AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Noe Bartmess
"It helps to have people around who can sympathize and who will look at autistic themes or characters in your work and go 'wow, relatable.'"
Noe (rhymes with Zoë) writes humorous science fiction and fantasy as well as nonfiction on representation of autistic characters in fiction. She's also edited a nonfiction anthology with contributions by adult-diagnosed autistic people. Noe is a graduate of the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her on Twitter at @noebartmess.
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?
I've published one short story, about an octopus who robs a knitting shop, for love. It was inspired by reading about how octopuses' arms can act independently from each other and also cooperate with each other, which I thought had good heist potential.
The work I'd recommend is a nonfiction anthology I edited: Knowing Why: Adult-Diagnosed People on Life and Autism. It has some great essays by autistic people, including speculative fiction author A.C. Buchanan, and A.J. Odasso, who writes speculative poetry.
When you were learning to write, did you have non-neurotypical authors to look up to? Are there non-neurotypical authors you look up to now? Tell me about them, or if the answer to both is "no," tell me about someone else you look up to.
I've been learning to write ever since I was a little kid, so it covers a big time period. There have definitely been non-neurotypical authors I've looked up to.
When I was a teenager, I was very into the science fiction TV show Babylon 5. The producer, J. Michael Straczynski, wrote a lot of the episodes. I learned while reading his 2019 biography that he was diagnosed with Asperger's in the early 2000s, and that meant a lot to me.
There's been an increasing number of books and short stories by autistic writers, and an increasing amount of nonfiction work by autistic writers, including books, essays, blog posts, tweets. There are people I look up to individually (I don't want to pick just a few, because I'll leave so many out!). I also look up to autistic people collectively. We've put a huge amount of effort into telling our stories and into reinforcing the fact that those stories matter enough to be told and to be heard, by each other and by society at large. I don't want to say "hurray, we've made it", because we have a very long way to go, but I feel like we're accelerating, and in a very good way.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
It involves a complex skill set, and there are always new skills to learn. As far as specific aspects of writing goes, I enjoy the parts of characterization that involve thinking about how characters relate to people around them. Do they think of other people as opportunities? Threats? Roadblocks? How have their experiences and abilities led them to see other people that way? When someone else is an exception for them, why?
What is most difficult for you about writing?
I can't tell what's relevant and what isn't until after I've gotten it all out on the page and repeatedly revised it, and I write very slowly.
Do you have any writing advice for other autistic people?
Try to meet other autistic writers, if you don't already have a network. Try to have at least a couple of your critiquers and early readers be autistic. It's also helpful to have autistic friends or fellow writers who are comfortable with letting you express frustration to them.
Most of the autism-related ableism I've encountered with respect to writing is unintended, but it's still ableism, and it builds up over time. It helps to have people around who can sympathize and who will look at autistic themes or characters in your work and go "wow, relatable."
Keep in mind that someone autistic also won't necessarily automatically sympathize and relate to your work, or avoid being ableist; you still need someone who's a good fit for you in other ways. If any critiquing relationship makes it persistently harder for you to write, or makes you feel like crap about yourself, it may not be a good fit.
It's also possible that your best supporters will happen to be neurotypical, or neurodivergent but not autistic. In my experience, though, there are specific kinds of support that you have a much higher chance of getting from other autistic people, due to shared experience.
Writing communities and connections with other writers are essential. They're where you can get information about practical aspects of writing, querying, and submitting that you're not likely to learn otherwise. It's also a matter of safety: information about which agents, publishers, and other writers are negligent or abusive is more likely to be shared in private. Classes or workshops can help you make connections, if they're options for you.