Q&A with Local Author Dylan Weiss
By Fran Joyce
This Awful Awesome Life.com
Dylan Weiss is the writing pseudonym for Gail Neustadt who earned advanced degrees in Speech-Language Pathology from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Michigan. Dylan has authored Skunk Tales Trilogy which includes Norton’s Tale and Sebastian’s Tale. Publication of the third in the Trilogy, Quinn’s Quill, will be published in 2023.
All three books use animal characters to expose the increasing environmental dangers of unconventional natural gas drilling (fracking) and its hazardous infrastructure.
Although Quinn’s Quill isn’t expected until 2023, Dylan has two books in the works, Traveling Our Road with a publication date of November 2021 and Side by Side in the spring/summer, 2022.
Traveling Our Road, a beautifully illustrated picture book, is a memoir for children. This complex story about a couple’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease is simplified for children. In it their shared “Road” becomes a central character for Abigail and DJ who face tragic circumstances, that of DJ’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and that of Abigail’s role as a caregiver. The author presents a series of challenges faced along their allegorical Road and the illustrator, Abigail Walouke, makes the story jump off its pages into your heart. Replete with verbal and visual symbolism, children are invited to consider how they might communicate with impaired loved ones.
“Side by Side” is a memoir for adults. In it Dylan shares her perspective of Alzheimer’s disease from the point of view of a caregiver. Side by Side is the moving story of love and struggle between a couple sharing an unusual challenge, that of early onset Alzheimer’s disease … a diagnosis for DJ and a new client for Dylan who is a speech/language pathologist with a specialty in designing dementia specific cognitive/communication programs. This unique memoir chronicles not only DJ’s early symptoms but also his major declines and some of the successful communication interventions Dylan created to enhance their relationship. Others who are struggling in similar situations as they grapple with fear, anger and depression may see themselves within Dylan’s story.
I met with author Dylan Weiss, and we agreed her interview should take the form of a Q&A. Now in her own words, Dylan will explain how writing helped get her through the bad days and inspired her to become active in environmental causes.
1. Why do you write as Dylan Weiss instead of Gail Neustadt?
I started using the name Abigail when I was 12 years old whenever I wrote. However, when Abigail became a main character in Sebastian’s Tale, I decided a different pen name was needed. Simply put, the handwriting was on the wall! There it was, looking like a scribble, in one of the squiggles in my stone shower. I was washing my hair when I noticed what looked like handwriting. The shower message (not massage) was Dylan Weiss. It just so happens that “Dylan” is the name of one of my granddaughters and “Weiss” is the maiden name of my maternal grandmother.
2. Dave lost his ability to speak quickly. As a speech pathologist who specializes in helping people communicate how challenging was it for you to assess your husband’s needs and implement a treatment plan?
The challenge was that Dave refused to be further evaluated. After having gone through many tests at the National Institute of Health (NIH) Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center (ADRC) and seeing how difficult simple questions were, he refused any further testing. Four years post diagnosis Dave no longer minded being asked what he previously thought were childish questions. Finally, I was able to evaluate his communication abilities. It’s important to note that when evaluating someone with dementia, the communication tests must focus on abilities rather than disabilities and all treatment plans must be designed based on these functional abilities.
3. You began journaling about your experiences. Tell us how the article, “Side by Side: Traveling the Road and Sharing the Load of Alzheimer’s Disease” came about.
Written in 2001, five years post-Dave’s diagnosis, it was an article for a newsletter called The ASHA Leader (ASHA is an acronym for American Speech-Language Hearing Association). The purpose of the article was to share the unique communication program I had developed for Dave which allowed us to communicate at an adult level using the newspaper despite Dave’s inability to speak. To learn more about the technique, the article, for which ASHA won a prestigious award, will be posted on my website, www.authordylanweiss.com.
4. During Dave’s illness he experienced physical changes. These changes were sometimes scary for your young grandson, Joey. How did you help Joey and Dave connect with each other?
In 2007, I realized that my then 2½-year-old grandson had never seen his “Grandpa Dave” any other way but with an expressionless face and an inability to walk or talk. So, I created a book about Dave for Joey. In it were pictures of a well Dave doing fun activities, including pictures of Dave hiking, horseback riding, and swimming. In the book, I also explained that because Dave
had lost his walking and talking, he looked sad but if Joey kissed Dave’s sad faced picture it would bring out Dave’s “inner smile.” The connection between the two was remarkable and six years later when ASHA asked me to share any “new” programs I had done for Dave I did so. Thus, the follow-up article, “Still Traveling the Road,” was published once again in The ASHA Leader.
