October 06 - Interview

CATHERINE LARNER talks to novelist Marti Leimbach about faith, Hollywood, and parenting a child with autism

Marti Leimbach had achieved fame and success with four international best-selling novels: her first, Dying Young, was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. But for five years the writing stopped.

"I didn't write from the time my son was diagnosed with autism," she says. "He is now nine and getting on with his life. But for five years I was a frightened person, desperate to learn as much as I could to help my little boy.

"It was almost too painful to remind myself of the world that I had once been a part of. In the world pre-diagnosis, the children were always OK, the future was always something to look forward to.

"You can't really create much if you are in the middle of the crisis. So I decided to put aside a good career and trust that everything that needed to remain in my life, would. I didn't know that writing would be there, but thank God it was."

Marti knew there was something wrong with her son, Nicholas, for some time before the diagnosis. Her second child, he displayed a strange behaviour which the doctors couldn't explain; walking on his toes, grinding his teeth, not sleeping, not eating, not talking: and then the answer came.

He's autistic, they said.

The 'experts' weren't constructive but Marti fought the system and pursued interventions that saw Nicholas gradually improve.

Marti, writing again, turned her experience into a novel entitled Daniel Isn't Talking. Now in its third printing in the UK and USA, the film rights have been sold to Fox with Julia Roberts once again reading the lead role, and Marti is pleased to highlight the plight of parents with autistic children.

"I needed to tell that story. I can't describe how it feels any better than to write; to hand over the novel and say: ‘read it – this is what it is like’.

"I get wonderful letters every day from parents and also, surprisingly, from professionals in the field. Often under-resourced, they are frustrated at the service they are providing and are encouraged by the book, even if it is fictional."

An even wider audience will hear the message through a film, so how is it that Julia Roberts will once again be starring in a Leimbach story?

"I don't have a connection as such with Julia Roberts," says Marti. "I respect her enormously. She has a huge heart for children with disabilities, so when I was asked where I wanted the manuscript sent, obviously I thought of Julia Roberts."

The script is being written and contracts are being signed, but Marti doesn't know the details of the film's progress. "They don't keep referring to me. When you sell the rights it is like selling your house. You can't go back and say 'What are you doing to the kitchen?'"

In addition to her novels, Marti recently started writing Christian books for children: Roberto, the adventures of a hamster, and Small Dog, a story for boys. She began to think about faith at the time Nicholas was diagnosed.

"I met a Christian lady who had M.E. but had experienced a miracle. She was such an amazing person in the way she lived her life and believed so strongly that I wanted to find out more.

"I had a lot of difficulty with what I read in the Bible, but I decided to behave as if I believed. I was already doing so many things that required a great amount of faith. So I started to pray.
 
"Eventually God finds you. I tried on the shoes and I found miraculously that they fitted.

"Now I think that believing God is on my side, and on Nicholas's side, and knowing he has a plan for Nick's life has made a great difference. There is nothing so certain as God's love, and he loves Nicholas even more than I do (hard to believe, but it's true). So that is a comfort and a source of strength for me."

Catherine Larner is a freelance journalist based in Suffolk

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