this, that and the other. So part of it was sort of shifting that, trying to shift that focus a bit—and not going to the other extreme and saying everything about Autism is fantastic, because I think…

Ellen Cregan: Yeah.

Clem Bastow: As people read the book, they realise that’s not the case, but to kind of land somewhere in the middle, where it’s like, it’s not the brilliance narrative, which is equally restrictive, and it’s not the kind of full-tilt Lifetime tragedy narrative either.

Ellen Cregan: I think what the book does that is really successful is it talks about neurodivergence in a way that is…is like, it’s a different life, it’s not a better or a worse life, necessarily. And it’s sort of a, a conversation that you see happening on social media quite a lot, actually, with neurodivergence, is people just saying it’s not… ‘it doesn’t mean that I, like you say, I’m a superhero because of my differences, or I’m worse because of my differences, it’s just a different way of existing, and it’s a different way of seeing the world.’

Clem Bastow: Yeah, absolutely. And I guess I was lucky to be sort of coming to understand my position in the world as an Autistic person, you know, in this era where there is so much of that discourse happening online, and I think a lot of my, you know, kind of nascent understanding of myself happened through things like the, the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag and, you know, Autistic meme accounts and things like that, being able to read the lived experience of other people, you know, some of whom ended up in the—there’s a sort of epilogue at the end of the book where I wanted to interview, you know, just a handful of other Autistic people, but in order to kind of just demonstrate just a little bit of the kind of broadness of that experience. So, you know, people with different backgrounds, different genders, different, different, you know, races, ethnicities. And I think, yeah, the online sphere has been amazing for that—and ever thus, you know, there were articles back in the 90s, in the early 2000s in the New York Times talking about how, you know, what we now understand as the kind of online realm being a really huge, you know, world of possibility for Autistic people. And it was really described in really beautiful terms—they’re talking about it as being the sea upon which we sail to other lands to report back about other people. And I think, you know, I think that’s really, really helpful—It must be really helpful for, particularly for young people who are coming to understand their place in the world, because, you know, we didn’t really have anything like that back in the 90s. Like there may have been a zine somewhere, or an AngelFire website, but I didn’t think to look for it. So, you know, I didn’t have access to that sense of pride that I think that community can really foster.

Ellen Cregan: Yeah, it’s quite a beautiful thing to see on the internet now that all these people are making connections, and you know, it’s so beneficial to be able to find the community when you might feel alone about something of this kind.

Clem Bastow: Yeah, absolutely. You know, because it is… Like, I think I try to be kind of careful about it—diagnosis is not the kind of be-all and end-all. It was very important for me, but there are so many barriers. And there were barriers even to me, you know, like I’m not rolling in cash. And I was just really lucky that my parents helped me out, and that I had work at the time because obviously, Autistic people are chronically underemployed. So it was really a kind of planets aligning situation where I’d managed to get in—first of all, that there was somewhere I could get diagnosed, that I managed to get in there. That at that moment, I had the money to do so—you know, for a lot of people, that’s not the case. If you live in the regions, if you live, even there are major cities in Australia where it’s really difficult to be diagnosed as an adult. And then, you know, if you have other kind of intersecting identities or multiple disabilities, it can be really difficult. So there’s always a kind of asterisk there, which is, you know, that diagnosis isn’t kind of the only way to go about this understanding. But I guess, yeah, for me, for me it was important and the time happened to be right. And had I been looking into it five or six months later, it might not have been the case, you know. So I think I was very lucky in that sense. But, yeah, that community, I think, was really important because as I started to kind of poke around, you know, like, I like to say, I wrote my way to diagnosis. So initially I was doing research into that character, and then that sort of became research that I was doing kind of about myself at the same time. And so being able to see people online, you know, speaking with positivity about this, it definitely made it feel like less of a, ‘oh, I’ve got to find out this terrible news about myself’, it was like something that I was interested in. And I became really attached to, as well, like, that was the other thing. Like, the process of being screened, you know, doing the assessment and then waiting to hear, that was a real rollercoaster, because there was, you know, you sort of get a couple of weeks and then months in and go, what if it’s not this? So yeah, it was, I think the internet played a big part in that. And I’m, you know, I’m an old fogey these days, so there’s plenty about the online realm that I don’t like. But I think that’s one of the things that is really incredibly useful, is that sense of community that’s given Autistic and neurodivergent people, and the disability community at large.

