Note: This was first posted on SF Signal on December 9, 2014. I wanted to repost it this month, as May is Williams Syndrome Awareness Month.
Mercedes Murdock Yardley is a friend of mine. We talk frequently, and commiserate about health issues neither of us can control, just deal with as best as we can. She’s an up-and-coming author with several books under her belt, and more on the way. She’s creative, and passionate, and an absolute joy to talk to.
One of the things that always gets me about her writing, especially now that I know her on a personal level, is how certain aspects of her life fuel her books. Her books are dark and delicious, with a shocking (and quite refreshing) innocence, and an undertone of deep, profound loss, all of which is reflective of the life she has lived, and the challenges she faces daily.
I asked her if she’d be willing to open up with me about her life, her son with Williams Syndrome, and how it has all impacted her writing. This conversation is the result of that. Huge thanks to Mercedes for being willing to talk about these tender topics.
Sarah Chorn: First things first, what are you typically doing when you’re not writing?
Mercedes M. Yardley: I do a bit of everything. Read, bake, make crafts, watch movies. I spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning, but that also helps me shake loose writing ideas in my head. I ride my motorcycle and always try to learn new things. I love to nap. It’s so luxurious. I’m a naturally slumberous girl.
SC: You’ve had a lot of loss in your life. You have a son with special needs (Williams Syndrome) and a premature child, with two others that have passed away. How has all of that impacted your writing and reading?
MMY: I think it’s helped to deepen my perspective as both an author and a reader. I can’t say that I necessarily looked at things simply before, because I think humans are complex and we always view things through intricate lenses. But there was definitely a refinement process that went on and allowed me to see things with a little more gravity. My work has become darker, I think. And that makes it a bit richer. And I find myself searching for more diversity in what I read. Would any of these characters resonate with my son, Niko, for example? Do I see him in them? That sort of thing.
SC: Getting to know you has changed my insight into motherhood, and special needs in ways I never expected. I have honestly looked at things differently since we’ve had our numerous conversations. I imagine that the impact on you as a mother has been incredibly dramatic. You seem to have intense moments of wonder, and intense moments of emotional struggle.
MMY: Thank you, Sarah. You’ve perfectly distilled it down into one word: intense. We were told several times that we were going to lose Niko. I held him in my arms when he was going into renal failure as a baby and demanded that the doctors do something. And, quite honestly, it’s been a fight every day since. Not only medically. But to have him treated as human. He’s been shuffled from school to school for “not being a good fit.” Doctors have asked us to leave their practices. He was physically and emotionally abused by a school teacher, and even after all of our fighting, nothing ever came of that.
SC: Do you notice that he’s treated differently often?
MMY: Oh, yes. There’s a way you must act, you know. To fit in. You need to know when to smile and when to be quiet. You need to know when to agree and when it’s safe to ask questions. He doesn’t understand that etiquette. He doesn’t NEED to. He works on a much purer level. When he is happy, he smiles. When he’s upset, he lashes out. When he’s sad, he cries. The world has no tolerance for that truthfulness. It’s out of place. And that makes me stand back, a little. It makes me wonder what’s really going on. Then again, it has also shown me the people who are so kind and tolerant and love even though he’s unusual. So we get to see the negative as well as the extraordinarily lovely.
SC: Despite the struggles your son faces, you genuinely admire how honest and pure he is. It seems like that’s really impacted your worldview.
MMY: Oh, I do. He’s clear. He has this open and honest clarity. I’m in awe of his simplicity and I find great value in it. If he loves you, even if he just met you, he’ll let you know. We, as a society, hold our cards so close to our chest. We’re taught to be cool and not seem too eager. We try to protect ourselves from getting hurt. He’s so open and so, yes, he does get hurt, but he loves freely and genuinely. He lives his life without regrets. I admire that greatly.
MMY: Bryony in Pretty Little Dead Girls does have that openness, yes. And I can honestly say that he helped influence that trait about her. I also think it’s one of her strongest traits, and one of the things that makes her so unusual. It’s also something that readers seem to have responded positively to. I think perhaps we’re a bit hungry for pure love that is freely given.
SC: Bryony is open and honest, and it is really unusual in our world. She’s put in contrast to a lot of characters that eventually open up, but usually take time to do so. Her openness is the trait that makes her shine so bright – she’s called “star girl” and it’s obvious why.
