Chris Bonnello is best known for his work at “Autistic Not Weird,” a popular blog about his insights from both a personal and professional perspective. Formerly a primary school teacher in the UK, Chris divides his time as a special needs tutor, international speaking engagements, and author. He’s entered the YA SciFi world with his first novel about a dystopian future featuring autistic heroes.
Tell us about Underdogs.
Underdogs is a near-future war story with autistic, dyslexic and otherwise neurodiverse heroes. The whole of Britain has been imprisoned in giant walled citadels, guarded by an innumerable army of cloned soldiers, and only a dozen people remain free in the abandoned countryside to fight back and free the population. Eight of those people are teenagers who escaped an attack on their special school! It’s a novel with “representation” written all over it (not literally), where the teenagers with special needs get to be the actual heroes, rather than tokenised or stereotyped, or the victims to be rescued.
What inspired you to write it?
The very first draft was written in 2010 as a coping mechanism for me being unemployed at the time. I later got a job in a special school which inspired me to rewrite the whole novel with neurodiverse heroes: I came to realise that there just isn’t enough accurate and meaningful representation of autism and other conditions in fiction, other than the occasional token character. In Underdogs, I wanted the literary world to have a novel where almost the whole cast had these conditions, whilst being fully-developed characters in their own right.
How does being autistic influence your writing?
Honestly, I’d say the biggest influence for me is the drive it gives me to build my own universes. Sadly, part of the autistic experience involves other people – who you’re taught to see as “better” people – getting to make all the decisions. Your own ideas are rarely listened to, and the world around you has been built with everyone else in mind. Writing stories is hugely therapeutic for many autistic people, because it allows us to build a universe where we get to have a say in what happens, we get to decide the rules for once, and we can even invent people we’d love to know in real life!
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
I’m not sure whether there’s one sole category of “ideal reader”, but if there were, I’d say it would be neurodiverse students in special education, since almost no fiction is written with characters for them to identify with. In fact, I’m hugely honoured that some students in the autism-specific school I work at are reading the whole novel as a class! I really do believe that it would be a brilliant tool in classrooms – mainstream or special – to teach people that just because the world tells you you’re not “supposed” to become anything great it doesn’t mean they’re magically right.
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?
I may have accidentally answered this question with that last paragraph (serves me right for not reading ahead!), but there is one extra message I want people to take from Underdogs – one that’s so important that it’s literally stated in the “note from the author” before the story begins. Short version: the way that autism (for example) is often presented in fiction gives people the impression that we all have very similar personalities. This is entirely false – we get to be individuals too!
In Underdogs, Ewan is not a walking representation of autism and PDA; he represents his own person. Charlie is not a walking representation of ADHD; he represents his own person too. And so on. The message here is that whatever type of brain a person has, they also have their own personalities and that fact should never be ignored.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The sequel’s already in its pre-order stage! I totally wasn’t expecting it, but Unbound said yes to Underdogs: Tooth and Nail before the original Underdogs had even been released. (It must have had something to do with the original novel’s 700 pre-orders!) I won’t give anything away, except to say that the twists in the war become much more linked to the teenagers personally, and the odds are very much against them. Then again, of course, that’s why they’re the underdogs in the first place! It’s available to pre-order now from Unbound.
Do you have a proud moment, inspirational story, or moving fan feedback you’d like to share?
Quite a lot, actually! A few off the top of my head:
- The time when a friend read an early draft wearing her FitBit, and her pulse reached 104bpm as she read it. (And that was only chapter 12 out of 28!)
- Walking into an autism school’s classroom and seeing “United by our differences” and “The problems are not the person” (both phrases from the novel) written on the whiteboard to inspire the students.
- Getting quotes from Steve Silberman (author of Neurotribes) and Michael Grant (author of the Gone series) for the cover.
- A follower approaching me at the Manchester Autism Show with a storyboard he’d drawn up for an Underdogs movie trailer.
- Getting called (pardon my French) an “utter bastard”, among other interesting phrases, in response to unexpected twists. Being sworn at by a reader is a huge compliment!
- Being told by the publisher not to expect an audiobook version since they only tend to happen for really successful novels… and then a contract being signed for an audiobook less than two months after the novel’s release.
- And the boy who was given a choice between a day out over the summer of pre-ordering Underdogs 2… and leaping around the living room in excitement as he chose Underdogs 2 instead of his day out.
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
That we’re worth it. And increasingly, the world is seeing us as worth it. With autism and neurodiversity being talked about more than ever, and with representation in fiction on the rise too, the day of the underdogs is coming: both in fiction and in real life.
What words of encouragement can you offer to other autistic creatives?
My first bit of advice will always be “write what you love.” Sometimes, beginner writers ask me how to get a book published: not how to write a good book, but how to get a book published. But that’s the wrong way of looking at it, especially when you’re starting out. Write something that adds to your life and to your self-esteem, not for the market. The market changes every few years anyway. Write something you love, create your own universes, enjoy something you can do for the sake of fun. And if it ends up becoming successful, consider it bonus points.
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Images courtesy of Chris Bonnello
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