Writing Excuses 14.47: Writing Characters With Physical Disabilities
Key Points: Should the otherness be the focus of the book or not? Which way is richer? It depends. Most people don’t really know disabled people. The world is not accessible. How do you write about this? Use your imagination, feel the embodied sensations. Consider different kinds of disability and mobility aids. Compare it to things you know, such as getting over the flu is like the fatigue of using crutches or pushing a stroller is like using a wheelchair. Pay attention to the physical environment and embodiment. How do you include full, rounded characters, including sensuality, in your books? Think simple, practical things. Mechanics. When a wheelchair user goes to a club, they are talking to people’s belt buckles. So sympathetic characters will sit down, to talk to them on the level. Go to primary sources, but be circumspect and polite. Books about becoming disabled versus I have always been disabled? The real question is are they integrated with it now, are they comfortable with it as it is now, not when they changed. Small kids, a wheelchair, crutches… take them into that restaurant.
[Transcriptionist note: I suspect I have mislabeled Piper and Tempest at times in this transcript. My apologies, but I could not tell by listening who was talking.]
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 47.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Characters With Physical Disabilities.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Nicola] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Tempest] And we’re not that smart.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Nicola] I’m Nicola.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Tempest] Today we have a special guest joining us for our special episode on writing the other, author Nicola Griffith. Who is one of my favorite authors, and I’m so glad that she had the chance to join us today. I’m going to give you a chance to just tell us a little bit about yourself as an author.
[Nicola] I write novels, mostly. Occasionally short stories, but they’re rare for me. I prefer to focus at length, because I get a bee in my bonnet about something, I’d like to explore it.
[Tempest] What do you get a bee in your bonnet about mostly?
[Nicola] Norming the other.
[Nicola] That’s kind of what I do, and it’s in fact what I wrote my PhD thesis on, too.
[Tempest] Oh, sweet. So, in your work, have you tackled writing characters with physical disabilities that are the same or similar to the physical challenges that you have experienced in your life?
[Nicola] The only novel I’ve actually written from the perspective of a woman with disabilities is my most recent book, So Lucky. It’s the only novel where I have written a character where I ignore her difference. All my other books, the main characters are queer, but that’s not the focus of the book. But So Lucky, my most recent novel, it’s about becoming disabled, and how that changes one’s view of life.
[Tempest] Do you feel as though, in your work and the work of people that you admire, it’s more of a richness to just have a character who has an otherness and that’s not the focus of the book, or is it, I guess I want to say, richer if that is the focus? Because I know that that’s a lot the conversation around like whether or not when writing characters who are the other in mainstream society, or the other to you, whether it should be about that or whether they should just be that, and the book be about something else.
[Nicola] I think it really depends. For me, in terms of queerness, I always wanted to just have a world with queer people in it, and to just… I don’t walk around thinking, “[gasp] My name’s Nicola. I’m a woman. I’m queer.”
[Nicola] I just go through life. I just assume the world is how it is. To me, that’s what I want a character to do. But the difference for me was that I really, really wanted to talk about becoming disabled. So I had to address disability very specifically.
[Tempest] That makes sense. So when others… Other people, other writers are writing characters who have physical disabilities, what are the things that you see when it’s done well that you wish you saw more of, and the kind of stuff that you put in your work that you want to model for other writers writing these types of characters?
[Nicola] I have to say, I’m a bit stumped at that, because I think there is very, very, very little good fiction with characters with physical disabilities. Because disability fiction is at the stage where queer fiction was I think about 60 years ago, honestly. It’s still at the stage of a lot of kind of coming out fiction.
[Tempest] Okay. That makes sense.
[Nicola] People are very used to queer people now. It’s much more acceptable. Still, not that many people really know disabled people. I mean, we literally don’t get out much. It’s… The world is not an accessible place. So it used to be that five years ago, you couldn’t really get to conventions very easily. Now, science fiction conventions are brilliantly organized, mostly. So people know more disabled people, so you don’t have to educate people to quite the degree that you do about queerness.
