Author Kathy Lette on autism, Pauline Hanson and being an Aussie in Londonby Diana Wichtel
From the coming-of-age cult classic Puberty Blues to her latest novel, Best Laid Plans, about a young man growing up with autism, Australian author Kathy Lette is famous for saying exactly what she thinks.
This is the woman who, invited to a Buckingham Palace barbie for expat Australians, turned up in an outfit printed with corgis in tiny tiaras. “Google Kathy Lette corgi suit,” she urges. Goodness. “Have a look at the two flunkies behind her. One is laughing and other one wants to put me in the friggin’ Tower.” She must get a lot of that. “I said to the Queen, ‘I’m just slightly worried that one of your dogs might mate with my leg,’” she recalls happily. “Elle Macpherson had been getting ready for four months. I got ready in five seconds and the front page of all the newspapers was the Queen laughing at my corgi suit.” Job done.
Her website lists as a claim to fame that she taught Stephen Fry a new word. Whatever was it? “Misogamist.” Oh, she made one up. “No! It means an allergy to marriage.” She has the hectic self-belief and deceptive self-discipline of a south Sydney girl made good who left school at 16 and has been patronised by the literati at home and abroad. “I’m an autodidact,” goes one of her jokes. “It’s a word I taught myself.” She has an honorary degree from the University of Wollongong.
Lette, who helped invent the daunting genre known as chick-lit, with novels from the precocious 1979 coming-of-age story Puberty Blues to Foetal Attraction and Mad Cows, once planted an onscreen kiss on the austere visage of BBC HARDTalk host Stephen Sackur. “Well, it was Valentine’s Day. You’ve got to have some fun in life.”
Indeed. She’s a barrel of monkeys on a phone call from London. What would she be like in real life? She has girls’ nights out with comedians Sandi Toksvig and Ruby Wax. “Sandi just texted me saying we’re going to have cocktails on Friday.” Lette drops names like cherry bombs throughout the conversation. Barry Humphries’ property backs onto hers. “Whenever he gets home from overseas, he emails me and says, ‘Kathy, dear, I’m poised at your rear entrance.’”
It’s all a long way from Cronulla. Lette was barely out of her teens when she wrote Puberty Blues with her friend Gabrielle Carey. “When we were 13, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn’t let you do,” it begins. “Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-ins, take drugs and go to the beach.” Pearls were clutched. The book became an instant classic, a 1981 movie and, in 2013, a television series.
“Twenty-eight bloody years,” she says, when asked how long she’s lived in London. She’s married to another expat Australian, human-rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson. He was going out with Nigella Lawson when they met. “The gossip columns were vile to me. They were, like, how could handsome gorgeous QC break up with beautiful gorgeous domestic goddess and daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for loudmouth colonial nymphomaniac? And I’d be like, ‘How dare they call me a loudmouth?’”
Lawyers get a hard time in her 2012 novel, The Boy Who Fell to Earth. Lette-like, Lucy is left to care for her autistic son, Merlin, after her lawyer husband, Jeremy, runs off with a television domestic goddess famous for the way she “pouted provocatively as though in a porn film”. Everything is material.
In the sequel – pun alert – Best Laid Plans, Jeremy is still a bastard. “All my friends are human-rights lawyers and they work for free. But there are a lot of unscrupulous lawyers out there I wanted to blow a raspberry at.” Merlin is about to turn 21 and is suffering from a bad case of virginity. Lucy decides to find him a prostitute: “Kerb crawling was definitely not on my ‘To do’ list after ‘Buy hummus, sort sock drawer, do Pilates.’”
That’s quite … out there. Merlin is based on Lette’s son Jules, 26, who has autism. “I definitely considered it,” she says, of Lucy’s plan. “I know a lot of autistic mothers who have done that. But then before Jules turned 21, he met a girl, nature took its course, he fell in love and luckily it was fine.”
Around then, she read about a father arrested for picking up a prostitute for his autistic son. “Oh my God, that could have been me in court,” says Lette. “He got a suspended sentence, but it was in all the papers. I thought that’s a great opening for a novel: a middle-aged, middle-class mum being arrested for kerb-crawling to pick up a prostitute for her child.”
