Bell Acres woman combines interests for first novel

Monday, May 29, 2017 | 9:56 PM


A Bell Acres woman has combined her interest in how different brains work with her experience working at a university to publish her first novel.

Alison J. Conte's new book, “Beyond Normal,” is set in the 2040s at a college that closes because of low enrollment and reopens as a college specially designed for what Conte describes as “neuro-atypical” students.

They have traits they might share with people on the autism spectrum, such as sensitivity to noises, textures and flickering lights; a desire for routine; or a strong interest in a particular subject, which others might consider obsessive, Conte said. The students have a different way of interacting with people and perceiving what people are saying that readers who are familiar with the spectrum will recognize.

Conte said she knows people who fall somewhere on the spectrum and did a lot of research for her book. She said she did not want to label her characters as having autism but wanted to explore the associated traits.

Now working in marketing at Highmark, Inc., Conte, 61, worked at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh's Uptown neighborhood in web communications for five years. She said she used her knowledge about how a university works to create the fictional Abelard College.

Initially, Conte said, she planned to focus on Father John, the founder of the college. But readers of an early draft said the story seemed appropriate for a young-adult novel, so she shifted her focus to some of the students. Now, the protagonists are three students who are telepathic and band together to protect the college from a threat.

“As I began to consider publishing, the question of genre kept coming up,” Conte said.

While the book works for young adults, a publishing term for teenage readers, it also works for adults, Conte said.

It has elements of science fiction, fantasy, the paranormal and spiritual issues, she said.

Conte said her characters sometimes took control of the story from her.

“Sometimes they surprise you completely as to what they do and what they say, and it can take the book off in a new direction,” she said.

Elizabeth Fein, an assistant professor of psychology at Duquesne University who has done research on youths with Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, read a draft of Conte's book and provided suggestions.

“I thought it was great the way she took the time to really explore what an environment that was tailored to the needs … of these teens would look like,” Fein said.

She said she also liked the characters.

“I enjoyed spending time with them, both the students and the teachers,” said Fein, 39, of Pittsburgh's Polish Hill neighborhood.

Conte released the book at the end of 2016 through Amazon.com's self-publishing platform.

“It's one of those lifelong dreams to have a book you can hold with your name on it,” she said.

While “Beyond Normal” is Conte's first published novel, it's not her first book. Many years ago, she wrote “The Formagg Eat to your Heart's Content Cookbook,” which featured recipes for a no-cholesterol cheese substitute, for a client, she said.

Conte also has been a journalist for local newspapers and worked for the Sewickley Herald in the 1980s and 1990s. She is married to David Conte. Her daughter, Amelia Kephart, a graduate of Quaker Valley High School, lives in Shaler.

Conte said she is working on a sequel to “Beyond Normal” that will take place during the students' senior year of college.

Madelyn Dinnerstein is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.