A Conversation with Emily Barth Isler About Her Award Winning Novel, AfterMath, And Neurodivergent Characters in Media.

April 14, 2023 Jessica Kidwell and Emily Barth Isler Season 2 Episode 3
A Conversation with Emily Barth Isler About Her Award Winning Novel, AfterMath, And Neurodivergent Characters in Media.
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Neuroversity, Jessica Kidwell interviews Emily Barth Isler, a former child actress and writer for YA short stories and plays as well as a sustainable beauty journalist.   Emily also has OCD and synesthesia.  In this first of a two episode conversation, Emily and Jessica discuss Emily's award-winning debut novel Aftermath which explores themes of loss, mental health, gun control and neurodiversity.  They also discuss the inclusion of neurodivergent characters in media, Emily's journey of writing the novel, and her experience talking to kids affected by the book.
Key moments:

00:10:03 Starting conversations on trauma.
00:16:29 Parents cannot protect kids from news.
00:21:04 The character Lucy as a neurodivergent archetype.
00:24:01 How diversity benefits all audiences.

More about Emily Barth Isler:
A writer, Middle Grade Fiction Author, and sustainability/beauty journalist, Emily is a former child actress who has performed all over the world in theatre, film, and TV.  She spent several years in New York writing episodic television for the web with Emmy-award winning PhoebeTV, and a lifetime writing YA short stories and plays. 

Emily holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, where she took all the creative writing classes she could find, including one which was taught by none other than Lemony Snicket himself! Her debut novel, AfterMath, came out in September 2021, and her work as a Beauty Editor/Writer can be seen online in many publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.

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I'm Jessica Kidwell and this is Neuroversity, a space to expand our understanding and knowledge about neurodiversity and to elevate neurodivergent voices and experiences. Today I am joined by Emily Barth Eisler, writer, middle grade fiction author, and sustainability beauty journalist. A former child actress, she performed all over the world in theater, film, and tv. She spent several years in New York writing episodic television for the web with Emmy award-winning Phoebe TV. And she has spent a lifetime writing YA short stories and plays. And Emily has obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD for short. Emily and I had a multiple hour conversation ranging from writing, neurodivergence in creative fields, and gun control. We really went lots of places. And it was all so good, I decided to go with not one, but two episodes for Neuroversity. So curious minds, let's get started. Today's episode focuses on Aftermath, her award-winning debut novel which received the Mathical Book Prize in 2022. This is awarded by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Study. And it's also in partnership with the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. And it's also in coordination with the Children's Book Council. And after reading Aftermath, I asked Emily if she intentionally wrote the main character as neurodivergent. And this led to a pretty great conversation on inclusion in media of neurodivergent characters. So Emily, you came onto my radar through a mutual friend, and she thought we should have a conversation and talk. And we had a very, you know, formalized, camlendly, let's get to know each other. And we ended up speaking for like an hour and a half. And I decided I think that maybe you should just co-host this podcast with me. We had so much to talk about. It was a really fun conversation. I sort of wish we had recorded it, but on the other hand, I'm glad we get to talk again. I was like, oh, well, at least I get to do this again. So that's right. That's right. It all works out. And that so far has been my favorite thing about doing this podcast is just the incredible people I'm getting the chance to meet that I would otherwise not have had that chance. I feel the same way about publishing a book, which it's so funny because writing is such a, in some ways, lonely and solitary profession. But actually publishing a book and getting to promote it has allowed me to talk to, I mean, all kinds of fascinating people, maybe most importantly, actual kids that I'm writing for that I don't always get to, you know, I spend a lot of time imagining how they think and getting to actually talk to them and hear their reactions is 100% the most gratifying. But I've also gotten to meet all kinds of people in education and in literature and in arts and, you know, I mean, it's been such a lovely and wonderful sort of side effect of writing a book that I wasn't fully expecting. I didn't realize it was going to be so social afterwards. I know, I think counter intuitively a writer's work is very solo. I don't want to say lonely because I think most writers choose it because it is fulfilling to them and not a super lonely experience, but it's a solitary experience. And it's also, I want to give, you know, the credit where credit is due. I have an agent, I bounce ideas off. I have an editor who 100% makes my work better and adds to