Scifipulse recently caught up with Erika Hammerschmidt. She is an author, artist and speaker. Whose work includes Kea’s Flight, Born On The Wrong Planet and her Abby and Norma webcomic. During this interview. Erika discusses self publishing and her writing influences. Additionally, she talks about societal autism perceptions and what 5 characters she would invite to dinner.
SFP: What made you want to be a writer?
Erika Hammerschmidt: That I’m not sure about, because it happened before I have any actual memories. My parents tell me I was writing stories and poems (in both English and German) by the time I was four years old.
Not literary-quality stuff… more like just scribbling out a few deranged sentences about a cat eating rats, then translating “Rats! Rats! All to eat!” into “Ratten! Ratten! Alle zum Fressen!” But it’s so much a part of me that I can’t say it started for any particular reason.
SFP: What writers neurodiverse or otherwise are you inspired by?
Erika Hammerschmidt: Lots of them. I’ve been reading since I was four, too, and I grew up in a house with lots and lots of books. Reading was most of my entertainment, back then.
Early on, my ideas of various genres were shaped by pretty old literature: Heinlein for science fiction, Agatha Christie for mystery, Lucy Maud Montgomery for romance and coming-of-age stories. By the time I started on Kea’s Flight, I had branched out from that a little. I had read Snow Crash and Neuromancer and a few other works of cyberpunk.
Weirdly, I hadn’t read “1984” yet… I’d somehow gotten through all of high school and college without ever having a class that assigned it. But I read it during the editing process, because friends recommended it to me when they heard the plot of Kea’s Flight. Same thing happened with a few other novels, including Ender’s Game.
Strangely enough, though, of all the books that were recommended to me while working on Kea’s Flight, none of them inspired me nearly as much as Watership Down. I think it’s because it was the author’s first novel, and in many ways you can tell it was his first novel, and yet it succeeded immensely. That gave me hope and helped keep me motivated.
My favorite books are the ones with complex surprise endings, where everything fits together like a puzzle. Charles Sheffield is great at this. So is Louis Sachar, of “Holes” and the “Wayside School” series, and I don’t know if he’s neurodivergent but his books resonated VERY hard for me as a neurodivergent kid.
SFP: In your novel Kea’s Flight, Draz could be considered a “stereotypical” aspie character, ie literal-minded and great with computers. Yet he is the main character’s love interest. How important is it that autistics see ourselves as romantic and romanceable figures?
Erika Hammerschmidt: It’s very important for that to be a possibility, even though it’s not always important for every one of us.
Romantic love is a huge part of human society, and when we’re told that no one could ever love us that way, it can make us feel less like people. I spent a lot of my teens and young adulthood feeling that I would always be missing out on that experience.
When I met my partner around the age of 24, that did two things for me: a sudden really high boost to my self-esteem and my sense of personhood… but also a realization of how much of my happiness and fulfillment I’d assumed would come from having that kind of relationship.
Being in love can be wonderful but it doesn’t fix everything. I didn’t realize just how many things about my life I have to fix in other ways, until I experienced a romantic partnership and fully absorbed the reality that it’s not the happily-ever-after ending you see in movies, it’s a life that keeps on going after the end credits, and you keep having problems and obstacles to overcome.
Also, not all autistics want romantic love or sex, and that’s okay. (One of the characters in Kea’s Flight is asexual, and I hope to write about aromantic characters at some point too.)
I think it’s very important to have stories that show romance as a possibility, no matter who you are. But there should also be stories that show the possibility of finding fulfillment elsewhere, either instead of romance or in addition to it.
SFP: How do you think we can move people’s perceptions away from the “you’re not autistic enough/you’re too autistic to speak for neurodivergent people” false dichotomy and get them to really listen to us?
Erika Hammerschmidt: I think their perceptions can’t fully move away from that until they’ve listened to us quite a bit. So it’s difficult.
I don’t know the best way to handle it. They way I tend to approach it in my life is that I don’t talk about neurodivergence up front when getting to know people in person, and then later, if we get along well and they’ve categorized me as an interesting person they like to listen to, then I bring up that side of my life.
Often they’re surprised when I tell them how much of a difficult child I was… how I had severe violent behavior problems… and how the biggest help in overcoming them was that some people were still respectful and kind and patient. Especially the ones who accepted all my weird personality quirks that DIDN’T hurt anyone, and told me I still had the right to be weird in my own ways. They would also explain how and why my behavior had harmed someone, and that the problem was harm, not abnormality. This was the kind of teaching I could absorb, even as a kid. I could never learn anything from the teachers who just said “don’t do it because it’s not normal.”
I can only hope that hearing all this from me might help people see something more optimistic when they encounter kids like the kid I was.
But, at the same time, I realize not every autistic person has the option of approaching it that way. There’s a tiny grain of truth in the “not autistic enough/ too autistic to speak for neurodivergent people” criticism. I can’t speak for every autistic person. I can speak for myself.
Ideally, if someone asks me what it’s like being nonverbal and/or having social impairments so severe you can’t get a job, I would tell them to ask someone who’s had that experience. There are neurodivergent people with that kind of experience who are still able to have blogs and post about what it’s like. I’d rather try to amplify their voices.
SFP: What are you working on at the moment?
