The following is an interview with Canadian writer Adam Pottle on his recent work of fiction, “The Bus.” Please note that there will be spoilers about the plot and characters of this novella and a discussion of genocide, eugenics, and euthanasia.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to become a writer. Who are your literary influences/mentors?
Adam Pottle: When I was sixteen, I had a wonderful English teacher named Ian Kluge. He was a big, bald, burly dude who told stories with magnificent bombast. On the first day of class, he read Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” aloud, and after that class I knew I had to try telling stories too, to try and capture that effect.
My key influences are Toni Morrison, Mordecai Richler, Albert Camus, Elie Wiesel, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Cormac McCarthy, and William Faulkner.
You write poetry, plays, and fiction. What is it about each genre that allows you to express your ideas?
Adam Pottle: When I get an idea, the first problem becomes “How do I share this?” Each genre presents different ways of telling a story or capturing an experience. If it’s a shorter or more concentrated experience that I want to explore, I go with poetry. Poetry is more immediate and sensual; you can zoom in on a moment, which is beneficial for writing about Deafness and disability because zooming in allows you to stare at an object or a person until it rattles. Poetry also offers a variety of forms to play with: sonnet, terza rima, villanelle.
If it’s a more expansive story, I write it as fiction. Fiction is wonderful for conveying the totality of experience: you can capture emotions, moments, and ideas. I especially love the novella form. It’s the angry middle child of fiction, with a lot of anger and a hunger to prove itself. It’s perfect for exploring deafness and disability.
If my idea is more dialogue- and action-driven, I write it as a play. I’m still developing as a playwright, but in the plays I have in mind I wanna keep the story rolling, rolling, rolling, and you do that through action and talk, not narration.
Your first play Ultrasound explores Deafness and disability. The Bus, a novella, is based on real events that happened before and during Nazi Germany. What led you to writing a novella about disabled people exterminated as part of the T-4 euthanasia program?
Adam Pottle: In 2007, I was working on my masters degree, and I was exploring the way Canadian fiction writers portray Deafness and disability. I read through acres of disability theory–Lennard J. Davis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder–and came across a brief history of the Nazis’ eugenics movement in Mitchell and Snyder’s book Cultural Locations of Disability. I’ve always been interested in World War II history, but I’d never heard of the T-4 program. I began searching for books and articles and photographs on the subject, and I noticed that this crucial aspect of history–not just disability history, but history–is often relegated to the footnotes, if not ignored altogether. That made me angry.
I am also disabled–I’m deaf in both ears–and I’ve worked with many Deaf and disabled people in my life, in care facilities and in academia. That these people were killed simply for existing thickened my anger, and turned it into an obsession.
The Bus depicts the process of disabled people being transported from the Scheuern institution, a so-called transit institution, to the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre, a psychiatric hospital converted into a place of mass genocide. What kind of research did you do for the novella? What did you discover that surprised you about eugenics, the architects of the T-4 program, the role of medical establishment, the different types of people identified as ‘undesirable,’ and the history of euthanasia?
Adam Pottle: I read numerous studies and articles on the T-4 program. I looked through thousands of photographs. I traveled to Germany in 2008 to visit the Hadamar Memorial Clinic. I spent ten days in the clinic, talking to the curators and exploring every room. The curators were wonderful and generous people. They let me see some of the original patient files that were marked with big red plus signs.
What surprised and impressed me was how seriously the Germans take this history. In Canada and in America, if people in power commit a crime, they do their best to cover it up. In Germany, they acknowledge their guilt because they know what it’s like for the banality of evil to creep into the populace, creating the conditions for cruelty and violence.
My heart cracked in two when I realized that many of the people who were killed could’ve been helped with a little bit of effort. They could’ve been fully productive members of society, but they didn’t receive help because they were all seen as burdens to the state. They were blamed for Germany’s fall from grace.
Euthanasia and eugenics continue to persist. It shows up in a variety of ways in various societies, and it’s still something we’re dealing with.
Six of your narrators in The Bus, Leopold, Frederick, Sebastian, Emmerich, Nadja, and Judith, are patients from the institution who are going to be euthanized. Tell me about your decision to have this many narrators and what’s unique about each voice and perspective.
Adam Pottle: History is no longer written solely by the victors, because the so-called victims tell compelling stories. During my research for this novella, I couldn’t find any stories from people who’d survived Hadamar or any of the other euthanasia centres, so I created a number of patients whose faces and actions would stick to the walls of the reader’s mind. I wanted a variety of people and conditions: men and women, physical disability and intellectual disability, mental illness and mental health. I wanted to show their inner lives; disabled people seldom get centre stage in literature, so I aimed to create six unique personalities, each with their own eccentricities and desires.
