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Jack Grimwood on finding the courage to write autism from inside

Jack Grimwood on finding the courage to write autism from inside

Arctic Sun, the third of the Tom Fox novels, after Moskva and Nightfall Berlin, is dedicated: For every iteration of Charlie in my family. And Sam, obviously.

Sam is Sam Baker, my partner, and otherwise journalist, broadcaster, novelist, ex glossy magazine editor and all round slightly terrifying person. Charlie is Charlie Fox, Tom Fox’s autistic son in a series of spy novels set in the 1980s in the lead up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlie’s not the main character, but he’s not a minor character either, and all of the plots turn on him in some way or another.

He’s six when we first meet him in Moskva and eight in this latest book. And, as a reviewer has pointed out, one version or another of him has been wandering in and out of all of my novels since I started writing them, and I’ve written twenty over the last thirty years.

People say write what you know, which is both excellent and truly appalling advice depending on how you interpret it. But I wanted to write autism from inside, and it took me this many novels to find the courage to do it.

ASD is a wide spectrum, and Charlie’s version isn’t everyone’s. As a label, high functioning is out of fashion, perhaps correctly. But it’s an accurate enough description for what Charlie is. A little too clever for his own good. A little too prickly to be loveable. A little too trusting of the wrong people. Too unaware of danger ever to be entirely safe.

Charlie Fox might not take everything apart, from radios to bicycles, tape recorders and watches, and break them down into little pieces to see how they’re made, as I did and still do, but he’s resourceful, not afraid of fear, and obsessed with maps and facts and leaps of logic that don’t necessarily make sense to anyone else. And there’s a lot in him that I recognise.

The point when I decided he needed to be a bigger part of the Tom Fox books was in a very early meeting at the Penguin offices, when an outside editor suddenly said of something Charlie had done, ‘children don’t behave like that…’

And I thought, yes they do, because that’s borrowed fact for fact from my life and that’s exactly what I thought, what I said and how I behaved. And I knew then I had to make Charlie’s strangeness a little more explicit, and dig a wee bit deeper into his thought processes in the sections where he’s carrying the action or acting as our eyes for what’s going on around him. He’s just one character among many. The product of his background. Yet for all he’s been born into a dysfunctional family mired in the dysfunctional world of 80s politics and international espionage, he’s functional, and focused, and sometimes in the wilderness of smashed mirrors that’s the world of spies and spy fiction, he seems to me the only one who is.

Arctic Sun by Jack Grimwood (Penguin Michael Joseph, £18.99)

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