My children’s novel No Ordinary Joe is inspired by my experiences growing up with a special needs brother. Prior to publication, when asked how to phrase this for the blurb, I discovered I was quite particular. I was uncomfortable saying ‘based on a true story,’ I felt that could pin it down to a past narrative. But ‘inspired by my adventures with my brother’ – that felt right.
I’ve been asked if this was a challenging story to write, given the personal connection. The truth is; yes and no. I knew I’d write something about my brother because he was such a big influence on our family. But it was only with maturity and distance (he died in 2003), that I had space to reflect and process the rollercoaster journey that was his life. He gave me an acute awareness of difference, disability and social justice. His story also stimulated many deep emotions.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem called ‘Running’ which was published in The Stony Thursday Book. A simple poem, it described him running away and our endless searches. It ended with the line: ‘running, just running.’ A friend commented on the poem saying, ‘It’s like you were never able to catch him.’ I realised she was right, in some way we never could catch him – it was like he inhabited another world and we were always looking for ways to connect. It was an ongoing search on many levels. I was stimulated by this insight, I didn’t know what would come next, but some form of percolation had begun on the back burner of my imagination.
The idea to write a children’s novel came a couple years later. I was in the middle of working on another novel, a YA story, so I was getting comfortable with the novel form. I couldn’t sleep one night and I found the voice of a young boy speaking in my mind, he was describing chasing his brother through the fields. I got up and wrote the first 2,000 words or so, during the peace of the early hours. I rarely work that late by the way, only if I’m so gripped by an idea I must begin, in case it vanishes overnight!
That beginning gave me a clear first person voice which I developed in the days that followed. During this time I made some clear decisions in relation to personal/fictional boundaries:
- This would be a children’s novel. It would have humour and heart. It would fearlessly highlight the disability struggle but would not be waylaid by sadness, anger or despair. It would be a ‘show don’t tell’ depiction of ordinary life.
- It would be based in the present time not in the 1980’s. This would give me distance. Also, I felt our story was equally relevant for families now. We fought hard for support back then and while things have improved, I’m aware that it’s an ongoing battle.
- In keeping with time, I’d place it in a culturally diverse Ireland. This was important for my values around diversity and gave me an opportunity to explore issues around racism and social justice which tie in with the theme of difference.
- The narrator would be male and the closest sibling in age, I was the eldest and female so it was another step back.
- I’d use some true anecdotes and characteristics relating to my brother but none that would be upsetting for family members to read. Other characters would be completely fictional and inspired by my own children’s experiences, their friends and school going lives. These characters appeared quite naturally once I gave myself to the story and began to imagine the family’s daily life.
To some extent we always draw on the personal – anything we create is informed by our unique perception – the lens through which we see the world. I often listen to writers discussing their work and I can’t recall who it was, but I once heard an author say, ‘it’s not factually biographical but it’s emotionally biographical’ and this resonated strongly. There are so many elements you can fictionalise – location/time/gender/age/supporting characters, while being emotionally true.
Having said that, I found I could only truly engage with my brother’s story when I’d accepted how deeply I’d been shaped by his life. He died in 2003 so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect and process. If you’re drawing on a personal topic and your story is charged with emotion, maybe ask yourself if you’ve adequately digested things. Unresolved feelings can make it difficult to find resolution or to flit from true events into the realm of the imagination.
Doing some personal reflection/healing/therapy in whatever form rocks your boat, could help free up your voice, allowing a story to emerge without the weight of unnecessary baggage. I’d certainly encourage you to free yourself from any guilt, anger, sadness or fear that might hamper a fictional story taking flight.
This doesn’t mean that strong emotions won’t feature or that things will be ‘watered down.’ I believe it gives the emotional freedom to write with clarity and to tackle difficult subjects with good heart. For the record, I also engaged my family in the process, showing them the initial first draft and making sure they were comfortable with the truer elements and anecdotes. I wanted their blessing and support along the way.
The truth is, this story was always in me, looking for a way out. And I was looking for the understanding, objectivity and humour to express it. Once I had walked that path, I was ready to sit down and write. When we’ve had a good long look at ourselves and digested the difficult emotions, it becomes easier to stand back and get more playful. In this way I believe we can turn our personal stories, no matter how difficult, into fuel for the creative fire.
(c) Siobhán Daffy
About No Ordinary Joe:
The touching and funny story of family life with a boy with special needs. Based on the author’s own family life.
Joe loves chips and music and ice cream and running away. He doesn’t mean to run away – he’s just running.
Life with Joe is lots of fun but it’s hard work too. You have to remember to lock the windows, hide the sugar, shut the gate. But somehow, Joe always ends up with jam in his hair or missing one of his shoes.
But this is no ordinary Joe. He has a secret superpower. The power to make everyone love him.
Order your copy online here.