Leopold has hydrocephaly, a condition that causes the skull to swell, so life is quite painful for him. He needs quiet and soft textures. People’s voices grate on his ear. When he’s not fending off the sensory assault of what’s going on around him, he’s pondering his aunt’s traitorous actions.
Frederick is diagnosed as a megalomaniac. He has outrageous ambitions and is a pathological liar. He’s also quite lazy: all talk, no action. He and Sebastian act as foils for each other.
Sebastian is a librarian accused of being a pedophile. Like Frederick, he also feels superior to other people, and his so-called superiority comes from his intelligence and his ability to manipulate people.
Emmerich takes the Lennie stereotype from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and scrambles it. Emmerich is a big strong man with an intellectual disability, but unlike Lennie we see Emmerich’s inner life: his love for his family,his fear of his brother. Emmerich is the first one to be suspicious of where the bus is going, but no one listens to him.
Nadja is an actor and comedian who’s arrested for resisting the state through her art. Like me, she loves undermining authority. Her file says she has no sense of reality, but that’s up to the reader to decide.
Judith is my favourite. She’s a young woman with Down syndrome who wants nothing more than to be clean. She always feels dirty and so washes her hands dozens of time a day. She’s a very pious woman who quotes whole passages from the Bible. She often hears her mother’s voice in her head; the Nazis say it’s schizophrenia, but again the reader can decide.
Two of the narrators, Michael and Ewald, are people who will actively participate in the killing of disabled people. I read that approximately 200,000 disabled people were sterilized or murdered as part of the T-4 program. What did you want to explore with these two characters?
Adam Pottle: One thing I love to do in my writing is dismantle stereotypes. Michael is a young Nazi psychiatrist who works at the Hadamar clinic; I wanted to give him a conscience. Michael empathizes with the patients and is unsure whether he can fulfill his duty to the Reich. As the story progresses, he tries to come up with numerous justifications for gassing the patients. The problem, of course, is there is no justification, and he knows that.
Ewald also struggles with his conscience. He runs the crematorium, and has a disabled child back home. He hides this information from his peers, lest they send an SS squad to get her. He numbs himself with alcohol, but it’s never enough, because he keeps imagining his daughter among the dead. It’s a terrible cycle for him.
I wanted to circumvent the reader’s tendency to latch onto a so-called normal character. Readers tend to favour and connect with able-bodied and able-minded characters, but in this story such characters are murderers and criminals. So who do you connect to?
I also wanted to explore how people justified their actions. It’s so easy to sink into the banality of evil. It seeps into you bit by bit. It seduces people, and we’re seeing that same banality around the world right now. It’s a constant fight to keep evil at bay.
Was it difficult for you writing about such horrific policies and practices? How did this affect you personally? How did you protect yourself while writing?
Adam Pottle: It was difficult to write, but if I find a subject worth pursuing I follow it to the end of the wormhole. I don’t protect myself. I put myself in my characters’ hearts and minds and imagine all the possibilities, which includes perverted or despicable acts. It frightens me, and darkens my heart, and I often end up thinking the worst about people for a long time, but sometimes to create substantial works of art you have to let your mind and heart wander to dark, discomforting places. You have to scrape the last bit of grime off the bottom of the soul.
When I was in Hadamar, I spent a lot of time in the clinic basement: the shower room, the dissection rooms, and the crematorium. Several times I sat in the corner of the shower room, by myself. I’d close my eyes and imagine being among the people who were gassed. I’m deaf, so if I’d lived in Germany at that time I likely would’ve been chosen; there would’ve been a file with my name on it.
The banality, the persistence of evil stained me during that trip to Hadamar. Now, whenever I enter a basement, I feel this cold, grey presence settle on my shoulders. It’s the burden of responsibility to tell that story.
There are still many people who have no idea that the Holocaust included people with disabilities and the T-4 program was a precursor to “The Final Solution.” What do you hope readers will come away with after reading your novella?
Adam Pottle: I hope they gain a more complete picture of the horrific evil that took place, and see how it persists today. When a government needs to make cuts or find a scapegoat, it goes directly to Deaf and disabled people. We’re perceived as being at the bottom of the hierarchy, but we’re changing that, and I hope that my work helps people see the vitality of deafness and disability.
I hope they see the importance of questioning authority. Things happen right under our noses, but history shows us what to look for in treacherous times.
I also hope that people see how enormous and vibrant Deafness and disability are as artistic subjects. There is so much to explore–I could write a thousand books and not come close to fulfilling the creative potential inherent in this subject.