it and shapes it. And a million people at my publisher who weigh in and, you know, there are so many hands that go into it, but the general process is rather solitary. And I like that. I like working alone, but I also really love the opportunity to talk to people. I would be so curious to deep dive sometime into neurodiversity and the introvert extrovert spectrum and where those two, it's not even a Venn diagram. I'm trying to picture like what shapes I would try and put on the board to, it's like a, it's a scale and a line and, and the chart, maybe a Venn diagram around it. Anyway. And probably changes depending on the day and however many stressors have occurred for exactly, but I feel like I, I have both intro and extroverted tendencies and however that aligns with my neurodiversity, I don't a hundred percent know, but it's an interesting thing as a writer to, to say like, okay, there are times when I'm definitely an introvert and there are times where I'm an extrovert and it's gotten, it's, it's been lovely to get to exercise both of those muscles. Well, that's good. So let's, I, I actually feel like there should be two episodes. There should be one entire episode dedicated to aftermath and how it came to be and why, unfortunately, despite the fact that you have, that you started writing it 10 years ago, right? Seven, seven years ago. Seven years ago. It's still, unfortunately, is extremely topical. I really didn't think it still would be. I was really hoping, I mean, I say jokingly now, I look forward to when this book gets shelved in historical fiction, but even more so than that, I mean, and I, and I do, I'm not joking about that, but I, I, I really thought when I was writing it, that it would be more about a generation of kids and a generation of parents and teachers healing after this, this reality of living through, you know, most of us not directly experiencing school shootings and mass shootings. You know, for most of us, it is something that we are traumatized by in a different way as observers and thinking about it and worrying about it. But I really sort of thought that this book was more a meditation on healing and moving on as opposed to taking place really in the midst of this epidemic that is ongoing. I think being a parent in America right now means empathizing a lot with that kind of pain and fearing it and worrying about it and thinking about it and worrying about the damage done just by active shooter drills or, you know, however you want to extrapolate how it's affecting us. We are all affected. Again, that's another thing I think that exists on a spectrum. You know, we are certainly not affected all in the same way and the people who are directly affected have such a different path, but everyone living in America who is paying attention is affected in some way by the existence of and recurrence of mass shootings. So Aftermath was a book that was hard to get published. Is that right? Yes, it was hard to get published. It's still in some ways really hard. I mean, I'm again, I never want to overlook the positives and the gratitude. It has done really well and it has gotten lots of help from wonderful people. Nate Berkis chose it as his April 2022 Nate's Read Pick, which means a lot of people found out about the book that way. There was the Mathical Book Award, which you mentioned, which was wonderful and comes from teachers and educators. That's so meaningful to me that they are responding positively to it. There are so many wonderful pieces of recognition for the book and yet there's a lot of resistance to it because it deals with such a heavy topic. We got a lot of offers from publishers that were contingent on making changes. Sort of the first one, the first offer we got on this was from a lovely, large mainstream publisher who said, we love this book. There's just one little thing, just one tiny change instead of a school shooting. Can you make it the aftermath of a bus accident or a hurricane? That was such a moment for me of realizing what an uphill battle this was going to be. I am so privileged and lucky that I'm in a position where I did not financially have to take that first offer to get food into the mouths of my children. I think that's a whole other conversation too, about the privilege involved in publishing and in arts, where in order to speak our minds and talk about the things that are really important to us, it involves a certain amount of financial privilege because if you want to be principled, it costs, whether it's time or money or energy or whatever it is. Anyway, that's a whole other topic of conversation, but I was lucky I was in a position to hold on and wait to find a publisher who was not going to try and water down or completely obfuscate the topic of school shootings. But it took about a year and a half and this was the third book that I have written or that I had written at the time. I've now written, I think, nine and three of them I have sold. Oh my God. So that tells you there's about a 33% success rate for me personally and I think a lot of writers will agree. You know, everybody thinks they're going to be the exception or hopes to be the exception where everything you write gets published, but that's just unfortunately not the way it works. So I had written two other books beforehand that