It’s been a whirlwind of excitement for author, Jem Lester, whose novel Shtum has just been released by The Overlook Press. His journey started when he won the City University/PFD Prize for Fiction in 2013 for Shtum which he wrote for an MA in Creative Writing at City University. He was immediately signed with an agent at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop.
Jem began his MA at 45, after decades of writing, because “I felt I needed the mentoring. Plus, I wanted to test out my fading belief that I was a good enough writer to be published. Thankfully, it appears that I am.”
Since signing with Orion in 2015 and Shtum’s publication in the UK and Commonwealth, a number of foreign publishers have chosen to translate Shtum. It has, or will be published in Holland, Israel, Croatia, France, Poland, Denmark, Turkey, Portugal and, of course, it debuts in the US today.
Give us a brief overview of Shtum
Shtum is the story of three generations of men, grandfather George, father Ben and 10-year-old Jonah, who is a non-verbal, autistic boy. It is about the fight to get Jonah the education he needs and deserves and how through him, decades of family secrets and hurt are finally unravelled. It is not simply about autism, but about human communication, what’s left unsaid, or can’t be said and the transmission of trauma down through the generations.
What inspired you to write it?
My inspiration was not purely that my own son is profoundly autistic; but more a realization that despite his lack of language, he was far better at communicating his needs and wants than I was. That, I think, forms the core of the story. I thought it was imperative to provide readers with an honest account of the day-to-day struggles and joys of living with a child such as Jonah, but I didn’t want to focus entirely on that particular narrative thread. I thought that to place it in a wider context would enable a far wider readership to find something to identify with.
Who’s your illustrator and why was he perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
Leo Nickolls designed both the Hardback cover and the subsequent UK paperback cover. He produced something that interpreted the story perfectly.
The central image of a long-haired boy in shorts was instantly identifiable to me as Jonah, Shtum’s central character. He is filled with a burst of multi-color, a cascade of spectra that, to me, represents two things brilliantly: The huge autistic spectrum and, more directly, the crystal that is a symbolic part of the book. Jonah loves to hold the crystal up to the light and loves the different colors that are produced through its prism. White light, like Jonah, is multi-faceted and full of unseen beauty.
Lying by the boy’s feet is a number of beautiful feathers. Again, Leo Nicholls has identified something of great significance. Feathers are one of Jonah’s favorite things, he loves to pull them apart and watch the soft down drift away on wind. You can find him by following a trail of feathers.
I think it is an outstanding cover, beautiful in its simplicity and very impactful. The typeface for both ‘Shtum’ and ‘Jem Lester’ adds to the effect wonderfully. It is basic, innocent and suggests naivety. All these themes have been continued and expanded on in the finished hardback.
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
I would hope that Shtum is a good choice for most readers. Certainly, it has amazed me that so many 5*reviews on Goodreads come from dyed in the wool Crime fans. What I didn’t set out to do was write a manifesto or campaign document, but if it is used simply to highlight caring for an autistic child, that would be enough.
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading Shtum?
Well, the feedback so far has informed me that many people have taken inspiration from the book. – so that’s one goal right there. Also, that the vast differences that exist within a diagnosis of ASD were more widely acknowledged and understood. I’ve written elsewhere about the stereotypes a la Rainman, but so many people have told me that they had no idea that autism also meant people like Jonah. Now they do. On a professional level, as a result of SHTUM, I wanted to be able to continue my career as a novelist, which I am.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about Shtum?
Shtum is a book about communication and the lack of it. My experience of autism informed its representation in the book. I set out to write an honest book and I hope that I achieved that. I believe it’s the first time that a non-verbal autistic boy has been represented in fiction, but he’s not a plot device, he’s a character with his own challenges that are not glossed over.
Do you have any moving fan feedback you’d like to share?
I’ve had more moving feedback than I care to mention. I think I’m proudest when people speak of Shtum’s honesty and reality and when readers thank me for writing it – when I’m just thankful that they’ve read it!
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
Well, two things. For readers, please read it and enjoy and think about your reaction next time you see a young adult skipping down a supermarket aisle. For aspiring writers – it’s never too late, I was 50 when Shtum was published.
Find more on Jem Lester and Shtum:
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