5. What gave you the idea for the Skunk Tales Trilogy?
Writing has always been how I express difficult situations. So as Dave lay dying, I began writing. But what I wrote was not directly about Dave – that was too hard. Instead, I wrote an allegory and in it I expressed my displaced anger about landslides being caused by home builders. Surrounded by my collection of stuffed animals, I simply began using imaginary animals to explain what the land destruction was doing to animal habitats. My characters did and said some funny things, but they also experienced sad and frightening events. My imaginary animals helped me laugh, cry, deal with fear and got me through the year and half of hospice prior to Dave’s death. During that year, my adversary went from being land developers to fracking drillers and suddenly I found myself on a different road, one that was green. After Dave died, the animals stayed with me until I finished my three-part book which took me seven years to self-publish. Then, within two years I was approached by Red Engine Press to republish the book. Their editor felt it should be a Trilogy, thus was established Skunk Tales Trilogy. The third and final book of the Trilogy, Quinn’s Quill” is still being written.
6. Your concern for the environment hasn’t been limited to writing. Tell us about the steps you have taken to educate the public about the dangers of corporate greed and climate change.
I have now been on my “green road” for fifteen years and as such I try to walk my talk by giving testimony at public hearings regarding environmental issues, serving on PennFuture’s President’s Leadership Council, Co-Chairing the Social Action Committee for Beth El Congregation’s Sisterhood Board, being a member of my Homeowner’s Association and supporting a myriad of environmental non-profit organizations. Most recently, I have organized several programs about the misunderstanding of recycling and the need to stop the use of single plastic.
7. Your Book Traveling Our Road is based on the story you wrote for your grandson. Why did you decide to make it available to the public?
Most heart wrenching for me regarding my husband’s many losses due to Alzheimer’s disease was the fact that his decline afforded me a greater opportunity to self-actualize. I would have followed a vastly different road had Dave never become ill. To honor him for his courage, for our many years of happiness, and for the challenges I needed to overcome during his illness, I wanted to create a way for his disease to be meaningful by helping other caregivers in their struggle.
8. Side by Side is your personal memoir about caring for Dave during his illness. What motivated you to share these memories?
9. Tell us about your illustrator, Abigail Walouke.
Unlike with larger publishing houses, smaller independent publishers occasionally allow writers to select their own illustrators. Such was the case with Red Engine Press. Thus, I had the rare opportunity to research, interview, and review sample sketches of a few artists before partnering with Abigail as co-author of Traveling Our Road.
I met Abigail through Paul Pawlaczyk, Director of Regional Advancement, Northern Ohio, at The Ohio State University. Paul had been instrumental in assisting me to fund a research project being conducted in the College of Nursing by Dr. Loren Wold who is studying the effects of air pollution on mice pre-programmed with Alzheimer’s disease. Paul suggested several artists, all OSU graduates and after reviewing bios and sketches, I couldn’t wait to speak with Abigail. We are both “magical thinkers.” We share the same sensitivities regarding plants, animals, and the preservation of humanity through acts of kindness and loving relationships. Working with Abbey is more like playing and we have developed a wonderful and unique camaraderie. Visit Abigail at www.abigailwalouke.wixsite.com/abbimation.
10. Do you have any book signings or talks planned for this year?
Yes, I will announce the publication of Traveling Our Road via social media on Facebook and LinkedIn. Book signings are being planned for 2022 talks. Additionally, a more detailed “back story” of my how I came to author my books will be on my blog found at www.authordylanweiss.com.
11. What else do you want our readers to know about Dylan Weiss?
My greatest love is my family and my wonderful, supportive, gentleman, friend, Jim Giammaria who is the “voice” of the beaver characters in Norton’s Tale. He will also have a role in Quinn’s Quill!
12. What’s next for you?
I am planning several book launch parties, library performance readings, and bookstore sales and signings in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio areas.
Thanks for sharing with This Awful Awesome Life, Dylan! To find out more about Dylan Weiss, visit her author’s website, https://authordylanweiss.com/