One of our Library Assistants, Mark Ulrich, sat down with Jem Lester to discuss his debut novel Shtum.
How would you describe your debut novel Shtum?
It’s a novel fundamentally about communication. It centres around a 10 year old non-verbal autistic boy called Jonah and explores life with him, such as his parents trying to get him the appropriate education. It also tells the story of three generations of men, Jonah, his Father Ben and his Grandfather Georg. While Ben and Georg do have language they can’t communicate at all. So there’s a thread that runs through the novel about autism, the struggle to get appropriate education and the tension it puts on the marriage, but there’s also these three generations of men all coming together.
What were the reasons behind the title ‘Shtum?’
They are a Jewish family and ‘shtum’ in its Yiddish translation means ‘voiceless,’ and I thought that it encapsulated every kind of lack of communication. It represents the complete problems with communication that all of the characters have. Ben can’t communicate with his wife or his father, the Grandfather can’t communicate with Ben, but he can communicate with his grandson who has no language so the whole idea of being voiceless or silent is intrinsic to the novel.
To what extent is the novel autobiographical?
I went through the whole tribunal process with my own son, who is also non verbal and profoundly autistic, so that part of the novel is based on fact but everything else is a fictionalised account.
Is there an advantage to writing a novel as opposed to a memoir?
I did a Creative Writing MA at City University so I’ve always been a writer of fiction. I’ve also never really felt that my life was that interesting. If I just focused on one thing, such as the whole tribunal experience, I think it would have been more of a handbook. Fictionalising it gave me the opportunity to expand it and to talk about communication rather than just specifically autism.
How important was winning the PFD Award to your career?
That was massively important for me. One of the prizes of that was to get possible representation at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop which subsequently happened. It’s very difficult to get an agent so they’ve been instrumental in helping me all the way through. It was also a massive confidence booster.
The novel features three different generations of men. In what ways do the men’s approaches to communication differ?
The Father and the Grandfather have never been able to communicate. The Grandfather has a very interesting backstory, which we begin to hear about further into the book, regarding his childhood in Budapest towards the end of the Second World War. So there’s interesting things in his background which have led him to being quite closed. He and his son have a difficult relationship. They’ve never really been able to communicate, certainly not on an emotional level. Ben’s problem is that he really wants to be the kind of father that he feels that he never had. There’s this real frustration that he is never going to be able to be the kind of father that he’d like to be because of Jonah’s condition. The irony is that Jonah is able to communicate, without language, his needs and wants far better than the other two. So really the novel encompasses all manner of difficulties with communication and suggests that you don’t really need verbal communication to be able to communicate how you feel.
Does the way that masculinity is constructed in our society make it more difficult for men to communicate?
I think there’s this stereotype of the male that he is unable to communicate his feelings, and the book is an illustration of that. I wasn’t really thinking about the gender issue when writing the novel. The fact that it is written from the father’s point of view, rather than the mother’s, has hit a nerve with those who have read it. I do think there is something about the nature of men’s communication which is generally more reserved than women’s.
Why did you choose to write the novel from the Father’s point of view?
I did think about writing the novel from Jonah’s point of view but felt that writing such a long novel from the perspective of a boy who couldn’t speak would have it’s own set of challenges, and that I could present his perspective through the way that the adults react to him. I also didn’t want to turn Shtum into magical realism. I wanted it to be very realistic.
Was there a reason you wanted to keep the novel very realistic?
I wanted to write about what it was like to live with a child with that level of autism. There isn’t any other book, TV programme or film which deals with that end of the spectrum. Everything else I’ve come across seems to deal with people who have language or a special talent. When you consider that 25-30% of autistic children have no language, there’s a massive proportion of people that need to be represented. I thought it was important to represent the nonverbal side of autism in a way that people would get some value out of.
What is your writing process?
Maddeningly, for those around me waiting for it, I seem to spend an awful lot of time thinking. It normally starts off with dialogue. Once I’ve got the voice of the character I feel like I can continue. I’m not the most organised person in wider life but when it comes to plotting a book I’m very organised. I like to know how it finishes. It might alter slightly, but if I know how it’s going to finish I can plot my way through the book. I do chapter and relationship plans. I feel very insecure if I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
I hope people will gain a better understanding of children with this kind of autism. The ones who can’t talk are the most vulnerable. But I also want people to realise that there is a real beauty and joy to these kids because they have absolutely no guile, jealousy or resentment. They’re very difficult but absolutely lovely.
Shtum was published on 7th April, 2016 and will be available in some Hillingdon Libraries soon.
Jem Lester was a journalist for nine years and saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 – and though there, he denies personal responsibility. He was also the last journalist to interview the legendary Fred Zinnemann, before the director died. He denies responsibility for that too. He taught English and Media studies at secondary schools for nine years. Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and for them he accepts total responsibility. He lives in London with his partner and her two children.
Jem’s first novel, SHTUM, won the 2013 PFD/City University Prize for Fiction.
Follow Jem on Twitter @JemLester