It’s certainly arresting. Especially when delivered in Lette’s trademark stand-up-comedian-manqué style. Some critics have complained about her perilous puns and wild analogies. She’s unrepentant. “A good pun is like a little haiku. When America was allergic to Cuba, I called it Castroenteritis.” Of course she did. “Did you notice too many puns going through the last book?” she asks me. “No,” I squeak. “Oh for god’s sake, listen! Shakespeare or Chaucer – what would they be without wordplay. People say that because they just can’t make any.”
Her shtick could seem like a defence mechanism developed by a mouthy young woman in Australia’s blokey culture. “Oh God, yes. I grew up with these beautiful surfie girls with the blonde hair and beautiful figures, and I’m a bonsai brunette whose bra cups don’t runneth over, so I always say that’s where I developed my black belt in tongue fu.” Tongue fu: the jokes she throws out like a wall of social interference are also a way of keeping control of the dynamic. In the end, you can’t help but laugh along. Resistance is futile.
And you wouldn’t want to mess with her. Once, when she was a young woman about town in Sydney applying for a television job, one of the interviewers slapped $10 on the table. “He said, ‘I bet I can make your tits move without touching them.’ I just laughed. He leant over, mauled my breasts and said, ‘You won’, and gave me the $10.” So Lette put $20 on the table and kicked him in the balls. “I got the job.”
She brings that sort of chuzpah to advocating for people with autism. For all the farce, Best Laid Plans wins you over via the character of Merlin, who is funny, charming, heart-breaking. Behind the jokes, the book charts the pain of a parent who sees their child suffering: “‘I bet you wish you’d never had a child.’ My son’s tone was metallic with self-loathing. ‘Why can’t I be normal?’”
Lette has written about the times Jules would come home from school with a sign sticky-taped to his back saying, ‘Kick me, I’m a retard.’ “Every day they’re told they are wrong, they’re stupid, they’re out of sync. One thing the parent of an autistic child has to do is to build up their self-esteem, because their self-esteem becomes limbo low,” she says. “I always say it’s lower than Kim Kardashian’s bikini line.” She can’t help herself.
Like Merlin, Jules is bracingly frank. “People think I’m very candid,” says Lette, “but you should hear what I’m not telling you; whereas Jules has no filter. That means when he became sexual, I learnt way more than any mother should really know.” That honesty can make for interesting social encounters.
“I took Jules to Downing Street for a charity event when he was about 11. I said, ‘Jules, this is the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.’ He said, ‘Oh yes, you’re the one my mother calls Tony Blah-Blah-Blah.’ Jules is the only one who can catch me out.” He has his mother’s way with conversation-stoppers. On a clip of an interview with Amanda Holden, he concludes with: “You’d still be really pretty even if you were bald, by the way.” Holden looks utterly charmed.
On the problem of finding a girlfriend, Best Laid Plans proposes an app for people with autism called Autinder or, god help us, Square Pegs in Round Holes. She’s only half-joking. “Young autistic men are too exotic and too quirky for girls their own age, so they are incredibly socially isolated and lonely.” Merlin also has trouble finding a job. The news is much better in real life. Jules has a recurring role on hospital drama Holby City playing Jason Haynes, who has autism. “He’s got a very big storyline coming up. The great thing about it is he got it all by himself. There was no help from me or his dad, no connections, no introducing him to anyone. He did it off the back of his own talent. And it’s done more to take the stigma out of autism than a million dry documentaries because it’s watched by six million people a week.”
The turning point was acting lessons. Lette wasn’t sure how that would work out. “How can you put the artistic into autistic, kind of thing. But then I thought, actually, autistic people are acting every day. They’re acting trying to be normal. When he was little and we had a fight, he’d say, ‘Stop.’ He’d go out, come back in and say, ‘Now, take two’, and we’d do it again.”
She and Jules were in a BBC Horizon programme. “The autism expert who came to watch Jules in the acting class said every autistic person should take acting lessons because you’re acting out little scenarios all the time, learning how to behave in a neurotypical way. My whole thing about autistic people is that they shouldn’t try to be neurotypical, you should let them be their best autistic selves, but for their social ease it’s good for them to learn a few coping skills.”
