By Cathy Clamp
A parent’s worst fear is at the heart of this harrowing debut thriller by Antoinette van Heugten. When single mother Danielle Parkman learns that her autistic teenager, Max, is accused of murder while confined to a psychiatric hospital for assessment, Danielle is forced to find the killer in order to absolve her son.
Although she knows first hand about her son’s violent writings and drawings and she’s nursed more than a few bruises from his outbursts, she believes in her heart that he’s incapable of murder. But as the pressures of investigating mount, including her own arrest as an accessory, and a killer who wants her to back off, Danielle is forced to reexamine what it means to be a mother and what lengths she’ll go to in order to save Max.
I caught up with this busy attorney from Texas, who is the mother and step-mother of three children, two of whom are autistic, to talk about her very first thriller:
Obviously, you know of whence you speak when it comes to autistic children. Did you have to do any research at all to write parts of the book?
I really didn’t have to do much research for a few reasons. First, my son was very young when he was diagnosed with a variety of disorders. It seemed that the diagnoses changed depending upon the different doctors we consulted and the different behaviors we noticed as he grew older. As such, I began educating myself about autism and various other mental disorders about eighteen years ago ¬- not only about the medications available at the time, but trying to figure out which, if any, of the many diagnoses we were given might be true. Second, I did spend a month with my son at a psychiatric hospital and the novel reflects many of the fears and emotions of my experience – and his. I didn’t have to do research for that: I lived it.
Did you choose the form of autism Max would have for a reason?
When I decided that one of my characters would have Munchausen Syndrome and Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, I was shocked and saddened by the desperate lengths a mother would go to get attention from the medical community.
Being a litigation attorney is hugely stressful all by itself. What compelled you to take on the task of writing a novel?
At the time events in my son’s life reached a crisis, I was practicing law, had just gotten remarried, and had also gained two stepchildren to raise. As I look back at it now, I have no idea how my husband and I got through it, but we did. I had always written and, during that very painful time, I kept a journal of my thoughts and emotions, particularly during that month I spent with my son at the psychiatric hospital. Afterwards, I wrote the novel to stay sane!
Tell us a little more about your character Danielle. What resonated in the character you brought to life that continues to fascinate you?
Danielle was my depiction of a mother who never gives up on her child – no matter what the professionals say; no matter how obvious it might be to everyone else that the situation is hopeless. It was the driving force of her life. What continues to fascinate me is the enormous strength and devotion that mothers have for their children – no matter how dire the circumstances. The mother-child bond is like no other.
Is this book intended to be a stand alone novel, or are you intending sequels?
I would love to write a sequel. I won’t give away the ending of Saving Max, but let’s just say that at the end of the novel someone definitely still needs killing.
What’s next on your plate for readers who fall in love with your writing?
I am currently working on a novel about an American woman of Dutch extraction who finds her mother murdered in her home – a single bullet between the eyes, her hair sliced off, and a Luger on the floor beside her. Soon thereafter, the daughter discovers documentation that indicate that her parents may have been Dutch Nazis during the Second World War – and not in the resistance, as they had told her. Her journey into the past to discover the truth is one that I believe will both thrill and emotionally involve the reader, as well as provide little-known historical information. My parents were Dutch and were both in the resistance. I received a grant after college to study at the Dutch War Institute in Amsterdam and returned again a few years ago to complete the research for this novel.
Where can readers find you on the web?
My website is http://www.savingmaxbook.com and I can be reached on both Facebook and Twitter by clicking on the icons at the top of the home page. I also have a blog on the website and welcome any and all reader feedback.
Is there anything you’d like readers to know about the subject of autism and what they can do to help?
Thankfully, autism awareness has been very much in the news in recent years. I do think that one generally held misperception is that there is only one kind of autism. Many people hear the word and automatically imagine a nonverbal child banging his head and being violent. Although unfortunately this can be the case, autism is a spectrum disorder ranging from those with mental and emotional challenges to those who have a high functioning form of autism like Asperger’s. No two autistic people are alike. On my website, I list a number of organizations that I support and encourage others to support. The more we fund research and education about autism, the more hope we have that someday the cause of autism will be found and our autistic children and adults can lead better lives.
Will you be touring for the book’s release?
Initially, I will be on a signing tour primarily in Texas. I will be in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio – dates to follow. I anticipate being at the BEA again next year, as well as the ITW annual conference – which I’m really looking forward to! I will post any other conferences and signings on my website as they come up.
Any words of advice for aspiring authors?
I’d like struggling writers to know that it took me twelve years and twenty-three rewrites to get this novel published. Don’t give up!
Thanks so much for talking to us about the new book. Readers are sure to get a roller coaster emotional ride when they pick it up!