TRAVERSE CITY — April is turning out to be a banner month for Traverse City writer Cari Noga.
In the space of a week, Noga launched her debut novel, “Sparrow Migrations,” and a shorter, excerpted book; read from and signed copies of the novel at a downtown bookstore; and was featured in the National Writers Series’ “Author Next Door” spotlight.
The novel (CreateSpace, $14.95 paperback, $2.99 ebook), addresses autism and hope through three intertwining storylines — a couple struggling with infertility, a lesbian couple coming out of the closet, and an autistic boy for which “The Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash is the catalyst for his first real-world relationships.
Noga said she wrote the book as a means to working through her emotions after her son, Owen, was diagnosed with autism in 2010.
“One of the scary things about an autism diagnosis is that it is such a huge range,” said Noga, 43, of Traverse City. “And you don’t know if they’re going to be a non-verbal dependent adult or a socially awkward, absent-minded professor. How do you prepare yourself for that, especially if what happens is not what you imagined?”
The mother of two, including 4-year-old Audrey, said she also wanted to express the “duality of life” in a family that includes a child on the autism spectrum.
“You love the child fiercely, you’re determined to be their advocate. Yet the simple things of day-to-day life — like running an errand, or getting dressed and out the door in the morning — can be an enormous strain that taxes every resource you have: time, patience, energy, other relationships, finances,” she said. “It’s impossible for that stress not to ripple outward from the family. Yet one truth doesn’t cancel out the other.”
Like 7-year-old Owen, Noga’s main protagonist — Robby Palmer — struggles with many of the traits of a child on the autism spectrum, from social difficulty with peers, to difficulty managing stress and frustration, often leading to meltdowns. As a result, the book is already resonating with everyone from special ed teachers to others parents of kids with autism.
“I felt she gave an amazing description of what it might be like to be in the head of a child with autism,” said Joy Byington, a resource room teacher for Traverse City Area Public Schools and an autism coach at TCAPS Montessori. “And she’s done such a good job of making you feel like you’re getting the story through Robbie’s eyes and not just his parents’.”
Especially resonant, Byington said, is Noga’s depiction of the joy Robby’s mother feels when her autistic child finally makes eye contact and of his parents’ marital relationship and how each came to accept their son in a different way and on a different timeline.
“I like how she talked about finally accepting her son, and not a diagnosis.” Byington said.
The book’s first draft was written for National Novel Writing Month in 2010, Noga said. It finished as a semi-finalist (top 1 percent among 5,000 novels) in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. But after spending a year revising the book and shopping it around to agents, Noga took the advice of everyone from librarians to other writers and decided to go the self-publishing route.
Originally she planned to release the book on the January anniversary of the Hudson plane crash but decided to time its publication for Autism Awareness Month in April instead. The novel’s cover art was created by autistic graphic artist Anie Knipping, of New Jersey.
“I thought if I could self-publish, this would be out there in the world and I could satisfy the itch to publish and I could be doing some good. And if I didn’t have a lot of money invested in it I could afford to give some away to autism causes,” said Noga, who will donate $1.88 of every hard copy sold this month to autism organizations.
“It’s definitely a huge accomplishment to have this story out there. The response I have gotten from readers has been really positive so far. I’m really proud that I wrote something that other readers think is authentic. Whether it’s a health issue, a relationship issue, an honesty or deceit issue, the underlying problem will be familiar.”
Noga has been a writer for more than 20 years, working as a journalist in Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, where she was a reporter for the Record-Eagle. She is also the author of Road Biking Michigan and works as a writer in Northwestern Michigan College’s public relations office.
She set part of her novel in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where Robby comes with his parents to see the piping plover after becoming obsessed with the sparrows blamed for the Hudson crash and extending his interest to endangered birds. She said SBDNL piping plover expert Alice Van Zoeren read multiple versions of the manuscript to ensure biological accuracy.
Noga took the same honest approach with the rest of the book, including its happy but realistic ending.
“It’s not sugarcoated to make it sound like there’s a saintly perspective you get sometimes for people that have trials in their lives,” she said. “Robby isn’t a character either to be pitied or treated saintly and neither are his parents. The whole idea was to write a book about ordinary people with regular lives, regular jobs, and suddenly something happens and they don’t have a choice about whether or not to navigate it. It’s about ordinary people embarking on these changes in their lives they may not have wanted at all.”
As for her own big changes, Noga has come to accept them rather than try to overcome them, just like the characters in her book.
“The experience of caring for a special needs kid is nothing I ever wanted. But when looking back on these past years, there are certainly moments I wouldn’t trade,” she said.
“Sparrow Migrations” is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.com and at Brilliant Books and Horizon Books in Traverse City. Noga will sign copies of the book from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at Horizon Books.
Give it a try
Want to give a 50-page story a try before picking up the novel?
"Piping Plover," by author Cari Noga, is excerpted from her "Sparrow Migrations," both released April 7.
Noga said "Plover" is taken from Robby's story, one of three storylines in the longer novel. Both its character and length also are appropriate for middle-grade readers, ages 10 to 13, she said.
The book, which features cover and interior illustration by Traverse City's Glenn Wolff, is available only as an ebook at Amazon.com and at Horizon and Brilliant Books.
Noga is offering a free promotion on Amazon through Monday; after that the book will sell for 99 cents. She'll donate 20 percent of its sales to piping plover projects in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.