Meet Maranda Russell, an award-winning author and artist. A humanitarian at heart, Russell strives to help children of all ages understand, and cope, with the plethora of conflicting emotions that present themselves on the road toward adulthood.
Russell also takes readers on a true, behind-the-scenes look at life in the foster care system via her book, From Both Sides, which provides real perspectives from foster children as well as foster parents.
Connect with Maranda Russell:
Hi Maranda and thanks for contacting me regarding the possibility of an interview. In doing my research to discover more about you, I’ve noticed you have written multiple books that each seem to focus on bringing up and/or raising awareness of some of today’s important issues.
Before we start discussing your books, though, let’s talk a little about you. The first thing I imagine that most people will notice is the unusual spelling of your first name. I like its uniqueness – how did it come to be? Were you named after someone specific (an older family member or a family friend), or did your parents just really like the name but want yours to be different and therefore more memorable?
My mom didn’t name me after anyone in particular. She just really liked the name and she wanted to spell it a little differently than the common spelling; probably because our entire family has weird names.
Mine is actually the most common – my mom’s name is Karicia and my sister’s name is Karlena. At least people don’t have trouble pronouncing my name, just spelling it right. When I was growing up though, I always kind of wished that I had a name starting with a “K” since everyone else in the family did; now I like my name though.
In your Amazon bio, you mentioned that you were born in Muncie, Indiana. Being that you now live near Dayton, Ohio, where were you raised as a child? Small city? Big town? Somewhere in between? Any siblings?
I lived in Muncie, Indiana until I was around 11. Then we moved to Adairsville, GA and lived there for six years. It was a huge change because Muncie was an urban college town and Adairsville was a tiny little southern town. We moved back to Muncie when I was 17 and that was where I later met my husband. We moved to Dayton, Ohio when my husband got a new job here. I like where I live now, but I kind of miss both Indiana and Georgia at times.
As I mentioned in the first question, I do have one older sister named Karlena. Unfortunately, she passed away a couple years ago, which was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with. I have some other half-siblings, but I honestly don’t know them that well since I wasn’t raised with them.
As a child, what was life like for you? Did you participate in the once-upon-a-time fairly customary (before the age of video games) childhood activities such as: hide and go seek indoor/outdoor, Marco Polo while swimming, or just sipping afternoon tea with the dolls? What entertaining things did you personally enjoy doing?
As a child, I was a little different than most kids; likely because of having Asperger’s. I didn’t do much imaginary play, although I did have an imaginary “frenemy” called Amy until I was around 10. I call her a “frenemy” because we fought all the time and were always competing (with myself winning of course since she was imaginary).
I had real friends too, but I honestly didn’t care much if they were there or not. I loved to play alone and often kicked my friends out when they made me mad. I feel badly about how I treated other kids back then, but I just didn’t know the proper social skills back then. High functioning autism wasn’t something most people knew about so I went undiagnosed during my childhood.
I had lots of toys I collected (especially Barbie and My Little Pony), but I didn’t really play with them. I would line them up or display them instead. I did play Atari and Nintendo games with my sister a lot since we shared a room. We loved Super Mario 3 the best.
I always loved to read, and read adult books while fairly young. I remember reading Stephen King and VC Andrews when I was around eight or nine. I’m not sure I would encourage that though.
At school I did exceptionally well academically, but struggled some socially. I was put into gifted classes at a fairly young age, which I always enjoyed.
When did you discover your love for books? What about drawing and/or painting? How about that penchant for ice cream; when did that start? My favorite flavor is Cherry Garcia. What’s yours?
I have always loved books, even before I could read. Prior to Kindergarten, I would literally cry because I was afraid I would never learn to read by myself. My grandmother read to me and my sister all the time and my older sister loved to read, so I grew up around books constantly.
I didn’t discover much of an interest in art until middle school. While in elementary school I had an art teacher who wasn’t very kind at all. She often compared me negatively to my sister who was a great artist; which discouraged me from trying much artistically.
When I got to middle school I had a great teacher who really encouraged me and opened my eyes to the talent I did have. I never took any art classes in high school, so I kind of lost interest during that time, but later rediscovered painting and drawing as an adult.
As for ice cream, I have many favorite flavors, but Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, Butter Pecan, Mint Chocolate Chip and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough are at the top of the list.
Maranda, you have also made it public knowledge that you have Asperger’s syndrome. Would you be willing to share how Asperger’s has affected you over the course of your still young life? I don’t want to simply presume that you face difficulties in social situations and/or life, but if you do, how do you handle them?
Asperger’s has affected me all of my life. However, since I wasn’t officially diagnosed until a few years ago, I didn’t understand for many years why some things were such a struggle for me.
The biggest Asperger’s-related problems for me have been social issues, especially making small talk, making correct eye contact (I never know for sure how much is too much or too little), and not boring others by talking about my obsessive interests too much. Unless people share my interests it is hard for me to connect with them. I have always seemed to connect better with people who are significantly older or younger than me.
