Interview with the author of ‘UNDERDOGS’ – a novel with special needs heroes written by Chris Bonnello

For those that may not know you, tell us about yourself.

My name’s Chris, and I’m the writer behind Autistic Not Weird (http://autisticnotweird.com), diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 25. After I left primary school teaching I launched my website to talk both personally and professionally about autism, and it’s taken off a bit better than expected! Three years on I’ve won three awards for my advocacy and given over fifty autism talks, some internationally (including at Sydney Opera House!). I’m also a special needs tutor, a Boys’ Brigade captain, an enormous chess geek and a soon-to-be-published novelist.

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Chris Bonnello

Can you explain why the title has been changed from Guerrillas to Underdogs?

It was a joint decision between myself and the publisher, because it’s far more suited to the themes of the book and its characters. Whereas Guerrillas simply means “we pick up guns and shoot them”, Underdogs alludes to the war their fighting (with odds ridiculously against them), the size and age of their army, and the characters themselves who have grown up being made to believe they’re inferior. And besides, who doesn’t love a good underdog story?

 

When did you start writing Underdogs and what inspired you to write it?

Underdogs has gone through a bunch of incarnations, but the very, very first draft was in 2010, back when it was named Guerrillas. I wanted to write the ultimate underdog story: a novel series where the good guys were almost mathematically certain to lose, but would fight anyway. Hilariously, writing the book was also a coping mechanism for my unemployment at the time, giving me something to do with my days. It was clearly never going to get published, but that wasn’t the point of it. And now it’s literally being published, with over 400 copies sold already.

 

Some of the characters are from Special Education. What made you decide to go with this amazing idea?

In 2014 I was working at a special school, and looked at Underdogs again. The thought of having the main characters being teenagers from a special school crossed my mind, and the more I thought about it the more I felt it absolutely had to happen. Not only would it be a unique idea in the dystopia field, but also there’d be major opportunities to discuss important topics. Underdogs would become a novel that would actually have something to say.

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There are some powerful messages/life lessons in the story. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

I don’t want Underdogs to be too preachy: underneath everything else, it’s an intense action novel filled with loveable characters, and as a novel it should be seen that way. With that said, there are massive opportunities to be taken (and a lot of responsibility on my part) to make sure the reader is richer from the experience of reading. I want neurodiverse readers to experience a novel where they can identify with the main characters, and see people similar to them who go through massive challenges due to their conditions but do incredible things anyway. I want neurotypical readers to leave the book with a better understanding of teenagers with special needs: not just what makes them different, but also the largely unspoken common ground they have with other teenagers.

Finally, I want all the book’s readers to gain a little more insight into what happens when those defined by their weaknesses get a chance to play to their strengths.

 

What themes/genres does Underdogs fit?

Aside from the obvious young adult/dystopia genres, there’s an up and coming genre called “disability-lit”, which Underdogs is perhaps around the edges of.

As for themes… I’d say the big ones are the difficulties of being an underdog (both in the war sense and in the special needs sense, these characters have been raised to believe they’re “inferior” to those they’re fighting to save), and trying to be the best you can be when the world is not on your side.

 

Is there a certain age range the book is more suitable for?

I’d say “12+”, which obviously is an age range that includes adults. It has that Harry Potter/Hunger Games cross-age-range appeal, written for teenagers but adults are likely to love it just as much. Among its dozen or so beta readers, both teenagers and adults have been equally enthusiastic.

 

Underdogs is available in paperback and eBook once published. Is there any possibility of an audiobook version?

A lot of people have asked this. Unbound Publishing have told me that it’s rare that they do audiobooks, but they will if the book’s wildly successful and proves that there’s a level of demand for it!

 

Who is your favourite character in Underdogs and why?

I’d say it’s a tie between Jack, a 17-year-old lad with Asperger’s who understands computers better than people, and Dr McCormick who leads the Underdogs as a calm, guiding force who loves building people. Jack is a loyal, honest (sometimes too honest) young man who helps his friends put things into perspective, and a nice dry sense of humour. McCormick is like Dumbledore and Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender rolled into one, except a mathematics lecturer.

Kate comes close behind though. She suffers massively from anxiety but makes a point of confronting absolutely everything that makes her nervous. She is by far the bravest character in the whole Underdogs universe.

 

Will there be more Underdogs books to follow?

Oh yes. I’m on book three already! Obviously, the reception to book one will determine whether the publisher will except book two, but going by Underdogs’ performance so far I think we can afford to be optimistic.

 

As the author, tell everyone why you think the world needs a book like Underdogs.

Because representation matters. Meaningful, accurate representation of neurodiversity in fiction is so rare, and most neurodiverse characters in novels (or movies) are either tokenistic or based on stereotypes. Underdogs, if it performs well, may be a key part in the battle for representation as well as being a heart-pounding action novel in its own right.

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There are some incredible rewards with the purchase of the book including having your name printed in the book and meeting the author himself. Underdogs can be ordered here: Underdogs

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