Nicola Griffith and I are co-partners in #CripLit, a series of Twitter chats for disabled writers about disability representation in literature. Join us on 5/19 when we host our 11th #CripLit Twitter chat with guest host novelist Anne Finger on new fiction and disabled protagonists.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to become a writer. Do you love being a writer?
Nicola: Books kept me sane. I grew up in the north of England, the fourth of five girls, in a super traditional Catholic family. I did not fit. At all. I born non gender-conforming and knew as soon as I could spell my own name (aged 3) that I wanted to marry a girl, though I had no problem playing with and fighting boys (I liked to fight).
I didn’t really get into writing until I was fronting a band, singing, and writing lyrics. I loved the way people would get wholly absorbed in the story I was singing. It a short step to writing fiction—and I fell stone in love with it.
I write to find out. I write to change the world, one reader at a time. And I write because it feels oh so very good. Almost as good as sex.
For those who want more, I wrote a Writer’s Manifesto. And for those who want the long, academic version of why and how I write, I wrote my PhD thesis on it: Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia.
You’ve written historical fiction, short stories, science fiction, fantasy, contemporary thrillers, and a memoir. Tell me about your latest novel, So Lucky (available May 15, 2018), and where the idea for it first came about.
Nicola: So Lucky is a short novel set in contemporary Atlanta. It’s the story of Mara, a woman on top of her world, who’s never met a challenge she couldn’t deal with—until, in space of single week, she is diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife, and loses her job. It’s a thriller of the body—a changing body, and how bodily change changes our understanding of life, the universe, and our place in it.
Mara doesn’t die, and isn’t cured. She ends up figuring out a lot of stuff, falling in love again, making idiotic decisions, making money—and fighting monsters, human and otherwise. This isn’t a sad, interior, angsty book. A lot happens, a lot changes, but Mara is always doing, always acting and coping and learning.
I first tried to write this story 20 years ago, not long after I was diagnosed with MS. I heard a TV news report of a man in a wheelchair who had been tortured to death. I was so filled with rage that I sat down and poured out the story, a novella less than half the length of the current book, and then sold it for what was at the time a goodly sum. But I then I realised that the ending, although a very cool image (I thought), was a crip’s epiphany that magically (metaphorically speaking) made everything okay; I’d turned the main character into a narrative prosthesis. So I pulled it from publication and forgot about it. Except of course I didn’t forget about it.
In 2016 I started my PhD. A little over halfway through the process I had a first draft of my thesis, sent it in to my advisor, and saw that I’d have nearly three weeks over the winter holidays with no pressing deadlines. I had a glimmer of an idea how to rewrite the novella and maybe just enough time.
So I sat down and it came pouring out—roaring out—and two weeks later I had the first draft of a book called So Lucky. And this time it worked. This time it wasn’t a narrative prosthesis.
How are you feeling about the upcoming release of So Lucky? What was it like working with your editors for this particular book?
Nicola: I’ve worked with my editor, Sean McDonald, my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) a long time on many books. When we talked about So Lucky over lunch one day, I told him I wanted it published really fast because unlike my other novels this one felt urgent. Also, I said, I want to do the audio. At this stage I just had a first draft, very rough, but he agreed that he would publish within one year of that lunch, and I could do the audio.
I don’t want or need an editor to get wrist-deep in my text, just a general sense of where the saggy or over-packed bits are or if anything’s missing. I rewrote, sent the draft, and Sean said, Hmm, I think we need a bit sharper sense of place. I fixed it. Before I knew it I was on Skype with the marketing and publicity team at FSG, and then with the publisher’s lawyer who was worried there might be libel issues involved. (I take off pretty hard against some MS drugs and organisations.) I had to make some changes.
And that’s when I began to realise how fast we had done all this: the book was still so new I had no idea how to talk about it except to say that it was nothing like my last book. In fact, nothing like anything I’d written before.
Because of that, I think, some of the early marketing material was not on target and I’m still dealing with that. But now I know how to describe the book. At heart, it’s about trying to find a community that doesn’t yet exist, and having to begin to build it yourself—only to find that there are others out there doing the same.
What was the writing process like for you with So Lucky? What kind of disability narrative did you explicitly wanted to craft?
Nicola: Every book I’ve ever written, no matter the genre, norms the Other. That is, all my novels have a queer woman as protagonist but the book isn’t about being queer. The protagonist never suffers or struggles or wrestles with life because she’s queer. That’s true of So Lucky, too—at least in queer terms. But not in disability terms.
So Lucky is about a woman being diagnosed with MS and becoming more and more physically impaired and finding that she’s suddenly and shockingly (to her) being dismissed by the world. Then she realises, to her horror, that she’s also been dismissing herself. She’s absorbed the ableist narrative, all the ableist bullshit, and internalised it. I wanted to tell the story of how it feels to be nondisabled one year and by the next not only be disabled but begin identify as a crip: how that happens, how it feels, what it takes to break out of that internalised, ableist box, and what it all means.