Ellen Cregan: So when you did start to seek that diagnosis from that moment, reading on the computer, screaming ‘this is me’ 20 times in a row, to the actual diagnosis—did that kind of reframe some of your life memories in a way, like, did you start to think about, like, difficult or positive experiences you had in the frame of that diagnosis?

Clem Bastow: Yeah, absolutely. Because one of the things that I read was this essay, which was the introduction to a book by a writer called Liane Holliday Willey. And it was written by Tony Atwood, who’s, you know, one of the kind of pre-eminent Autism researchers in Australia. And he was talking about how, you know, young women on the Autism spectrum will often have these particular experiences. And I had just, you know, every sentence I was like, ‘that happened to me, that happened to me. That’s me in grade four, that’s me’—and so there were these things I’d been through that I had never, that were often difficult, but I had no way of understanding why. So inevitably, when you don’t understand something that important about yourself, the narrative becomes ‘it’s because I’m broken, I’m, you know, worthless, if only I was more this, less that’. So to be able to suddenly, even in that moment, go, ‘oh, that’s why, you know, I was terrified to go on school camp’, or ‘that’s why, you know, I used to scream whenever Mum brushed my hair,’ or all of these things. So you’re sort of suddenly presented with this almost like a kind of, you know, cheat codes to going back and understanding things that you’ve been through. So that was a big part of it, I think. And you know, maybe if I hadn’t read that piece it may have taken longer, because a lot of what you read online, whether it’s those sorts of, you know, ad hoc ‘Am I Autistic’ quizzes, like they tend to be geared towards that traditional, very male-skewed understanding of how it presents. And so if that’s not been your experience, for whatever reason, you generally, yeah, it will say, (Buzzer sound), you know, five out of 20, you’re not Autistic. And so that may for a lot of people, be a kind of dead end. So, yeah, I think that having a reason to kind of start to think about things that I’d been through was really important. And then I guess, I took—it was very Autistic of me, I had a kind of folder of things ready to go, when I got into the… So, you know, if I hadn’t already, I think I’d kind of passed with flying colours before they even did the screeners. But that was something—the same friend who said ‘lol, we’ve had our suspicions about you’, I said ‘oh, I’ve put together a folder of all these experiences and some notes, should I take that into my assessment?’ (Laughs) And she was just like, ‘Hmm, I think I know what they’re going to tell you’. (Both laugh).

Ellen Cregan: Oh, that’s so good. Um, there’s just a lovely comment in here from Rebecca. And they said, ‘even though I was only diagnosed last year as a 39-year-old, I’ve since found out that a huge percentage of my online friends through the years have also had an adult diagnosis, so we’d somehow found each other’. That is so nice.

Clem Bastow: It’s really nice. And it’s very true. I had a few friends that I knew were Autistic, and then it’s been really interesting seeing how many people in the orbit have either been on that journey at the same time as me, or come to it a bit later. And it’s, it’s a huge thing. Like, I don’t think, it’s not an accident that they call it, Simon Baron-Cohen calls it ‘the lost generation’. Like, there really are so many people who just slipped through the cracks, whether that’s because they had, yeah, intersecting issues where they were diagnosed with something, but not the rest of it, like that’s—that’s something that’s, I think, really important to note, because when we say misdiagnosed, there’s a sort of binary thinking where we sort of assume that means, oh, you got diagnosed with something else. But it might be that you were depressed, or you did have OCD and also Autism, and they didn’t pick up the Autism. So it’s a really kind of crucial thing to note. And, yeah, it’s a huge deal. There are a lot of people out there who have really struggled. And I think that was something else that I really wanted to kind of lean on in the book, is this misconception that some people have that ‘oh, well, you made it to your thirties, or you made it to your forties and you didn’t get picked up, so it mustn’t have been that bad’. But, you know, these are often people who have really struggled and they’ve had, you know, what we might call a nervous breakdown multiple times, often in their life, which, you know, is now starting to be understood as this idea of Autistic burnout, where that process of trying to kind of fix yourself, but not knowing what you’re trying to fix, you know, just kind of crumbles around you. So, yeah, it’s a big thing. So I think when people say, ‘oh, there’s this, you know, Autism epidemic, or more people are being diagnosed’, the actual prevalence rates haven’t changed, it’s just that we’ve gotten better at actually picking people up. And, yeah, a lot of them are being picked up later in life—And you know, I’ve heard from people who’ve been diagnosed in their 50s, 60s and beyond. So it’s definitely a real thing, and it’s, I think it’s helping a lot of people.

