A Boy Made Of Blocks is a rare gem of a book; a tale that’s heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure.
The story of a father’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s autism, told against a setting of the meteorically successful video game Minecraft, has well and truly struck a chord with readers worldwide - I recently wrote about the effect it’s had on me as a father and how it’s helped shift my perspective.
But it came about in an unexpected way; a far cry from the usual route that a fictional tale would make it onto the bookshelves.
With the book now a number one bestseller, I had the chance to sit down with its author Keith Stuart to ask him about the origins of his first novel, how the fictional account marries up with the reality of parenting an autistic son, and whether he’s been surprised by the way in which his debut novel has touched others.
Firstly, Keith, thank you for writing such an honest and open book. What motivated you to pen the story in the first place?
The book actually came about in quite an unusual way – I was asked to do it. I was approached directly by [publishers] Little Brown, and looking back now that was the only way it could have happened. Much of the impetus for the book came from my editor, Ed Wood, who also has an autistic son. Most of his authors are big thriller writers, and that’s what he’s used to dealing with – but he was looking to find a Nick Hornby-esque story for the digital era.
He read the article I wrote in The Guardian on Minecraft and autism and my son and he thought: this is the story that I’m looking for: a sensitive, male-orientated tale about fatherhood and video games. He contacted me with his vision and that’s what I helped to realise – and as a journalist, that’s what worked for me. That’s how I understand writing. I was given a contract that I, of course, had to honour, and I worked weekends, in the mornings, in the evenings, and took sabbaticals to write it; there was just literally no way I could have done it without their backing in place.
I think I would have struggled to have written a memoir – I wouldn’t have wanted to do that; to write a piece of non-fiction about [my son] Zac and our lives because that’s too intrusive. And being a journalist it’s also hard to find the time to write other things.
That’s a really unusual way for a debut novel to be published, right?
Massively so, yes. I have a friend – Tim Weaver – and it took him 10 years for his first book to be published; he’s now of course very successful with the David Raker series. But when he found out how my book was published, it was a bit of a shock for him I think! But really, it was my 20 years of writing across numerous video games titles, and more recently for The Guardian [as video games editor], that got me into the lucky position in which I find myself today.
While not strictly autobiographical, A Boy Made Of Blocks is obviously a very personal book. Was writing it a cathartic process for you?
In a lot of ways, yes. It put me in touch with things that I’d felt but never been able to verbalise before; ideas I’d never really considered fully in an intellectual way. The whole idea of meeting Zac in a space in which he felt safe [Minecraft] and transposing that into the book as a space that felt safe to [the character of] Sam – that definitely came from my own experiences. And understanding the importance of meeting Zac somewhere that he liked and enjoyed, I really grasped just how important that was for him by writing this novel.
Writing about Sam’s understanding of Minecraft definitely helped me to process the idea that, with an autistic child – and with lots of children – you have to understand what drives them, what motivates them, what makes them feel happy and secure – and then, as a parent, you have to be there for them, whatever that is. Whether you have a teenager into punk music or a three-year-old that’s into Peppa Pig, I feel as a parent it’s your duty to be there with them and share that. You have to be there with them to understand them.
I think writing this book really helped me to process that.
“With an autistic child – and with lots of children – you have to understand what drives them, what motivates them, what makes them feel happy and secure.”
There were definitely things that happened in the book – like the disastrous children’s party – that I needed to write about to help me process how we as parents had dealt with situations with our own son. We stopped going to children’s parties with Zac because we realised it wasn’t helping anyone; no-one was getting anything out of that situation.
It was like a circular effect; things would happen in our lives that I kind of used in the book, but by writing them down it definitely helped me think about them and understand them better.
Did you reach out to other parents with autistic children when writing the book, or is it mostly based on your own experiences with Zac?
It’s mostly me, but I do have two friends that I met with – both of whom have autistic children – who I would discuss certain scenarios with and we’d talk about how we all approached them. I was really worried about parents with autistic children reading the book and not feeling in any way that their experience was being illustrated. I didn’t want them to look at it and think: this is a farce. It’s not representing autism. I was really, really worried about that. But I had a good network to draw on, and shared experiences fed the book. I never wanted it to be Zac’s story; I definitely took formative responses from others.
For someone that’s just found out that their child is on the autistic spectrum, do you have any advice – with the benefit of hindsight?
Autism is a spectrum condition, and because of that everybody’s different. But I think the most valuable thing we learnt was that transitions are really hard; you can’t force transitions on a child. So if you have a toddler that’s just been diagnosed, the reason why they might be having meltdowns when you try to take them to the shops at the last minute is because transitions are very, very hard. The most important advice is just to do everything you can to prepare your child for change; that’s so important.
“I was really worried about parents with autistic children reading the book and not feeling in any way that their experience was being illustrated.”
Also, just try and understand and work with them – don’t try and force change. There are ways that you can see off meltdowns way before they ever happen, and one of them is to understand the limits and barriers that your child might experience and work with them. But also, work out what interests and drive them – children on the spectrum have the capacity to become really obsessed with one thing, and whatever that thing is, be there for them, understand it and talk to them about it. Even if the subject is boring to you, by talking to them you’ll put them in a state where they feel more relaxed, and that will open the doors to you finding out more things about them.
And don’t be too worried about the views of other parents: you have to put up a force-field. People judge and stare, and you just have to guard yourself emotionally against that.
Minecraft is the centrepiece of the book and it’s a real safe haven for Alex and Sam. Were the developers [Mojang] chuffed?
Yes I think so – I went and saw Mojang in Sweden about six months ago and there were actually copies of the book around the office, which was great to see. I’m also in regular contact with the person that runs the Minecraft in Education programme at Microsoft [Minecraft is now used in more than 7,000 classrooms worldwide], who read the book and enjoyed it. Being able to visit Mojang and look round is pretty rare for journalists, but they’ve been very welcoming towards me.
Have you been surprised how successful A Boy Made Of Blocks has been?
Yes, massively. We had an early inkling when we started selling it abroad into 25 countries, but even then I was thinking: what if it fails in 25 countries? But I’ve been really surprised how it has sold: through book clubs, word of mouth, eBook and also through autism support groups. I was stunned to get into the Richard & Judy Book Club this past spring; that was incredible.
I was worried because I thought: what if autism and Minecraft are a barrier for people? What if they think it’s going to be serious, glum melodrama? But my editor wasn’t worried, and when the paperback came out, it really caught on at that point and it’s continuing to do well.
But, without question, the best thing for me has been receiving reviews through from people that identify with the book, saying for example that I have an autistic son and I felt lonely, but I read the book and it really helped me. I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life; that never happens in journalism.
A Boy Made Of Blocks is available to buy now from Amazon and other leading online retailers and book stores. Keith Stuart is currently working on his next novel, and can be found on Twitter @keefstuart.