Allison Carter, the senior publicist for Harper Collins Publishers, was kind enough to share with us an article containing a Q&A with author James Markert discussing Peter Cotton, an important character in his new book, What Blooms From Dust. Peter is a caring and intuitive individual who happens to have autism. While some may see him as unimportant, his role in the story is essential. Thank you to Ms. Carter for sharing this with us!
Author’s Note: The article below is the property of Harper Collins Publishers. The opinions expressed therein are their own.
Just like us: Characters with autism, developmental conditions are another form of representation and inclusion in literature
James Markert talks about the role of an autistic character in his new novel,
What Blooms from Dust
Q: In your book, What Blooms from Dust, the main character, Jeremiah Goodbye, has just escaped from prison and is headed home when he befriends a young man named Peter Cotton. Peter seems to be autistic. Why did you write this character this way?
I didn’t go into the story with the intention of creating an autistic character, but when I first had Jeremiah Goodbye lay eyes on him and Peter smiled with such innocence, I felt his personality, challenges and quirks all come together for me.
Q: Your book is set in the 1930s, and the term “autism” as well as the condition was not commonly known. What did you learn about society’s view of people with autism and other developmental conditions during this era?
Once I decided that Peter’s character probably had autism, I delved a little deeper into the time period, and, like many things back then, ignorance unfortunately played too much of a part in how people perceived someone that was different. They were viewed as “simple” or “slow,” which was why the mother in the book, in an unfortunate occurrence during the depression, was trying to sell him and not her two “typical” boys. But this is also why I was determined, even though Peter often struggled to communicate with those around him, to make him the most perceptive character in the story.
Q: According to AutismSpeaks.org, about a third of those with autism are nonverbal. Peter Cotton doesn’t speak, but uses a typewriter to communicate with others. How does this add to his character?
He does speak, but mainly to repeat whatever was said to him, which can be frustrating to some of those around him. The typewriter for him, and subsequent letters he writes, simply act as a conduit to his brilliance; in turn, making his character quite unique. Not so much because he communicates with the written word, but because of the power of his words, however simple they may be. Peter has a way of saying a lot with a little.
Q: Mental and physical disabilities are underrepresented in literature, so how did you go about researching characters with certain challenges in other books?
To be honest I didn’t. Peter came to me and he was what he was. Part of the beauty of being able to set
his character during a time period where autism wasn’t an official diagnosis yet, was that I never labeled him as anything other than a smiley boy with dimples. He was just…Peter. I’ve read about and
researched autism in the past and have gotten to know various neurodivergent individuals through my
family, friends and students, but Peter really came to me all on his own.
Q: Why was it important for Jeremiah and Peter Cotton to meet?
I think their relationship was the ultimate “need one another” situation. Their meeting and ultimate friendship is a major catalyst in the story, one where they not only need each other but end up changing each other. For the good, of course.
Q: What make Peter relatable to readers and other characters in the story? And what makes him distinct?
After being abandoned by his mother, Peter is really looking for a place and people to belong to, like so many of us, and like the other characters in the book. What makes him most distinct is his keen sense of observation. He may be quiet, but he’s always watching and listening. And the other characters will come to learn that they’ve underestimated him. That he can see and hear beyond their “noise” to the truth of any given situation.
Q: What will readers ultimately gain by meeting Peter Cotton?
Simply put, they’ll be gaining a friend. Someone who will hopefully make them smile.
About the book
Just as Jeremiah Goodbye is set to meet his fate in the electric chair, a tornado tears down the prison walls, giving him a second chance at life. Upon his escape, he realizes he has entered a world he doesn’t recognize—one overtaken by the Dust Bowl. During his journey home to Nowhere, Oklahoma, he accidentally rescues a young boy named Peter Cotton. When the Black Sunday storm hits the very next day, the residents of Nowhere let years of hardship bury them under the weight of all that dust. Unlikely heroes Jeremiah and Peter Cotton try to protect the townspeople from themselves. Filled with mystery and magic, What Blooms from Dust is the story of finding hope in the midst of darkness and discovering the beauty of unexpected kindness.
What Blooms from Dust releases June 26, 2018 by HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson.
Booklist STARRED review
“Historical fiction at its finest that makes the reader want to learn more about the time and the people who lived there, and those who left.”
“Markert creatively portrays the timeless battle between good and evil, making for a powerful story of hope and redemption.”
About the Author
James Markert lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky. He won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, which was later published as A White Wind Blew.
James is also a USPTA tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC. Learn more at JamesMarkert.com; Facebook: James Markert; Twitter: @JamesMarkert.