[Nicola] But, so for someone who uses a wheelchair, it is… A lot of people don’t really understand. They’ll say, “Oh, yeah, my house is completely accessible. Well, it’s just a small step.”
[Nicola] They don’t get it. So I felt the need to write my most recent book with a lot of this stuff in it, to say, “No, here’s what accessible actually means in fictional terms.”
[Dan] Yeah. That’s so important. I grew up… My mom’s in a wheelchair. I thought I knew these things. I’d grown up with them. Then, recently became lactose intolerant, and went to a Mexican restaurant without my Lactaid. That redefined accessibility for me in a way that I thought I already had internalized, and I hadn’t. Suddenly, I was confronted with this entire restaurant that I couldn’t access, that I couldn’t use. It was very eye-opening.
[Dan] So, one of the things we like to do in this series is talk to people about how to write something from an experience that is not their own. We love own voices, we want people to write about their own experiences, but also, we would love people who may be don’t have a physical disability to include more of that in their fiction. What is… What are some things that they can do to do that research and to do that homework and to get that right?
[Nicola] The best way is to actually use your imagination. By that, I mean actually feel the embodied sensations. So imagine you are walking into a restaurant… Imagine you just had the flu, and you’re recovering from flu. So I’m trying to imagine… For example, if you’re using crutches, because there are a huge spectrum of disabilities and mobility aids. So imagine someone on crutches. Their problem is not so much steps, although that is a problem. It’s fatigue. So a way to imagine that is to think, “Okay, how do I feel when I just had flu? I’m weak as a kitten!” You need to think about spaces. Then, if you think, for a wheelchair user, I don’t know how many people listening have kids, but imagine what it was like you had a small person in a stroller. What’s accessible? What’s not? I can only imagine if you are someone who has epilepsy. Again, to use the exercise of going into a restaurant, if you are the kind of person who has grand mal seizures, perhaps what you look at is the floor. Most people with physical disabilities will think of the floor. Is it shiny? Is it slippy? Does it have steps? Is it steep? Is it… Does it tilt? If you fall down, when you have a seizure, will you hurt your head? So it’s very much about the physical environment and embodiment. So, yeah, think about bodies.
[Dan] That’s great.
[Piper] I think I’m going to stop us for the book of the week. I believe you have the book of the week for us, which is So Lucky. Could you tell us a bit about it?
[Nicola] So Lucky is a short novel about a woman called Mara, who is one of those type A, angry people who’s on top of her world. She’s married, she’s got a fantastic job, she loves her work. Then, in the space of a week, she is divorced by her wife, diagnosed with MS, and loses her job. As you can imagine, that makes her a little unhappy. So the whole novel is about that, and it is about how she deals with monsters, human and otherwise.
[Piper] That sounds impactful. Thank you.
[Piper] So, for the next question, I would like to give you one of my own. It’s referring back to something you had said earlier in our discussion. When it comes to living their lives, I was wondering what advice you would give authors who want to include people with disabilities, especially particularly mobility disabilities, who are not only living their best lives, their experiencing happiness, sadness, they’re taking challenging lives and they’re going after their goals? But also, they’re living very full lives relationship-wise and perhaps even exploring sensuality. I think that sometimes that’s erased, or people don’t want to think about that. But that is a part of life sometimes. Could you talk a little bit about that for authors who want to include characters like that in their books?
[Nicola] Sure. Just imagine an ordinary person and how they might want to have sex sitting down or on a bed. You don’t… If you’re a wheelchair user, you can’t have sex standing against a wall, for example. There are some very, very simple practical things. But that’s all it is, is simple practical things. Just think about… Again, think about the body. Think about the mechanics of the thing. Then there’s things like, well, if you are the kind of person who picks people up in clubs, you go to a club and you’re going to be talking to people’s belt buckles.