The other major Asperger’s issue that I have is sensory problems: the feel of clothes, the texture and smell of food, sensitivity to loud and repetitive noises, anxiety caused by being surrounded by crowds or a lot of activity, etc. I do tend to “stim” quite a bit; more so when anxious. For me, “stimming” includes: rocking back and forth, humming or singing to myself, and just a lot of general fidgeting. When I am really stressed it helps me to listen to music, read, be alone, do puzzles, be around animals, take a bath, watch my favorite movies or eat some sweets.
Being that you have chosen to fulfill many “helper” type roles: foster parent, part-time substitute teacher, book reviewer and author of books intended to raise awareness, have you ever considered, or do you currently help other (as you have phrased it) “Aspies” who may be less able to cope with the stresses of today’s social environment?
I do feel a deep need to give back in whatever way I can. I try to write things that will comfort or encourage those who are going through things that I have been through. I have befriended some fellow Aspies and other young people, and in a sense have tried to “mentor” them. I feel like if I don’t at least try to make a difference while I am here on this earth, than I am wasting my time. I also have a huge soft spot for animals and try to adopt, or support, animal charities whenever I can.
I guess if anything, I just want to leave behind a legacy of helping and inspiring/encouraging others. I still feel I have a long way to go though. I feel that I never do enough.
So, let’s move on to your becoming an author. First and foremost, what propelled you into writing? Was it journaling as a child? An easier way to interact or make sense of the world around you? Or a creative side that was insistent about being let out?
Ever since I learned to read and write, I have written for fun. I have journaled quite a bit over the years. In fact, I still have all of my journals from the age of 15 until now. I do like to write stories sometimes, but often even my fiction is inspired by something that really happened to me or someone else.
I often participated in Young Authors Contests as a child, and in middle school I actually got a perfect score on the national writing test we had to take. I was always known as “the writer” in my classes. Most of my yearbooks have comments from all of my teachers about how they would be reading my books one day.
I also do tend to like to write shorter things, like poetry, essays and short stories. I think that is because I have a short attention span and lots of ideas!
What prompted you to write From Both Sides: A Look into the World of Foster Care from Those Who Know It Best? Can you provide us with a summary? What message do you hope readers come away with once they have finished it?
I wrote this book because being a foster parent truly opened my eyes to how awfully many of these kids are treated by the system, and how awfully many foster parents are treated when they are simply trying to help these kids. The system truly is broken in so many ways. Unfortunately, I think many foster kids would actually be better off left with their families than put through the trauma of the foster system. I wanted to give a voice to all those involved in foster care, that is why I interviewed current, or former, foster kids and other foster parents before writing the book.
I wrote the book in free-verse form because I thought it made the writing more personal and was a good way to get to the heart of the matter quickly. I have gotten some great responses from both foster parents and former foster children about the book, so hopefully it is helping in some small way.
What about Ode to Icky, which, incidentally, sounds like an amazingly cute story for younger children. What was your inspiration for that project?
Ode to Icky was inspired by one of my cats, named Einstein. He has always been lazy, fat and had some hygiene issues. He is the only cat out of the six we have that can’t clean himself adequately.
The little-girl character in the book named Candy is based on my own childhood-self in many ways. I was always coming up with crazy schemes to make money that didn’t always work out and sometimes got me in trouble.
I guess my last question for this interview would have to be: “Are you happy?”
Are you pleased with your life; with how you turned out? If you had a magic wand, would you wave it and make the challenge of Asperger’s go away, or are you happy with the person you are today?
At the end of the day, at the end of each of our lives, I feel that being at peace with oneself is the most important thing. Were we each happy? Did we each accomplish that for which we strove? Did we each leave this world better off than when we entered it?
And Maranda, from the outside looking in, you seem to be that happy-with-who-you-are person.
Happiness is such a hard thing to pinpoint. I am happy in the sense that I like who I am.
No, I would not want to get rid of my Asperger’s if I could, because it brings many gifts along with the struggles. I see the world in a unique way and I love that. However, I do wish the world was more accepting of people who are “different” in any way. It affects me deeply when people are unkind or hurtful, regardless of whether it is directed at me personally or not.
I do like the way my life turned out, although I would obviously like that some things were better. I do have many physical health problems that make life challenging (immune system problems, fibromyalgia and several other chronic pain conditions).
There have been some major losses in my life too, such as the death of my father when I was 12, and the death of my sister a couple years ago. These things helped make me who I am, so I’m not sure that I would undo them, but it still can hurt.
I do think that I have found some inner peace; at least from a spiritual point of view. I am not overly religious, but I have a strong faith in a higher power and in virtues such as love, hope, kindness, etc.
Mentally and emotionally though, I struggle somewhat for peace because I am, by nature, a perfectionist who is obviously living in a very imperfect world. I have always had problems with anxiety, and am also extremely sensitive; although people often don’t see it.
Things affect me on a very deep level. In many ways, art and writing are my therapy – I figure out myself, and the world, by exploring it through creativity. So, I guess the most accurate answer I can give is that I am happy deep down on the inside, but not always happy on the outside. Hopefully that makes sense.
Yes, that does make sense.
Thank you for spending your time with me and for sharing all that you have. I’m certain that all your readers and art fans will be excited to learn new things about you.
In closing, I wish you continued success in each and every future endeavor.
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