This is one heck of a debut – congratulations! When and why did you decide to write it?
Well, it’s quite an unusual case as I was actually approached by a publisher and asked to write it. I’m the video games editor at the Guardian and early in 2015 I wrote quite an emotional article about how Minecraft had been a huge influence in the life of my son Zac who is on the autism spectrum. The game helped him be creative, but also taught him lots of new words and let him play with other kids so boosted him socially too.
The article did really well, it seemed to resonate with our readers, and then a few weeks later I got an email from Ed Wood, an editorial director at Little, Brown. He asked if I’d thought about writing a novel, using my story – a father and son bonding over Minecraft – as the template. I really hadn’t! But I met Ed and he encouraged me to write a synopsis and a few sample chapters. But I was determined that I wasn’t writing a memoir – the characters and events in A Boy Made of Blocks are semi-inspired by things that have happened to me and my family, but I’m definitely not Alex, and Zac is definitely not Sam.
My aim, really, was to write a book that communicated a little. of what it is like to have autism in your family, and also how video games aren’t always a problem that has to be managed – they can be a really beautiful, expressive and intelligent experience.
The story flows so naturally that it’s hard not to form the impression that the book ‘wrote itself’. Is that the case – or were you tearing your hair out as you burned the midnight oil?
There were definitely moments of both! I’d never written fiction before, so after twenty years of journalism there were lots of techniques I had to pick up fairly quickly – I started writing in May 2015 and Little, Brown wanted a first draft by December! I work full time for the Guardian so it meant a lot of weekends and late nights hunched over my laptop, usually in our leaky little summerhouse, but often in cafés and pubs too. Some of the story came really naturally, especially the moments drawn from my own life – the sequence in the park and the struggle to find a good school both felt very close to our experiences as a family.
The hardest part was ensuring that Alex and Sam grew as characters, and making sure all the phases in their journey made sense and happened in the right way. The ending was also very hard to set up; I must have re-written it about twenty times to get the pacing and emotion just right. I was lucky to have a really good relationship with Ed, who helped me order everything into a compelling narrative with lots of intertwining sub-plots. It certainly wasn’t easy.
Did you talk to your son about the book before starting to write it? What does he think about it now?
Yeah, we talked to him about it, but he didn’t really take it in. He knew I was writing a book that had Minecraft in it, and he vaguely understood that it was based on our family, and on autism, but he didn’t ask many questions. There were times I tried to talk to him during the writing process, but it’s tough to know how much he takes in. He had a very limited vocabulary as a toddler and still struggles in conversation so he finds it hard to express himself. But he loved seeing his own name in the acknowledgements. My other son Albie now expects me to write a book about him.
They say ‘write about what you know’ and you’ve certainly done that. The curtain is down for now – but when it comes up again, what will be your encore?
I’m already started on the next novel! I’m about a third of the way through and it’s another fairly emotional and (hopefully) funny family drama. There’s no autism and no Minecraft this time though and the circumstances are quite different. It’s about a single father and his teenage daughter, and her circumstances are quite tough. I don’t want to say too much, but I think if you cried at any point while reading A Boy Made of Blocks you might want to save that box of tissues.