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Francisco Stork in the real world

A lawyer, battling his own depression, writes a young-adult novel about an autistic teenager

By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / April 18, 2009
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SHERBORN - It's a long way from the public housing projects of El Paso, Texas, to this neat and leafy suburb, but novelist Francisco Stork has never forgotten his tough roots or how hard it was to transcend them. As the only child of a Mexican immigrant and her luckless American husband, he knew what it meant to be evicted from one apartment after another for nonpayment of rent, to live in shabby trailers, to feel like an outsider. But today he works on affordable housing for the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency. And he writes fiction about outsiders, especially the young.

His first two books were about Mexican-Americans in South Texas, one an adult on death row, the other a Chicano teenager trying to avoid the violence around him. The latter was based on Stork's childhood in El Paso. "Marcelo in the Real World," his new novel for young adults, is about a boy with Asperger's syndrome , a high-functioning form of autism. There are few novels about this disorder, and though Stork doesn't have it, he has a different emotional challenge: bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression.

Stork, 55, has struggled with depression since he was 14 and takes medication to keep it under control. "Depression is a very ugly illness," he said in an interview at his home. "I want to be very open about it, because it is something that happens to a lot of young people."

"Marcelo in the Real World," set in Boston, is told by 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval. He is gentle and loves ponies and music, including what he calls "IM" - an internal music no one else can hear - and is intensely interested in the Bible. He sees things in a direct, literal way, and does not show feelings (though he has strong ones) in the way that others do (one character in the book calls him Mr. Spock, after the emotionless character in "Star Trek"). Marcelo's lawyer father insists that the boy work in the mail room at the firm over the summer, to experience "the real world." Marcelo learns his tasks fairly well, but then discovers a photograph that reveals something disturbing about his father, putting the boy in a moral quandary.

First described in 1944, Asperger's syndrome became commonly recognized only in recent decades. People who have it are often highly intelligent, creative, articulate, and accomplished. Sometimes they have a near-obsessive interest in one or two subjects, such as music and religion, and may have compulsive repetitive habits. Often they have difficulty with concentration (too much on one thing, not enough on the context) and social skills. They may not look directly at other people, have an unmodulated speaking voice, and can appear to be emotionally unresponsive. They're not sick, but they are different. The ironic point of "Marcelo in the Real World," however, is that the real world can be stranger than Marcelo's.

Born to an unwed girl in Tampico, Mexico, Francisco Stork never knew his natural father. His life changed at age 6 when a retired Dutch-born American citizen, Charles Stork, married the boy's mother and moved his little family to El Paso. Stork was much older than his young wife and, because he was in his mid-60s, could not find a job. Still, he was a loving stepfather who gave his 7-year-old stepson a typewriter when he announced that he wanted to be writer. When the boy was 13, his stepfather was killed in a car accident. "I had the privilege of knowing him for about seven years," Stork said. "Then he died and we just stayed." His mother eventually secured an apartment in an El Paso housing project. Her son was studious, and won a scholarship to Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school in Mobile, Ala., where he majored in English and philosophy.

Stork's depression showed up in childhood, he said, but the manic part was not evident until he was much older. "With some of the highs that you have, you are so happy in a way," he said, "but later you look back and say that something was not right." The depressive phase has predominated. "It goes on a day-to-day basis," he said, "but the writing has helped in many ways. I have a sense of mission, of a task that needs to be done, and that is incredibly helpful."

His own struggles made him aware of people with even bigger disadvantages. In college he cofounded a local chapter of a worldwide faith-based movement called L'Arche. "So-called normal people lived with people with disabilities," Stork said, "so that they could learn from each other. We got three or four people to come live with us. There were people in the autism spectrum, though that was not a term that was prevalent. Most likely, some of them would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded or even schizophrenic. Some of them had a vision so similar to Marcelo that I'm sure they influenced me."

Stork knew he wanted to be a writer, so after graduation in 1975 he came to Harvard to study Spanish literature with Octavio Paz. But academic study was dry and not much use to an aspiring writer. In 1981 he married Jill Syverson-Stork, now a professor of Spanish at Wellesley College (they have two grown children). He abandoned his PhD program and went to law school. In 1982 he returned to Boston and practiced real estate law, then worked for state agencies, including Massport and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. But he never lost the yen to write, and in 2000 he published his first novel, "The Way of the Jaguar." His second novel, "Behind the Eyes" (2006), was for young adults.

"I like to have as much contact with young people as I can," Stork said. "My favorite thing is to go to grade schools and high schools. I tell them about myself, because I want them to know where I came from, about my work, and get them to write. I ask them, 'What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?' I come home with sheaves of paper by kids, 14-year-olds who have murders in their families, wars, all kinds of abuse. I want them to get a sense of writing in a journal, to see how easy that can be and how helpful."

He did not aspire to write young-adult fiction, but now feels that it is the literature for him. "I have kind of found my calling," he said. "I remember what was going on between the ages of 14 and 18. I always had a sense of young people at this stage of life." Stork says he wants young people to enjoy creativity, even if they have mood problems. "There is nothing romantic about depression," he said. "You should not think that if you want to be a writer you have to be depressed. You can be a good writer and be happy."