Ellen Cregan: I often think about the way that you know, people do say that thing of like, ‘oh, it’s just the new thing, like, all these diagnoses’. But it’s kind of like gender diverse people—that they were always there, it’s just that the way that we see people is different now to how it might have been 50 years ago, or 60 years ago or whatever. The people haven’t changed, it’s just the way that we see them that’s changed.

Clem Bastow: Absolutely. And you know, I spoke to a couple of psychologists and psychiatrists when I was writing the book, and I just said—because a lot of the process of writing it was, you know, I talk about them in the book as those Sliding Doors moments, where somebody maybe kind of hinted at something being different about me, but they didn’t know what. And, you know, those moments where you sort of look back and you go, oh, if only the path had diverged. But often what they would say was, you know, at that time, whether it was 1987 or 1990, whatever, it just wouldn’t have even occurred to them to think of a little girl as potentially being Autistic, unless it was a very, you know, clearly, what we would now call a high support needs case, or they had another disability. So if there was, you know, an intellectual disability, they might also consider Autism, but otherwise you just wouldn’t have even been on the radar. So it’s this funny kind of bittersweet thing, where I kind of go, ‘I wish someone had known’, but, you know, I might have, it’s possible that if something had been pursued at that time, it would have been wrong. And then I guess also too, that thing of, there are still so many problems in the way that Autistic people are treated, and particularly Autistic children. So you can only imagine how much worse it could have been to be going through those systems, you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago. So, yeah, it’s a very bittersweet thing, that idea of kind of the sort of what-if memoir, I guess. But the process of writing it was yeah, just pinpointing those moments in every kind of year or every decade where something kind of almost got uncovered, but didn’t quite, you know, it didn’t quite happen.

Ellen Cregan: So I’m going to ask you a little bit more about the book itself. And then after I’ve asked you these questions, we will have time for audience questions. So if anyone has any questions they’d like me to ask Clem, just chuck them in the chat as I talk. So I’d like to ask you about the publication process of the book, from its first idea to the lovely sparkly—I don’t know if every can see it, sparkly—it’s like my favourite book to put on the shelves at work. (Clem laughs). How did it get from that idea to this beautiful product that we have today?

