Interested in reading a great murder mystery that takes place locally? Then you’ll want to read Mapping Charlie by Wallingford author Jane Meyerding. Mapping Charlie is a story about Kay, a middle-aged woman with autism, who becomes a prime suspect in the murder of her fellow classmate, Charlie. Though she’s identified as someone who last spoke to Charlie before his death, she can’t remember because she suffers from prospopagnosia — otherwise known as faceblindness — which prevents her from recognizing people she sees, even on a daily basis, and especially out of the normal environment in which she sees them.
Kay is determined to clear herself as the murder suspect, which has caused major upheaval in her life, including banishment from her job and her class on the UW campus. As an autistic, she thrives on structure, and when her world goes into a tailspin, Kay begins her quest to find Charlie’s murderer. The story is captivating and Meyerding, who was diagnosed with autism as an adult, does an excellent job providing insight to the mind of an autistic person. The supporting characters in the book are equally well-rounded–most notably Charlie’s boyfriend, Cee, who befriends Kay while grieving over his loss.
I traded a few emails with Meyerding who has lived in Wallingford since 1972, and she shared her insights on being a fellow Wallingfordian, as well as an author, and someone who discovered midlife that she has autism:
MS: What prompted you to write a murder mystery, and this particular story?
JM: Ideally, I’d write the kind of novels Iris Murdoch described as “thick.” Mysteries definitely are “thin,” but I’ve found I need the support of a structure like that provided by a genre. Stories don’t come to me on their own. Instead a story occasionally accretes around a character who has appeared (mysteriously) in my mind. The character starts out almost in focus but is fine-tuned, so to speak, as the story develops and other characters appear. I knew I’d like to write about an autistic person, in order to help make the existence of autistic adults more salient for a general readership. Wasn’t until I “met” Kay (in my own mind), however, that I was able to get started.
MS: Your characters are so well-rounded, many of them (especially Cee) are full of powerful emotions. As someone who has autism, was it challenging for you to convey those emotions?
JM: Two responses come to mind:
1. Yes, it was challenging for me to convey strong emotions, but I don’t know that my being autistic was the reason. Actually, being able to “deal with” the emotions in my own time, in solitude (“emotion recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth put it in another context), made Cee’s emotions easier to examine and describe than my own emotions ever are when I’m having them. There’s a time lag between feeling and knowing what I feel, a lag that often disconcerts or alienates other people. Most autistics do experience as much emotion as non-autistics, though we often express it differently (less, more, or idiosyncratically), and at times may not respond “appropriately” by standards of the norm.
2. In more general terms: I realized when I was a teenager that I’d never be able to write fiction because I never would be able to understand another human being well enough. A decade and a half later, I realized that fiction was perfect for me precisely because it is a mechanism that allows me to create a human being about whom I, perforce, know all there is to know. The process by which a character originally “wells up” in my brain is unknown to me, but after that I am able to employ my years of reading, life experience, and musing in the process of making the character as consistent and believable as my writing skills allow.
JM: Wallingford used to be a comfortably working-class area. A bit more than a quarter century ago, I was bemused, and a bit offended, when I overheard two young women agreeing with one another that it was an okay place to live as a low-income graduate student, but as soon as one’s real (adult) life began, of course, one would want to live someplace less grungy. I’d never thought of Wallingford like that, though it certainly used to be much less expensive. For a number of years, my mother and I shared a rental house with a two-bedroom/two-story main section and a one-bedroom “mother-in-law” apartment in the basement; the larger space was $125/mo., and the smaller was $75/mo. (That was on Densmore between 39th and 40th.) Gradually, the generation of adults living here when I arrived saw their children grow up, and many (most?) of the parents and the children have moved away. There are only two “old timers” (me and the even older woman next door) left in the area covered by the local “Night Out” activity where I’ve lived for 25+ years now. As far as I can tell, the new-comers are more likely to be professional-class than working-class, and of course many have upgraded houses and landscaping. I find it impossible to “get to know” people by casual contact, due to faceblindness as well as autism, so I don’t know much at all about the people around me. So far, the neighborhood has remained very livable in terms of retaining its grocery store, laundry, hardware store, and library (the essentials for daily life). Losing the Fuji dime store was a blow, since it was a treasure house of small necessities (e.g., you could dash in for a spool of thread or a pair of socks) as well as amazing kitsch. The neighborhood apparently has developed a more activist streak over the decades, however, and I appreciate that: the Meaningful Movies, Sustainable Wallingford, the Senior Center, etc. Also, I like the way residents and businesses communicate about things now-a-days, much of it thanks to Wallyhood, no? I greatly appreciate those businesses that feel a connection and commitment to the neighborhood, even if the people behind those storefronts are not old-timers like me.