Thursday, June 5, 2008

Windfall: An Interview With Patricia Wood

Patricia Wood on her boat, Orion
By Kanani Fong

“I don’t want to be paraded as an expert,” says Patricia Wood, author of the novel Lottery. “An expert is a mother or father who work day-to-day to understand their kid and to get the world ready to welcome him.” Wood knows a thing or two about the challenges of special needs children and adults. As a special education teacher, her hands-on experience was invaluable in creating her protagonist, Perry L. Crandall, a mentally challenged man who transcends all expectations in this debut novel. And indeed, it was the authenticity of Perry that both won the notice of fans, and even the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, which has short listed it this year.

As with most writers, Wood’s primary goal was to tell a good story. “But if I could tap into some consciousness, to get people to think about their assumptions, all the better,” she says. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in the area of education and disability, she's written extensively about special education, home-schooling for the disabled, and as an advocate for special needs students. However, it became apparent in all the academic journals and even magazines like Ability that they were all preaching to the same choir. “We know how far people can go,” she says, “yet not enough gets out to the real world. Normal people do not pick up a book to read about special needs adults.”

Rather than type out another article, or non-fiction tome, she chose fiction, which can be a more accessible way to reach a large audience and raise awareness. She wanted to throw a tire iron at the way most people think of the mentally challenged. “Oh, here’s the beggar who’s retarded,” she says, as a means of illustrating the perceptions that many people hold. The challenge was to create a character the reader could root for, but to flesh him out by giving him desires, goals, tragedies and more importantly, ideas.

“I wanted Perry to be loved for his perceptions, and for the readers to see his ability and gifts,” she says of the protagonist. Other people, like his mother have given up on him, and the schools have a low set of expectations. Pat believes this isn’t atypical, that benchmarks applied evenly across the board to a diverse group of people are unrealistic, and not a true measurement of ability.

“Learning isn’t linear. People learn in all sorts of ways,” she says, of her decision to let Perry’s grandmother yank him out of school, to work at their boatyard. Pat cites a nine-year longitudinal study by Jacque Ensign Defying The Stereotypes of Special Education in the Peabody Journal of Education in 2000. They compared special needs kids who were home-schooled vs. those who went through the traditional educational process. The kids who came out ahead were those who’d been under the guidance of the parent at home, or even on the road. “It was mainly due to the parent’s attitude. They excelled on a higher level because the parent could see the kid’s gifts.” Indeed, the key person in Perry’s life is his grandmother, Gram, who takes him out of school and teaches him herself.

Pat thinks of the possibilities in teaching and guiding special needs students. “I often think, what would happen if we taught public education in a variety of ways, using different skills? What if we could work 1:1 with these kids, go at their pace, follow their interests? What if we don’t make a such a deal that a kid can’t hit all the academic benchmarks, but we focus on finding their innate gifts?”

She’s seen the results of non-traditional learning. She and her husband live on a sailboat year round in Hawaii. “We meet cruisers who come into our harbor. Many of them have children, and they’ve been at sea for years. I met a family whose daughter had qualified for special education, but was still having difficulties in school. They decided to go away for three years. When they came back to live on land, they were petrified that they’d ruined their kids’ chances. But as it turns out, they were learning by doing. The daughter is now in regular education classes. She’s doing well.”

A relative of Patricia’s --who was at the profound end of the Down’s syndrome spectrum inspired the seeds of Lottery, though she is careful to point out that Perry isn’t based on him. However, she thought of him, and the responses others had to him. There were a lot of day-to-day things he couldn’t do by himself. As he got older, the stakes went up to find something so he could earn a small living. But they failed to find the right thing. Finally, someone thought to have Bic send them a bunch of pen parts. “This was the era when they’d send you all the parts and you’d get paid for how many boxes you would fill. He could put together Bic Pens faster than anyone else,” she says. “Lottery isn’t a book only about a financial one, it’s also about the lottery in life, the genetic lottery, the windfall one receives when they find something where they can achieve some success.”

Pat also made sure that she wrote about Perry’s sexuality. “Sex is a desire of those with mental challenges. It was important for me to include it. People like Perry want love, they want a girlfriend, they are curious about sex and they want it.” She points out that the perceptions and also many of the depictions on television and movies typically choose to render the disabled sexless.

Though Pat says that the story’s the thing, she hopes that it’s a vehicle for deeper thought and discussion. Perhaps the readers who will gain the most from Lottery are those with little or no experience with those with different abilities. “Love transcends mental acuity, age, weight, education, even morality.” The real lottery is when people go beyond fences that hold them back.

Patricia Wood’s book Lottery is available in paperback now.