my agent had sent out and I've gotten various positive and medium feedback from publishers about those books and what we could do to make it happen and did I want to rewrite or did we want to revisit this or was it not the right time or any number of reasons. Those books got put in a drawer but then with Aftermath I felt like this was really the first time I couldn't put this book in a drawer. I said I have to. It's not that I gave up on my other books but it was easier to say like okay this isn't the right moment for this book or there's something out there that's too similar or I'm not the right person to tell this story or whatever it was. It was easier to say I'm gonna set this book aside and then when it came to Aftermath I couldn't set it aside. I felt like it was too important and it felt like I had to get this out there and start these conversations. I've said from the beginning I don't have the answers to any of the problems brought up in this book but what I do have is the ability to raise the questions and start the conversations and I see that as my job as an artist or a writer or an activist or whatever you know whatever capacity you want to think of it in is to start the conversations and so I knew I had to find a way to publish this book that didn't downplay the seriousness of this topic and with that said it's also important to note I'm not suggesting that second graders read this book. I am not saying that this book is universal and every family should read it all the time. I'm not even saying that all middle school aged kids should read this book. Not every book is for every kid and that's important too. It sort of comes down to the conversation being had now around book banning and things like that. We're not saying that every child or every human should read every book but that every book should be available so that the person who needs it can find it. So you know this is definitely this book is not for your eight-year-old. This is not even to hand to your 11 year old on the beach and go oh go have fun just read that you know whatever. No this is it's a particular kind of book but I have seen firsthand I have gone to a lot of book festivals and signings and things like that and experienced firsthand that feeling where or that's not a feeling it happens. I see a kid come up to the table where my book is and pick up the book and the kid starts reading and their eyes kind of light up because kids are very curious about this topic and they want to know more and they don't know how to start the conversation and that's why I wrote the book and then their parents come up and pick it up and start reading the jacket flap and go oh god oh no no no no or you know why did somebody write this book and you know then I'm sitting there and I'll be like hi I wrote this book and again it's not for everybody. I'm the first person to tell you you know if your eight-year-old comes up I'm going to say oh my gosh I'm so glad you're interested you know you're a couple years away from being ready for this book but let me recommend some other books for you and you know here's a sticker and a book mark and come back when you're ready or whatever but the reaction of parents is is so interesting to me and I am a parent. I am one of those parents. I could see myself in an alternate universe having the exact same reaction and it's always very interesting and a wake-up call to me and this is relating back to the book banning thing where adults are in the position to be gatekeepers and I believe that it is usually out of good intentions although the book banning of gay and trans and I mean that's that's a whole other I don't even know what to say about I mean it's a horrible horrible problem but I do think those people think that they are acting on the best interests of their children even as misguided as it is but let's just assume goodwill all around and that when when a parent or teacher is gatekeeping a book I think they think they're helping a child but really what's happening is they're not giving that child the opportunity to explore something. I think books are such a safe way to explore hard topics because there's no graphic imagery like a movie or tv show and keep in mind kids these days are playing video games and watching movies and things that have far more violent you know Aftermath contains absolutely no description of the shooting there's nothing violent or graphic in it it's about a shooting that happened four years earlier I'm not saying these kids are like over it because you're never there's no such thing as being over it but it's it's in the past and it's a largely about people moving on. One thing that has really struck me and I think I had to figure this out for myself too is that so I am I graduated from high school in 1998 and the Columbine shooting happened in 1999 that was by no means the first school shooting there were a few that happened before then but it was at the time one of the biggest and one of the most covered and one of the most talked about and thought to be sort of a game changer it was also at a timing when legislation had lapsed that had prevented that from happening before which is an important piece of this which is that legislation does work and that's why Columbine happened but so I never had to go to school in an