Erika Hammerschmidt: Too many things! My biggest obstacle to getting my projects done is that I have so many of them, from writing and drawing to sewing and making jewelry. I just want to do everything, and there’s not enough time! Especially since I also have a full-time job in a pharmacy.
But as far as writing goes, I’m in the final editing stages of a sequel to Kea’s Flight. Two sequels, actually. It WAS going to be one book, but it ended up over a thousand pages long, so I split it into two, Kea’s Landing and Kea’s Migration.
I managed to do it in a way where each one has some semblance of a shape as a story of its own, but the storyline still arcs very much between the two sequels. They show what happens when the ship gets to a planet, and finds another society already there.
It’s as much about conflict within Kea’s own society as it is about the planet she lands on. And it explores more of what was happening on the ship, in areas Kea and her group were less familiar with. I go into the viewpoints of some other characters whom the system would have classified as “severely disabled,” some of whom have other marginalizations as well.
I’ve always regretted that Kea’s Flight never addressed that side of things very much. But I want to do it in as sensitive a way as I can… and so the editing process has gone on very long as I’ve been trying to get as many different viewpoints from readers as possible.
SFP: How does self publishing differ from being published by a company?
Erika Hammerschmidt: Mainly, I have more freedom with self-publishing. That’s the biggest difference I’ve seen.
Yes, a publisher can drive more sales if they have a good marketing department. But unless they’re immensely successful at it, this doesn’t result in more income for the author. When a book is professionally published, the publishing company takes about 90% of the proceeds, in my experience. So they’d have to have some of the greatest marketing success ever, before it would start to make up for that.
With a good editor, a publishing company can also make the book itself much more appealing. But (again in my own experience) editors who work for publishing companies have a very bizarre idea of grammar and punctuation rules, sometimes based on style manuals that are far behind actual human use of language.
I had an editor who didn’t accept “Asperger’s” as a shortened form of “Asperger’s Syndrome.” This was before Asperger’s fell out of favor as a diagnosis; the editor was totally fine with mentioning the syndrome itself… they just insisted that the shortened form had to be just “Asperger.” Even in a sentence like “I have Asperger.” (What, I have Hans Asperger tied up in my basement?)
I’ve also had editors who insisted on capitalizing every word that came after a colon… or replacing every instance of “whether” with “if”…or removing italics where they made sense to me and then sticking them into places they made no sense. I had one who kept trying to correct the grammar in a scene of dialogue where a speaker’s grammar mistakes were an important part of the story I was trying to tell. I’ve had them call my sentences unclear and ask questions about what I meant, in places where the question was very clearly answered if they’d just bothered to read the previous sentence or the following one.
My own self-editing skills are very strong, and I run my self-published books past a lot of real-life readers before publication, so I don’t feel I need a publishing company for the sake of editing. My self-published books have been about as successful as my professionally published ones, and the experience is far less stressful.
SFP: Where did the idea for your webcomic Abby and Norma come from?
Erika Hammerschmidt: For most of my life I’ve had a brain that generates weird insights. I’m almost always analyzing the world around me from a somewhat strange angle, and seeing unusual connections and analogies between all sorts of things. Before the term “shower thoughts” became widely used, my shower-thoughts spigot was already at a constant flow.
I think 2002 was the first year I started keeping an “insight book,” a little notebook where I jotted them down. Often they would come into my head as imaginary conversations. I wanted to share them, and the only format that seemed to make sense for this was the format of a comic strip. So, around 2006, I began Abby and Norma.
I named them after the word “abnormal,” of course, and made them college-age women because that was the nearest experience I could relate to, having just recently graduated from college. I made the art mostly copy-pasted, because the focus was on the dialogue, and my art skills were busy elsewhere.
It was an acquired taste, but it got a fair number of fans over the years. However, it was never successful enough to feel worth putting a ton of effort into it. And with the rise of Twitter, personal web pages got less traffic, and the market for shower thoughts got very saturated, and I couldn’t really compete.
In recent years, posting a super-random thought, or even an imagined conversation, is a totally standard thing to do on Twitter. These days, if I get an insight that could have been an Abby and Norma strip, it usually ends up as a Twitter post. I’m glad that wasn’t the case for the ten years or so that the comic ran, because I really am proud of a lot of what I did in it. But I also cringe at a lot of it. Those were my largely-unfiltered thoughts, and I’ve grown a lot since then.
SFP: And finally, if you could invite 5 fictional characters to dinner, who would they be and why?
Erika Hammerschmidt: I find dinner conversation counterproductive. I don’t try to use the same orifice for two incompatible things at the same time. So I’ll make it a potluck, and go by who would bring the best food.
Merry and Pippin from Lord of the Rings. Their contribution would be satisfying and plentiful.
Aviva from Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series. She’d make sure everyone had something they like, regardless of dietary needs.
Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, after he’s taken over the factory from Willy Wonka. He’d be a better guest than Wonka would be, but he’d bring just as great a dessert.
Alexis Ferud from Kea’s Landing (eventually you’ll see what I’m talking about, someday.)
And… if they really want to talk during dinner, I guess their conversation would be pretty delightful too.
SciFiPulse would like to extend our warmest thanks and best wishes to Erika Hammerschmidt for so graciously taking the time to answer our questions.
Erika’s website: Erika Hammerschmidt ~ Author, Artist and Speaker
Her Twitter: @earthtoerika
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