MMY: She has no secrets. None. She doesn’t have time for silly things like that. She knows her time is short. There’s no time for games. If there is something to say, say it. If there’s something to do, do it. I learned that with Niko. He puts outside things in perspective. I don’t have time to argue about this or that on the Internet. We’re cutting the excess and focusing on what’s important as best we can.
SC: That seems to be a pretty powerful underlying message to most of the things you’ve written. In some way, shape or form that openness – that lack of guile – is unique to just about everything you write.
MMY: You know, I’m pondering that right now. You’re absolutely right, and I hadn’t realized that. Thank you for pointing that out to me.
SC: I love how that powerful theme openness is present in all of your writing and it traces back to how much you love your son. So many people think that special needs are a terrible thing, but it seems like you admire him so much, and that admiration and love powers your writing. That’s pretty profound.
MMY: Oh, I do admire him. He deals with issues and prejudices that I’ll never have to. And he does it every day. I want to curl up in a ball half of the time. The idea of going grocery shopping with him, of the noise and confusion and mean treatment and emotional fallout, makes me want to weep. And that’s an hour out of my day. That’s his life. And he just does it. He faces all of it. He’s a warrior, pure and simple.
SC: You said earlier that you try to write characters that remind you of your son. Is it hard for you to create characters that remind you a bit of him?
MMY: It’s difficult to do if I’m consciously trying to do it. I made that mistake quite blatantly in a work. I thought, “Oh, I’ll throw this character in there so as to educate the world about my son’s disability, and give people with special needs a character to look to!” That failed spectacularly. Of course it did. It wasn’t organic. It wasn’t true. I can’t write to prove a point. I can only write to capture what I see and believe. But a character like the invisible girl? Or the winged boy with holes in his hands? They evolved so naturally. They’re real, breathing characters who know what it’s like to be different, who have these wondrous things of beauty that others would call strange or unusual. That’s how that aspect flows into my work.
SC: How do you find the representation of disability in the genre?
MMY: I think it’s lacking, of course, but there are certainly improvements. I think my first introduction to it was in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series where OCD was essentially considered a gift, if I remember correctly. It’s been several years since I read it. But I know there have been a few more mentions. I think something that bothers me, though, is that everybody that has some sort of a disability also has something that “makes up for it”, in a sense. I think perhaps you and I discussed this on your blog before. Sure, he’s autistic. But he’s an autistic savant. Or she’s blind, but because of that, she can use her other superhuman senses. Nobody has any sort of disability and is just normal.
SC: My brother, who is disabled, told me once that it bothers him when writers put a token disabled character in their books. He said it doesn’t feel real and they usually don’t get it right. It sounds like you two have a similar opinion about that.
MMY: I think your brother hit it dead on. And we know that token character is written in with the best of intentions. But it’s awkward and forced. Any reader can feel it. It’s embarrassing.
SC: The other day I was at the library with my three-year-old, trying to find some books. I had an absolutely impossible time finding any kids books that deal with disability at all. Do you have a hard time finding books that your son would relate to?
MMY: I do. I can find books about the things he fixates on, like washers and dryers. Or I can occasionally find a book like, “John is different because his chair comes with wheels”. But I can never find something that comes from the child’s point of view itself. I think that would be a wonderful work of art. It would be surreal.
SC: Have you ever thought about writing one like that?
MMY: My son loves hamburger buns. Adores them. And he loves my eyes. One day he said, “Mommy’s hamburger bun eyes,” and it was the most loving, generous thing in the world. Keep your stars. My eyes shine like hamburger buns. I think about writing something like that sometimes, but I’m afraid it would sound like gibberish to the rest of the world. And there’s that fear again, that stigma of not fitting in. He wouldn’t care. He’d write “Mommy’s Hamburger Bun Eyes” and have a ball with it. He’s much braver than I.
SC: Thank you so much for opening up to me. I truly appreciate it. Do you have any final thoughts?
MMY: I love how you brought up how people with special needs can completely alter lives. It’s true. This isn’t how I imagined my life would be, really. I don’t think any child studies the clouds and plans to have a child with special needs. But I do think my life is much richer and fuller because of Niko. He does force me to take stock of what is important, and not too many people really get that privilege.
Also, I’m working on a nonfiction book about our lives and his syndrome, which I found a much more natural way to explain it than throwing in that disastrous token character. So Niko will have his voice eventually, when I can do justice to it.
Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m so happy to be here. I appreciate all that you do in the community. You’re really a force for change, and that’s beautiful to see.