AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Dora M Raymaker
"I've come to realize my characters aren't broken--they're just not neurotypical. Like us."
Dora M Raymaker, PhD, is an Autistic/queer/genderqueer research scientist, author, multi-media artist, and troublemaker whose work across disciplines focuses on social justice, critical systems thinking, and the dance between hope and fear. Dora is the author of the novel Hoshi and the Red City Circuit, short fiction and memoir in various Spoon Knife Anthologies, and the upcoming novel Resonance.
Tell me about a recent work you released - a short story, a poem, a book, a game. What one work of yours do you hope readers will go out and read today? What's it about?
It's been out for a little while but if you haven't read it, I'll point you to my science fiction murder mystery Hoshi and the Red City Circuit. Five hundred years in the future, a neurodivergent private investigator with a symbiotic quantum brain computer needs to find who killed her ex-girlfriend and three others before more die in a plot to summon the city's alien avatar. It's about disability rights and the secret consciousness of cities. And my weird love of Portland (both Oregon and Maine) and New York.
I'm working with my publisher right now on a novel set in the same universe fifty years earlier. The awful year we've just had delayed it, but hopefully it will be available later this year. It's called Resonance and is about what happens on the edge between hope and fear. For more in that world right now, my short story "Heat Producing Entities" in Spoon Knife 3 features a very much younger version of Resonance's central character. It's about dilemmas of cooperation.
Tell me about a special interest of yours. Have you found yourself incorporating your special interests into your fiction?
Sometimes I feel like I write fiction just for another excuse to research and go on about my special interests! My Mac Carroll Multiverse stories (there's a novella "Hearts and Tails" in Spoon Knife 4) center a queer, neurodivergent, punk-rock, mathematician who specializes in computational theory and dynamical systems--it's given me a vehicle to further explore my two favorite branches of mathematics, my misspent youth special-interest deep in punk/industrial/queer art spaces, and love of 90's tropes. My Liminal Universe stories--Hoshi's world--are an outlet for my interests in disability rights, neurodivergence, computing and dynamical systems (again!), complex systems, scientific method, social justice and social movements, and--in the new book Resonance--storytelling and the power of music and art.
I do try to weave my interests into the fabric of story though so that it's not required the reader share my level of passion!
My interests also form the core of my scientific work. My PhD is in systems science and I conduct community-based participatory research to improve health and life outcomes with the Autistic and broader neurodivergent community at Portland State University. My first career was in computer engineering and information systems. My undergraduate degree was in painting. This more formal training and expertise informs and grounds my speculative fiction in real-world science and technology.
What one thing do you wish more speculative fiction readers knew about autism?
I'm not sure what readers know or don't know, but most spec-fic books by non-autistic authors offer readers a very limited view of autism. I can't immediately recall an autistic character--or a technology like the "combat autism" in Rajaniemi's novels--that isn't a hyper-focused, technologically gifted, emotional and/or socially void oversimplification, typically serving the role of a magical crip, a stand-in for a supercomputer, or a sad stakes character. Rarely is autism--or any type of neurodivergence--presented independently of medical model or deficit thinking, nor is our rich culture represented. The best I've read from a non-autistic author in trying to at least imagine an autistic culture not defined by neurotypicality is Friedman's The Madness Season, and even that leans heavily on stereotypes.
I want to see more spec-fic that not only includes autistic characters in the whole range of our nuance and humanity but that includes Autistic culture and pushes readers' imaginations to wonder what would a neurocosomopolitan world might look like. Or what a future or alternate world would be like if Autistic culture flourished. More authentic, centered neurodiversity in speculative fiction would help readers get a fuller view of who we are and why we are fabulous.
Have you had trouble with the publishing industry because of being autistic, and/or because of being marginalized in another way?
I can't say I've aggressively pursued the mainstream publishing industry, but when I have reached out to agents, those interested enough to request manuscripts consistently tell me they love my writing, story, and world, but can't connect with, or don't think they can sell, my characters. I spent years scrambling to "fix" my characters and make them more relatable. But as I've built a real-world relationship with neurodivergent/queer/crip readers, they’ve consistently thanked me for writing relatable characters. I've come to realize my characters aren't broken--they're just not neurotypical. Like us.
I read a thing recently with N.K. Jemison relating a similar story about the troubles she and others have had selling Black characters and stories that center Black culture to the mainstream publishing industry. I hope some of the current shifts in thinking about diversity in speculative fiction continue to expand, including support of neurodivergent authors who center neurodivergent characters and culture. It's important to readers like us that we have characters like us. It's also important to include our world to in the broader world. In general, own voices work needs elevation. That whole fear of "not enough people will relate to this" is not only a missed opportunity for chipping away at systems of oppression but insulting to the thousands of readers who may not be of us but would still love to read a book that centers us.
Do you have any writing advice for other autistic people?
Take that whole "autistic people have no imagination" thing and toss it out. Take those notions about autistic people not being able to understand metaphor, literary nuance, or artistry and toss it out. No, you're not unique because no other autistic person could be creative enough to write a novel. No, it's not true that no autistic people have published creative writing. Those are ways, inside and out, the world oppresses us by whispering its skewed view of what we can be.
Writing isn't for everyone. It does take talent to see the world in a novel way and use language in a novel way. But, more importantly, using that talent takes time, work, practice, love, workshopping, researching, interviewing, beta-reading, more work, frustration, time, time, time...any skill just takes work even one that comes easily or engages innate talents. Don't listen to the "autistic people can't do that" lies but do be realistic that writing spec-fic others want to read takes a lot of work to master.