The Amazon Books editors picked Ginny Moon as one of the best books of May. Told from the point of view of an autistic young teenager, this absorbing novel sets at its heart Ginny’s obsession with “Baby Doll,” whom she unwillingly abandoned four years ago when she was taken away from her drug-addicted and abusive birth mother.
I was on vacation while I read this book, and when the rest of my family was urging me to come frolic in the pool, I muttered distractedly, "Yeah, I'll come in just as soon as I finish this chapter." In fact, my bathing suit never got wet during our whole weekend. And I finished all the chapters.
Ginny Moon is mesmerizing, and Ginny herself is unlike any heroine you've read before.
Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker's Wife and the upcoming Kiss Carlo (June 20, 2017), among many other novels, spoke with Ginny Moon author Benjamin Ludwig about the genesis of his novel, the foster care community, and his own autistic daughter.
Adriana Trigiani: Ginny Moon is fresh, funny, and heartbreaking. It opens our hearts to understanding and changes our perceptions. What inspired you to write this book?
Benjamin Ludwig: My wife and I adopted a young lady with autism in 2009. That, combined with my experience as a public school teacher, gave me a ton of firsthand experience working with autism and the foster care system. When we adopted our daughter, we met a lot of amazing people—social workers, therapists, special educators, and other foster/adoptive parents. They became our community. I didn’t know it at the time, but our involvement in that community became firsthand research for the book. Ginny isn’t anything like our daughter at all (except they both love Michael Jackson—but really, who doesn’t love Michael Jackson?), but the experience of adopting and transitioning her into our family provided the inspiration.
Trigiani: Ginny is such a wonderfully complex character. She brings readers inside the experience of what it’s like to have autism and shows not only what it must be like from the outside, but how it must feel from within. How were you able to get in her head and show the world through her eyes?
Ludwig: I think it might have been more a matter of waking up one day and finding myself inside her head, if that makes sense. The way she thinks—which I don’t necessarily think of as exclusively autistic but rather as the way Ginny has been forced to think by autism, trauma, and her age—stems from voice. Ginny’s voice revealed to me her thought patterns, her motivation, and her dignity. I worked backward from it. If I heard her say something like “That is exactly right, Kayla Zadambidge,” I’d ask, Why the emphasis on the word “exactly”? And then I would see that Ginny could really make use of the distinction between things that are exact and approximate. Similarly, I had to ask myself why she was so obsessed with finding a doll that had been left behind in her birth mother’s apartment. After all, it’s just a doll, right? Like a lot of things in the book, the doll isn’t just a doll at all. When Ginny tells people she can only answer one question at a time, she’s revealing not only her inability to discern which question she should answer first, but also her ability to control the conversation. Similarly, when Ginny keeps her mouth shut tight, she thinks she’s stopping people from seeing her thoughts—but sometimes she’s withholding information.
Trigiani: Ginny has a unique worldview and way of thinking. Where did her voice come from?
Ludwig: Ginny’s voice is a great example of why I love to write. Writing is a mystery, a way for me to connect with things beyond my understanding. When Ginny’s voice came to me, it came fully formed, ready to go, already talking my ear off. I’d been taking our daughter to Special Olympics basketball practice for weeks and weeks, and while she practiced with the other athletes, I sat on the bleachers with all the other parents. Listening to the voices of the athletes, hearing the other parents share stories about their kids (some of whom were foster kids, by the way), really had an impact. As a teacher and a foster/adoptive parent, I was immersed in a world of unique voices. My best guess is that those voices somehow came together and formed Ginny’s. But still, it’s a mystery to me. I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly how it happened. And I love that.
Trigiani: Ginny has a great support group, including her adoptive parents and her therapist. As someone who has adopted a teenager from the foster care system, how did your personal experience inform the community you created for Ginny?
Ludwig: I couldn’t have written Ginny Moon if my wife and I hadn’t adopted our daughter from the foster care system. The most important thing you learn as a foster parent is that your community—the community you become part of, the community that you make a conscious effort to grow and participate in—is what will make or break your child’s success. And yours too! Both you and your foster child need not only the support of therapists, social workers, teachers, relatives, and friends, but also the balancing effect of interacting with a diversity of people. Meeting the physical needs of a human being—food, shelter, warmth, healthcare—is actually pretty easy. The real challenge in caring for a child is the child’s need (and your own need) for interaction with people who have had similar experiences.
Trigiani: Narrating the story from the viewpoint of a teenager opens up the opportunity to share thoughts and perspectives that are different from your own. How did you get inside the mind of a 14-year-old?
Ludwig: I’d been working with adolescents for a very long time. As an undergraduate I studied English Education, and spent a lot of time subbing in a middle school that was just a short walk from my dormitory. At first it was just regular subbing, but then I started working as a special-education aide, then an ESOL aide, and finally a translator. It got to the point that I was spending as much time at the middle school as I was in my own classes. When it was time to choose courses for my graduate program and to apply for my teaching certificate, I chose to specialize in teaching middle school students. So much happens in our bodies and brains when we’re adolescents. It’s the most critical time of our lives, I believe, so it was a privilege to teach middle schoolers. My years as a teacher really informed my writing. Seeing kids grapple with really tough issues and situations made me want to write about the underdog, the character who doesn’t fit in, the person who isn’t ready for what’s coming.
Trigiani: There are a lot of unexpected surprises in the story. What parts of the plot did you know from the start, and which did you fill in as you worked?
Ludwig: When Ginny’s voice came to me, I really didn’t know where it would lead. It was an exhilarating process, writing the book. Like a lot of writers, I work from an outline. When Ginny’s voice came to me, and I started writing some scenes from her perspective, I forced myself to stop and to outline what would happen. Then when I’d started writing again, this time with the outline as my guide, Ginny changed everything I’d planned. So I went back and wrote a new outline, and she changed that one too. She was too powerful for any sort of scaffold I could create.
Trigiani: What do you hope readers will take away from Ginny’s story?
Ludwig: I hope the book will raise awareness for kids in foster care. But mostly I hope readers will understand the importance of listening, and of considering what might be going on in other people’s heads. Kids sometimes become quiet—withdrawn—because they haven’t had a chance to develop their voices, or because circumstances in their lives have made silence seem like a safer bet. I hope Ginny’s story makes people notice that quiet kid sitting by herself at lunch, or think about that boy who always walks with his head down. We can’t all be leaders and extroverts. It wasn’t an accident that I chose to make Ginny’s voice, which is the boldest and most audacious voice I’ve ever encountered, be largely internal.
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