age where school shootings were commonplace and discussed in that way and most parents of of kids my kids age are in the same boat you know around the same generation so in our generation we had fire drills depending where you grew up you had earthquake drills I know my parents generation had duck and cover exactly duck and cover drills you know there have always been drills for things like this and it does not make those events happen more frequently by having the drill it also doesn't keep them from happening I think the big difference is that parents are not of the mindset that their kids are aware of this and they think that by not reading a book about that about the existence of school shootings that they were protecting their kid from finding out about it which unfortunately is not true and the minute kids get cell phones you know they get news alerts I mean my kid my older kid found out about the uvalde shooting because she does the New York Times crossword and she opened the app and it was you know it was everywhere and we started talking about it and I was planning on having a conversation with her anyway but it's a reminder that even a parent like me who is so ensconced in this issue and whose kids obviously know about it I was caught off guard because I wasn't thinking that she was going to find out about it from the New York Times crossword puzzle but it's everywhere all to say it's so much more part of our culture than I think any of us want to admit but it is and pretending it's not doesn't make that so exactly will you give kind of your I'd say longer than an elevator pitch what is your summary of Aftermath what is Aftermath about great question Aftermath is a story of a young girl named Lucy who's 12 and she is a self-proclaimed math whiz she's a kid who loves math her brain works that way she sees things in terms of math she sees people and situations in terms of shapes and formulas and her parents moved to a new town in Virginia following their own massive loss which is she had a younger brother named Theo who was born with a congenital heart defect and passed away at the age of five after a really long protracted illness so they moved to this town and it happens to be a town where a school shooting happened four years earlier and it happened to then third graders who are now seventh graders who are now Lucy's classmates and she's the first person to join their school since this incident so she's the first newcomer sort of infiltrating this very delicate ecosystem and culture that exists after this shooting where they lost a lot of classmates and friends and Lucy was always looking for the math behind things and the reason and the statistics and the comfort of the the concrete answers and her teacher happens to be introducing the concept of infinity in their math class and it's the first time she's ever come across a mathematical construct that doesn't make sense to her and also it largely doesn't make sense to her classmates they are full of examples from their own lives of things that are not infinite and have a hard time picturing anything being infinite and that's a math teacher also happens to teach an after-school drama class and their focus is mime which I know sounds random but I promise it works and so Lucy and her new friends or her peers who become friends take an after-school mime class and through that you know it's a very helpful way for her to connect with her classmates without words and with words of course but in in a way where they're all sort of on equal ground and she does make friends and she does find her common ground but you know sort of a big hump for her is as I was mentioning before the idea of comparing grief comes up and for Lucy who sees everything in mathematical equations she decides to keep the death of her brother a secret from her new classmates because she feels like even though she lost somebody important to her too it's not the same you know they lost classmates in this incredibly traumatic sudden violent way and she lost her brother in a much more long predictable horrible but very expected way and she feels like those those kinds of grief are just not even on the same axis and how can she compare and of course she ends up discovering that through empathy we can all relate to each other's losses and be there for each other but I think it's very hard for her at the beginning to imagine that her loss is is on the same plane as some of these other losses. So I have currently been suffering or maybe joyfully having the experience that since I'm immersed in the topic of neurodiversity pretty often I start seeing it everywhere, finding corollaries. I feel like the main character of Aftermath is neurodivergent and it's just there's so many correlations that I make just by listening to you summarize it where I could just see Lucy being a fantastic archetype for many many neurodivergent kids out there. Well thank you, have you drawn that correlation yourself with her? I have, I definitely have but I did not start out with that intention. The point being it's also normal to me that I started to write Lucy as just how I imagined her and as my therapist would say I did not pathologize my characters. I wrote them as true and honest people, they're probably extensions of me in different ways, but I didn't