Clem Bastow: It was a really interesting process. I have known Arwen at Hardie Grant for a long time, and so we would often, since before she was at Hardie Grant. So it would often happen that every couple of years we’d sort of get in touch with each other, or run into each other and sort of have this ‘oh, do you think you’ve got a book in you?’, ‘yeah, maybe’, but never, never quite kind of worked out what it was. You know, I always knew that it would be non-fiction because I just, I’m not much of a fiction writer outside of screenwriting. And then I was, it was a really interesting process because I had obviously I’d written a—I’d written a short piece for the Age not long after diagnosis, which was an interesting process in itself, because obviously, I’m sure you can imagine trying to boil down all of that into, you know, 700 words was pretty hard. And then about six months after that, I gave a speech at a conference, a mental health symposium put on by Yellow Ladybugs, who are really awesome Autistic-led organisation in Melbourne, who do a lot of advocacy and support work with young Autistic girls and gender diverse kids. And so the Age piece and that speech which I had on my website, there was this process of, that sort of became the pitch in a way. So it was interesting, because when I started writing it, I think the idea was, was quite broad. You know, and having worked as a journo and also in my research, I have also had the experience of having a very kind of like, boiled down, 25 words or less elevator pitch version. So initially I think I felt like that, that kind of broadness and freedom was really exciting, and then it became terrifying. Because it was like, well, what am I writing about? You know, what’s the weighting here, like, do I sort of weight it towards memoir, do I weight it towards non-fic? And what’s the kind of, how do I plait these experiences together? So the experience of writing the first draft, I think, was almost kind of experimental, and there were some chapters which haven’t changed much at all, and there are others that don’t exist anymore, because I think in writing that first draft, I was kind of trying to work out what the book actually was. And also what my voice was, because I don’t typically write long stuff, you know—that’s just the way digital media works these days. And even when I write for, you know, Saturday Paper, it kind of maxes out at like 1600 words. So the opportunity to write something long, I think, was quite bewildering at times. But then I think I think the writing process for me always happens in the second and third drafts. So going through that first draft with Arwen, kind of apologising profusely for how awful some of it was, was really, really useful, and starting to think about it, starting to think about the structure, that was, I think, the real the kind of key that unlocked it. So having each chapter have, um, have a kind of theme, a thematic kind of statement to it. Because I think initially I was like, ‘this is unlike any memoir!’ And then I kind of just wrote a pretty straightforward, you know, chronological memoir, while still constantly tying myself up in knots throughout it going, ‘this is so unlike anything!’ So then to be able to go, alright, here’s the order I’ve written it in, this chapter seems to be mostly focusing on food, I’ll make that the chapter about eating habits and Autism. So sort of looking at what was there, thinking about what was missing, thinking about what I kind of felt like the most… I think useful, like thematics would be from an Autism perspective. Because there’s a lot of Autism stuff which is very played out, you know—eye contact, you know, empathy and stuff like that, that I sort of felt like would be better just kind of mentioned in passing, and then there were other things that I felt were really important to illuminate. So that was part of it too, kind of thinking about what Autism, so-called Autism narratives I didn’t want to engage with. Some at all, some I just felt that, like, I didn’t want to talk about them—you know, the antivax stuff is a really obvious one, so that’s really only mentioned in passing. And then, yeah, which other things I really wanted to bring to the fore. Because I think I think, you know, with Autism, there’s always been this kind of very binary idea, these twin narratives of, yeah, the triumph, the Rain Man narrative, which is the sort of uncanny genius, and the awful tragedy narrative, which is not typically written by Autistic people—or, well, neither have been—but I think the tragedy narrative, you really see, you know, there was a, shall we say, major women’s site, that for this year on World Autism Awareness Day, had one of those classics ‘written by Anonymous’ essays about how, basically how horrible it was to parent an Autistic child. Which was just breathtaking, like it’s 2021, this is the day that’s meant to be about Autism acceptance, and that’s the narrative. So I really wanted to not be either of those extremes. And to kind of reflect the fact that for most people, most Autistic people, it’s kind of a bit of both. Like, you have your moments of brilliance, your moments of tragedy, and the rest of it’s kind of somewhere in the middle. So I think that that was really useful, like, looking at that first draft thinking, okay, what do I want to turn this into? So that second draft was really where the writing happened, and then the editing process was just so, such a thrill. Like, I love being edited, it’s always been a kind of special treat for me because—you know, not that I wasn’t edited at all early in my career, but you know, when you’re in street press, it’s a really quick turnover, so you might kind of quickly go through a piece with somebody and then it’s on the streets. And it was sort of a bit the same in a lot of digital media, where you’re sort of checking it as you upload it to the website. So I’ve come to appreciate the process of being edited with some of the longer form stuff that I’ve written in the last few years. And then I guess also, because I did my Masters and I’m now doing my PhD, in a way, the supervision process is a kind of form of editing, too. So I was really ready for that. So, you know, to go through that, that first draft with Vanessa, who did the sort of copyedit, and then with Anna Collett from Hardie Grant on the kind of final checks and balances was really great, because I think, you know, I think a lot of writers don’t talk about the editing process, you know, we all want everyone to think that this thing just drops out of you, but that blood, sweat and tears is really important. And I think a great editor is able to—you know, I wish I could remember, there was a joke, it might have been in Blackadder or something, but it was some academic going ‘what Shakespeare is trying to say…’ And that’s kind of how I feel about editing. It’s like a good editor goes, ‘it feels like this is what you’re sort of trying to strive towards, is that right?’ And then you go, ‘yes!’ and then you work out how to express that better. Because yeah, I think that editing process is about trying to help the writer not find their voice, but sort of hone it. So I really felt like… you know, it’s a collaborative thing. And maybe that’s, I think partially because I’m a screenwriter as well, and you really, you know, screenwriting is, well, filmmaking is a collaborative medium. So that idea of the screenwriter being the ultimate author is kind of, you know, there are some screenwriters who write shows called The West Wing who probably feel that way. But, you know, for me, it’s always been, I feel like the writing is done in the editing process, and the you know, sort of consultation, the table reads and right down to, like, somebody on the set going, ‘how about you say this instead?’ And you still get, it’s still written by you at the end of the day. So I think, you know, I can’t sing the praises of Vanessa and Anna and Arwen highly enough, I think that was really, just a huge deal. And then, you know, it was Anna who found the little dinosaur dinkuses, I think they’re called, which are the kind of paragraph breaks in the book. And that was a really beautiful thing that—I think I was really pleased that I wanted it to be, you know, like it—it’s popular non-fiction, it’s not meant to be wildly experimental, but I did want it to reflect in its sort of typography and its layout, some aspects of what I sort of felt were a more Autistic approach. So I was really happy that they—not let me, but, you know, that they really supported that, and they wanted to celebrate that. So when you read, if you read the book on the page, there are these kind of little asides and sort of box-outs, and a couple of kind of typographic quirks that, you know, were my way of sort of trying to represent how Autism feels, sort of give the reader a little bit of a virtual reality experience. So, yeah, it was just a really, you know, it was a great, incredibly supportive experience the whole way through. Thank God, because I think, you know, writing a memoir, writing a book is a vulnerable experience, but I think this one was particularly obviously vulnerable because it’s such, such a sort of difficult territory. So I think that was really, that was really part of it is feeling that you were in a safe space to experiment, and to kind of uncover old demons and, you know, rip open the diary. And yeah, and then the icing on the cake was Ella Egidy did this incredible cover design for it, which—it was so funny, I gave Hardie Grant this very cool, you know, Pinterest board of really great ideas and sort of old Thrasher magazine covers and graphic design stuff, and I was like, ‘maybe something like this?’ And they very, you know, wisely just completely ignored that. (Ellen laughs) And I think Ella did an amazing job in reading the book and kind of realising how to represent that in the cover design. And that’s how we ended up with the sparkliest cover in the history of… (Laughs) Well, apart from the yearly Guinness Book of Records, so yeah.

