GENEVIEVE: Was there anything in particular that drew you to center the novel in a rural setting on the farm instead of in a more urban or city setting?
LASATER: I wanted to create a tightly bound world that was crushing in its isolation and lack of options. On a remote farm in the 1970s, there was nowhere else to go. I thought the setting would make Bobby’s personal struggle more real, more intimate and more emotionally charged.
GENEVIEVE: Though the story takes place decades ago, it is easy to relate to the types of issues the characters face. Did you draw upon your own experiences or family life in order to portray such true emotion?
LASATER: Farmer’s Son is loosely based on a tragedy that happened in my own extended family. Also, my daughter is sight-impaired, though not dyslexic. As for the specifics of Bobby’s family, and particularly his abusive father, all I can say is we all know a Garrett. He might be anyone—a family member, a boss, etc. The thing is, we rarely find out how the difficult people in our lives got that way. We just have to deal with them. That was a central challenge in writing this.
GENEVIEVE: Farmer's Son is primarily a family drama, but many of the underlying issues center on Bobby and his son's dyslexia. What made you want to write about dyslexia, a topic that few before you have touched?
LASATER: You are so right that few novels address dyslexia, even today. When I initially wrote Farmer’s Son, I was surprised to find that no novel like it had been written before. At least, I couldn’t find one. There were non-fiction books about the condition, stories for newly diagnosed young children, and books for parents on how to negotiate the educational system to assist a dyslexic child, but no adult novels with a dyslexia through line.
60 million Americans have dyslexia. That’s one in five of us. 60 million is more than the entire populations of California and New York State combined. Can you think of any other group that large without a body of fiction?
Recently, when I was considering self-publishing Farmer’s Son, I did the research again and was astonished to discover the situation was still true. Years had passed but still no novels.
I visited all the bookstores in my area. I did this same exercise twice, years apart. Every time, if there was a dyslexia shelf at all, no novels were on it.
And then, when some agents responded with “Dyslexics don’t read” and “Dyslexics don’t walk into Barnes & Noble,” I began to see perhaps why dyslexia novels hadn’t been published. That reaction was why I eventually decided to incur the substantial cost of self-publishing. I am so grateful the dyslexia community has responded so well to this book. But it’s not just my book. There’s a real, actual need.
My dream is that dyslexics and their families will soon be able to walk into Barnes & Noble and buy Farmer’s Son.
GENEVIEVE: In terms of learning more about dyslexia, did you write from lived experiences or did you need to do research in order to understand the condition more fully?
LASATER: I did research to get a basic understanding. I also consulted a dyslexia expert, who read a key medical chapter. I spoke at length with dyslexics about their lives. I also learned from my sight-impaired daughter how hard it is to keep reading when it’s physically challenging, so I knew I had to make Farmer’s Son immediately gripping. I hope I succeeded!
Stylistically, the key was to write cinematically, with vivid, muscular images and action. I also chose objective third person and a minimum of authorial intrusion to make the story more immediate. I tried not to use adverbs but better verbs. I tried to write transparently so the reader was plunged into every scene.
GENEVIEVE: I understand you've worked to make the book more accessible to readers with dyslexia. Can you explain what measures you took and what you might suggest to other authors or publishers who might be interested in making their books more accessible?
LASATER: I chose a font that so-called “normal” readers won’t notice but dyslexics will hopefully find easier to read than most books, together with wider margins and a bit more white space between lines. I worked with a layout company. I also wrote short chapters so the reader has the sense of flying through the book. I particularly wanted dyslexics to feel successful. Some have said it’s the first book they have finished in years.
My advice to publishers is first, please publish novels for dyslexics and their families. Publish mine. Second, ask the members of your staff who are dyslexic or have dyslexic family members to tell you how to make books about dyslexia more readable. They will tell you far better than I. The dyslexia community is knowledgeable and smart.
Also, please publish novels about dyslexia as audiobooks as well. One dyslexic man I know has read more than 5,000 books on tape. I want to do this for Farmer’s Son, but the cost is thousands of dollars. I will do an audiobook as soon as the book royalties support it.
GENEVIEVE: Can you talk a little bit about the path you took with publishing this novel? You have quite a few endorsements from big names, such as Jewel and David Baldacci, and your book got a bit of attention on HuffPost and Publisher's Weekly. Did you always intend to go the self-publishing route?
LASATER: I dream nightly that a publisher will take on Farmer’s Son!
Once I saw that Farmer’s Son would have to be self-published, I sent galleys to all the prominent dyslexics I could locate. I also sent copies to the heads of all the specialized high schools in the United States. Many read the book right away and kindly offered praise blurbs, which are collected at the front. I am eternally grateful to them. One educator even assigned Farmer’s Son to all the students in her high school as required reading this past summer!
Bestselling author David Baldacci, who I did not know personally at the outset, read Farmer’s Son and graciously gave me a marvelous quote. He is actively involved in literacy through his extraordinary Wish You Well Foundation, and I am so thankful for his encouragement. Singer/songwriter Jewel, who is dyslexic, also said wonderful things, even tweeting about the book, and I have never met her. The same is true for Governor Kean (Chairman of the 9/11 Commission) and Governor Caperton (former President of the College Board), as well as many others. I can never thank them enough.
My writing mentor, the inimitable Robert Bausch, encouraged me from the outset. Bestselling author Brad Meltzer, too, tweeted about Farmer’s Son. I am in their debt.
GENEVIEVE: Going along with the last question, more on finding reviews and endorsers--how have you worked to get the word out about Farmer's Son?
LASATER: I sent Farmer’s Son to Underground Book Reviews!
I also submitted it to Publishers Weekly, which fortunately gave it a great review. In addition, I’m on social media with NELasater.com, @NELasater1 on Twitter and Farmer’s Son Book on Facebook. I’ve also provided copies to dyslexia advocacy groups. When you self-publish, you have to do your own marketing!
If your readers have more suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Please drop me a note to NELasater@NELasater.com.
GENEVIEVE: Lastly, your writing style in Farmer's Son engages and captivates; it was a joy to read and review. I would love to read more by you--do you have any additional novels in the works?
LASATER: I’m so glad you enjoyed Farmer’s Son!
I’m currently writing my second novel, Alternate Ending, about a single woman’s dilemma when she’s caught between the conflicting demands of her elderly mother and her young-adult son. Many women are in that sandwich generation, and so many sacrifice themselves. This is a novel about making a different, liberating choice. I will finish it this year.
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Genevieve Shifke Ali is an Assistant Editor with an independent publishing house. She writes occasionally on her blog genevieveshifkeali.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @GShifkeAli.