Madeleine Ryan is a writer and actor who has written movingly about her experiences as an autistic woman for Vice and Lenny, among other outlets. She lives in rural Victoria in Australia and is a regular contributor for SBS, The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning Herald, and recently started writing for The New York Times.
A Room Called Earth is her debut novel and this hilarious and heartwarming novel follows our narrator, a young autistic woman in Melbourne, Australia, as she navigates a party and meets a man in line for the bathroom. This seemingly straightforward premise, however, belies what a gift this book is, for what appears to be an ordinary night out is, through the prism of her mind, extraordinary.
I had the absolute pleasure of reading and reviewing Madeleine’s book (which I can’t recommend highly enough!) and also had the opportunity to send some questions Madeleine’s way. We chatted about her writing process, forging your own identity, and the importance of getting comfortable with yourself in order to live through our current times.
Elaine Mead: A Room Called Earth is a richly woven story, covering so much within a seemingly short time frame. I was completely engrossed from the first page. How did you come up with the idea and how much of the narrator's experiences are founded on your own?
Madeleine Ryan: One evening when I was visiting my parents’ house, and staying in my childhood bedroom, the narrator started talking to me. The first few paragraphs you read in the book are literally the ones that came out of her that night, give or take a few commas. Then, over the next couple of years, it was about caring for her voice and helping it to grow. She frequently uses experiences of mine to bring her perspective to life. She tailors them to her liking, naturally. I kind of see her as a relative, or perhaps how a mother sees their child: she’s of me, but she’s not me, she’s from me, but she’s not me. It’s a dance between us.
EM: The narrator has an enviable amount of confidence and self-assuredness about who she is and how she engages with those she meets. Did writing her help or influence you in any way with your own sense of self and belonging?
MR: Definitely. She’s helped me to appreciate my inner life and all of its idiosyncrasies. When difficult emotions or situations arise, I have more compassion for myself, and for others. I laugh a lot more readily than I ever did before. She also helped me to see how limiting the idea of ‘social circles’ or ‘scenes’ or ‘cliques’ really is, and that being on the earth is the real circle, and we’re all a part of it.**
As a rather extensive side note, I am fascinated by what constitutes confidence and self-assuredness. Is it ‘how we carry ourselves’ or is it ‘not caring about what others think’? Because I have no idea what those definitions mean. Like, how do I carry myself well? Do I just stand up straight, or? And how do I not care about what others think? Do I spend all of my time trying to turn off my thoughts and feelings? Help!?
However, if confidence and self-assuredness mean being willing to examine our inner lives, and that of others, without judgement, then yes. She’s definitely confident, and self-assured, and she’s assisted me in becoming more confident and self-assured. And if confidence and self-assuredness mean having faith that everything is going to turn out in the end, even when fear or doubt is present, then, yes. She ticks those boxes, too, and she’s supported me in embracing a more expansive and hopeful way of being and seeing, as well.
EM: So many people are stuck in lockdown at the moment, discovering what it really means to be in isolation and alone with themself. I feel like the narrator is a fantastic role model for being comfortable with who we are, especially alone. How do you feel about your book being a doorway for others to learn more about finding this level of comfort?
MR: I would love for A Room Called Earth to be a doorway for others to feel more comfortable with themselves and in their own space. It’s certainly helped me to embrace this and to savour each moment with myself more. I mean, she treats her emotions, her meals, her body parts, her belongings, her clothes, her thoughts, her memories, her conversations, her observations, her rituals, and routines, as sacred.
It’s so easy to lose sight of this when we’re busy being inundated with information, and distraction, and demands, and colour, and movement. Then, when we’re forced to stop and to face ourselves, it can be really confronting. Meanwhile, she’s chosen to stop and to face herself. She can’t think of anything worse than continuing to plough mindlessly into hectic social situations and work environments. She has no desire to escape herself or her problems. She loves herself and her problems. It all helps her to grow, and to evolve. I’ve learned so much from her about this. I hope that others can, too. The burning desire that she has for self-awareness, and acceptance, has to be one of the greatest and most powerful forces on the planet right now.
EM: Although the blurb tells us the narrator is an autistic woman, this isn’t mentioned within the text itself. Was it important for you to have this in the blurb and do you think knowing this is vital for the reading experience?
MR: I don’t think it’s vital for the reading experience to know that the protagonist is autistic. Yes, autism could use a bit of love, and she’s definitely the character to give it some. She’s amazing and sensitive, and honest, and clear, and multidimensional. Her autistic nature is a part of this. Yet, ultimately, I’m more interested in the humanity that exists beneath many of the labels we use, whether they’re: autism, feminism, veganism, sexism, mysticism, environmentalism, colonialism. All of these could be applied to the book, too. They’re all rolling around in her psyche, and in her observations of the world. However, it’s the unique logic, and choices, and behaviours, and beliefs, which create these categories, labels, groups and ‘isms’ that I’m most intrigued by, and which are most essential to reading the novel.
EM: I'm always really curious about how authors are drawn to their ideas and the writing they choose to spend time with. Why do you feel it was important for you to tell this story and why now?
MR: On a personal level, I started hearing her voice after I’d made changes in my life, which seemed to pave the way for her. I’d moved to the country, and I’d decided to commit to writing in a more serious way, and I’d deleted social media. I’d stopped taking hormonal birth control, which had a huge impact on my body, and mind. I was in a loving relationship, and I’d started eating plant-based, and we’d adopted animals. It was then that she started speaking to me, and I had room to listen.
On a more social and cultural level, I believe that A Room Called Earth is important because our inner worlds are being overrun by the noise and neediness of the world around us. We’re being invaded. Everyone and everything is demanding our attention around-the-clock. Our value as human beings has become measurable and outwardly oriented: it’s about how many friends we have, how much money we make, what our bodies look like, who we’re having sex with, what we own, what we don’t, and what image of ourselves we want to curate, and present to others. The infinite, unknowable, constantly evolving, inherently miraculous nature of who and what we are gets lost.
So creating a story completely oriented around the first person, and the process of introspection, and consideration, and the cultivation self-love, seemed radical, and necessary. I didn’t set out to do this, however. The value of it emerged through the process of writing, and I chose to stick with it.