They say that all first novels are largely autobiographical – but it’s how you turn a story into fiction that makes it come alive. Jill Glenn meets Jem Lester, whose very personal novel ‘Shtum’ has just been released in paperback.
From its first words, Shtum plunges the reader into a perfect storm of intolerable circumstances: a doubly incontinent ten-year-old, non-verbal and frequently violent; parents at the end of their tether; and a local authority decision that the child in question is not eligible for a specialist residential school placement, but will be best served by ‘remaining in borough… well-supported by a loving family’.
You couldn’t make it up. And Jem Lester hasn’t. Jonah, the child at the centre of Shtum (a Yiddish word meaning 'silent'), is a fictionalised version of Jem’s own son, Noah, who is profoundly autistic. The battle for Jonah is based closely on the battle for Noah.
“I’m quite a private person,” Jem offers, as one answer to the obvious question: why fiction and not memoir? “Fiction gives you more distance,” he explains, ”and it’s easier to expand thematically; you can comment without being too close to the action.” His own life, he ventures, is not particularly interesting – although an outsider might beg to differ: he has worked both as a journalist (he saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989, and likes to say that, though he was there, he denies personal responsibility; he was the last person to interview legendary film director Fred Zinnemann before his death – and denies responsibility for that, too), and as a secondary school teacher of English and Media Studies. He has taken on a local authority in one of the most important battles a parent can ever fight – and won. And he is now a published novelist, author of a book sold in many countries, translated into several languages and resonating in many lives.
When Jem began Shtum, he had no intention of writing about autism. He had been teaching for eight or nine years, and just spent twelve months immersed in the complex, exhausting fight to obtain the appropriate secondary education for Noah: meeting barristers, talking to autism experts, reading solicitors’ letters and assessment reports, psyching himself up for the tribunal. His father had not long died, and his mother three years earlier. He was desperate to “step off the carousel”. He’d always written fiction, and wanted to see whether the abilities he hoped were lurking could be unearthed. Three weeks after the Lesters’ barrister secured Noah’s residential placement, the boy had gone…
… and, quite by chance, the following day Jem was starting an MA in Novel Writing at City University. He didn’t plan to write from his own life. “It was all too recent. I was really raw… I just didn’t want to…”
But autism stalked him. 'This is what you should write about,' said his tutor, Jonathan Myerson. 'This is what you should write about,' said his partner. So he made a deal with himself; he’d give it a go, so long as he could be honest, and funny. “There’s a lot of humour in even the darkest of days,” he says, and he wanted to channel that to give as authentic a portrayal as possible of what it's like “to live with, bring up and worship” a child with so many challenges.
Around 25-30% of adults and children with autism have no language, Jem explains (a statistic that he says shocked him when he learned it). Characters like this are rarely represented in films or books, where there's a tendency to rely on the 'tortured but talented' stereotype. Despite his initial reluctance, and reasonable doubts – “I couldn’t envisage how to write a novel with a central character who doesn’t speak,” he recalls – Jem has crafted an engaging, multi-layered story. It’s an easy, accessible read that is both dark and funny, with enough tenderness to offset the daily tragedies that wear Jonah’s parents down. It offers rich characters – the reader empathises and despairs in equal measure – and circumstances that would make anyone turn to drink.
I wonder whether the fictionalising of aspects of his own life made the novel easier to write – but he tells me the opposite is true. “When you’re creating a narrator and characters in similar circumstances, you have to examine the truth more closely, to produce the right resonance.”
Generating fiction was painful, but it allowed him to expand the themes, to give more texture. It’s easy to say ‘this is a novel about autism’… but that does the book a disservice. Really, it’s a novel about communication, and particularly about male communication. Early in the story Jonah and his father, Ben, who narrates, move in with Ben’s father, Georg –“It really came together when Georg turned up,” says Jem. “He cemented the whole book…” – creating a household where love and exasperation are equal currency.
Georg – a Holocaust survivor – gave Jem the opportunity both to distance the novel further from his own life, and to explore a fascinating backstory. In fact, Jem tells me, Georg and his friend Mauritz are too good to lose as characters; he hopes to return to their earlier lives in a future book. He’s currently working on his second, and has been contracted by publisher Orion for a third.
Writing Shtum was a tough experience. As is reading it. Jem admits that, shocking as they are, some of the scenes with Jonah are versions of life with Noah that have been sanitised. “Even though he has no idea about the book, you know, he has his own dignity.” Jem is the custodian of that dignity, just as he has been the custodian of Noah’s interface with the world. He speaks of his son, whom he visits every couple of weeks, with great love and admiration, describing him as “incredibly laid back, and giggly”.
Noah will be 17 this year. He’ll never live at home again, and that remains a constant source of distress to his father, who says his first thought every day is of his son and the fact that he is "not there." He is happy at the school that is his home, but he has no understanding of friendship, for example; the small boy in the novel who is loyal to Jonah is wishful thinking on Jem's behalf. "I met my closest friend when I was four… there's a pang of sadness that Noah and my own friend's son just didn't have the opportunity to know each other."
Jem is already gearing up for the next battle on his son's behalf. At 19 the responsibility for Noah's care will pass to adult social services. Jem and his ex-wife (who separated when Noah was small, in circumstances that bear no resemblance to those in the novel) are preparing to identify the right place for him to live and to kickstart the process that will make it happen and guarantee the next stage of Noah's future. Shtum may be fiction, but the story that inspired it is still real life for Jem.