When I first started this feature, I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would work. Would my guests be willing to share their personal pictures with me? Would they be willing to talk about their memories, their families, the things that mattered most to them? Or would it simply turn into a “Five Photos of my Books” feature? I’ve been amazed, and often humbled, by how many of my guests have sent me the most wonderful photos that are very personal to them, and have shared the most intimate memories. I’ve learned so much from this feature, and it’s always a delight for me when a new post lands in my inbox. I was particularly looking forward to receiving today’s guest’s post, as she is, quite simply, a magical person. Not only is she extremely talented, but she’s also kind, supportive and very generous. I first encountered the work of Valerie-Anne Baglietto when a Facebook friend mentioned she was reading Once Upon a Winter. I thought it sounded really different and quite charming, so I downloaded it and, needless to say, it bowled me over. Since then, I’ve read all the available Valerie-Anne Baglietto novels and I just adore them. She writes fairy tales for grown-ups, with enough magic in them to make even the most hardened reader believe anything is possible. She’s also been very supportive of my writing, so I was delighted when she agreed to take part in this feature. Even I, though, wasn’t expecting such a truthful and heartfelt post. I’ll confess it really moved me. That’s what’s so lovely about this feature – you really do learn the most surprising things about people, and feel you’re getting to know them in a way that you never really do with most interviews. Without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Valerie-Anne for a very special Five Photos.
When I first started sifting through my pictures with this post in mind, I soon realised I would have to work backwards, in a muddled, disjointed kind of way, because that’s how I’ve viewed my life recently. I think Sharon’s idea for this ‘Five Photos’ series is intriguing and ingenious; no wonder it’s thriving. It made me think beyond the usual conventional approach of promoting myself and my writing, and attempt something a little different. Total honesty and disclosure.
So *deep breath, quick gulp of coffee* here goes…
Photo One: my new shabby chic block calendar for 2018 – on the day I received a formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Months of apprehension and soul-searching, revelation and relief, along with (cliché alert) a lifetime of feeling as if I’d been born on the wrong planet, centred around this one date. I was seeing an expert in the field; if anyone could spot the Asperger’s behind the mask that females often construct in a desperate bid to ‘fit in’, it would be this amazing lady. And she did, announcing it at the end of my assessment to a reaction of deafening silence followed by a shrug and a meh – because, well, I’m autistic: I needed time and space to process what I already suspected.
She asked what I hoped to gain from the diagnosis. I already knew I wanted to be an advocate, particularly through my writing. The Asperger’s stereotype – Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper, The Rosie Project, etc. – isn’t typical of a huge swathe of autistic people, especially women, and we need that to change if society is ever going to understand and accept us as we really are. Yet, the thing to remember, although we share many traits, no two autistic people are alike. My own experience, and how it affects me, isn’t representative of every woman out there with Asperger’s, so please bear that in mind as you read this.
Now, if this were a film or a piece of music, there would be a nifty segue at this point. But there isn’t. Sorry. There’s just a picture of a cake…
Photo Two: A Source of Inspiration.
Actually, this isn’t just a cake – it’s a birthday cake. You might be forgiven for thinking it came from some expensive patisserie shop, or an episode of the Great British Bake Off (it didn’t). And no, cake itself isn’t the source of inspiration I’m talking about here, although my fellow authors of Novelistas Ink are often motivated to keep writing, simply so we can have lots of book launches where cake is a central feature (perhaps forging a successful writing career is a bigger motivator, but cake must surely come a close second).
No, the source of inspiration I’m talking about is my daughter. Of course, each of my three teenage children are inspirational to me; they are all uniquely talented individuals. I’m fiercely proud of my sons, too, not just because they’re taller than me, and broodingly dark and handsome. But as I like to think of myself as creative, and because I only have room here to focus on one point, I’m going to touch upon the arty gifts my youngest has in droves, as well as being a whizz at maths and science. She acts, sings, dances, can do amazing things with hair even as I grapple with a simple pony-tail – and She Can Bake. She baked that delicious cake in the photo, and even more wondrous to me, she made those flowers by hand from what looked like a lump of white (edible) clay. And this was her first time at trying to make them. She’s only just turned thirteen. I wish I could post pictures here of all her creations in the kitchen. She seems at her happiest baking or dancing; just as, at the same age, I was happiest when I was making up stories. We all have talents and passions, and we ought to embrace them, because one of our interests might well become a job for life.
Photo Three: Where I Live.
I wish. I mean, I don’t literally live in this house, whatever the voice in my head is tempted to tell you. But I do live near Chester, where this photo was taken. And I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have this picturesque city to my east, and the stunning scenery of Wales to the west. There’s so much material for the various settings of my stories, I couldn’t run out of ideas even if I lived to be a hundred. Just look at this house for starters – so many questions spring up about it and all the people who must have passed through it over the years. Dozens of ‘what ifs’ splinter off from this one image, ready to hit the page. And this is just one of hundreds of photos I’ve taken in Chester and North Wales, so just imagine the brainstorm in my head. I only wish I could keep up with my own drive to create, but even the ‘simple’ act of reading is cognitively draining for me these days, and my life so full of all the little things that come so easy to most people, but which are a struggle for me more than ever, I’m frustrated that I can’t do more.