She and her son are exceptionally close. “He goes to a little flat some nights a week. There’s a psychological umbilical cord that will never be cut, but I’m trying to make him independent. When I take him to the autism shows and things, he’s got a fan base. All the young women come up and get his autograph. It’s been so wonderful for his confidence.”
And there’s always the need to fight the good fight. When right-wing Australian politician Pauline Hanson made remarks about the need to “get rid of” children with autism in mainstream classrooms, @KathyLette took to Twitter: “Pauline Hanson wants to remove autistic kids from schools. I think it’s time we expelled Pauline Hanson & gave her a D for Dunce.” “She’s just an embarrassment,” says Lette. “Sometimes, I feel like the Earth got struck by meteors in the night and we got tilted off our axis to the right and we woke up in the morning going, ‘Wait a minute, what happened? Brexit, Trump, Pauline Hanson, the guy [Rodrigo Duterte] in the Philippines …”
She’s a Corbyn fan – “Did you see Glastonbury?” Her daughter, Georgina, works in his press office. She loves the “human minestrone” London has become. “After Brexit, it will all go back to what it used to be – morris dancing and bloody scones and tea.”
As for the snobs, she has her own literary circle. Lette and Robertson gave refuge to old friend Salman Rushdie during his time in hiding. Other house guests have included Julian Assange. She wrote his cameo on The Simpsons. “I always say I’ve had everyone in my attic except Anne Frank.” She’s incorrigible. You can empathise with the custody sergeant in Best Laid Plans, who, enduring Lucy’s verbal assault, says, “Don’t make me Taser you.”
The next minute, you could hug her. When she hears my daughter is in London on her OE and a little shaken by the recent attacks, she offers her phone number. “Tell her if ever she’s in trouble or she’s stuck to call me. My house is like the embassy.” It was full after the terrorist attack of July 7, 2005. “A lot of my friends’ children were in London and traumatised. We put sleeping bags down and they all stayed a couple of days. We colonials stick together at such times.”
She still gets patronised for her unreformed Aussie accent – “I’ve looked up the noses of people who are shorter than me” – but success is the best revenge. “I’ve just sold the TV rights to [production company] Fremantle,” she says, of Best Laid Plans.
There’s one of Lette’s one-liners that isn’t so jokey. “There’s no such thing as normal and abnormal, there’s just ordinary and extraordinary,” she says. “When I give talks, I don’t try to play down the difficult side. Any parent of an autistic child should get a parenting medal, without doubt. But it’s not all doom and gloom. I really try to emphasise the humour and the positivity of having someone with such an original brain in your life.”
As Lette did at his age, her son is breaking new ground. “Yes, that’s absolutely true, isn’t it? Now I want some wonderful director to just cast him for his great acting qualities and his comic timing.” He wants to play a Bond villain. “And he wants to play Hamlet. He told me the other day he thinks Hamlet’s autistic. He said, ‘Well, he’s obsessional, he’s got terrible chronic anxiety, he’s not that socially aware – he doesn’t even notice that his girlfriend’s suicidal – and he’s got mental health issues.’ He wants to play the first autistic Hamlet and I think he would be wonderful.”
Best Laid Plans, by Kathy Lette (Bantam, $37)
This article was first published in the July 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
Famous Kiwi women read the powerful words of Kate Sheppard, who fought for the right for women to vote.Read more
Mary Ann Müller was fighting for women’s rights before Kate Sheppard even arrived here, but her pioneering contribution to the cause is little known.Read more
Joe Stephenson’s tender documentary Playing the Part looks at McKellen's life as an actor, activist and perpetual wizard.Read more
Australian-New Zealander Jennifer Curtin says the lopsided nature of the Bledisloe Cup pales in comparison to the slump in transtasman relations.Read more
Don McGlashan is taking some old unloved songs on his New Zealand tour.Read more
The exhibition at Auckland Museum shows there is still ground to make up.Read more
The entomologist will work on outreach programmes and recruiting editors to improve the sparse coverage of New Zealand topics.Read more