set out writing like oh Lucy has this issue or this is how her brain works, it was just who she was and it made sense to me that she would try and process the world through math and then as I went through the revision process and then you know the publication process and all of this and got more readers and got more input it became very clear to me even just as I read it again I was like oh either she's using math as a coping mechanism or she might have some form of OCD in which the math thing is activated or comforting or you know I don't know there are so many different ways one again could pathologize that and then as I've researched more and more about synesthesia I also am like okay oh well she might also have some synesthesia and it's been really fun and gratifying to sort of unravel a little bit of the way Lucy's mind works as I'm also learning more about my own mind but no I didn't start out thinking that she was neurodivergent but I definitely by the by the end of the revision process of the manuscript I was fully leaned into that. I actually think that what you just described is the ultimate goal in representation across all spectrums the disability, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation that there's not a trope that a creator is trying to create from the beginning it's just a person and living their experience and if that person then portrays an experience that helps the consumers the audience I guess is the better term if that experience and that portrayal is something that the audience can identify with that is awesome and the fact that there was not a concerted effort on your part to write a neurodivergent heroine and I want to have this representation in my book makes me actually really happy. I'm so glad I love how you're describing that and I'm thrilled I'm so glad. But I do think and I know that they say everything before but could be a lie but in this case it is not however I do think she has got to be resonating with many many neurodivergent readers out there and seeing their experience reflected back so the fact that it was not intended and yet it is still happening is just it's just that like a gift that aftermath keeps on giving as it continues to find more and more audience. Your ability to create these stories and to create these characters is because of the way that your brain diverges and it is providing a mirror to people who are sitting in their space wondering why am I not like everyone else and then besides without having to just sit there with that intrusive thought of I'm not like everyone else they then are armed with information that can start a conversation. Right they know what questions to ask even if it's not the answer at least I hope I think you're right and I really hope so and also just that maybe it also for people reading it who whose brain doesn't work that particular way but maybe they know somebody who does it's giving them a doorway through which to relate to their peers or their family members to say like oh okay maybe this is a little peek at what their brain is like and maybe I can have empathy for the times when they are frustrating or embarrassing or whatever you know and I'm not trying to say they should be embarrassing I'm just saying like that's what tweens say about their parents so you know you know what I mean. I know. As always I'm very grateful to you for your time and I am a big fan of the work I'm really looking forward to what's coming down the pike for Aftermath as it continues to spread its purpose all around and then also more of your characters and more of your books coming out. Thank you yes my next book has a very overtly neurodivergent character with synesthesia and it's been really fun to explore everything that Kinean and can offer and can you know the obstacles that throws in her path and the gift that it is so I'm so excited to talk more about that too. When is that book coming out? 2024 I think March 2024. Okay. She feels far away but it goes by fast so yeah it does yeah it does it's 2023 by the time this airs for sure so yeah yeah it will be here before we know it and it's wild. I will have to have you on when you can talk more about the future of Aftermath as well. Yes yes yes I'm excited about that. Thank you so much. Emily thank you so much I just really enjoy our talks. Oh I can't tell you what it means I mean it's so meaningful for me to get to like contribute to this discussion but also just to to have a way to talk about this stuff that for so long felt so taboo that and you know no good comes from keeping it all bottled up it's it's wonderful to talk about this stuff. Neuroversity is hosted and produced by Jessica Kidwell. Our audio engineer is Jaret Nicolet at Mixtape Studios. Jaret also created our theme music graphic design for Neuroversity by Kevin Adkins. Web support is provided by George Fox. For more information about this episode, ways to support the podcast, or anything related to Neuroversity, please visit our website at You can also follow us on your podcast app and social media sites. We are at NeuroversityPod on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And if you like what we're doing, please tell others about Neuroversity and give us a review on Apple Podcasts. There's plenty of room for more curious minds to enroll.