But as a reader, if I read that description of a book I might not pick it up. It sounds sort of claustrophobic: all about the internal not the external. I like to read and to write books n which the body is a site of delight rather than difficulty, and characters do things, not just feel things.
So I included a thriller element, and plot involving nonprofits and how they work—their hierarchies and politics. Plus a bit of love and sex, and, of course, murder and monsters. It’s funny, too. At least I hope so 🙂
The term ‘autobiographical novel’ is in the synopsis on your blog with the word ‘autobiographical’ crossed out. You have MS and so does the protagonist, Mara Tagarelli. What were the challenges of writing a main character who has MS that was grounded in lived experience without relying on your own story?
Nicola: As I said earlier, this book felt urgent to me. I wanted readers to tackle it in one sitting, for it feel like a spear-thrust—hard, fast, and very pointed. But I also wanted Mara to learn some of the lessons I learnt about MS and being disabled. I wanted to show what it’s like to go from physically strong, lithe, and athletic to visibly physically impaired—moving through all the stages of denial, invisible illness, rage, despair, community, and so on—but without taking the 25 years it took me to learn those things. So one challenge was compressing all that into a single year. I had to take some liberties with the etiology of MS.
Another challenge was that Mara is diagnosed 25 years after I was. The MS landscape has changed dramatically in that time.
But the biggest challenge is the ‘autobiographical’ label.
I’m a profoundly embodied writer. What I write about comes from who and where I am, emotionally and physically. All the protagonists of my novels have had a lot in common with me: queer white women either born or brought up in the UK. But those characters in my earlier novels are no more me than Mara is.
But the farther an author is from the perceived Norm—which is straight, white, nondisabled, male—the more likely the work is to be labelled autobiographical. It happened with all my early novels in terms of queerness. That finally stopped a few years ago, perhaps because queerness began to be seen as just another aspect of being human. But now it happening again with disability because disability is still frightening and alien to most people. It’s really Other. Even my publishers initially made that mistake, and some of the early marketing material labelled So Lucky ‘autobiographical fiction,’ which seriously didn’t help.
So many reviews will be unable to read the book that is written and address instead the book they see through their distorted lens of ableism. (See How Ableism Affects Book Reviews.) But there’s not a lot I can do about that except write the best book I can and hope the world catches up at some point.
You recently posted about the experience of recording the audiobook—what was that like?
Nicola: I loved it! One of the best parts of publishing a novel, for me, is the performances—public readings and audience Q&A—that are part of the publicity effort. I love reading aloud. I used to be in a band and reading is very similar to singing. There’s nothing like the communal experience, the amazing feedback system of getting in your groove with a bunch of other human beings, tossing the feeling back and forth, joining, partaking, sharing.
And this book was meant to be read aloud. Words have great power but the human voice can layer and subtly shade emotion on top of the words themselves. It was a real rush to feel those sentences unfurl in the air and take form. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
What do you hope readers come away with after reading So Lucky, especially disabled or chronically ill people?
Nicola: When I was first diagnosed I would have loved to be able to offset the medical model of illness and disability with the social model, one informed by personal experience.
I want long-time disabled readers to come away with a sense of recognition: Oh, yep, I remember that part! And newly ill or disabled readers to think: Oh, thank the gods I’m not the only one!
I hope chronically ill and/or disabled readers at all stages of their lives enjoy the fuck out of this book, that they see themselves in Mara: Confident, competent, occasionally cross and confused, but a whole human being whose only obligation is to live a good life and screw what everyone else thinks.
It would please me if nondisabled readers also enjoyed the fuck out of the book, in addition to getting some insight into how their nondisabled privilege works.
Also, I’d love to sell a shit ton of books, make a zillion dollars, and live in comfort for the rest of my life! Failing that, I’ll settle for giving some readers a really good few hours at a very reasonable price.
We connected on Twitter several years ago and are co-partners in #CripLit, a series of Twitter chats about writing and disability representation with a particular focus on disabled writers. What have you enjoyed so far from these chats? Why do you think there is a need for these types of conversations? What do you see for the future of #CripLit?
Nicola: What I like best about #CripLit is a building sense of excitement, the disability community come together and beginning to flex. We are 20% of this country, maybe 20% of the electorate. We are amazingly diverse and fine. There are some incredible groups coalescing around different focuses; social media is a powerful way to connect. #CripLit is just one of them. Now we need to find a way to bring all these groups together to form a critical mass, a tipping point. We need to catch fire, to join in a roaring, creative inferno, to pour forth.
Part of that is to start putting together the scaffolding we need to build cultural connections; that scaffolding is story. We don’t know who we are until we can tell a story about ourselves. Stories help us understand we are not alone.
But to write stories we need to know that we’re not just a voice crying into the void: that others are crying out, too. Once we know others are there, to help, to learn, to teach, to support, we can sing out in harmony, build a chorus that will change the world.
That’s what #CripLit is for.