Photo 4: Novelistas Ink.
Where would I be without the lovely Novelistas? Cowering miserably under a cushion perhaps, and possibly not even writing any more. This photo was taken at my first RNA Conference in 2014, although I do hope to go again one day. I’m second from the left, in case you hadn’t guessed. There was a small contingent of Novelistas attending that year, but enough to make me feel safe and adventurous enough to tag along. I didn’t know then why it was such an effort. Why years of trying to desensitise my social anxiety hadn’t worked. I hadn’t found the root cause yet. Some autistic people describe it as living in a bell jar. You can look out, and others can look in. Everyone can sense the glass is there, but you can’t see it. I even struggle on social media, and it’s getting harder, not easier, to be chatty and cheerful on Twitter or Facebook. I’m not being aloof on purpose; I’m just exhausted.
All this doesn’t mean I can’t connect. I can, if I find something in common. Usually that’s a special interest. And that’s how I bonded with my gang of local writer friends, who evolved from a group founded by Trisha Ashley over fifteen years ago. My need to have everything in order led me to be their ‘boss’, although I delegate all the bits I baulk at (like using the phone to make arrangements with our regular venue!)
Perimenopause and autism is a vicious cocktail. There’s not enough research into ageing and autism, particularly in women; although thankfully that’s changing. It was a little boys’ ‘disorder’ for so long as most of the research centred on them and how they presented. That’s why so many women are hitting middle age and realising something isn’t right, something has never been right, but suddenly it’s as if all the tyres have gone flat and the car is out of petrol and the exhaust has fallen off, and it’s only when/if they stumble upon the traits of Asperger’s in females that it all starts to have a reason.
Even with HRT, menopause can seem crueller to those of us on the spectrum, and I’m just hoping I come out on the other side of this phase of my life in one piece, and words start to have some meaning again. Right now, there are days when my tongue and head can’t communicate, and my fingers are frozen on the keyboard, and trying to write anything is like pulling out teeth, because nothing makes sense, including the simplest phrases I’ve known most of my life. My vocabulary seems to shrink daily, which is terrifying. Even writing this post has been a trial and seems to have taken forever. And while I’m utterly in love with the novel I’m working on, it feels as if it’s a slow uphill climb, with fatigue and shutdowns and daily life like torrential rain hammering against me.
Without my Novelista friends, I would probably just give up. Fortunately, they won’t let me.
Photo Five: Back at the Beginning. (It had to be a Polaroid!)
So, here we are. A little girl on her birthday. In a pretty party dress my mother made from fabric I picked out myself. It was pink with tiny flowers, but some kind of 70’s nylon and a bit itchy and hot to wear. I’ve got a new doll dressed in a horse-riding outfit, and I’m posing it carefully on a plastic pony I already owned. Even at that age I’m always pretending to be someone else. A girl from school; a character ‘off the telly’; a heroine in a book. For ages I was Sabrina from Charlie’s Angels, running round the house with a toy revolver. I find safety and confidence in being someone other than me, but back then I didn’t know why. So who will I be next? One day, hopefully, the little girl who inhabits my body will be fine just being herself, and she won’t need to mimic or mask. She will understand that her brain is wired a little differently from the norm, and that’s fine, and nothing to be ashamed of. Perhaps, on the plus side, though, this ability to take on another persona so easily has been an aid to creating characters to populate my books.
Challenging the stereotype of autism, another advantage might be that instead of seeing patterns in maths, my mind can find patterns in stories. It can hold an entire work in progress, from A to B, without the aid of Post-It notes, and see the story arc, the tension, the many little subplots and how to knit it all together the way a mathematician or physicist might spend months working on an equation. Maybe, if I wasn’t autistic, I wouldn’t be able to do that. Perhaps I would have to rely on manually moving scenes around on a pin board. I’ll never know for sure.
But I’m learning to accept that not knowing everything, and relinquishing some control, is OK. It’s fine and perfectly natural. Even healthy. The world won’t fall apart around me. I have family and friends who will help to hold it up. So I dedicate this post to them, in appreciation.
And, Sharon, I also want to say thank you for allowing me to come on your blog and bare my heart, and for all the encouragement and support you’ve given me and my fairy tales over the last few years. I’m truly, truly grateful.
Thank you so much, Val, for being so open and honest, and for being brave enough to share your photos and your story with us. It’s been an absolute pleasure to host you today, and I look forward to reading whatever you produce in the future. Your daughter is clearly as artistic and creatively talented as her mum – that cake looks absolutely amazing!
By day, Valerie-Anne Baglietto writes contemporary, grown-up fiction with a fairy tale twist. By night, she clears up after her husband and three children. Occasionally she sleeps. During her career so far she has written rom-coms for Hodder & Stoughton, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writer’s Award and been shortlisted in the 2015 Love Stories Awards.
Find out more about Valerie-Anne’s books on her website.
Follow her on Twitter.
You can also read more about Valerie-Anne and her writing buddies, Novelistas Ink, on their blog.