Ellen Cregan: Ah yes, of course.

Clem Bastow: A thrill. But you know, they could only truly be one ultimate sparkly book, so I’m happy to come second.

Ellen Cregan: And this one doesn’t have texture on it as well, which is nice.

Clem Bastow: Yet! (Laughs)

Ellen Cregan: Yes, true. What I think this book leaves the reader with, is this really great sense of what, you know, what some aspects of Autism are that are not necessarily universal, but are like the things that kind of define Autism, but you also come out with this idea of, like—you actually say it in the book, ‘if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met one Autistic person’. It’s so you, and it’s very much your life story, and it’s very much these things that are so specific to you. But it also is like, you know, there’s no way of really doing an Autism 101, but it almost is that. It’s like a really good introductory thing for someone, maybe just someone who really likes reading memoir—and then they’re gonna come out having learned so much about something that affects heaps of people. So, yeah, I think it just does it so well.

Clem Bastow: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I think that was a real goal for me. And, yeah, if you’ve met one Autistic person, you know, the motto of our people. I think what I—you know, a million years ago used to be a music critic, which is something that I talk about in the book. And, you know, a lot of musos I would ask them, or, you know, ‘how did you write, you know, your big hit song?’ And they kind of all say a variation on a theme, which is, if you try and write something mega universal, it’s sort of doomed to fail, and you’re better off kind of shooting for that unique experience that you’ve had, and inevitably people will either have had the same experience or can kind of see something of their own in that. So, yeah, I think part of it was just trying to trying to present these experiences that are not common to every Autistic people, but we all experience to a certain extent. And to kind of, yeah, encourage the reader to think about times where maybe they felt something similar. So it’s not that, you know, that ‘oh, aren’t we all a bit Autistic’ idea, which is—in short, no… (Ellen laughs) in order to kind of hijack that idea, that misconception and present it in a different way, which is like, can you think of a time when you were really, really into something and nobody else cared, or what about a time when, you know, the sun was too bright, or something was too loud, or you felt, you know, awful because you were wearing something horrible. And just find those little moments that people could kind of, yeah, go ‘now I understand that thing’. Or ‘maybe I understand it a bit better and now I want to read more about it’, because obviously, yeah, like you say, it’s not Autism 101 and it’s not the final word on any of it. But, yeah, to hopefully inspire in the reader a desire to know more. So you know, it’s, it’s certainly not the first book written about Autism, but it may be the first thing that some people read about it. So, you know, my hope is that they then go out and read some of the incredible, you know, lived experience stuff that’s around, whether it’s published online or if it’s self published or, you know, in other books that have already come before me or that will come after. That I hope that this is a kind of jumping off point for some people, and that really would be a great, a great result for me, if that was the end, kind of legacy of the book, that it just made people consider Autism differently, then it might as well be a, you know, a mega seller, Oprah’s Book Club number. (Laughs) But, you know, if she wants to reboot the book club and choose this book, then look, I wouldn’t, probably wouldn’t argue. But yeah, that’s kind of what I hope will come of it.

