James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders and contributes regularly to Asperger United and Inspirational. Below he outlines what lead to him writing his own book.
The funny thing about truth is it’s stranger than fiction, and if it’s said the British built an Empire in a fit of absent-mindedness, then Dear Miss Landau was certainly conceived more because of predestination than cool and clinical planning.
The myriad trails, threads and tapestries which led to the trek across the desert in search of the golden city of L.A., the rendezvous west of Sunset where I met with my Helen of Troy (Hollywood actress Juliet Landau, the Rose for whom I’d stolen the Enterprise), the spark of timing and inspiration which led to the writing of Dear Miss Landau (my own redemption, as surely as I redeemed fictional Drusilla, the lost demonic lass from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the incredible conflux of luck which led to interest from Chaplin Books and the late blossoming of long held dreams against impossible odds are neither easily to be explained or believed.
But it all really happened, and not so long ago.
I’d struggled out of a pit of work-related hell and torture, written a tale called Drusilla’s Roses which brought the best out of me and impressed Juliet Landau, suggested to the National Autistic Society Scotland (NAS) I trek across America to publicise autism, ended up actually doing the trek for a certain lady I still call my dear Miss Landau (for that is how I used to prefix my emails to her), and as I found my feet, found myself and found my way from New York to Washington, Chicago and L.A., a subtle little detail began to inform my writing.
I got to like John Steinbeck again, in particular a paragraph from his first novel, The Red Pony. An old man’s dry words forgotten in favour of fabulous fable when he finally told his grandson just how it had really felt to lead a wagon train across the plains and down to the sea in the last days of the Old West:
“…it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering. We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed. Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.”
(The Red Pony)
That was fiction, but I followed Steinbeck’s route in real life and made my own crossing:
Friday March 12, 2010
I always call it the last day. The day I made the crossing. I didn’t lead a wagon train or drive an overloaded jalopy, but I went the same way. Crossing the Mojave to Los Angeles.
(Dear Miss Landau)
And after she and I had met on Sunset, I typed these words to a friend at home:
Bit emotional now. Crossed an ocean and three thousand miles of land to reach her, to reach this place, and now I am come down to the sea and it is done.
(Dear Miss Landau)
I was well aware of the debt I owed John Steinbeck, and when writing the draft manuscript of Dear Miss Landau I referred to another Steinbeck novel, Travels With Charley, a non-fiction tale of Steinbeck’s own trek across the States in a van:
…I found myself wishing I could take more time. Find a van like Steinbeck’s Rocinante, a dog like Charley to travel with, and take time to cross the desert, time to feel the westering in my soul like men of other days had done, brewing up by the side of the road using my old billy and thinking, ever thinking, of the golden city just over the horizon.
(Dear Miss Landau)
And then, after we’d met, I went on up the California coast with my heart still in L.A., looking for locations in Monterey I’d used for Drusilla’s Roses. The locations themselves were part of Steinbeck country, the National Steinbeck Center was in nearby Salinas and I decided to go that way one fine day. Sit and eat in Sangs, and see the author’s exhibition.
His words adorned the walls and the rooms were warm with memories of the desert, the country and the plains. The rich red earth made dustbowl dry in the Depression and the tales of mice and men. Chronicled with faith for the readers of another, future day.
And there, right there, was Rocinante, the very van in which an older Steinbeck had crossed another America, long ago and far away.
It’s fair to say that right there and then I got inspired; and wondered if the blogs I’d written, the trek I’d taken, the muse and demon and guide along the way, the stealthy steal (in literary metaphor, by the way) of a fictional Enterprise could come together and tell the tale (as I’d later say) of Rain Man meeting Notting Hill via 84 Charing Cross Road…
The thought took firm route and then fate and timing had its say. Back at the hostel in Monterey that very same day, I found this email from James Doherty of the NAS waiting for me:
…All the articles and pics you’ve been putting together have been first class and I can see them being very inspirational to other people with ASD and their families. Do you have plans to compile them into a short book documenting your trip?
(25th March 2010)
In those two sentences lay the genesis of Dear Miss Landau. As for why it was written, and although I genuinely hope my book will inspire people with autism, the true answer remains in the blog I wrote at Newark International Airport on the way home, sitting in Departures like a latter-day Arthur looking back at the debris of the last battle and wondering what it had all been for:
Jack Kerouac was at his end on Adler, the late cable car was playing its night song on the way downtown from Nob Hill, and Ginsberg may have been gone but, in San Francisco, the Beat still went on.
But not for me.
I would be hopping a night flight to Chicago later that evening, there to stay with my long-suffering cousin, before taking a familiar and gruelling Greyhound bus trip to Newark airport and then home.
Feeling quite eighty-sixed, I sat (fittingly enough) at gate 86, waiting for my flight and wondering just what it had all been for. What, indeed, had made me walk 5,000 miles and more?
To show what (with the proper help and support) ASD sufferers were capable of?
Yes, and I hope I have done so.
But that wasn’t really the heart and soul of it all, was it?
What really did make me get up and go on when I wanted to stop? What made me break myself to sleeping in dorms and travelling through the night on Greyhound buses, standing up to all the uncertainty and the fear and the change?
Perhaps it was that vital spark which makes some men stand by their friends to the gallows-foot and after. That spirit which makes us all, aspie and typical alike, push the envelope of our limitations.
Or maybe it was more simple than that. The need to go into battle once more before it was too late. The need of the knight to stand before his lady one last time, before accepting the fading of the light.
All for you, Miss Landau!
Best gal in all the world.
1st April 2010 (abridged) and September 2013