John Elder Robison, author of Be Different, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |April 21, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

John Elder Robison

author of Be Different and Look Me In The Eyes

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Athens Georgia, while my parents attended the University of Georgia. I was raised on both coasts of the United States as my dad attended graduate school before settling as a Professor of Philosophy in Amherst, Massachusetts

I attended various schools before ending up in Amherst High School, from which I was ejected in the tenth grade. I remained a proud and defiant high school dropout until 2008, when the Monarch School of Houston, Texas, gave me an honorary diploma.

Beyond that, I pretty much schooled myself. I was lucky my father was a college professor, and I had the run of the schools where he taught.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

I have had a love of machines all my life. I started tinkering with my grandfather’s farm machinery at twelve, and a few months later, my parents gave me a computer kit that sparked an interest in electronics.

Those two interests have shaped me, all my life. I had several successful careers in electronics including being on the road with KISS and Pink Floyd’s sound company, and I founded Robison Service, my specialty auto restoration company. We specialize in Land Rover, Rolls Royce, and Bentley motorcars.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

At eighteen I thought I was defective. Now I realize I am just different. I believe millions of young people today have that same defective feeling, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote this newest book.

4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?

Boy . . . there have been so many events . . .  my parents giving me that computer kit . . .  the birth of my son, Cubby . . .  seeing the audiences applaud my creations with KISS . . .  learning about autism and Asperger’s . . .  learning how to make friends . . .  getting married, and getting divorced. The list is long; far more than three.

5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? Aren’t they obsolete?

I wrote a book because books are the most effective to deliver a message that’s sixty or seventy thousand words in length and does not require pictures. Books are still (and will remain) the best way to present complex concepts.

You ask if books are obsolete. Let me give you an example by way of answer. My book is published by Random House, but the American edition is printed by an outfit called Berryville Graphics in a small town in Virginia. Berryville Graphics is only one of a number of book printers in the USA, and they print – in that one plant – one hundred and twenty MILLION books per year. Anyone who suggests that is an obsolete market, is nuts.

Will e books grow? Sure. Will more people read online? Sure. But there is always a place for the printed book.

In the final analysis, people can read or watch my stories in many mediums, and the message delivered remains the same.

6. Please tell us about your latest book…

The jacket copy sums it up better than I can. I am a writer, not a marketer. It’s a collection of stories that illustrate how I confronted the challenges of autism and Aspergers in order to minimize my disabilities, maximize my gifts, and build the best life I could. I show readers how they, too, can do the same thing.

7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

I want young people to know that life gets better as we get older, and I want to increase understanding and acceptance of people who are different, like me.

8. Whom do you most admire and why?

I admire Colonel Albert Ferguson, the little-known Australian sheep rancher who invented the Ferguson Hair Counter, an invention second only to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in its impact on wool production and cotton farming in the nineteenth century.

9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I am coming to your country soon, and I am keenly aware that you are home to some of the world’s deadliest snakes, its most dangerous crocodiles, and its vastest deserts. My goal is to survive and prosper during my trip Down Under so that I can someday visit Tasmania and New Zealand.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Attention spans are shrinking with every generation. The future is tight and compact information and stories, 200 characters at a time. Figure out how to tell stories that way, and how to make millions doing it, and you will be all set.

John Elder Robison, thank you for playing.

You’re welcome

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About the Contributor

John Purcell (aka Natasha Walker) is the author of The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy published by Random House Australia. The Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings reached the top ten on the Australian fiction charts and Natasha/John was the tenth highest selling Australian novelist and third highest selling Australian debut author in 2012. The trilogy has since sold over 50,000 copies in print and ebook and has been translated into French and Polish. John has worked in the book industry for the last twenty years. While still in his twenties he opened John’s Bookshop, a second-hand bookshop in Mosman in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Now he is the Head of Product and Chief Buyer at

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