Ellen Cregan: So I’m going to, I’ve just looked at the clock and realised it’s now time for questions. I feel like no time has passed, I feel like it. Anyway.

Clem Bastow: That’s Autism time. (Laughs)

Ellen Cregan: (Laughs) So we’ve got another really lovely comment from Rebecca. ‘I want to thank you so much for tonight and for the book. I listened to the audiobook, which is brilliant. I had many moments where I felt so seen. I want to buy the sparkle book, even though I won’t be able to read it. It’s so beautiful.’ It is so beautiful, it’s… Thank you, Rebecca, that’s such a nice thing to say.

Clem Bastow: Thank you, that’s so nice. And thank you for listening to the audiobook, it was a real treat. You know, it’s very funny—what people might not realise is when you write a memoir, you still have to audition to read your own memoir. (Ellen laughs) So I was pleased to get the job! (Both laugh) I got the gig, I passed the audition and it was really, you know, that was a big thing for me, because I know that not everybody reads books on the page, and yeah, I was really thrilled to do it. So it’s a huge thank you to Bolinda Audio, who recorded it, and, yes, put up with me having to do 15 takes of all of the science fiction names and you know, Eastern European psychologists and things that I hadn’t thought that I might one day have to read out loud.

Ellen Cregan: Does anyone else have any questions—oh, yep. Here we go. So Sarah has asked, do you have a writing routine?

Clem Bastow: Ooh! Yeah, hmm. (Laughs) Look, I think if I kind of tried to boil it down, it would be probably I write a lot in the mornings. Partly that’s just because I share an office with my housemate, and so by the end of the day there might be more kind of stuff happening in the office. But I do tend to find that getting up early really works for me. It was something that Christos Tsiolkas, who’s a dear friend, and we do a Triple R show together, and he wrote a very, very beautiful quote for the front of the book—you know, I remember asking him early on when I was struggling a bit with the first draft, you know, do you have any tips? And he just said, you just get up early and write whatever comes to mind, and try and set yourself a word limit. So when I was writing this, I was like kind of aiming for, like, that 800-1000 words a day. And if I hit that, I could stop if I wanted, or I could keep going, but that was the sort of bare minimum. Other than that, I’m very embarrassed to say that I find it really hard to write without my fingers on a keyboard. So I’ve tried writing notes by hand, I’ve—well, tried once to do the voice notes thing, but for me, unfortunately, it’s sort of like a mnemonic, it’s like the act of putting the hands on the keyboard kind of unlocks something. But I do also keep just like a Google Doc kind of running document thing with ideas and turns of phrase, and that was really useful for writing this book as well. It’s, you know, I do it in my PhD research, and I have done it in the past for other things, but just some way to slam, you know, a quote from something or an essay that you want to read, or an idea, and then you can sort of go through and cannibalise that. And I think that that’s really helpful, too, because you can only hold so much in your mind at one time. And, you know, although I have heard the, you know, vaguely apocryphal story about the Beatles never writing their songs down and only recording the ones that they remembered the next day—it’s very stressful, I think, as a writer to work that way. So, yeah, I think, write in the morning, set yourself a daily limit—daily minimum, but also be gentle to yourself. Like sometimes it just doesn’t work and nothing comes out, and the best you can say that you’ve done is sat at your desk. Sometimes that’s, especially at the moment, sometimes that’s a kind of win in and of itself. But I think those three things are kind of, if I had a routine that would be it.