Eugenics and euthanasia are present today as they were throughout history. What are present-day issues you see in Canada that echo the themes from your novella?
Adam Pottle: Eugenics and euthanasia have become much subtler, but they remain powerful forces. Last year, Canada signed assisted suicide into federal law. The language of the ruling is quite slippery; it allows relatives and doctors to pressure disabled relatives into accepting suicide as a solution. While I believe in one’s right to choose when to die, that decision must be made without coercion or manipulation. Clear legal and political protections must be added to this legislation.
Genetic screening has also become much more common. Would-be parents are screening out disabilities and diseases so their children can be born perfect. But nobody’s perfect. As Ewald says in The Bus, it is impossible to eliminate disability. It will always be there, so we need to adjust the way we think about it.
Intolerance and hatred are becoming bigger problems, even in Canada. Canada is not exactly the warm, accepting nation Americans may think it is. On both sides of the border, Trump has emboldened racists, ableists, misogynists and homophobes to come out blasting their vitriol. I’ve had people call me “deaf boy” on Twitter–always anonymous people, too.
The thing is, these people are afraid. They’re afraid of losing power, or changing their way of life. They’ve built walls in their minds, the same kind of walls that Hitler and his ilk built and exploited, allowing evil to become a way of life in Germany. But back then people could face their combatants head-on; they knew who they were. We can’t always do that now, thanks to the internet, so we have to fight creatively and persistently. Art and satire are the best weapons when facing ignorance and cruelty.
As a writer what do you think about the lack of representation of D/deafness and disability in literature? Have you experienced any barriers as a writer based on your subject matter?
Adam Pottle: I am a deaf man, but I’m not a deaf writer. I’m a writer. My identity is my own; my writing is for everyone.
The lack of representation stymies me. Deafness and disability transcend race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, and religion, yet they’re the most underrepresented categories in literature.
Part of it is fear. Deafness and disability discomfort people. Authors are afraid to write about it because it’s taboo, or because they feel it’s politically incorrect, or because they don’t want to occupy that imaginative headspace and see themselves as deaf, or as a paraplegic, or as someone with Down syndrome.
Part of it is sexiness. Deafness and disability are often thought of as drab or depressing subjects. The truth is, though, they’re incredibly rich. You can take any genre and feature a Deaf or disabled character, and come up with something original. A western featuring a deaf woman. A science fiction adventure centred around someone with ALS. The possibilities are endless.
As for publishers and agents, they’re mostly a spineless bunch. I’ve been fortunate to work with inclusive small presses–Caitlin Press and Quattro Books were generous enough to publish my writing, but my work hasn’t attracted as much attention as I’d like. Literary magazines in Canada hardly touch Deafness and disability. The bigger publishers and the agents they work with care only about money, and to them Deafness and disability are not big moneymakers, even though Deaf and disabled people make up the largest physical minority in the world. It’s an enormous market waiting to be tapped, and the first agent and large publisher willing to pursue these types of books will roll in the dough. Maybe in a few decades they’ll catch up.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?
Adam Pottle: I’d like to thank you for your questions and for this opportunity to talk about my work. I’m doing my damndest to write strong, entertaining stories that feature Deaf and disabled characters. I have so many more projects I want to do–novels, plays, a television series–and am always open to collaboration. There’s so much talent out there right now, so many people who haven’t been able to express themselves, and I hope that people reading this are provoked to take a chance and holler and blare and toss and roar their stories and crack open people’s hearts with laughter and tears.
Keith Olbermann (or maybe it was John Oliver) said that Trump is not normal, that what’s going on in the world right now is not normal. They’re right. Standards of normalcy have been demolished. On one hand it’s a terrible thing, because a horrible human being is occupying the White House, but on the other hand it’s an opportunity. Deaf and disabled people have a chance to change what normalcy is and make the world a more inclusive place, a place where normalcy is a fluid and open concept rather than a rigid and unforgiving one that forms the bedrock of cruelty and evil. It’ll be difficult, but if we can make it work, it’ll be worth it.
Adam Pottle’s writing focuses on the dynamic and philosophical aspects of Deafness and disability. His first book, a poetry volume called Beautiful Mutants, was released in 2011 and shortlisted for two Saskatchewan Book Awards and the Acorn-Plantos Prize. His 2013 novel Mantis Dreams: The Journal of Dr. Dexter Ripleywon the 2014 Saskatoon Book Award. His play Ultrasound was staged at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto in 2016, and his novella The Bus won the 2016 Ken Klonsky Award and was recently published by Quattro Books. He has a PhD in English Literature and teaches at the University of Saskatchewan. He lives in Saskatoon.