[Nicola] Which alters the conversation a little. So, if you want to write a sympathetic character who’s nondisabled, you can have them immediately see someone in a wheelchair and think, “Okay. I’m going to sit down, so that I can speak to them on a level.” So, I suppose, it depends if you want your other characters to be good guys or bad guys. How sensitive are they to this stuff? Am I making sense?
[Tempest] Absolutely. I think that that’s really helpful. Not only because there are things that people can do to kind of see eye-to-eye, shall we say? But also considerations from a physical perspective and the mechanics of… Are there any resources that you could recommend for researching the mechanics, or… Because I know that that would be another popular question.
[Nicola] Actually, no, I can’t think of anything. But I will think about it. Then, if I find something, I’ll post it on my website. But right now, offhand, no, I can’t. I’m sorry.
[Piper] No, no. Posting it on your website would be wonderful, because then your website would be the reference.
[Dan] Yeah. One resource that is always valuable, although you need to be very circumspect and very polite, obviously, when asking, is just going to primary sources. Talking to people who have disabilities, and saying, “Well, are you willing to answer a few questions? Can I ask you what your life is like?” Maybe don’t jump straight into the sex question with a stranger, obviously.
[Hi. You don’t know me…]
[I was not the one who said that.]
[I specifically said at the right moment.]
[Dan] But, yes. Like I said, my mom grew up… My mom’s in a wheelchair, and she is always happy to describe her experiences to people that she is comfortable with. So, making friends and asking them questions is a great way to do a lot of this research.
[Nicola] Yes. And, like everything else, it’s a question of degree. So, certainly queer people, people of color, people in wheelchairs, get a little tired of being information dispensing machines. But if you are going to ask us to dispense information, perhaps you could do something for us.
[Tempest] Always pay your [substitute?] readers.
[Piper] For those of you who can’t see us in the room, because this is a podcast, there’s a whole lot of nodding going on around here.
[Tempest] It’s always a big thing.
[Piper] One very quick question before we end. So, you said that with So Lucky, you wanted to write a novel about someone who becomes disabled. But I know that also there are some activists, author activists, who talk about how a lot of narratives about people who become physically disabled, it’s about them becoming it. Like, they weren’t before, they were able-bodied before, and then somewhere during the course of the story, they become disabled. But there’s not a lot of fiction about people who were born with a disability that meant they would always have to be in a wheelchair. How do you feel about sort of the balance of those types of stories? Do you think that basically, like, any representation is good, or do you agree that, like, there should be more stories about people who were born with a disability and have always lived with it?
[Nicola] I personally long for stories about disabled people the way I write stories about queer people. Which is just a thing. I actually don’t mind one way or the other. I don’t have a preference about whether or not someone’s always been disabled. It’s more a question of are they integrated with it now? That’s what I would like. Moving forward, that’s what I’ll be writing. The book I’m working on now, which is a sequel to Hild, it has disabled people in it. It’s very interesting trying to figure out what the world would be like in the seventh century for people with disabilities.
[Tempest] Awesome. Well, thank you very much for joining us. We very much appreciate it.
[Nicola] It was my pleasure.
[Dan] Thank you.
[Piper] At this point, thank you. We do have the homework to give our listeners. So, would you mind please giving us our homework?
[Nicola] Sure. I want to go back to various points in today’s interview where I talked about the Italian restaurant. I use this a lot with my students. You can use it for almost any situation. It’s all about what it means to be the character in their own body. So. Someone is going into an Italian restaurant. What do they see? What do they notice? How do they feel, and why? I’m going to give you an example. So, for example, a guy who’s just been queer bashed, he would go in there and he would be really nervous around men with loud voices. For example. Or a woman with a small child might be looking for sharp objects. A lot of fancy Italian restaurants, they have those big open flames. Big open kitchens. A woman with small kids would be like, “Oh, I don’t think this is the right place for us.” So, someone in a wheelchair will see different things. Someone on crutches will see different things. So that would be your prompt. Put yourself in your character’s body. Take them into that restaurant. See what happens.
[Piper] Thank you.
[Piper] Well, there you have it, everyone. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.