Ellen Cregan: We’ve got a question from Jeanine—what memoirs have you read and are your favourites?

Clem Bastow: Ooh! So I tried not to read too many while I was writing it, because I didn’t want to unconsciously sort of echolalia myself and start borrowing somebody else’s structure. But I really loved—I did allow myself to read a few, and I found Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt was really great, because I knew I wanted to discuss class as part of—because it’s a huge part of my journey. That I really enjoyed, Rita Therese’s Come last year, I’m just about to start reading Bella Green’s, but I think broadly my memoir reading has mostly been sort of essayists, so not so much books and more people like Carrie Fisher—well, she’s, you know, obviously published a number of books. Carrie Fisher, um, Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, that kind of tone where it’s often talking about really difficult stuff, but maintaining a kind of funny or bittersweet tone, because that’s kind of me—like I use comedy a lot, I’m a comedy screenwriter. I sort of have often tried to have a humorous thread to my writing. Which is also a coping mechanism, but I felt like it would be disingenuous not to reflect that in the book. So yeah, I think I really admire a lot of those essayists, and there’s, you know, newer ones, too. And then there’s those writers that sort of aren’t really memoir, but they’re kind of talking about lived experience. Like ‘Ask Polly’ in New York Magazine, and of course, I can’t remember her real name right now—but yeah, a lot of that kind of, like really good magazine writing, I think, is my, that’s my comfort food and always has been. But yeah, there’s stacks more that I’m really, really keen to read. I’m about to start reading Elton John’s, which I’ve heard is an absolute scream, and I hope to read more—you know, now that it’s safe to do so! (Laughs) Now I’ve written mine, I can go for broke. So there’s about 20,000 on my to do list. But yeah, I’d say the big ones are like Carrie Fisher and Nora Ephron, definitely.

Ellen Cregan: I think we’ve got time for one more question, and there is just one more question—oh, and it’s a fun one. What are you studying your PhD? From Joe.

Clem Bastow: Well, so broadly speaking, I am doing a Creative Practice Screenwriting PhD. So I’m at RMIT and I’m looking at, ah… (Laughs) I would give you the—you know, it’s funny actually, I had a supervision meeting this morning and we were just talking about how i need to start reframing the title and the question. But broadly speaking, I’m looking at the experiences of, you know, as an Autistic screenwriter in the industry, and I’m particularly working within the Hollywood action genre as my kind of site for experimentation. So I don’t plan to have a finished screenplay at the end of my script, I’m sort of using the screenwriting as part of the, you know, ‘iterative, practice-based…’ (Groans) But yeah, I’m loving it. I love action cinema. I always knew that I wanted to study that in some way. And I’m a classic—you know, I talk about this in the book actually, that on the first day of my Masters, I was already like, what can I do for my PhD? So, yeah, it’s very fun. It’s fun to have to watch Mission: Impossible films all the time. And I really rated Tenet by Christopher Nolan, which happily has become also one of my key texts. So, yeah, that’s the short version. But yeah, if you ask me the question again after my third milestone in November, I may be able to give you a more solid answer. But I don’t know if I recommend writing a book and doing a PhD during a pandemic year! (Laughs)

Ellen Cregan: (Laughs) That’s a really big move. Really big. (Laughs)

Clem Bastow: I feel like that’s the extreme sport of writing.

Ellen Cregan: Yes, it is. (Both laugh). Well, I truly have about 55 more questions to ask you, but we have run out of time, unfortunately. Thank you so much for chatting to me today, Clem, it was so nice to talk to you. And thank you to Yarra Libraries for having us. As Connor mentioned at the start, if you want to borrow the book from the library, you can do that, otherwise buy it from your local bookseller. They would love to see you, even if it’s just through the glass.

Clem Bastow: Absolutely. And thank you Ellen so much. And thank you to Yarra Libraries as well. And the idea that my book is now a library book is, like, unbelievably exciting as somebody who has borrowed many in my lifetime. And I’m very sorry to my old home library for the things that I’m sure are still on my account somewhere.

Alice Cottrell: That was the August First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings podcast. We’ll be back soon, but while you’re waiting, you should drop in on the KYD website for new commentary, criticism, memoir, interviews and reviews. If you’re feeling inspired to write, then check out our wide range of online writing courses. Thanks for joining us, see you next time.