Andrew Solomon takes the subjects of his books very seriously, exploring them at great length, often for years at a time. His latest book, Far from the Tree (now out in paperback), which examines the families of children who are profoundly different from their parents, was more than a decade in the making. Solomon interviewed hundreds of families, as well as doctors, researchers, activists and anyone else who could offer him insight. He writes about schizophrenic children, children with Down syndrome, children born with multiple severe disabilities and even child prodigies, but at heart the book is about what it means for a parent to love a child who is different—as all children are, in one way or another—and to love the difference in that child.
Solomon answered a few questions for BookPage about the families he spoke with, the writing process and how his research has influenced his relationship with his own children.
This book is such a massive undertaking, with a wide breadth of experiences covered and hundreds of families interviewed. At what point did you realize just how huge the book was going to be? Were you ever tempted to pare it down?
If I’d known how huge it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have started with it—it was a sprawling undertaking and utterly overwhelming. But as I kept working, I felt more and more strongly that I needed to write about the breadth and nuance of the questions I was tackling. I felt I couldn’t make the broad generalizations without having the foot soldiers of narrative. Having said that, I did pare the book down a great deal; the first draft was twice the length of the final version.
The families you spoke with included deaf children, transgender children, children of rape, children with autism, child prodigies and more, all of whom come with unique sets of challenges and particular joys. How often did you find yourself comparing one set of children with another, and in what ways?
The book is not about the individual syndromes, though it covers them in considerable detail. The book is about the similarities between these various experiences. I have posited that the negotiation of the difference one sees in one’s children is at the center of parenthood. I have yet to meet a parent who has not sometimes looked at his or her child and said, “Where did you come from?” So these more extreme stories of difference illuminate all parenting. And I think what I found is that our differences unite us—that the experience of negotiating difference is common to most of humanity. So I compared the experience of families all the time. And I felt that even for these very diffuse experiences, there was a uniting central set of experiences.
I have yet to meet a parent who has not sometimes looked at his or her child and said, “Where did you come from?” So these more extreme stories of difference illuminate all parenting.
Did you think before beginning your research that one type of child—one set of challenges—would be preferable to another, and did that perception change as you were writing the book?
I thought when I began that none of these were desirable characteristics, and I ended up thinking it was possible to find meaning in any of them. In some cases, my shift felt especially radical: I had thought of autism as a tragedy, and ended up thinking that it is often simply a part of human variation; I had thought of being transgender as a little grotesque, and now I have many transgender friends. I hadn’t really been exposed to the lives that went with these ways of being, and so the surprises were more radical than those I encountered among, for example, deaf people. Having said all that, I felt that schizophrenia offers more pain and fewer rewards than many other conditions. There are people who have schizophrenia and are nonetheless able to live incredibly productive, good lives—but I never met anyone who loved his schizophrenia and didn’t want to imagine a life without it. And I think crime is an identity against which we must always strive because its inherent nature is to damage the social fabric. In essence, however, I found that people value the experiences they have had over those they have not had. So, preferable? Many people preferred the challenge they had, because most people love their own children with all the challenges those children occasion.
You get into such personal territory in your interviews with these families. Were there ever questions you felt you couldn’t ask, or topics you felt you couldn’t discuss?
I’m a fairly bold interviewer, so there’s not much I felt I couldn’t ask. But there were questions that were hard. I asked some people whether they would have chosen an abortion if they had known ahead of time what characteristic their child would manifest. I asked some parents who seemed to love their child whether they also accepted that child for who he or she was. I asked a few parents whether they regretted becoming parents. And I asked some people who treated their condition as an identity whether they didn’t also see it as an illness.
You became a parent yourself during the course of writing this book. How do you think writing the book has influenced your own parenting style or your relationship with your children?
I hope that the book has made me more accepting, more willing to see my children for who they are. I know it has made me question the dynamic between what I can and should change in my children (teach them values, manners, skills) and what I should accept (see their identities and celebrate them). The work on the book made me more confident that I could love any child I had, and I love the ones I’ve got. I think I love them more wisely for having heard so many compelling stories from so many other families.
What were you most surprised by in writing this book?
I was surprised at how social progress and medical progress are often on a collision course. Social progress demonstrates that stigmatized characteristics can be worthy of celebration; medical progress eliminates those same qualities. They’re in a kind of strange race with each other. I believe in both the social and the medical progress, but I wish they were more awake to each other.
You’ve said that your next book will be about maternal love. Can you talk a little more about your concept for the book and what drew you to that topic?
It’s about how we are redefining motherhood and fatherhood in an era when women work and men are involved in childcare, and how that conversation relates to the advent of single mothers by choice, gay families, international adoption, older parents and so on.